Focus is a funny thing- you can force someone to focus by telling them not to with the classic, “Don’t think about pink elephants,” line. But focus is also like a muscle- you can strengthen it over time if you’re willing to put in the work. If you are trying to get more muscle definition, you can sit in the gym for hours day after day and move iron plates around OR you can enroll in a program or hire a personal trainer who can target the gains you want to make in specific areas. The same is true for focus- you can read about it online, watch others, and hope to improve over time OR you can seek out an expert in cognition or psychology and target specific gains.
The final option for improving focus is to ask your 5-year-old what it means to focus after they shush you and tell you “I’m just getting focused.” I was so intrigued, that I ironically interrupted his focus to ask him about focus. “How do you do that? What do you do to get focused?” I asked. After about a full fifteen seconds of silence and making ‘thinking faces’, he responded. “I think of the direction I want to go.”
Nothing could be more wrong. Learning doesn’t have a stopping point or a finish line. Learning happens every day for everyone.
Learning happens deliberately: when you read a book or a blog or a tweet.
Learning happens accidentally: when you trip over an uneven spot in the sidewalk on your way to work.
Learning happens formally: when you enroll in a MOOC or a university.
Learning happens informally: through conversations with your daughter when she tells you, “You’re an adult- you don’t need to learn, Dad,” and you engage in a fifteen minute conversation about learning with your 6-year-old.
The big question is: are you ready and open to learning?
Learning isn’t something that just happens to you. It’s something you set out to do. There is intention in learning. There is design.
I have embarked on a journey of intentional, deliberate practice this year in the field of project management to help increase my productivity and precision at work. Part of this course is a book that could seemingly put War and Peace to shame: The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Picture a full-sized paperback dictionary (unabridged), but with even more words you don’t know and then remove the definitions. This is the PMBOK. This is not a book you can simply crack open 10 years out of school and breeze through on a Saturday. To tackle this level of work- this level of learning- you need to layout your path and truly design your learning.
There is so much you need to know to effectively design your learning:
What learning styles are most beneficial to you?
What motivates you?
What time of day are you most focused?
What time of day are you most distracted?
Where is your ideal place to learn?
Do you prefer to sit or stand?
What method do you most like to ingest your content?
How often do you need to attend to the material to learn?
Are you a solo learner or collaborative?
Do you prefer to learn in a series of short sprints or one marathon session?
Honestly, this list doesn’t even scratch the surface of the qualities you must consider to optimally design your learning, but it’s a start. Back to the PMBOK- I was reading/taking notes on our big, heavy, wooden back table that is covered with butcher paper. We’ve got three kids, so it’s best to cover a table with butcher paper instead of trying to keep it safe from the kids. So when I say I was taking notes onthe table, I mean writing directly on the paper covering the table, not in a notebook or anywhere else. I am writing it down to help me to interact with the text and help remember it, not to go back and reference it later. When two of my kids came out and saw this, they did what a 5- and 6-year-old do best, asked questions and joined in the fun. The conversation with my daughter really caught me off-guard. She asked me what I was doing and I told her I was learning.
My 6-year-old daughter then said, “You’re an adult, you don’t need to learn,” and it really struck me.
My 6-year-old daughter then said, “You’re an adult, you don’t need to learn,” and it really struck me. I immediately stopped what I was doing to jot it down and also really process her idea- her notion that because I am an adult, I already know a lot of different things and why would I want/need to know any more.
And then I was brought right back to this idea of designed learning when my kids wanted to join in and ‘take notes like me’. How they took notes says so much about them and about how they will eventually choose to design their own learning. I should also state that neither of them asked me how I was taking notes, what I wrote down, or anything else- they just started writing. First, my 5-year-old son, my lefty. Three things really jumped out about his natural style based on this seemingly simple act. Take a look at the picture of the notes below… what jumps out at you?
Here were my big three takeaways:
He chose to write on an area of the table that already had a ton of paint and markers on it, he didn’t bother looking for a fresh, clean area to work on.
While there was a lot of different information on the pages, he chose to focus on the headings and their numbering system rather than the lengthy paragraphs.
There wasn’t much of a rhyme or reason to his margins, alignment, size, etc.
Now to my 6-year-old daughter’s work, my daredevil risk-taker. What are your big take-aways from this one?
So here’s what I saw:
Clean area of the paper, no colors, no other writing.
She picked one sentence and stuck with that, then stopped and just read the other pages as I read them.
Almost perfect rectangular section of notes, consistent size, margins, etc.
Didn’t miss a single letter, all copied correctly.
What do you think these very early, totally self-directed sections of notes tell you about the kids?P