Archive for the ‘Success & Productivity’ Category

What makes good practice?

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016 | Success & Productivity


Anders Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist who researches why super talented people are so good at what they do. His research has formed the basis of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated. Whether you buy into their interpretation or not, it is clear that practice, specifically deliberate practice as Ericsson defines it, is a cornerstone of learning skills.

But what makes good practice? In an interview with Stephen J. Dubner he laid out some important points.

You should be focused and self-examining

Practice cannot simply be sloppy. You need to focus on what you are doing. You need to consider what you are doing and how you could improve. You need to be self-critical. That feedback needs to come straight away so that you can learn from it.

Once you are doing something on autopilot, you are no longer improving, Take driving for example. Once you can drive, you don’t really think about it. So it doesn’t matter if you have been driving 30 years, that doesn’t make you a better driver than someone who has been driving one year (unless you have really been focusing on improving your driving).

Ericcson quotes one study that shows that GPs who have been practicing for long periods are not better (actually they were worse) at diagnosing chest conditions than new doctors were. This is because those thirty years do not necessarily represent deliberate practice, and because the feedback they get on the accuracy of their diagnoses is not immediate.

It should be outside your comfort zone

If practice is fun, you are probably not doing it to the full effect. It is easy to fall into this trap. I regularly play my guitar, but often I just plan the songs I already know. This is not improving my guitar skills because I am not pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

You should have a teacher

You can self-teach, as many great musicians have. However, if you want to learn and practice in the most efficient way possible, you need a teacher. Someone who can give you external feedback, someone who already knows the ropes and is familiar with the established best-practice way of teaching a skill.

You should break it down

Your practice should have very specific goals. For example, just “playing some guitar” is not real practice. I need to practice a specific skill: timing, a riff, a certain technique. I need to focus in one particular area and come up with exercises to improve that in isolation, then later practice putting it all together.

Thinking about New Year’s resolutions? Read this first

Thursday, December 31st, 2015 | Success & Productivity


At this time of year, people often make New Year’s resolutions. Really, by definition, it is the only time you can do it.

I have never been very good at them. Not because I never stick to them, but because one of my few talents seems to be having some resolve. So when I decide to do something over the Christmas holidays, be it learning guitar or changing my diet, I just get on and do it without waiting for New Year to actually arrive.

Many other people fall into a different group. The one that devices to work on a weakness or eliminate a vice, and typically fail to stick to it. A study by Richard Wiseman suggested that 88% of people fail to keep them. If this is you, you could try again this year. However, as the old phrase goes, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.’

However, in The Happiness Hypothesis, a book I will be writing about in early January, Jonathan Haidt makes another suggestion. Work on your strengths. This probably should not be a novel suggestion, but thanks to society’s focus on self-improvement and being a well-rounded person, we tend to focus on our weaknesses so much that our strengths get overlooked.

This is something I have pondered for a while with Toastmasters. I am not very good at Table Topics. But, modesty aside, I am good at prepared speaking. I’ve already been to the UK & Ireland finals once. I could spend my time improving my Table Topics, and become an okay Table Topics speaker. However, do I need to be good at Table Topics? Spending time on my prepared speeches with the aim of going to the world finals seems a much more exciting prospect.

My own petty concerns aside, should Wayne Rooney work on his tennis, or John Grisham focus on advanced maths? Probably not. You don’t actually have to be good at everything; having one awesome skill may well be far more useful.

Utility aside though, there is a far more important reason that you should work on your strengths. That is that you are more likely to stick to it. Achieving your goals actually gives you very little reward or happiness. Yes it’s good, but probably not as good as you think it will be, and probably wears off quite quickly. To lead a truly fulfilling life, you have to enjoy the journey.

A weakness is probably a weakness because you do not enjoy it. Whether it is stopping drinking, starting exercises, or tackling your fear of public speaking, you are probably going to find that journey quite unpleasant. I am not saying do not tackle it, but do not be surprised if you soon find yourself giving up on it.

In contrast, if you make a resolution to do something you already love doing, taking it to the next level, you are far more likely to stick at it. This is important if you attach any esteem to following through on your New Year’s resolutions. So if you are planning to make them, do yourself a favour this year and pick a strength to work on.

Oxford English Dictionary online

Sunday, December 20th, 2015 | Success & Productivity


The OED is considered the closest thing to the definitive record of the English language that there is. They claim to be the definitive record. However, without a British equivalent of the Académie française (whose judgements are not even binding), it is difficult to argue a definitive document.

Nevertheless, it is the best thing we have. I had never taken a look at it before, but the depth of information is astonishing. For each word, sometimes over multiple entries, it contains the spellings, forms, frequency in current usage, etymology and a long list of definitions with extensive citations for each. The definitions are followed by a list of phrases, compounds, and derivatives. There is a thesaurus entry for each definition.

In short, it is difficult to image a more complete reference on the English language.

Why do I mention this? Because it turns out that it is totally free!

I have used for many years because it is easy and for a free product, it is very good. It too contains pronunciation, synonyms, and a limited amount of auxiliary information. It was perfectly adequate for what I wanted. The idea of paying the £215.00 a year subscription to get access to the OED was clearly laughable.

However, it turns out that we all have the ability to access it for free. The OED website allows you to log in using your public library membership number. They say almost every library subscribes, but given my Leeds Library card worked, it is hard to imagine any council cheaper than Leeds.

I registered my library card about eight years ago and it was still valid. It is well worth digging out of the wardrobe. Or, if you do not have one, pop down to your local library and register for one. Once you do, you can access the service online at home, or from anywhere else.

Job hopping

Monday, October 8th, 2012 | Success & Productivity

Last month, I wrote about how I had increased my income significantly by switching jobs.

This isn’t always the case though. Indeed, Business Insider recently published an article suggesting that people who hop from job to job to climb the corporate ladder actually earn less money.

In their figures, people who stayed in the same job for five years experienced pay increases of around 8% on average, compared to 5% for those who changed jobs regularly. This may be unrepresentative of the wider market as it was a survey of those in Silicon Valley, though this should actually make it more comparable to my figures.

Gaming the system

Friday, September 28th, 2012 | Success & Productivity

As I discussed recently, we’re all basically rats trapped in a system where we have to sell our time, and our bodies, for the resources we need to keep us alive. So it makes sense we try and play the system as best as we can.

I won’t claim to be a researcher in the psychology of employment, but here are some suggestions from my anecdotal experience (you know, anecdote, the singular of data 😉 ).

Move to a different company

As I wrote about recently, in the years where I moved jobs, I managed to obtain pay increases of at least double what I managed to obtain when I didn’t. While this is more pronounced in the IT industry, it seems to apply across the whole job market.

Work in IT

Even through the global recession, I never struggled to get a job, or achieve large pay rises year in, year out. The financial crisis simply never touched the IT industry, and as a recruiting manager at the time, I can tell you that neither love nor money could bring in enough software developers. It certainly isn’t going away anytime soon, so why not switch careers?

Work in IT, especially if you’re a woman

The sad reality of society today is that it still does not provide equal opportunities. This is especially true in IT where being a woman is an absolutely enormous advantage. Employers will discriminate against men – I’ve sat in meetings where better candidates have been passed up in favour of female candidates. Why not use this to your advantage?

Be very arrogant

I once went for a £70,000 a year job with a well known mobile phone operator based in the UK. A lot of people suggest you shouldn’t be arrogant, so I toned my arrogance down for the interview. I didn’t get the job.

Two months later, I went for an even higher paid job and this time I toned my arrogance up (as unbelievable as that might be). I got it.

The lesson is that employers want to have confidence that you can do the job and they will select a candidate who shows that, over a candidate who doesn’t, even if they get caught bullshitting once or twice. Don’t lie, it’s OK to say “I don’t know”, but don’t be afraid to really push how great you are and how much you know – even if they catch you out, you’ve still put across the right attitude, and once in the job, you’ll be able to show them you’re worth the money anyway.

Tackle an interviewer’s concerns head on

When it comes to your turn to ask questions in the interview, just ask the interviewer “do you have any reservations about employing me?” I end every interview with that question now. If they do, you can try and answer their concerns there and then. If not, you’ve put it into their mind that they literally have no reason not to offer you the job.

Hold out for more money

I’ve never been offered a job, only for it to fall through on pay negotiations. Once and employer has decided they want you, they won’t quibble over an extra thousand or two a year to get your signature on the dotted line. Try to have a couple of things lined up at the same time so you can legitimately say “I’m considering some other offers.” That will scare them into thinking they will lose you, and they’ll cough up the extra cash.

Tell your employer you’re going to leave

A good friend of mine who worked for a certain other mobile phone operator based in the UK, decided that he was fed up with his job and announced to the world that he was looking for a new challenge. His employer soon found out and decided that he was worth keeping, so offered to train him up in a whole different part of the company, and bump him up a few pay grades too! If your company likes you, they’ll do what they can to make you stay – if not, then they were probably going to get rid of you at some point anyway, so you have nothing to lose.

Seriously, quit your job

Monday, September 17th, 2012 | Success & Productivity

To be clear, you shouldn’t quit your job. Well, maybe you should. In any case, read on…

We’re all trapped like rats in a capitalist system, right? None of us enjoys going to work. Sure, many of us are in jobs that we describe as liking, and in many ways, I do like my job, but that is a subjective term.

What we mean when we say we like our job is that we’re content with it – as jobs go, we’ve got one we want to be in, with the alternative being in a job that we don’t want to be in. But ultimately, we’re not doing jobs for fun, or voluntarily, we’re doing it because we live in a society where we are forced to work to live.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to break out of said system so the best most of us can hope for it just to play the game as best we can. The better you play the game, the more money you earn and the better job you can get – better probably meaning less work, because it’s an inverse pyramid – those Crew Members at £4.30 an hour (and that is what they are paid if they’re under 18!) are doing a lot tougher work that us sat in our offices in salaried jobs. Meanwhile, Richard Branson starts each day with a swim around his private island – more money equals less work.

So how do we play the game better?

The best tip I can give you is to leave the company you are currently with.

It almost never pays to stay with the same company. Even if they’re giving you good promotions and good pay rises, you can almost certainly get even more by going elsewhere, to a different company.

Why? Because the current company has you and thinks you will probably stay with them because it’s a hassle to switch jobs. Another company doesn’t have you, and is hiring, so it clearly in need of extra resource and knows it will have to pay to go out there and get it.

Don’t just take this statement is automatically true, though. I’m not claiming to be an expert on the subject. But I got the inspiration for this blog post when doing analysis on my pay rises over the years. Here are the results:

Year Increase Moved/Stayed
2008 58% Moved
2009 39% Moved
2010 21% Stayed
2011 19% Stayed
2012 124% Moved

The results are striking – the years when I stayed with the same company, I achieved pay increases of 19 and 21 percent, while the years I moved to a different company, I achieved 58, 39 and 124 percent.

Those aren’t small, insignificant differences – we’re talking double the pay increase, at least, by moving company. Clearly, it pays to go elsewhere.

Accepting praise

Monday, May 28th, 2012 | Success & Productivity

Reading Toastmasters International magazine is always an interesting experience. Nobody is using the world cult, but it’s so self congratulatory that as Elina points out, if you replace the word Toastmasters with the word Jesus most of the articles read as if they were specifically written to evangelise Christianity, without further modification.

Among the stories about just how brilliant a decision it was for Lenny from Texas to join his local group, was an interesting article accepting praise and comments after giving a speech.

Like I’m sure many people do, I try to be modest when receiving feedback after a speech. People often come up to you and tell you how good it is, and I always point out where I went wrong or which bits I didn’t think had really worked out.

However, the article suggests that this in fact a little impolite. After all, they are offering genuine feedback about how good they thought it was, and you’re contradicting them. It suggests a much better way to handle such comments is simply with a smile and a thank you.

Fast math

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 | Success & Productivity

What is nine times seven? Did you know it was sixty three before reading this far? You probably did, but don’t pat yourself on the back too hard yet, as it could well have been that your brain was already reading ahead and the buffered information hadn’t reached your consciousness yet (if that is a thing, I think it is but I’m not a psychologist). Although, being a reader of my blog, you probably could do the math that fast anyway.

But not everybody can. Not because maths might not be their strong point but because they don’t use the same technique we do.

I mean, working out nine times seven isn’t nine times seven really is it? It’s ten times seven, minus seven. Because that is way faster. Because you can almost instantly tell that ten times seven is seventy, then all you do is subtract seven and you have your answer.

This was always obvious to me. But then, maths was always a far stronger side for me than English was. Hence why I can easily do such maths, but why there will almost certainly be parts of this blog post which make no grammatical sense at all. But it was brought to my attention when someone told me they had been learning about little techniques like that, that for some people it isn’t obviously, but you can teach them it and their maths skills get a lot faster.

In fact, it’s almost always faster to do it that way. Take six times seven for example. If I didn’t know that off by heart I would do seven times ten, seventy, divided by two, because again that is easy maths, thirty five, plus seven, gives you forty two. That would be way faster than counting up seven, fourteen, twenty one, etc, etc, even though it’s actually three different multiplications.

It’s like the i++ of the human brain.

Let’s Talk About Fundraising

Friday, April 8th, 2011 | Events, Success & Productivity

I recently attended a workshop organised by the Community Development Foundation along with Leeds VA-L and funded by Leeds City Council (this was emphasised because of how rare that is 😀 ).

The workshops were useful and interesting though what really struck me is that very little of it was new information – and yet most of us all needed to hear it.

We all know for example that we should have up to date accounts ready, a business plan, a written fund raising strategy, we should read the guidance notes, read the entire application form before starting, the list goes on. We all know all of this. Yet, if you ask people about it, and they’re honest, a lot of us don’t always do this.

Why? Because it’s really hard, and really unproductive. We have a lot of this in place now but every time I spend any time of this kind of stuff it always annoys me. Why? Because I want to be out there doing stuff. Writing grant applications, preparing annual reports, newsletters, etc isn’t an end, it’s merely a means to do the actual good work that as charities we all want to do.

So while it is an amateur mistake to not read though all the eligibility requirements or start filling out a form before they have read through everything, I do at least understand why people do this.

Along this topic, one tip I have picked up which turns out to be a time saver as well, is to be concise. All the experts say a word limit is a limit, not a suggestion. If you can answer a question in a few sentences, keep it short! Just say “we’re going to organise cricket games for underprivileged kids for ten weeks” rather than dressing it up in several paragraphs. Get straight to the point and say concisely what you’re going to do. It’s quicker, and it improves your chances of success.