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Focused thinking versus diffused thinking
Believe it or not, the best way to embed knowledge from study can be to take a break. Go to a quiet room and sit on the couch and do nothing for 10 to 15 minutes. Go outside and sit in the garden. Go for a walk. Make a cuppa. It’s up to you. The important thing is that you take a break from focus. Leave your smartphone in your pocket. Scrolling Facebook and Twitter requires focus and can interfere with embedding the new knowledge that you’ve just been learning.
When thinking about learning, consider that there are two basic modes of thinking – focused thinking and diffuse thinking.
Image credit: Dr. Barbara Oakley(https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn)
Focused mode is what happens when you concentrate. The brain actively zeros in on trying to come up with a solution to a problem or alternatively it might be trying to understand a concept or idea. Focused thinking is resource intensive, tiring and depending on successful you are at understanding the concept, it can be stressful.
The diffuse mode of thinking on the other hand, is when you’re not concentrating on anything. Instead, this is when your thoughts are firing randomly, like when you take a break, are in the shower or going for a walk.
The diffuse mode helps us to make connections between ideas that we might not have realised were connected. I like to call this symphonic thinking. The diffuse mode is the mode we fall into when we’re trying to consolidate and understand new information.
Note I used the words “fall into“. The diffuse mode only turns on when you aren’t thinking about anything in particular. It is a relaxed state when you aren’t actively thinking about anything else. It is the mode that does the background processing that helps us solve difficult problems and understand difficult concepts.
From a learning point of view, this is why when you’re concentrating on something and you just can’t work out the problem or understand the concept, the best thing you can do is to take a break and effectively stop concentrating on what you can’t understand. Why? Because taking a break and getting your attention off the difficult subject will trigger your diffuse mode of thinking and allow your brain to find new pathways for thinking about what you’re trying to understand. Later, when you return to focused thinking, you might find that you’ve actually made some progress.
This advice can seem counter intuitive, especially if you have a keynote coming up or an exam etc. If you are not convinced, I would encourage you to read this article which summarises some of the seminal research that indicates that a good way to boost memory retention is to take a break. It is well worth a read. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180208-an-effortless-way-to-strengthen-your-memory
My favourite quote from the article is: “In the age of information overload, it’s worth remembering that our smartphones aren’t the only thing that needs a regular recharge. Our minds clearly do too”.
In an age of stories of ‘digital disruption’ we are increasingly seeing and hearing stories of the need to up-skill or risk seeing our jobs or even entire professions get automated.
The only key that any of us have to succeeding must the relentless pursuit of improvement. This sounds exhausting but it is accurate. Here’s why.
Technology is changing exponentially
“Technology has advanced more in the last thirty years than in the previous two thousand. The exponential increase in advancement will only continue”.
Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist
Okay, so I’m not sure in what year Niels Bohr said this but in case you somehow have not heard of him, he died in 1962. It’s fair to say that the word exponential makes sense in his description of technological advancement. Could anyone have foreseen just how technologically advanced we’d be in 2018 all the way back in 1962? Or, for context, think of the impact that the smartphone has had on our lives and all of the other businesses that it has enabled. Think Facebook, Instagram, Uber, online banking…..
Routine based work will be automated
It’s not difficult to see how any kind of logical, analytical or routine based work can either be outsourced or at worst, automated.
I remember one of my first jobs out of university was in hedge fund administration. In my first two years in the position, an entirely new management information system was introduced which made my job a lot easier.
Sounds great? I certainly thought it was, at first. But it also removed some of the human value that I could bring to the job in terms of client specific routines and procedures that I was able to create and manage. These are things that I had codified in my brain and they enabled me to add value to my client’s interactions with the company.
From a business perspective, this also meant that there was a risk that when a fund administrator left the organisation, clients could be upset as the specific routines and procedures that had been developed for them could be forgotten.
For this reason, I can see how it made sense commercially to codify procedures. For one thing, it standardised procedures from fund to fund. It also made it easier for staff to take over responsibility for administering new or different funds. But if you think about the bottom line, it meant that the work people did was less valuable. This had the knock-on effect of making it more difficult to ask for a promotion or a pay rise.
If this example doesn’t mean anything to you, maybe it makes sense to draw a line with the supermarket cashier, the bank teller, the switchboard operator, the movie projectionist, assembly line projectionists. We are going to see automation of at least part of many white-collar jobs in the coming years.
Are you in the management stream? (Do you want to be?)
I remember discussing this with a friend who asked me if I was in the ‘management stream’. As I examined the work that I was doing, I had to admit that I needed to be involved in more value adding activities to make progress in my career. I wasn’t in the stream and found it difficult to envision a pathway to get into that stream. And so, I moved on.
Side note: It was my first full time professional position. Was I also immature and self-entitled to want to progress quickly? Admittedly, yes! But in terms of my intuition about technology taking away the value I could add to the job, and just as importantly, the satisfaction that I could get out of doing a good job, I continue to think that my logic was sound.
Fast forward to 10 years later. I work in marketing. The impact of digital has meant that marketing is a discipline that is in constant flux. If you work in marketing, it’s either a very exciting time to be a marketer, or it’s stressful! Why? Because things are changing so quickly.
Marketers are either excited about topics like marketing automation, AI and machine learning and what industry will be next to get ‘disrupted’ — (ahem, banking), or they are apprehensive. One thing that marketers can certainly agree on is that anything that can be digitised or automated will be. Incidentally, if you work in marketing and are interested in this topic, we wrote a report at Econsultancy called How Marketers Learn. Check it out.
Focus on what can’t be automated and learn everything you can about that topic
In the words of one of my idol’s David Bowie, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”. And so, we need to identify those things that can’t be automated or digitised, and learn everything we can about them. The best way to equip ourselves to do this, is to always be learning. If there is one key skills that anyone should consider improving this year, it’s the ability to learn.
Three reasons to always be learning
- Getting better at something provides a great source of energy. It’s true. Our brains release dopamine when we learn new and interesting things. What’s not to like about that?
- Everybody wants to achieve their potential. Don’t sabotage your potential by not learning new things and exposing yourself to new ideas. Learning is at the heart achieving one’s potential. To learn is to live.
- Change is inevitable. Here is something to ponder over — the pace of change today is the slowest it will ever be. Our best response is to suck it up and deal with it!
So, it’s important to always be learning, or at the very least, always be curious (ABC)! In the words of Socrates: “The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery”.
If you are interested in learning about learning, there are tonnes of great books on the topic. One of my favourites is called A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley. Don’t let the word “math” scare you off. It’s a fun and very accessible read that focuses more on the science of learning than mathematics.
If I’ve convinced you of the value of learning, my next post will be about turning dead time, like commuting into learning time. Feedback, comments, critique and of course learning tips welcome 🙂
My wife sent this quote to me today. I think I’ll save it here as a reminder of the importance of learning as THE key skill that we all need to posses these days.
Idea of the Day: “In an uncertain and changing world, there is still a competitive advantage to being human,” writes Kellogg School of Management CIO Betsy Ziegler. One key way to stay ahead? Learn how to learn.
“Often students believe that once they cross the graduation stage, they are done – they have reached the finish line. In today’s world this is an impossible end point – they can not stand still, they must have the confidence and persistence to assess their skills, understand their gaps and seek help in closing them.”
I would highly recommend anyone watch this video.
This is Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com giving a lecture to students at his old University, London School of Economics.
This is of course useful for people starting out on their career journeys but I think it’s also worth a watch for those people already well into their career. Why? Because it’s worth reflecting on what (career) success is and what is required to achieve it.
Lewis suggests that there are 4 things you need to be successful:
- Hard work
I think that intuitively we all know this but sometimes we don’t give luck the attention it deserves. Whether I think of myself as being successful in my career or not, if I examine it, I can certainly attribute a certain amount of luck to all of the professional roles I’ve ever had. In fact, more often than not it was luck and not talent that got me in the door.
Of course once inside, there was never any getting around the fact that hard work and focus really are the key attributes of success. We all know talented people who’ve never quite lived up to their potential. And we also know people who have exceeded all of the expectations of those around them. Why? Because they were willing to work hard.
On the subject of working 90 hours a week I think it’s important to point out that the speaker in this video is referring to a business that he was growing. He very much had a personal interest in the business and I suspect was engergised when he could see the correlation between his effort and the success of his business.
I’m less convinced about long hours for those treading well work career paths – lawyers, bankers, doctors etc. Why? Because unless this path is a vocation, I question how effective you can be when working over a certain number of hours.
There may very well be times when you just need to put your shoulder to the wheel in the short term but this kind of lifestyle isn’t sustainable long term. It also doesn’t afford you with time to recuperate, recharge and stay effective in the long term. Steven Covey called this ‘sharpening the saw’, the idea of balancing your resources, energy and health to create a sustainable lifestyle. Such an approach will leave room for reading, reflection and creative thinking which can be useful in accelerating ones’ career rather than getting busy being busy.
In fact, in an era of exponential technological change, our ability to think creatively, that most human of abilities may be the only thing that empowers us to maintain a sustainable career. To think creatively requires time and space.
By the way, there is research that suggets that productivity – output per working hour – improves with shorter working hours. Across the world’s richest countries, higher productivity correlates with lower working hours (see also OECD data).
Some of this is of course subjective and can depend on the individual. I for one can vouch that the amount of time it takes me to complete a task correlates directly with the amount of time I have available. In other words, even for minor projects, if I have lots of time available, the project will expand to fill the time rather leaving me with spare time to sip pina coladas. But that’s just me.
Final note, Ford’s original workers were found less productive working more than 40 hours a week, a situation likely to be even more the case for people who work with knowledge rather manually – who ever had their best ideas when they were exhausted?
Enjoy the video.
Next month I will move to London and therein end (or postpone) a relationship I’ve had with Dublin City University for the last 5 and a half years. Considering I also completed my undergraduate studies at DCU, I’ve now spent eight and a half years of my adult life at DCU, nine and a half if I include Erasmus.
What does that mean for me? Well, if truth be told I feel integrated into DCU life and that’s something that I will find hard to turn my back on. I was part of DCU, a university with big ambition and some very dynamic people. As well as doing meaningful work, I’ve made some good friends at DCU. Unlike corporate environments where at times, people can put on a professional front, in a University people can be, and are expected to be themselves. As I look ahead, I find it difficult to align myself with a single profession. In DCU I’ve been lucky to wear a lot of hats! I have managed over 150 funded projects with industry from SMEs through to multinational companies. I coordinated the online delivery of a Masters in Management (Social Enterprise). I’ve taught students from undergrad through to postgrad level and I’ve supported mature students returning to education after a long time. That might not sound like much but consider what we take for granted as everyday tools such as Moodle, webinar technology, Google Apps and online library databases, returning to education can be a huge challenge. This becomes an even bigger challenge when ones thinks of part time exec students who are used to being the boss in their organisation and now find themselves working on teams with their student colleagues.
Life before DCU
After a short but reasonably successful (in terms of promotions etc.) career in financial services, my girlfriend, now fiancé and I packed our bags in 2008 and set off on a yearlong round the world trip. I left a well-paid corporate banking position at Ulster Bank that I liked, a lot. I had been growing in confidence in my position and abilities and I had spent the previous year and a half making a huge effort to integrate myself into the organisation and get to know colleagues across lots of different departments. This is something that not everybody did. Banks, like civil service organisations can be, or at least were quite segmented organisations. Upon reflection, I realise that building these internal relationships has been one of my strengths as it has often allowed me to bypass bureaucracy and get things done more quickly than other colleagues. Anyway, I was in the career stream and had a manager who believed in my abilities and took every opportunity to highlight my achievements to senior management. In 2008 when I handed in my notice, Ireland was very much on the precipice of a new reality that we now simply call “the Recession”. Back then though, nobody wanted to talk about recession and instead used words like “soft landing” and in the banking world where I worked – “the credit crunch”. The day that I handed in my notice and told my boss that I was going to leave this great job to go backpacking, he told me that I had just been promoted but it hadn’t been made official yet. He asked me if I was sure about what I was doing. After all he said, the Ireland that I would return to in 12 months might look very different to the Ireland that we were in then. For years during the boom, young people had been leaving good jobs to go and hang out in Sydney for a year only to walk straight back into their old jobs when they returned. My boss and I knew that those days were over. Sure enough, when I arrived back in Ireland a year later I met that boss and another Director of the bank for lunch and they told me of the organisation wide recruitment freeze. In an odd twist, I learned of a colleague who had started at the same time as me was offered a redundancy and was going to stick the payment in his back pocket and …… go travelling for a year. Good for him I thought!
Returning to education
I wasn’t heartbroken though. As much as I had loved working in corporate banking, I never dreamt of working there as a child (who does?) and so I went back to education to do a Masters in eCommerce at Dublin City University. As depressing as those days were in 2009 from an economic point of view, I felt quite positive and looked forward to learning new things and creating new opportunities. The course was tough. There is something about Business School education that seems to demand so much from course participants. It’s not just about good time management. The workload was huge, partly due to a brand new 20 credit module which was being piloted that year and also the amount of team work involved. Once team work is introduced to the mix, you are no longer in control of your own schedule. When working on multiple teams on multiple projects, it can be incredibly difficult to coordinate times to meet and work together. Sounds like no big deal? Throw personal commitments such as relationships and working to pay the bills into the mix. Personal relationships are most certainly challenged! I experienced that but I have seen it time and time again since I have worked in DCU. But that’s for another post. Still, one of the great things about completing the programme that year more so than any other year of that programme before then or since is that there was a diverse range of people participating. I was not the only one returning to education and trying to define a new path for myself! There was a good balance of genders and the age range went from 22 – 50.
University life or back to corporate?
At the end of the year, the Course Chair who I had gotten to know asked me if I would like to come and work with him as his Research Assistant. The job would not be well paid but I would have opportunities to work on some very interesting projects and with some interesting clients, continue learning, work with smart people and do some travelling. At the very same time, my old boss from Ulster Bank got in touch to let me know that a position comparable to the one that I had left two years previously had become available and would I like to return. That was a tough decision to call. The Ulster Bank position was far more lucrative and offered a clearly defined career path. DCU on the other hand wasn’t well paid and had no clear career path. It did however offer me the chance to continue learning and work in education. It was a tough decision to call. At the time there was a lot of negative press about the banks. This certainly had an effect on me. I recall meeting up with a former colleague to ask their advice on what I should do and I remember they implored me NOT to come back. The bad press, the pressure to manage toxic relationships and loan facilities of clients who were no longer able to meet their commitments and new regulatory requirements meant that the working atmosphere in the bank wasn’t what I had remembered. In the end I made a decision based on values. I valued learning and further, I realised that there are few careers more satisfying and valuable than education. I wanted to create value by supporting SMEs and teaching. I found it difficult to see value in calling in bad debts. And so in the spirit of Robert Frosts “The Road Not Taken”, I chose the less trodden and less clearly defined path of DCU.
So what’s the goal of this meandering post? Well, for anyone that takes the time to read it, I just wanted to rationalise why, in 2010 I made the career choice to work in DCU rather than in banking. Also, I’ve already highlighted some of the types of work that I did while in DCU but I would also like to record some highlights of my time at DCU in terms of fun and interesting experiences. This is as much for my own benefit as anyone reading! For potential employers, hopefully this post will convince you that I haven’t spent the last four and a half years sitting in an office reading books!
- 2010 Attended World Expo in Shanghai, China
- 2010 Returned to Shanghai to deliver a series of Social Media Marketing Bootcamps at Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade
- 2011 Attended the BETT Show, the world’s leading technology in education trade show
- 2011 Research trip to the United States. Drove from Boston to New York and then New York to San Francisco. Flew from San Francisco to LA. Along the way we visited:
- University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
- Centre for Talented Youth, John Hopkins University, Baltimore
- Velocidi, New York
- Enterprise Ireland, New York
- Slingshot SEO, Indianapolis, Indiana
- University of Illinois, Chicago
- PayPal, Omaha, Nebraska
- Intellectual Ventures, MountainView, California
- Klout, San Francisco
- ClickStream Technologies, San Francisco
- Happeo, San Francisco
- School of Business and Management, Pepperdine University, Malibu, California
- 2011 Coordinated and led a research trip to Bangalore India for Masters Students. The trip included visiting companies such as:
- Microsoft Research Labs
- Professional Access
- Project Management Group
- Attended a 2 day Search Engine Marketing conference
- Google Labs
- IBM Innovation Centre
- We also attended a two day Search Engine Marketing Summit where we got to learn about the state of search marketing in India.
- 2011: Coordinated and led a research trip to Shanghai and Beijing, China for Masters Students. Some highlights included:
- Visiting the Irish community in Shanghai
- Visiting Tourism Ireland to learn about how they are packaging Irelands value proposition as a leisure destination for Chinese travellers
- Visiting Ireland House to learn about the local activities of Enterprise Ireland and the IDA
- Meeting the Head of Marketing (an Irish lady) at PepsiCo for the APAC region and learning about marketing in a very different cultural environment than what we are used to in Ireland
- Walking the Great Wall of China
- Visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing
- 2012: Attended the Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas, Nevada
- 2012: Delivered a two day Digital Marketing Bootcamp for UK Business School Deans at Cass Business School, City University London
- 2012: Coordinated and launched an online Masters in Business Management (Innovation in Social Enterprise) to be delivered to social entrepreneurs in Ireland and Wales
- 2013: Delivered a 2 day digital marketing bootcamp to social entrepreneurs at University of Bangor, Wales
- 2013: Tokyo Japan. Business meetings and delivered a social media workshop to business students at Musashino University.
- 2014: Coordinated Irish researchers to go to Japan in a drive to increase collaboration with Japanese companies, research institutions and universities. The four-day visit, organised by ISCA Japan (Science Foundation Ireland’s new Ireland-Japan science collaboration programme), in close cooperation with IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the Embassy of Ireland in Japan focused on information and communications technology research with a particular emphasis on big data analytics and cloud computing. The visit commenced on September 30th and included meetings with leading Japanese and multinational corporations, research institutions and universities to present Irish ICT research and identify opportunities for collaboration. It culminated in a one-day conference on Friday, October 3rd at the Delegation of the European Union in Japan, entitled “EU-Japan R&D Cooperation, Horizon 2020 and the Irish ICT Research Opportunity.” With over 100 attendees, the conference was addressed by representatives of the European Union, the Japanese and Irish Governments, Fujitsu Laboratories, and the Japanese National Institute of Information and Communication Technology.
- 2015: Coordinated and led a research trip to Bangalore India for Digital Marketing Masters students. We stayed in the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. As well as attending a number of sessions for educating expats on doing business in India, the trip included visiting companies such as IBM Innovation Centre, Edelman India and IPG Media Brands India. We also built in a number of cultural visits including a visit to Mysore, one of South India’s most famous tourist destinations ,known for its magnificent monuments and buildings including its World Heritage listed palace.
- On top of all of this, I have organised a number of conferences covering topics such as Social Media, Start Ups, Mobile Technology and Cloud Computing.
I could write blog posts about each of these highlights. Perhaps I will reflect on that another day. In the meantime, I look forward to the challenge ahead in London with mixed emotions
World number one Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods star in this inspirational new Nike advertisement. It shows McIlroy progressing as a player from his childhoor right through to emulating his hero Tiger Woods ahead of the 2015 Masters Golf Tournament.
I’ve watched this video before and can highly recommend the book, but if you have time over the next few days, this video is incredibly moving and inspirational. There is a lot of wisdom here, particularly at this time of the year as we reflect on how are life is proceeding and make plans and resolutions for the New Year ahead. Happy New Year 🙂