What If You Stop Learning?

Photo of wall clocks and a poster that reads Ask More Questions

For the past few weeks, I stopped blogging, stopped reading, stopped listening to podcasts, stopped learning. I wasn’t taking a vacation or break. I just stopped. I’m not too sure why I was in this funk, but in reflecting back, I can observe something very important. When I stopped learning, I stopped growing.

I got stuck in the monotony of every day routines…same repetitive day job work, the usual routine afterward, sleep, and repeat. This was a pretty awful space to be in. It was boring, a bit un-motivating, and irritating. My effort was standard but not above it.

Why is this an important observation?

This stopping of learning also stopped the growing, the creativity. It stopped the going-the-extra-mile work ethic. It stopped the curiosity. Imagine what this does to your organization? If everyone stopped learning, you would eventually go out of business because the innovative thinking to stay above competition would be lost.

Perhaps this is an extreme way of thinking. —Or perhaps you’re stuck in simply meeting standards day-by-day.  Perhaps you never experienced the seemingly magic that comes from learning new things. The boost of creative energy, passion, and desire to get things done and done efficiently and right knowing it makes an impact.

Everyone grows when learning continues. Life becomes stale, in addition to your organization, when consistent learning of new things is not incorporated regularly and often. “Learning” is not some student-at-a-school thing or a attend-a-professional-development-workshop thing. It can simply be taking 20 minutes a day to read a book, listen to a podcast, talk to someone better than you in your field, or watch a video talk online. It’s not much, but losing those 20 minutes can make quite the negative impact.

Have you stopped?




Give Thinking Its Space

Photo of people in a meeting

In an interview I watched a while back, Bill Gates talked about what he learned from Warren Buffett in regards to time management. When Gates was still learning the ropes of leading, he took pride in scheduling every single minute of his calendar. It was packed, and he carried his busy-ness like a badge of honor. Buffett, on the other hand, gave Gates a hard time about this because he was slow to learn the problems with this style. To prove their polar opposite habits, they opened up Buffett’s paper calendar during the interview. For that particular week, Buffett had only one appointment, and there were days and days left in the month with absolutely nothing scheduled in it, and it wasn’t vacation.

Buffet shared that when a CEO packs every minute of their calendar, they leave no room for the very thing they need to be doing: thinking. How is a leader suppose to strategize and solve problems successfully if they don’t give themselves space to think, to reflect, to plan? People wanting your time comes in endless supply, but you are in control of your time. Buffett emphasizes that while he has lots of money, he still cannot buy himself more time.

The next time your day is booked with meetings, calls, and emails, ask yourself if they were really worth attending to? Did you even talk to your team today to see how their work is doing, what problems need to be solved in the trenches? Were you able to discover differences between important and urgent tasks?

Or, perhaps, would it have been of better value to utilize that time strategizing, planning, and leading with 100% focus and commitment? There are no excuses, just choices.

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Track Successes Too

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Some habits go the extreme and become rituals. Not that all rituals are bad, but some become a rigid obsession for better or for worse. One of my favorite things to read about are the lives of people and their habitual rituals, which made the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey a fascinating read.

Benjamin Franklin had a strong obsession to habitualize “moral perfection” and practiced perfecting one virtue per week. It seemed quite philosophical of a habit. He went to the extreme of tracking his offenses with a black dot on his calendar daily. This of course is quite unrealistic, but I admire him trying to be so moral. You can read more about the thirteen virtues Franklin studied and his paper tracking system across the internet.

What I would reverse if I practiced this ritual in hopes of forming a habit is to track my successes rather than my offenses. Our society is so big on tracking failures, but we rarely track the good things we do, the wins. It’s important to recognize your failures in order to learn from them, but the successes are important too, even the small ones. When you do good, you want to continue. When you track an offense, you are more willing to quit.

As it turns out, Franklin’s habit tracking here didn’t last long.

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Slow it Down

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If there is one thing I will always remember my therapist saying when I got highly stressed, it’s to “slow it down”. And time and time again, when I do indeed do this, the results are far better than if I had kept banging my head against the wall. That by slowing it down, we can actually get to our desired destination faster.—yes, it’s true. Our emotions are easier to deal with at smaller scales, and mastering one small step gives us the confidence to take the next.

It is the tortoise that wins the race isn’t it? It’s not the fast, overexerting hare. Gary Vaynerchuk swears by this practice: “You may think I’m frantic…intense…fast…but look closer and understand: Patience matters.” [/] “I’m not going to become a billionaire overnight like Zucks or like Sacca or like Travis, but I’m going to get there as a tortoise. Which is going to confuse everybody because I have a hare’s costume.”

Pressfield talks about the importance of delayed gratification so not to rush into actions and decisions not thoroughly thought out. Quick is where mistakes are made. “The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out on each individual work.”

Josh Waitzkin, chess player and martial arts competitor, shares the idea of focusing on the micro instead of the macro. Master the smaller techniques and don’t be overwhelmed by the larger picture. When we focus on the brick-by-brick attention, we can slow it down and understand that each small action mastered will eventually build up to complete the grander view. After all, the cathedral is built brick-by-brick. The tortoise will get there faster by being patient, smart, and steady.

We can get somewhere faster by working slower. If you think about it, this is quite a beautiful thing and somewhat a sigh of relief. It’s okay to take a breath. You have time for this. This is a never-ending practice for me and a goal to constantly get better at.

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You Can Say “No”

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“Great teams are defined by what they’ve said “no” to so they can pursue what they are called to truly be doing.” – Jim Collins

There have been many times where I’ve heard people say “well, it’s an opportunity so we need to take advantage of it.”—We need to attend that meeting or event, we need to enter that competition, we need to give that pitch, we need to do this task now, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there are some opportunities that are “once in a lifetime” or very special scenarios that require our immediate attention and you can’t pass up; however, most of them are not so pressing. If not careful, you can find yourself distracting yourself so much with “opportunities” and “must-do’s” that you’re spinning your wheels in actually getting your project done or your product shipped.

I talk about the difference between tasks that are urgent vs important, and it’s the same concept here. You need to stay site to your mission and goals and really think about what you’re actually saying “no” to when you’re saying “yes” to something else.

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Remove Time Thieves

Know the difference between important and urgent, and do important first. – Steven Pressfield

Time is a Poor Indicator

Tim Ferriss argues that time spent at the office is a terrible metric for productivity. Often times we are spending our time doing unimportant tasks simply to fill up the time. Location in the office doesn’t mean you are spending time doing the right things. Focus on the 80/20 rule where 20% of the work produces 80% of the results. How do you know if something is important? Ask yourself, “If this was the only thing I did today, would I be happy with this day?”

Get rid of time thieves and focus only on what is important. Email is one of our greatest time thieves, and Ferriss stresses to not start our days by reading email, as do many other people I’ve researched. In fact, he challenges you to only check email twice a day and get it down to once per week. Can you imagine!?

Don’t Take Calls

Tim Ferriss says that one way we can save time is by letting phone calls go to voicemail, text, or email to answer later. Very rarely does a call require the need to interrupt your work at that moment to tend to its distraction. Add the task of addressing calls to the time block when you address email, and do it in a concentrated time.

Urgent verse Important Tasks

Maria Forleo highlights Steven Pressfield’s work when she describes that there is a difference between urgent and important tasks. Urgent tasks often only feel urgent, and these tasks will always keep you behind. The moment someone says “this task is urgent”, you put on hold your entire planned workflow to fix this one urgent thing. At this point, you get off track, and it eats up time to get back on track. Lastly, things that are “urgent” often relate to other people’s goals, not your own; therefore, it’s a bit hard to get your real mission work done.

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Hit the Buzzer First

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In a MarieTV podcast episode, Seth Godin talks with Marie Forleo about not waiting for the right moment. Godin explains that some people are more productive than others because they have the instinct to ship, and they generate output by doing so. They don’t have an instinct to polish.

“Most people hesitate to ship not because it’s not ready but because they are afraid.”

Godin continues to share this concept with an observation about Jeopard. People who win at that game may not be smarter than the other contestants, but they know how to press the buzzer first. They hit the buzzer before they know the answer. In that last moment, they come up with a response to say. Whether it’s right or not, they seize the opportunity to try to win.

When you’re invited to give a presentation, when you’re given a project assignment, when you sign up for something to do–you don’t have that thing done before you commit to doing it. You hit the buzzer first and work on completing it before deadline. Most people hesitate to commit to anything because of fear in their output.

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Get Things Done

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Your brain is not a storing device. It is a thinking tool.

David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, provides a good outline for managing the many to-do’s everyone has on their plate. He emphasizes that “Your brain is not a storing device. It is a thinking tool.” As of such, it is best to create a productivity system that gives room for your brain to think. Allen recommends the following to-do-list system which encompasses 5 to-do-lists and a tickler system.

Projects List: (Review weekly): If something has more than one action task, it is considered a project. Capture the project name and its goal in this list.

Next Actions List: (Review daily): This list is the main list of concrete actions to take. Ensure every project finds its way to this list. Don’t be vague here. Write literal tasks with action verbs.

Calendar Appointment: (Review daily): All your meetings and events should be captured in your calendar, separate from your next actions list.

Waiting For… List: (Review via tickler): If you are waiting for someone else or another item that your action depends on, write it in this list, and get it off your mind.

Someday/Maybe List: (Review monthly): These are a group of miscellaneous lists such as trips you want to take, music you want to listen to, books you want to read.

Tickler System: (Review daily): For things that don’t require your immediate or upcoming attention, the tickler system is a way to store future tasks so you can clear your mind of them when not needed. When the timing is right, you move the items to your “next actions” list and be on your way.

Additional Tips

  1. Make your productivity system mobile. This way you can knock out your “next actions” list at unexpected times on the go.
  2. Only practical, concrete tasks should go on your “next actions” list. This list is telling you what needs to be done. There is not much else thought into it other than knocking these tasks off your list. Ensure the tasks are actionable in language, using verbs and a clear understanding of what to do.
  3. When you are reviewing your lists, remove anything unimportant. Really, if it’s not worth doing, remove it right away.
  4. Take care of small things immediately. If a task in your “next actions” list takes two minutes or less, just do it, and kick it off the list right away.
  5. Appointments and deadlines do not belong in your “next actions” list because they are not tasks. Hold these items in your calendar only.

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