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When A Cuppa Will Do You Good: Brief Breaks & Productivity

When A Cuppa Will Do You Good: Brief Breaks & Productivity

    There are points when the only thing you can do — despite desperately wanting to be productive — is to step back for a few minutes. And while conventional productivity wisdom seems to dictate that you should use those few minutes to get a small task done or get a bit ahead on a future project, there are often situations when the best thing you can do is to sit down for a nice cup of tea (or the relaxing activity of your choice). I picked up the habit a while back and taking those little breaks have actually increased my productivity. Try stopping for a few minutes when…

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    …You’re Frustrated

    If a given project is about to drive you over the edge, you need to step back. Try to get some distance or some insight. But switching over to a new task when you’re already wound up and frustrated just means that your irritation is going to be transferred to your new task. Sure, you may get that little bit of work done and out of the way, but you’re going to continue to be frustrated through that task and on to the next one. Taking even a few minutes can help you decide just why you’re frustrated and what you can do about it — you may even get a side order of inspiration with your cup of tea and think up a new approach to your problem.

    …You’re Feeling Poorly

    Trying to push on through your daily tasks when you’re feeling sick can be worth less than you think. If you over exert yourself when you are already tired or sick, you may just wind up needing to redo tasks, rather than getting ahead on what you need to do. If you’re like me, though, the idea of taking a day off or going back to bed just doesn’t seem like an option. But slowing down can make sure that I actually do get things done on a day when I feel pretty bad. Sure, I may not get some smaller tasks done while I’m sipping on my tea, but I can probably work through my most important tasks.

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    …You’ve Been At It Too Long

    We all have different breaking points, but each of us have that point where, if we don’t go and do something different, we’ll go a bit nutty. I learned during the good old days in college that if I wanted to pull an all-nighter, I had to plan to get up and take a walk every hour or so, or I’d get so flat out bored and tired of my project that I would fall asleep on my keyboard. Getting up to make a cup of tea, get a drink or take a quick walk around the office not only gives your brain a chance to refresh itself; it also gives you a chance to stretch and maybe avoid that case of carpal tunnel you’ve been working towards.

    …You Have A Short Wait

    In any given project, odds are pretty good that you’ll have a short wait here and there: waiting for a graphic to render or an email to arrive or whatever. As a general rule, if I expect that wait to be under five minutes, I refuse to start anything new. Sure, I might need a short break away from the project, but I don’t necessarily want to derail my train of thought to the point that working on something entirely different would entail. Getting up to get a cuppa will keep me from getting overly distracted during those five minutes, but won’t cause me to lose the focus I need to keep working on a project.

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    …You Reach A Set Interval

    After you’ve been working for long enough, you just have to get up and move around a bit. I actually set a timer to go off every twenty minutes to remind me to just stretch. While I don’t think that getting up every twenty minutes just for a cup of tea — or getting up at all that often — is ideal, getting up out of your chair on a regular basis is a good idea. You might set a timer for once every few hours or so. Of course, this sort of break is easy to ignore when you hit your stride. I often work through my timer when I’m on a roll. But after working through that timer a time or two, I find that I absolutely have to get up and move. It’s up to you to find an interval that works, as well as a reason to get up — after all, there are only so many cups of tea a person can drink in a given day. But there are plenty of options: exercise, snacks, even set activities like walking down to pick up your mail can be enough to provide you with a short break.

    …You’re Thirsty

    Even if you’re almost done with a project, it can be worth it to take care of those nagging bodily needs. You may think you can ignore it just a little bit longer, but any distraction can be enough to decrease the quality of work. It’s rare that you’re so close to done and so close to deadline that you can’t afford a few minutes to get a drink or whatever else needs doing. While I’m all for suffering for one’s art, I don’t think being thirsty quite qualifies.

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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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