“Deep Work”, Cal Newport

Deep Work, Cal Newport
9 MINUTE READ

Deep Work, Cal Newport

“Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in a Distracted World”, Cal Newport
Print length: 305 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You work more than 8 hours per day and/or on the weekends.
  • You sometimes feel like you’re drowning in a sea of admin.
  • You can’t remember the last time you managed to “get some real work done”.

This excellent book by MIT alumni and Georgetown professor Cal Newport is a must read for anyone wanting to focus on the things that really matter by cutting down on fire-fighting, meeting attendance, email herding, and the pernicious effects of internet browsing and social media.

The book begins by categorising work as either deep or shallow where:

  • Deep work is made up of professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate (similar in concept to purposeful practice); and
  • Shallow work is made up of non cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

The first half of Cal’s book explains why deep work is so valuable, rare and meaningful in today’s fractured, winner-takes-all world. He convincingly argues that our attention is often so fractured that we actually accomplish very little genuinely deep work in a typical day.

Perhaps more worrying is his claim that months and years of exposure to shallow work and distraction has a long-lasting negative affect on our ability to focus our attention that is not quickly or easily reversed.

The broad and substantial evidence base in this section draws deeply from examples set by influential thinkers and doers throughout history (from Carl Jung and Nate Silver to Bill Gates). Though it doesn’t lend itself well to being crunched it is well worth reading if any further motivation for action is needed beyond our own personal experiences of the reward and meaning to be found in the too rare moments of stillness that allow us to “get some real work done”.

The second half of Cal’s book is full of powerful and actionable suggestions to shift our balance back towards deep work. These practical tips include ways to identify and eliminate existing bad habits, build new good habits, implement structural quick-wins and actively train and improve our attention. I have personally experimented with most of Cal’s suggestions (with some minor modifications from other authors) and cannot recommend the effort to follow through with them strongly enough.

Fighting for more deep work in our lives means doing more of the things that are important to us and less of the things which aren’t. At it’s core, Cal’s book reminds us that our days can and should be focused not just on “getting things done” but on “getting valuable things done”.

In other words, both efficiency and effectiveness are requirements for meaningful and purposeful action that leads to a productive life, filled with energy and balance.

What follows are my brief notes on Cal’s main points and suggestions.

Drowning in the Shallows

The breadth of and our access to network tools (physical: open plan offices, meetings / digital: email, instant messaging, social media etc…) has greatly increased, but our ability to pick selectively among and effectively use them has not.

Instead we tend to adopt tools that offer any benefit at all without carefully weighing those benefits against their disadvantages and opportunity costs – i.e., the time we could be spending on activities that are more valuable (we basically end up on the wrong side of Pareto’s 80/20 principle).

Additionally, we are surrounded by distractions which are in fierce, active competition for and have become very effective at capturing our attention (advertising, messaging, social media, mobile apps, television, internet etc…). Willpower is a finite resource (see Ego depletion) and the reward of giving in to these distractions creates powerful habits of instant gratification.

A bias for instant gratification is dangerous because shallow work is so much cognitively easier than deep work. Attending meetings, becoming a human email router and ticking off shallow to dos all provide momentary satisfaction and an illusion of business but this comes at the expense of deep thought, value creation and a wider sense of meaning in our work.

Meanwhile, we have shifted culturally into the habit of making work the centre of our lives. We have come to view our free-time as simply the sub- and post-script to our days/weeks and so we spend more and more time working. There is, however, no evidence for an equivalent gain in productivity (see Parkinson’s law).

In fact, 37Signals is an example of one company that has successfully experimented with reducing the work week to four days and cutting out June without any meaningful reduction in value creation.

Into the deep

Three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all that it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.

To those hoping to put some of these habits into practice I would suggest focussing on one initiative at a time and having patience. You wouldn’t try and run a marathon on your first run, likewise, building a commitment to increasingly productive deep work means working on our brain’s dad bod. It is a slow process of habit forming and increasing mental fitness.

All personal change demands time, effort, persistence and discipline as well as the temporary discomfort of changing not only our own mindsets but also the expectations and mindsets of those around us.

1. Learn to categorise tools and tasks as deep or shallow:

Cal devotes several pages to some good, practical examples that work through through the following process:

  1. Identify a desired big-picture outcome in a particular area of life (family, friends, health, wealth, work etc…)
  2. Identify just two or three activities that contribute the most towards this outcome (see Pareto’s 80/20 principle)
  3. For each tool or task that currently consumes time and energy in this area of life, ask ourselves: “Is this tool or task integral to the activities that help me make progress towards my desired outcomes?”
  4. If the answer is no then quit the tool or task

Though our goals and circumstances are personal, the majority of us will find that many of the tools and activities that we give our time and energy to fail to pass this simple test.

For example, is it better to spend two hours catching up on the life developments of all our FaceBook friends or to go out with one or two close friends for dinner? Unless our career or personal circumstances depend on maintaining a broad network through frequent, light communication the answer is clear.

Giving up tools and tasks entirely might seem extreme but remember; willpower is finite and the danger inherent in these distractions extends beyond the time that we use them to the focus-destroying habits we form through them.

For a quick quantitative guideline on how deep a piece of work is, ask: “How many months would it take to train a smart graduate student with no experience in my domain to do this task?”. This rule of thumb can help to keep us honest about whether to prioritise work on accounting presentations or attending process and update meetings vs. high impact ‘only-me’ activities.

2. Make quick structural changes that encourage deep work

Breaking and forming habits becomes much easier when we make quick, external structural changes that eliminate or introduce the cues that trigger them. These changes help make new habits the course of least resistance and most importantly they eliminate the roll of willpower in falling back into old ones.

Here are the structural changes Cal suggests we make to simplify our lives and help us work more deeply:

  1. Disable all incoming call/message notifications and badges
    In the last 10 years, including three years as an analyst at McKinsey, I’ve never missed a single professional or personal call or message that couldn’t wait.
  2. Become hard to reach
    Set sender filters, filter emails with rules and use auto-responders to manage reply expectations. Ask people to respect your time and energy and they will.
  3. Quit social media
    Experiment first with a secret, total 30 day social media fast if that helps. Like Cal I haven’t used social media in 8 years and my life has been much richer for it. 
  4. Work in a quiet place
    Open-plan offices are the bane of deep work; a private room or library is best, noise cancelling headphones and music without words will do in a pinch.
  5. Work at a quiet time
    Ask the most effective people you know when they wake up. It will be early, when there’s nobody else up to disturb them.
  6. Limit internet access during deep work time
    • Gather everything needed before beginning a session of deep work
    • Alternate on and offline work time (see Pomodoro technique)
    • Block problem websites during working hours (check out Freedom)

3. Get visibility on deep vs. shallow time by minuting the day:

The first step to changing anything is to measure it.

Start keeping an honest record (on paper / in your calendar) of how time is actually being spent during each day.

Review this record at the end of the day to get a sense of how much time is really being spent on deep vs. shallow work.

4. Determine a fixed end point to the work day and stick to it

  1. Reframe our day towards our free-time instead of our work.
    Even if we enjoy our work we shouldn’t forget that financial gain is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.
    If you could retire tomorrow what would you do with your free-time? Start seeing the time outside of work as if you were already retired.
  2. Commit to a fixed end time to your day
    Make commitments to our children, book a yoga class, make plans with a friend, order a food delivery to our home etc…
    Set a quitting time at the end of the day and do whatever it takes to make ourselves stick to it.
  3. Plan backwards
    Once we have a quitting time we can start fighting Parkinson’s law (the tendency for work to expand to fill the time available to it)
    Identify the things which have to get done to day and plan backwards
  4. Say no to shallow work and off-task commitments
    Run every incoming request through the process outlined at the start of these initiatives
    Protect the end time by ruthlessly declining and then eliminating shallow work

5. Train our attention

As well as taking steps to eliminate shallow work from and introduce the conditions for deep work into our lives Cal also suggests a number of exercises to actively help strengthen our ability to effectively direct our attention.

Much like meditation, each of these exercises involves choosing a single object of focus, noticing when attention has wandered and then gently bringing attention back to the initial object. Beyond strong and consistent anecdotal evidence, such practices have a proven physical impact on the attention centres of the brain:

  1. Become friends with boredom
    When standing in line or waiting for a friend, resist the temptation to instantly distract the mind with needless activity. Instead practice just being in the present moment.
  2. Practice thinking whilst walking
    Get into the habit of practicing thinking on a single, well defined problem or topic that is important to you whilst engaged in a physical activity that doesn’t require much mental exertion. This form of walking meditation not only improves attention but also has the added benefit of increasing productivity.
  3. Give the mind a work out with intense study or memorisation skills
    Spending time each day learning to to e.g., use our visual memory to memorise a pack of cards isn’t just a good trick to impress friends at the pub. This kind of mental gymnastics also forces us to flex our attention muscles with far reaching implications for the rest of our lives.

Related Reading

“Deep Thinking: What Mathematics Can Teach Us About the Mind”, William Byers: A great use of an experience we all remember (learning basic math) to show the importance of creativity in making cognitive learning leaps.

“The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance”, Josh Waitzkin: A superb first hand account showing the overlap of basic deep learning principles in two very different fields (chess and martial arts) from the protagonist of “Searching for Bobby Fisher”.

“Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”, David Allen: A cornerstone and very practical work on productivity from the world renowned David Allen – easily one of my top most life-changing reads, though it is aimed for at efficiency than effectiveness.

“A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science”, Barbara OakleyA fantastic book with more attention to applying deep work to learning (book crunch here)

“Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work”, Mason Currey: A wonderful book full of examples of the daily routines of some of history’s most famous scientists, authors, poets and artists. Perfect for dipping in and out of and giving great real life examples of how some of our best minds have used the principles explained in Cal’s book.

TANQ entries for “Deep Work”

TANQ is WhyWhatHow’s growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes and quotes.

“Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“Part of what fuelled social media’s rapid assent… is its ability to short-circuit this connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“For someone new to such [deep] practice … an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigours of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“Schedule every minute of your day… When you’re done … every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now, as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“A deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“A tactic that works well for me [when declining low-value requests] is to be clear in my refusal but ambiguous in my explanation for the refusal.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“Fixed schedule productivity is a meta-habit that’s simple to adopt but broad in its impact. If you have to choose just one behaviour that reorients your focus toward the deep, this one should be high on your list of opportunities.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement – it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“Three to four hours a day, five days a week of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.”

Cal Newport Deep Work

[ To understand where a task fits on the shallow-to-deep scale ask a simple question: ] “How long would it take (in months) to train a smart, recent college graduate with no specialised training in my field to complete this task?”

Cal Newport Deep Work

“Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
3 MINUTE READ

Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

“Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl
Print length: 161 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You’re curious about why we exist or what it all means
  • You sometimes / often struggle with apathy or boredom
  • Despite recently accomplishing a major goal you still feel empty inside

This short, moving and life-changing book was written by Jewish-Austrian neurologist / psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl.

The book’s brutal and honest first hand accounts of life and loss in a concentration camp (worth reading in and of itself) are a vehicle for Frankl’s wider theories and deep insights into man’s search for meaning. These theories were his life work (even before his transportation to Auschwitz) and are at the core of Logotherapy (logos = meaning), a major school of modern psychotherapy.

The Meaning of Life

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”, Friedrich Nietzsche

The essence of Frankl’s theory is as simple as it is universal and runs as follows:

Man’s primary motivational force is the striving for meaning in one’s life.

A frustrated will to meaning leads to an existential vacuum that is the mass neurosis of the present time.

This existential vacuum can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism and manifests itself primarily in states of boredom and anxiety.

But there is no objective or general meaning to life. We cannot strive for meaning as we cannot strive for success or happiness.

Instead, meaning (Why) ensues primarily from active purpose (a What) which can be a thing (a work or deed) or a person (love or responsibility).

However, life also questions us constantly with a passive stream of Whats (including unavoidable suffering) to which we must respond and from which meaning can also ensue.

In this case, a strong individualistic sense of self, of Who we are, becomes the Why for how we respond to those Whats.

No matter what external limitations we face, we are always free to choose Who we are and how we respond.

This allows us to tap into an unassailable source of inner freedom and personal value.

A Story About Fate

A short story from the book about fate that enjoyed I so much I thought it worth preserving/sharing:

A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him.

He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse.

On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.

Related Reading

“To Have or To Be”, Erich Fromm

“The Art of Loving”, Erich Fromm

“Siddhartha”, Herman Hesse

“The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, Mark Manson

TANQ entries for “Man’s Search for Meaning”

TANQ is WhyWhatHow’s growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes and quotes.

The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.

Victor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

Delusion of Reprieve: “The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

Delusion of Reprieve: “The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

The most painful part of beatings is the insult which they imply.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honest whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same thing.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way … It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead to think of ourselves as those who ere being questioned by life.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

Progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

The Meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour … what matters, therefore is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

We can discover the meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back.

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

Hyper Intention: “A forced intention makes impossible why now forcibly wishes.”

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

“Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

Why it’s not you, it’s me.

It's not you, it's me
13 MINUTE READ

It's not you, it's me

Perfect for you if:

  • You just started a new friendship or relationship
  • You feel let down by or angry at yourself or someone else
  • There are people in your life that you just can’t seem to forgive

Summary

When we feel frustrated or let down by someone else (or even ourselves) it can be helpful to remember that that person has, in fact, always been that person – what has really failed here are the expectations that we have set for them.

Climate is made up of complex seasons, weather systems and local weather patterns. Even with these general rules it can be highly unpredictable. We wouldn’t make sweeping generalisations about the general global climate from a single Summer’s day. We definitely wouldn’t stubbornly refuse to update those expectations in the face of changing context or time.

In the same way, people have personalities, phases, moods and emotions. Perhaps we judged them too hastily (halo effect). Perhaps we should have realised earlier that we needed to update our expectations (consistency bias) or chose to ignore the clues that those expectations were misplaced (confirmation bias). Perhaps the shortcuts (heuristics) that we used to set those expectations are unrealistic or hypocritical.

In any case, though learning something new about a person may be hard (especially if it undermines the foundations of some best laid hopes and plans), blaming someone else for our own misunderstandings or expending time and energy on anger, resentment or trying to change them against their will are about as effective as shaking our fists at a thunder storm.

On the other hand, taking responsibility for failures in our own judgement makes forgiveness easy. It helps us recognise the obstacle we’ve encountered as an opportunity for growth and to see each setback as a stepping stone to better laid expectations and relationships in the future.

At the end of the day, it takes thousands of new situations over many decades to start getting to know ourselves, let alone another person, and even then both can surprise us. So, when the real world and the world in our heads diverge, it can be helpful to reflect that the real problem here may simply be that we’ve mistaken the weather for the climate.

After all, being human is complicated and sometimes we all forget to pack a rain coat.

Creation is in the eye of the beholder

All it takes is a glimpse, a flash of laughter, perhaps even a single sentence and, just like that, we’ve built a deep and complex impression of a total stranger’s character. It is one of the most amazing abilities of our already remarkable brain.

Think about it, within moments of seeing or hearing about someone we subconsciously use shortcuts (heuristics) to bring our entire knowledge of the world together, fill the gaps between a handful of data points and create a unique and totally imaginary human being in our heads.

This imaginary model allows us to make useful assumptions about who a stranger is and our expectations of their (re)actions towards us and the world around them.

It’s these assumptions that enable us to cooperate quickly and effectively with strangers. It’s these expectations that are at the foundation of our ability to work in the extended social networks that have created humanity as we know it today.

But there’s no such thing as a free dinner and the super-fast and largely good-enough nature of our amazing shortcuts come at a cost.

The price of shortcuts

There are several major problems with the imaginary person that now lives in our heads:

  1. We base our impression on only a few data points.
  2. We fill the bits in-between with mostly made up information.
  3. We will go to extraordinary lengths to hold on to this initial model.

First impressions are a good example of giving too much emphases to a small number of data points. They’re also a good example of “the Halo effect” – our tendency to assume a lot about someone’s character or an object’s properties from only a handful of measures.

We know and fear the power and injustice of a bad first impression (though we are less likely to jump up and down about undeservedly good ones). They take away as unfairly from society’s minorities and misfits as they reward tall CEOs, good looking salesmen and attractive musicians.

But even beyond our more obvious biases we tend to fill the space between these data points with nonsense.

Sometimes we base our expectations on our understanding of how we are (or think we are) – this is what makes thieves so security conscious and murderers so paranoid.

More often we base those expectations on how believe people should be – including standards we frequently fail to live up to ourselves.

And occasionally we even build people up to be who we want or need them to be – from fools and devils to white knights or damsels in distress.

Once formed, the character of this imaginary human being becomes frustratingly persistent. We go to great lengths to preserve continuity and consistency in our lives. It is easier to pay more attention to information that agrees with our existing beliefs (confirmation bias) than it is to openly challenge, break down and reconstruct them.

As a result, it is unsurprising that people often surprise us, both positively and negatively. And even less surprising that even then, it takes a huge number of examples across a wide variety of contexts to shift our first impressions.

But, over time, as we get to know the person in question, we add more and more data points to the model in our heads. The more data points we collect the more infrequent the surprises. The more infrequent the surprises the greater our self-confidence in predicting their behaviour.

Until eventually the model in our heade becomes so good that we begin to think of it as the same thing as the real person standing in front of us. We feel that we ‘know’ that person.

And then, disaster strikes.

The cost of over-confidence

At the height of our confidence, or in the face of our general beliefs about how people ‘should’ act, the person that we thought we knew acts in a way that is negatively inconsistent with our expectations. A part of the model seems to collapse, along with any plans we’ve laid on top of it, and it feels like something that was once very solid has been taken away from us.

And guess what, we don’t like things having taken away from us. In fact, scientists have consistently shown that having something taken away from us triggers a stronger emotional response than simply having it not given to us in the first place. This cognitive bias (deprival super reaction syndrome) is the same one that makes rolling back benefits or rewards from us when we are accustomed to receiving them so traumatic, even if there’s no longer any basis for those rewards to be in place.

Perhaps a parent or a friend wasn’t there for us when we needed and expected them to be. Perhaps they stole from you, or treated you unfairly or betrayed your trust. The result can be an intense emotional response of sadness and betrayal towards the person we perceive to have let us down. A response that often evolves into anger or denial (learned helplessness) if it can’t be escaped.

I’ve been on both sides many times and I know how helpless and disorienting it can feel. You feel wronged and the person who has wronged you just can’t seem to see why or how. In the absence of a solution the blame and recrimination can lead to tit for tatting which can itself temporarily or permanently damage a relationship.

But there is a solution.

It’s not you. It’s me.

And the solution starts with admitting that it is not the other person that has wronged us. It is us who has wronged them.

Recall that what’s actually fallen short here is our own mental model of a person. A model that is (and always has been) totally imaginary. A model full of expectations which we have set. Expectations which were probably at best inaccurate and at worst hypocritical or unobtainable.

Perhaps this person has actively misled us. But even so, the decision to build our model based on the full weight of their words rather than to keep our expectations open to the evidence of their actions was also ours to make.

The truth is that that person has always been that person. We just didn’t realise it until now.

Time for a new strategy

So we’ve learned something new about a person.

The bad news is that a few major hopes and dreams that we’d built on top of our shattered expectations might be smouldering in a sad little heap in the corner.

The good news is that, with only ourselves to blame, forgiving the other person becomes very easy. And that’s going to free up a lot of time and energy in pointless tit for tatting, moping and recriminations to focus on the important stuff. Namely, rolling up our sleeves and working out what to do next.

1. Pause – the power of not making things worse

First step: do nothing at all. We all have a remarkable talent for misperceiving, misinterpreting and misunderstanding. If I had a pound/euro/dollar for every time I’d made things worse by (re)acting before taking the time to pause and think I could probably bank roll World Peace. Even Abraham Lincoln’s wife would famously hide his most scathing letters until he’d had a chance to calm down.

It is rare that taking a moment to pause, observe and investigate before acting doesn’t lead to better decisions. With a little patience, situations often turn out to be much less dramatic than they first appeared. Sometimes, they even solve themselves entirely.

Creating a gap between observation and emotional response is one of the fundamental skills that can be learned through meditation. And if there were only one reason to take up twenty minutes of meditation a day, this would be it.

In the meantime, making a deal with ourselves to sleep on an emotionally charged situation before (re)acting is one of the greatest (and most challenging) habits we can form.

2. Understand – good decisions need good information

My life and the life of those around me would be and have been a lot more pleasant if I were better at “assuming benign (kind) intent”. People everywhere are generally good and kind and they rarely do things to intentionally hurt others. It is easy to assume the opposite, and occasionally we’d be right, but doing so by default can lead to many misunderstandings that would be otherwise easy to avoid.

What we really want here is to minimise future surprises and our best bet to do so is to really understand what’s going on before we make any changes to our models.

What could have been going through the other person’s head? Have I ever been on the other side of a similar situation? Do I know someone else who has? A period of extreme stress in someone’s life can cause them to think, speak or act in a way so uniquely out of character that it deserves special treatment. Is this one of those scenarios?

Talk to the other person but avoid generalisations, they will only trigger defensiveness. What exactly did they do, when, how? How did that make me feel? Give them space to explain. Remember, unless you’ve decided to end this relationship what you both want out of this discussion is to learn and move forwards.

3. Process – update our model and expectations

After we’ve paused and reflected it’s time to update our models and expectations. Does this piece of information tell us something about this person’s actions under just a few specific sets of circumstance? Or does it tell us something more about their character in general?

This step sounds simple but one of the hardest things for us to do is to face the consequences of admitting that we are wrong. This is especially true if we’ve held the suspect belief for a long period of time and doubly so if the new information is going to require us do a lot of thinking or make some disruptive changes.

Too often we fall into the trap of refusing to update our models (remember the persistence of first impressions) and hoping that the real world will change to fit us instead of the other way around. If you’ve ever tried to telepathically switch off your alarm clock in the morning and found it frustratingly non-compliant you know what I’m talking about.

If you’ve paused and taken the time to understand what’s going on then be brave and let go of your old views. You will thank yourself in the long run.

4. Act – decide what to do next

Once we’ve adjusted our model there’s only one question left to ask:

Knowing what I now know about this person, if I met them again today would I still get back into this relationship?

This kind of zero-based-thinking helps us to escape the strong gravity of invested time and energy that draws us back over and over again into a toxic relationship. By looking at the relationship as if it were starting today we can let go of the past and focus fully on the future.

If our answer to this question is no then the the best thing to do is to take steps to start getting out of the relationship as quickly as possible.

But if the answer is yes then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and focus on the future.

Working on the future

People can and do change. Change starts with a thought. Thought leads to action. Action leads to habit. And habits are the building blocks of personality.

But lasting change means breaking down deeply worn patterns of thought and action and laying new ones down. It takes time, effort, discipline, internal motivation and a lot of persistence.

Option 1: Change the other person

Think of the difficulties you’ve had breaking bad or building new, simple, well intentioned habits like waking up earlier, getting to the gym or browsing less social media. How much effort, how much strong internal discipline and motivation did that take? How many times did you fall back into old traps?

Now imagine trying to force that onto someone else. Is it any wonder that trying to change someone against their will is a waste of time?

But if a person genuinely wants to change then the best we can do is make it as easy for them as possible. It starts with creating an environment that allows and supports that change. Build trust, communicate openly and without judgement. Reinforce every positive step with love and praise.

Reflecting on our own experiences reminds us how hard it can be to change even the simplest of things. Forming a new habit takes time (at least 30 days) and daily effort so patience and focus on just one thing at a time are critical.

But perhaps the single most important step of all is to lead by example.

To change others we first have to be willing to change ourselves.

Option 2: Change ourselves

For those who like to give themselves a hard time whenever they let themselves down, I’ve found it helpful to remember this: everything written above applies as much to our relationship with ourselves as it does to our relationships with other people.

It’s ok to get things wrong and every obstacle we encounter is an opportunity to learn more about the world and people around us. Every mistake, every failed encounter, friendship or relationship helps us learn how to make the next one better.

It would be impossible to summarise even a fraction of the timeless advice given in the countless books that have been written on changing ourselves. Here are just a few of the things that I’m working on right now that have helped me make sense of the past, build better models for the future and work towards seeing the world with “a grand mother’s eyes”:

Expect the unexpected

Shortcuts (heuristics) are a critical part of the way our brain works. We can’t simply wake up one day and decide to have no expectations whatsoever.

But we can remember that our mental models are just simplified shortcuts for us to make sense of the world around us and, as a result, they are guaranteed to get things wrong.

Reminding ourselves of this fact helps us to keep a light hearted and flexible, rather than hostile, attitude to the unexpected.

Get to know ourselves

Perhaps the most effective way to make our models of other people more realistic is to build them not from expectations of how people should (or could) be but from how people actually are. And a good first step to that end is to become a bit more honest with ourselves.

Getting to know ourselves takes time and experience that is hard to speed up or manufacture. Understanding and admitting the difference between who we would like to be (or be perceived to be) and who we are takes introspection, courage and clarity.

The best thing we learn as we get to know ourselves better is the depth and complexity of our flaws. Acknowledging these flaws and taking it easier on ourselves will almost automatically lead to cutting the people around us more slack.

Ask yourself if you’re setting expectations for others that you can’t even keep yourself. Make time for meditation and honest self reflection at the start and end of each day. Travel, find mentors, read and throw yourself into new and uncomfortable experiences as often as you can.

‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool’.

Finally, as Shakespeare reminds us, you can never have too much information on the fallibility of the brain and its cognitive biases.

Excessive self-regard, availability mis-weighing, confirmation bias, halo effect, deprival super reaction syndrome – these are just a handful of the ways in which our otherwise miraculous brain trips us up on a daily basis.

Learning about and accepting our flaws reminds us that if the world isn’t living up to expectations then the problem is more likely to be with our expectations than with the world.

How to Travel Plan Like a Long-term Travel Ninja

Travel Planning Dropbox Folder
11 MINUTE READ

Perfect for you if:

  • You’re travelling to learn and experience as much as possible.
  • You want to plan a big trip independently but have no idea where to start.
  • You often find yourself finding out all the great stuff you missed after you leave.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

There’s an infinite number of ways to go about travel planning, or even not to go about it at all – and this post is not about trying to convince you either way.

Instead, it’s just an insight into my own system of travel planning that’s evolved from the last few years and ~70 countries of travel blunders as well as the kind and patient help and advice of hundreds of fellow travellers and travel buddies along the way. (N.b., I travel with pretty much exactly the same set up in my trusty 40 litre backpack no matter where I’m going so packing doesn’t feature here! More in another post.)

I won’t always follow every step exactly (or at all), and the effort I put into each plan really depends on the country I’m travelling to, the way I’m travelling and also how travelled or planned-out I’m feeling (in fact giving up on planning is a good indicator that it’s time for me to stop, settle down and recharge).

But so far I’ve found, aside from getting more out of my time and money in each country, that it’s only when I have a solid back up plan in my back pocket (as well as the knowledge in my head that it took to put it together) that I’m able to totally relax, tear it up and travel most spontaneously when opportunity comes knocking!

The top section that follows is just the raw checklist but click on the orange header links at the top of each section for more detail.

Region/Country Level Planning

1. Define success
☐ Write a why statement (bullets)
☐ Visualize success (bullets)

2. Identify barriers
☐ Visa requirements
☐ Festivals / holidays
☐ Health / safety risks
☐ Weather (seasonal, regional)

3. Download or gather links to travel information
☐ CIA World Fact Book
☐ Lonely Planet
☐ Wikipedia
☐ Wikitravel / Wikivoyage
☐ Top 10 lists (Google)
☐ Itineraries (Google)

4. Do background reading
☐ Lonely Planet (esp. back section)
☐ Wikipedia
☐ Wikitravel
☐ Other

5. Synthesise a “Top 10” list
☐ Friends / Travel Buddies
☐ Lonely Planet
☐ Wikitravel / Wikivoyage
☐ TripAdvisor
☐ “Top 10” lists (Google)

6. Plot “Top 10” list on Google MyMaps

7. Draft an itinerary
☐ Draft a rough itinerary
☐ Check vs. 3rd party itineraries
☐ Check vs. success statements

8. Firm up itinerary
☐ Research travel options/times between locations
☐ Check transport, ticket and accommodation availability
☐ Calendarise itinerary

9. Refine as you go
☐ Update the plan based on:
Location Level Planning; and
→ On the ground information
★ N.b., Don’t let the plan get in the way of the trip

10. Look back on the trip
☐ What did I do? What didn’t I do?
☐ What did I learn? What was surprising?
☐ What went well? What would I do differently?

Location Level Planning

1. Repeat steps 3 – 6 from country-level planning

2. Finalise and book accommodation and logistics
☐ Book accommodation
☐ Book inward / outward travel

3. Download local resources offline to iPhone
☐ Google maps
☐ Ulman maps
☐ TripAdvisor

3. Check travel and accommodation calendar entry notes complete

Sight/Activity Level Research

For each major sight/activity repeat steps 3 – 4 of country planning

1. Define success

Write a Why Statement:

Why: Really helps me prioritise effectively between options before and during the trip by surfacing my real motives for visiting a country.

What: Anything from a few bullet points to a wordy treatise, whatever I need to get clear in my head.

How: I whip out a pen and paper and jot down the first few answers that come to my head to the question “Why do I want to travel to X?”.

For example: Because I’m fascinated by a particular aspect of history/culture, because I don’t know anything about it, because I’m afraid of it, because seeing X or doing Y is on my bucket list, because I need a break and I just want to relax or even just because it sounds awesome!

Visualise Success:

Why: Helps turn the Why Statement into tangible goals/outcomes that I can begin to plan around.

What: Usually no more than 5 or 10 tangible goals / outcomes that would make the trip a success.

How: Back to pen and paper. What would it take for me to look back on this trip and go “Boy, that was an incredible experience, I’m glad I did that!”

For example: I visit, try, learn, taste, meet, master, feel etc… X, Y and/or Z.

2. Identify barriers

Why: Because turning up to hike in rainy season, straying into a war zone, catching malaria or arriving in Ho Chi Minh city on the first day of Vietnamese New Year (when everything is shut for a week) all suck (and are easily avoidable with some quick research).

What: Visa issues, weather and disruptive festivals / holidays are the big things I look out for. I’m a bit more relaxed on health and safety – I’ve spent amazing weeks in e.g., Guatemala or the Northern Border or Afghanistan when government websites would have you believe you’ll be shot or kidnapped the moment you cross the border.

How: There are tons of resources so Google is my friend here, especially for really local or more unusual trips (like overland travel). I’ll always preference recent accounts of e.g., border crossings from other travellers over official government websites.

For Visas I’m a big fan of VisaHQ. For weather check out Best Time to Go. For health risks / vaccinations see IAMAT.

If you really want to unnecessarily terrify yourself then ask the U.S., Government for its opinion on anywhere else.

3. Download or gather links to travel information

Why: Because having these to hand or making them available offline makes it easier (and so more likely) that I’ll read them in the little 5 – 10 minute gaps that crop up in my day or to refer to on the road.

What: There’s a host of great travel information websites on the internet. Here are my go to sources…

CIA World Fact Book – updated annually and full of amazingly detailed facts and statistics for almost every country in the world.

Lonely Planet – is my personal go-to brand of guide books for travel, I buy the PDFs from their online store and especially love the front (top lists, itinerary ideas) and back (cultural and historical overview) sections of their books. Other major options I know of include Rough Guides, DK Eyewitness Travel Guides and Marco Polo Pocket Guides. There are also some great alternative if you speak other languages (especially German).

Wikipedia – has been my first point of call for mostly accurate information as long as I can remember

Wikitravel / Wikivoyage – despite being more prone to error than Wikipedia, these sources usually have a more digestible overview and lots of practical advice (like how to travel to/within the place you’re visiting). Their content is mostly duplicated these so I’ll pick one or both.

Top 10 lists (Google) – Travel blogs and travel agent websites are a wealth of information. I’ll spend a few minutes on Google searching for things like “top sights in” or “best undiscovered secrets of” and pick one or two of the best for more reading.

Itineraries (Google) – As above for “X weeks in Y” or simply “Y travel itineraries”. I find the websites of high end travel agents like Audley Travel perfect for this.

How: I’ll usually save these down as PDFs to a folder in my DropBox. In Safari on a Mac I prefer to Print (File > Print or Command + P) and then save as a PDF (bottom left corner of print dialogue). I don’t know why, my gut tells me I’ve found the built in export function a bit dodgy.

Bonus: If you have a Mac, this little location info script quickly opens four tabs in Safari for the Wikis and Trip Advisor for any location you input.

4. Do background reading

Why: Learning about the country and putting it into a little bit more context (historically and geographically) totally transforms the experience of travelling for me. Not only does it help with the planning stage but it gives my mind lots of hooks to hang my experiences on when I’m there and primes me to look our for and understand things I might otherwise totally miss.

What: Most of the information gathered so far.

How: Just a quick skim through over everything to give myself a feeling for the country at this stage. As I learn more about my target destination I’ll usually be frequently revisiting and updating my Why and Success statements to reflect any new learnings and ideas.

N.B., I really like to revisit this information when I can during and at the end of my travels – it’s amazing the different things that stand out from the text at each different stage depending on the things I’ve seen and experiences I’m having.

5. Synthesise a “Top 10” list

Why: Even if I tear up my plan or do something totally different, having this list subconsciously in the back of my mind is great for spotting and taking advantage of opportunities to get at it.

What: Usually many more than just 10 places I’d like to see and experiences I’d like to have. My risk of “box ticking” (just visiting a place because I “should”) is much lower if I’ve done the first few sections of this checklist properly – a list without some decent Whys behind it always feels shallow and uninspiring to me.

How: Pen and paper or a text file on my computer.

An amazing additional source for these are local friends and fellow travellers. A good friend of mine had the great idea of asking friends she makes on the road for their top local recommendations for wherever they’re from. Then she saves/stars these locations on Google Maps. When she arrives in the country she already has hundreds of local-only sights, restaurants and experiences to hand!

6. Plot “Top 10” list on Google MyMaps

Why: Seeing everything I want to do laid out on a map is an incredibly powerful clarifying experience for me. It suddenly makes distances very real as well as highlighting interesting facts like “Oh, 90% of the things I want to see and do are over here”, “So seeing that means a 900 km detour to the West” or even prompting questions like “I wonder what’s over there?”.

What: Here’s an example of 3 Days in Tokyo (also below) or a basic “Top List” dump of Taiwan

3 Days in Tokyo: Google MyMaps
Three days in Tokyo, planned on Google MyMaps

How: Though I used to use apps like Pocket Earth or Ullman, I’m now almost exclusively a huge fan of Google’s MyMaps – it amazes me that this kind of tool is available for free! The interface and customisation options are very intuitive and Google frequently roles out updates and improvements.

I use the desktop version to quickly create and customise the maps which can then be easily accessed and made available offline on my phone via the Google Maps app when I’m on the road.

7. Draft an itinerary

Why: Picking a rough order for my route has important implications like entry / exit points and can highlight early logistical nightmares (like crossing large bodies of water and mountain ranges). It’s also a requirement for some of those more tricky visas.

What: As simple as a few bullets to roughly shape out my journey, possibly with some initial guesses on how long I might spend in or travelling between each location.

How: My Google MyMap + a pen and paper / Google Docs (if collaborating) / favourite text editor.

At this stage I’ll also go back over any third party travel itineraries I’ve downloaded (like Audley Travel) to check if I’ve missed anything major. I also find it a great time to once again revisit my Why and Success Statements to make sure I haven’t strayed too far from the original purpose of my trip (or to update it)!

8. Firm up itinerary

Why: Because a quick, early reality check can help save a lot of hassle, expense and disappointment down the line. I’ve found this doubly true when distances are large or travelling during busy seasons (e.g., music/cultural/religious festivals or seasonal events like seeing the Cherry Blossoms in Japan) when tickets, accommodation or travel options might be tight.

What: I usually sense check two things at this point:

  1. Travel times – this where spotting things like the option to take 3 busses over 24h vs. one 2h long flight can reshape my draft itinerary
  2. Booking requirements (tickets, travel and accommodation) – the need to book things in advance varies hugely depending on where and when I’m travelling

I try to leave things as open as possible so if I can I generally won’t book anything except flights much more than a few days in advance.

How:

I’ll often use the resources below to make any major adjustments to my itinerary. I’m a heavy calendar user so at this point I’ll put where I might be each night and any travel bookings I’ve made into my calendar so that it drops into my productivity system and gives me an overview of how it fits into my wider travel plans.

Air Travel: I use SkyScanner‘s calendar functions to spot any savings by shifting my entry/exit dates. Other options include Kyak and Expedia.

Land Travel: GoogleMaps for a rough estimate. Then Lonely Planet, Wikitravel/voyage and lastly Google to hunt down any local travel resources like train and bus time tables.

Accommodation: My reading and travel guides have usually given me a pretty good idea of how far in advance I’ll need to be booking. Couch Surfing, Hostel World, AirBnB and Booking.com are all great resources to double check depending on budget, location and availability.

10. Look back on the trip

Why: Aside from the fact that active recall is a critical step in learning effectively, reflecting on the lessons we’ve learned and sharing impressions or war stories from travel is one of its greatest joys.

Taking the time to look back on all or even part of a trip is perhaps one of the most important and yet most overlooked steps in travelling. I’ve found time and again, if I take the time to do a good look back within a week or two of finishing a trip (which I don’t do nearly as often as I should), that the amount that I learn and remember from the trip increases hugely.

What: I tend to use the following six questions as thought starters for my look backs but whatever works for you is the thing that’s best:

☐ What did I do? What didn’t I do?
☐ What did I learn? What was surprising?
☐ What went well? What would I do differently?

How: Wether it’s regularly during the trip or just once a few days or weeks after your return whatever tool you find easiest is probably the best one.

Pen and paper, a diary or your favourite digital note taking tool are all great options. Writing a blog or sharing email updates with your friends and family whilst you travel is another great way to get some of this stuff out of your head whilst it’s fresh.

Not much of a writer? Make time to share impressions and war stories with your travel buddies or even just people you meet who have travelled to the same places over a drink or some food!

“A Mind For Numbers”, Barbara Oakley

A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley
6 MINUTE READ

A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley

“A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science”, Barbara Oakley
Print length: 332 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You want to learn almost anything more quickly and to make it stick.
  • You’re struggling to find or make time in your day for focussed thought.
  • You wrestle with procrastination and/or distraction on a daily basis.

“A wonderful ‘crunch’… one of the best summaries of the key ideas that we’ve ever seen.”
Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers

Though the title promises improvements in math and science, its lessons are applicable to all forms of learning and problem solving.

Barbara explains that learning begins with creating and internalising small chunks of information (e.g., starting a car, pressing the accelerator, changing gear). As we learn we add to and connect these chunks and use them to solve problems in the world around us (e.g., driving). This is especially useful in analytical problem solving where chunks allow our limited working memory to greatly increase the information we consciously process at once.

She shows that to efficiently add to and apply these chunks requires learning to use and balance two modes of thought (focussed and diffuse thinking) effectively.

What follows is an excellent summary of practical tips to improve learning and problem solving as well as some of the common pitfalls we face on the way (and how to overcome them).

Effective learning needs both Focussed and Diffuse thinking

Chunking is at the cornerstone of learning and problem solving…

  • Learning = linking information together to create and slowly add to conceptual chunks
  • Problem solving = Identifying what chunks to use when (and how) to tackle a specific problem

… and we tackle it with two types of thinking.

  • Focussed thinking (requiring active attention) is conscious, analytical and serial in nature.
  • Diffuse thinking (requiring passive attention) is subconscious, creative and parallel in nature.

(Diffuse thinking is what’s going on when you have that “Aha” moment whilst doing something totally different like sleeping, running errands or enjoying a shower)

Both types of thinking are involved in learning…

  • Focussed: Gathering information and forming new chunks
  • Diffused: Connecting different chunks together

… and both are required in using that learning effectively.

  • Focussed: Identifying and loading chunks into working memory for analytical problem solving
  • Diffused: Big picture and lateral thinking, sense-checking, creative out of the box thinking

The Medici Effect is the name given to creatively linking seemingly totally separate chunks together to create a new and creative solution

We often learn sub-optimally because we fail to set up and/or alternate effectively between both modes.

  • We are too distracted or engaged in attentional multitasking to think deeply (focussed)
  • We fool ourselves into thinking following is the same as understanding
  • We over champion analytical (focussed) thought and fail to leverage the power of diffuse thinking

Meanwhile almost every single successful scientist, author and artist in recent history used a daily routine that effectively set up and then alternated between focussed and diffuse thinking (see the popular book, Daily Rituals).

So, how can we learn effectively?

1. Create the best conditions for focussed and diffuse thinking

Focussed thinking needs meaningful stretches of undisturbed time to focus and think.

  • Prioritise making distraction free time and space to think deeply
  • Read effectively (SQ3R: Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review)
  • Practice purposefully (Work the hardest bits, generalise through variation)
  • Think on paper, there’s magic between the hand and the brain

Diffuse thinking occurs subconsciously by temporarily loosening attention.

  • Relax/disengage attention: Sleep, walk, drive, blink, exercise
  • Keep information fresh: Recall and test frequently (e.g., spaced repetition techniques)

Both Dali and Eddison used a form of napping in which objects dropping from their hands would wake them up just as they were falling asleep to trigger diffuse thinking.

2. Actively build time into each day to alternate between both modes

There are a couple of unavoidable learning barriers that everyone encounters

You can’t do anything about these and you’re not alone so don’t worry!

Robust learning takes a long time (quickly learned = quickly forgotten)

  • Learning has a similar gain profile and risks as physical training
  • Long-term learning needs long-term physical changes in brain structure
  • Be very wary of short term cramming and illusions of confidence

Occasional knowledge collapse is inevitable, natural and temporary

  • Information often outgrows initial organising structures and mental models we have built for them
  • At this point the brain needs a bit of time to break down and reshuffle chunk/model reshuffle the information we have learned
  • This process can last as long as one or two weeks depending on the rate of learning

Think of it a little like defragmenting an old hard drive, or knocking down a house that’s been patched together over time to build a new and improved one from the materials.

However many common pitfalls are easily avoidable

The difference between great and average thinkers is the way in which they frame and approach many of the following avoidable pitfalls.

Procrastination (stress also further inhibits learning)

  • Focus on process instead of product (Pomodoro technique)
  • Use to-do lists (weekly into daily, only add if urgent and important)
  • Get organised in advance (make productivity the course of least resistance: lay out clothes, tidy work space etc…)
  • Eat your frogs first (do the hardest task of the day first)
  • Set a quitting time (work backwards, avoid Parkinson’s law)

Distraction (including multitasking – has big switching costs and depletes limited willpower resources)

  • Eliminate cues (disable phone notifications, delete apps, block websites)
  • Find a quiet space (early) / buy noise cancelling headphones
  • Learn to note and then ignore cues (mindfulness / meditation)

Getting stuck (see Einstellung effect often as a result of too much focussed thinking)

  • Consciously alternate diffuse and focussed thinking within your day
  • Work with others who are honest and aligned with your best interests
  • Set a quitting time each day (also good for your health!)

Confirmation bias (over confidence in your own solution without checking)
Again, find and work with others who are honest and aligned with your best interests

Illusions of confidence (following as opposed to understanding)

  • Work the problem yourself first (avoid solution viewing)
  • Recall frequently (at the end of each chapter, how would you teach this)
  • Avoid passive re-reading
  • Avoid excessive over-learning (working same problem type over and over)
  • Test yourself frequently

Fatigue (increasingly proven to be caused by build up of toxins in brain)

  • Refuel (short-term, the brain consumes 25% of glucose in our body at rest)
  • Exercise (short-term, increases blood flow, promotes diffuse thinking)
  • Sleep (mid-term, flushes toxins from brain, promotes diffuse thinking)
  • Take holidays (long-term, allows recovery, time for big picture thinking)

Related Reading

“Deep Thinking: What Mathematics Can Teach Us About the Mind”, William Byers: A great use of an experience we all remember (learning basic math) to show the importance of creativity in making cognitive learning leaps.

“The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance”, Josh Waitzkin: A superb first hand account showing the overlap of basic deep learning principles in two very different fields (chess and martial arts) from the protagonist of “Searching for Bobby Fisher”.

“Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”, David Allen: A cornerstone and very practical work on productivity from the world renowned David Allen – easily one of my top most life-changing reads.

“Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, Cal Newport: Another excellent book that emphasises the importance of making (as opposed to just finding) sufficiently long undistracted periods of time to engage in focussed, deep thought.

“Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work”, Mason Currey: A wonderful book full of examples of the daily routines of some of history’s most famous scientists, authors, poets and artists. Perfect for dipping in and out of and giving great real life examples of how some of our best minds have used the principles explained in Barbara’s book.

TANQ entries for “A Mind For Numbers”

TANQ is WhyWhatHow’s growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes and quotes.

The Einteilung Effect: “An idea you already have in min, or your simple initial thought, prevents a better idea of solution from being found.”

Barbara Oakley A Mind For Numbers

“Articulating your question is 80 percent of the battle. By the time you’ve figured out what’s confusing, you’re likely to have answered the question yourself!”

Kenneth Leopold A Mind For Numbers

“Surrealist painter Salvador Dali like Thomas Edison, also used a nap and the clatter of an object falling from his hand to tap into his diffuse-mode creative perspectives.”

Barbara Oakley A Mind For Numbers

“Learning is often paradoxical. The very thing we need in order to learn impedes our ability to learn. We need to focus intently to be able to solve problems – yet that focus can also block us from accessing the fresh approach we may need. Success is important, but critically, so if failure. Persistence is key – but misplaced persistence causes needless frustration.”

Barbara Oakley A Mind For Numbers

“Intention to learn is helpful only if it leads to the use of good learning strategies.”

Alan Baddeley A Mind For Numbers