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Visualize Your Commitments

Visualize Your Commitments

Taking on a new job is a great time to spot-check the power of your organizing and executing systems. Mine came up severely lacking (as evidenced by how few posts I’ve sent to LifeHack recently). But with all things, “That which does not kill us…” Here’s what I’ve learned lately about my organizing needs, and here’s a few tips that might be useful to you, if you’re not already adequately dealing with managing your commitments and efforts.

Visualizing Your Commitments Helps

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I mean this in lots of ways, but in this specific case, I also mean at the baseline, consider having a software application (or you can do this in the analog world easily, too) that gives you a VISUAL sense, an at-a-glance, Heads-up-Display vision of all your commitments. How am I doing it?

I’m using the built in Mac software, Stickies. It’s good because I can throw a little collapsed Sticky on the screen for every commitment I have. I can change colors on them such that pink (there’s no red) means “DO IT NOW” and blue means “follow up later” and traditional yellow means “clear this off when you can.” But the workflow that goes with this is this:

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  • INPUT- Email or Voicemail or Phonecall – I get a commitment request. “Can you send me your list of 5 favorite tools?” If I can answer the input right away, no Sticky. I just do it and close out the input.
  • CAPTURE- Write the “to do” Sticky and leave it on the screen (under other apps until I’m ready). If there’s a date attached, use Google Calendar instead.
  • PROCESS- Use yellow for general, pink for right away, and blue for follow-up later.
  • PROCESS- Check Stickies once every 30 minutes as part of a sweep.
  • PROCESS- Clear Stickies when that’s the task at hand.

Variations on the Theme

Some of you are still gasping at the idea of using simple, low-data-value sticky notes. Sure, I love Remember the Milk and a million other to-do apps that have tons of great built-in power. But what I am digging about stickies is the VISUAL element of having my commitments in front of me in a visual way. I can drag groups of items together. I can place FOCUS items in the center of the screen. So, it’s a way to add visual nuance and gestures to what I’m getting done.

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If you don’t want an on-box application, try Stikkit or Thinkature. Stikkit is a great app by Rael Dornfest and team, and it’s got some additional functionality that makes it really useful. Thinkature is actually more of a mindmapping tool, but it can be used for the same purpose I’m describing here. You can stack data visually.

Why Visualize

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So, the reason I’m pushing the visual on this is simple: lists of lists and commitments stacked by 1,2,3 don’t always give your brain the right queue. It doesn’t say: your plate is full, or you’ve got lots of things to do in THIS area of life all of a sudden.

Those planning methods don’t often let you queue things in non-linear ways. Maybe you want to group by context *and* by priority *but without* some wildcard that only you can describe. I think the visual method of organizing helps in this regard.

What’s your take?

— Chris Brogan is community developer for Network2, a guide to the best FREE internet TV shows you should be sticking on your video iPod or Zune. He keeps a blog at [chrisbrogan.com]

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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