My Approach to Learning New Things and Taking Action

This morning I was tidying up the books on my dresser and realized I had about 8 different books related to finances that I’d recently been studying. And that got me thinking about my general approach to learning new things and taking action on them.

Thus, here are some unordered thoughts on how I keep a pattern of learning new things and then applying those to my life.

Follow Rabbit Trails

Yesterday I was in the car listening to a podcast about budgeting (because YOLO). In the podcast episode, the guy mentioned a book he likes regarding finances. And so, as soon as I got home I bought the book on Amazon.

When there is someone whose lifestyle and/or opinions you respect around a specific topic, and they mention a source of inspiration, then follow that trail. Some of the most impactful books I’ve read were discovered thanks to the casual mention of them by someone whom I respect.

Also, when you are reading a book, what are the books the author mentions?

Because I always try to follow these rabbit trails, I end up buying way more books than I read. And, most books that I buy, I don’t read cover to cover. I aim to seek out the key ideas and areas of interest. If the book pulls me in, then I gladly read it. But if not, who cares? There are many, many more books out there to dive into.

Follow the Inspiration

I’m a huge fan of just-in-time learning. When I get interested in a topic, or when I have a specific need in my business, then I dive in as much as possible. I don’t (usually) force myself to learn things I’m not interested in or motivated to learn about.

Intrinsic motivation is an excellent way to learn new things quickly. When you are hungry to learn then you are naturally seeking out the information.

Also, this means I am usually only diving into on one or two issues at a time. Thus, it allows for more immersion on a topic. And when you’re immersed in something, you’re able to pick it up quicker, connect more dots, and more quickly translate your new information into working knowledge.

Make Learning a “Habit”

This may seem contradictory to what I just said, but I also make sure that learning is a part of my regular life. My normal day-to-day routine includes time for reading, study, and note taking.

For example, my morning routine involves personal reading and study. And whenever I’m in the car I have an audiobook or podcast going.

Now, there have been times when I’m just not all that motivated to read because I’d much rather binge watch a show on Netflix. Sometimes I’ll tell myself I have to read for 15 minutes before I start a show. This way I keep the habit of reading active even when I’m not into it.

Buy Physical Books

It is far easier for me to take in new information when it’s in a physical book compared to digital. While there are a lot of conveniences about digital, for me, it’s easier to focus with a physical book. Moreover, it’s also far easier for me to take notes and refer back to my ideas, takeaways, and etc.

I also find that having a physical pile of books is more inviting compared a digital shelf or list on my iPad or Kindle. With physical books you can pick them up and hold them, thumb through the pages, scan the chapter titles, and then start reading the one that grabs your attention.

Take Notes (and Review Them)

Just taking in new material (reading it, listening to it) is not enough. I will lose most of that information if I don’t write down notes.

It’s critical for me to write down ideas, takeaways, highlights, quick wins, action items, and more. This is something I have to make myself do. Because in the moment as I’m reading a book or listening to a podcast, when I come across something exciting I always feel like I’ve got it.

But the details and takeaways will get forgotten if I don’t write them down.

Almost all of my notes I put into Ulysses. If there is a specific project I am researching for, then that project gets its own folder; if it’s just general notes on a topic then my notes go into a single document in my general, simple notes folder.

Take Action

As Herbert Spencer said, the great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.

What good is all of that learning if I’m not going to use it to improve my life and the lives of those around me?

By learning about investing, saving, and budgeting then I can improve how I manage the finances of my business and my home.

Or by learning about how my CJ-7 works, I can better troubleshoot its issues and work on it in my garage with confidence.

To be candid, when it comes to taking I have two propensities that are wont to hold me back:

  • I have a knack for researching something to death, and never letting myself get to the point of taking action. I’ll just keep doing a little bit more research, and a little bit more. Always wanting just a bit more information before making a decision about something and taking action.

  • My other propensity is to live vicariously through my research. Basically, I will feel that by learning about something is the same as actually doing it. It’s one thing to read a lot of books on how to invest my money, but that head knowledge alone does not make me an investor. I have to actually put my money into an investment account.

Therefore, when it comes to taking action, there are two pieces of advice that have helped me to overcome my above obstacles.

  • Make the best choice you can, with the information you have. There will be a point where you have done enough research and enough learning, and it’s time to take action. And so, take comfort in the fact that all you can do — all anyone can do — is to make the best decision at the time with the information you have available to you. Get over the fact that there is no such thing as a “perfect” decision. There is what seems right and best at the time.

  • Secondly, when it comes to taking action, use the idea of the minimum effective dose. What is the one thing you can do now that will make everything else easier? Do that one thing.

Journal About It

In addition to taking notes and taking action, I also find that it’s helpful to journal through the process of learning and applying something new. (I write all of this in Day One, of course.)

Why am I motivated to learn this information? What am I doing about it? How’s it going? What are the results I’m getting? Etc.

It can be helpful to just write down answers to some of these questions. Moreover, it’s giving advice to your future self. Seasons of life are cyclical. And during a time of learning something new and implementing it, write down your motivations and worries and lessons learned. Your why and your what will serve as guidance some day in the future as you wrestle through related issues again.

Teach What You Know

When you learn something new, share it with others. In fact, if you’ve just learned something new and applied it to your life, you have some real-world wisdom that is very fresh and relevant.

If you have a newborn at home, the best person to ask for advice is someone with a toddler or two because they are fresh at just having figured out how to raise a little baby and survive. Don’t ask someone who’s kids are out of the house — they’re too far removed from what life is like with a newborn.

When I am interested in a topic — for whatever reason — I try to immerse myself in books, podcasts, and online forums. I take notes, write down takeaways and ideas and action items. Then I make sure that all of that information is leading to something so I can take action on it.

We’re grown ups. We don’t have to go to school anymore. So learning should be exciting and exhilarating. Don’t learn something because you feel guilty and think you should — learn it because you want to.

What are some of your approaches to learning new things? Hit me up on Twitter and let me know.

My Approach to Learning New Things and Taking Action

Money First, Then Exercise

True story: One of the best things I ever did for my health was to get my finances onto a budget.

Yep. Several years ago my wife and I started doing a cash envelope system for our monthly expenses. We started being very focused and intentional about budgeting.

It took us a little over a year to really get our budget dialed in. But then, we were on a roll!

Once I had mastered focus with my finances, it was easy to use that momentum for the next thing.

I chose to focus on my health. Again, it took me a little while to get things dialed in, but I began eating better and exercising regularly and have continued to do so for years.

As much as we would love to, we can’t bring our entire life into focus at once…

But! Here is what you CAN do: start small in one area and allow that to lead to the next and to the next.

A lot of people roll their eyes at this truth. They despise small beginnings; if they can’t have it all right NOW then they opt for nothing. To be blunt, their attitude is the height of immaturity and shortsightedness. Check back in on those people in one year from now you’ll find their life to be exactly the same.

You only have the mental energy to focus on one, maybe two, areas of your life at time. So embrace it and leverage it to your advantage.

Money First, Then Exercise

Thoughts After One Year of Focused, 8-Week Work Cycles

As you probably know, a little over a year ago we started experimenting with an 8-week work cycle here at Blanc Media HQ.

They look like this:

(You can read all about the what and why in this detailed article here if you want.)

We are just now wrapping up our first work cycle of 2018. Today — Friday, March 2nd — is the last day of our Sabbatical week, and this coming Monday we will kick off next Focused Work Cycle.

After more than a year of doing this — we’ve done 7 or 8 of them now — I wanted to share a few brief thoughts on the the advantages I’ve found in having a focused, six-week work cycle project followed by time to review and prepare, and then time to rest.

Working in Monk Mode is Awesome

For our 6-week, Focused Work Cycles I usually have just one main project that I am focusing on. Last cycle it was All the Things. And that’s why we were able to go from idea to launched in just 5 weeks.

Having one primary project to focus on allows me to go heads down and work for hours a day without distraction. I call this “Monk Mode”.

When you’re in Monk Mode then all sorts of things become inspiration and ideas for the work. You can keep the whole project in “RAM” in your brain and that makes it much easier to connect ideas.

The result is that projects get done faster and the overall end-result is of a higher caliber.

Not to mention the fact that it means the work is just more fun. Most days I am “finding flow” and seeing regular, tangible progress. The value of this fruit alone cannot be overemphasized.

You Probably Don’t Need as Much Time as You Think You Need

I’ve tried working a 4×10 schedule (where you do 10 hours per day, 4 days a week and then take a 3-day weekend). And while I loved the 3-day weekend, I found that I was less productive overall. Those additional 2 hours per day were usually not very productive for me because I was tired.

I have found that it is much easier to compress 8 weeks worth of work into 6 or 7 weeks than it is to compress 5 days of work into 4 days.

We still work a normal 40-hour work week. But by being focused and intentional with our work (see below), we are simply not wasting time. We are working with intention in order to be done on time.

When I first learned about these types of focused work cycles from Jason Fried, he said that work will take as long as you give it. If you give a project six months then it will take six months; give it six weeks and it will take six weeks.

Resting and Recovering Should Not Be Optional

It used to be that I took time off when I had the time. But I never had the time. There was always more work to be done.

Now, we schedule in our break week to make it mandatory time off. And thus I am actually able to let my mind and emotions recover from the work. Recovery time is critical for sustaining high performance (and even improving performance) without burning out or injuring yourself.

Focus Only on Wildly Important

When you’ve got just 6 weeks to work on something, you are somewhat forced to pick something that will have the highest impact and the lowest effort.

And then, when other ideas come around in the middle of a work cycle, you simply don’t have time to give in to them. And this is liberating. I know of so many places where there is no limit to the amount of active projects a team can have. (I have one good friend who currently is managing 25 active client projects for his company.)

By setting boundaries around what we are currently focusing on and working on, we are able to say no to new ideas while we are currently in the midst of active projects.

As my friend, James Clear, says, highly focused people (and companies) limit their options.

Highly focused people do not leave their options open. They make choices. If you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.

The great irony of this is that by limiting your options and remaining focused until you master a skill, you actually expand your options in the long run. Life-changing optionality is a byproduct of providing great value, which can only be achieved through focus.

You can read more about the what and why behind our 8-week work cycles here. And you can also read my notes from the Basecamp workshop I went to where a lot of these ideas came from.

Thoughts After One Year of Focused, 8-Week Work Cycles

Ship when it’s useful, not when it’s done

Something I have kept in front of me for the past six months or so has been this mindset:

Ship it when it’s useful, not when it’s done.

(I think it was Jason Fried who said it, but if not it sounds like something he would say.)

This metric of shipping when a thing is useful was what I kept before me when working on our Learn Ulysses course, the Plan Your Year workbook, and All the Things.

Shipping a product when it’s useful is a far more tangible metric for creating things and putting them out there.

Because — and let’s be honest — in the mind of the creator, a project is never done. There is always one more detail or element or idea that needs to be fine tuned or figured out.

So, instead of waiting until you’re done, step back and look at what you’re working on and ask yourself, Is this useful to others right now?

If the answer is yes, then ship it. If the answer is no, fix it.

Ship when it’s useful, not when it’s done

This coming Wednesday, Feb 14, I am hosting a live, online workshop called The Fundamentals of Focus.

It’s in partnership with my good friend, Tim Stringer. Tim is hosting the event and managing all the technical aspects, and I will be doing all the teaching.

We are charging just $20 for the workshop and then donating 100% of that to Operation Broken Silence to help build an 8th grade classroom for children in the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan.

It’s going to be pretty awesome, and I hope you will join us. Here is where you can see more details and register.

Live, Interactive Workshop with Yours Truly on Focus

Monk Mode for All the Things

This week I have been in monk mode, working on the video tutorial screencasts for All the Things.

Things are coming together (no pun intended), and they’re looking awesome!

I purchased ScreenFlow 7 from the Mac App Store on Monday and have already spent a solid 50+ hours in the app. If you do any sort of screen casting, ScreenFlow is what you want.

At the beginning of the week my screen casting workflow was all sorts of weird. I’ll probably write more about it later, but let’s just say that after 3 days of very slow-going progress, I tried a different approach that literally reduced my creation and production time by 75%.

As I’ve been working my way through every nook and cranny of Things 3, the process has endeared me even more to this app. I’ve been using Things 3 since it was in beta, but this process of teaching people how to use the app has, obviously, caused me to become even more familiar with it than I already was.

That familiarity has given me an increased confidence and joy when using this app day in and day out. Plus, I myself have even learned a handful of new tricks that are pretty awesome if I do say so myself.

All that said, because I have been so heads down doing these video tutorials, I broke the chain of my daily blogging schedule. Alas.

Between November 28 and January 26 I published an item every single day. 59 days; 59 blog posts. I am bummed to have broken the streak, but I will be picking it back up again.

I have quite a few thoughts on the value and importance of writing and publishing daily. But, these past two weeks I’ve been focused on creating something that is currently more important, and so something had to give.

It has been challenging and fun to create all of this. And I love that we are seeing it all start to come together. Can’t wait to share it.

Monk Mode for All the Things

Behind the Scenes: Shooting Video for ‘All the Things’

Yesterday we shot eight of the videos for All the Things.

Many people have asked me about my video recording setup, so I thought it’d be fun to share some behind-the-scenes details from yesterday’s shoot, and also walk you through our process and the gear we use.

First, a bit of context…

These videos are part of my upcoming course, All the Things, which we are on track to launch in a few weeks.

The course will actually have two parts:

  • Part 1 will be in-depth tutorials on how to use the app, Things 3.

  • Part 2 — which is basically a whole other course in and of itself — is where I go into detail about my best practices, templates, personal systems, and more for managing your tasks and being productive (including a very detailed walk-through of my “hybrid productivity method”).

It was yesterday that we recorded all the videos for Part 2.

The Process

Outlining and planning: I spent several days last week and this week going over all the feedback and input from our survey responses, making sure that I was addressing all the most important topics and questions.

Writing: Then I outline and write all my course scripts in Ulysses (of course). Once written, I read through each script out loud and adjust the language so it sounds natural as I speak it.

Recording: Once the course video scripts are ready, I transfer them onto my TelePrompTer app (more on that below), and we transform the office into a recording studio.

Personal, side-note abut using a Teleprompter… When I first did video shoots like this for The Focus Course, I felt somewhat disingenuous using a Teleprompter. It felt like having pre-scripted talking points took away from the genuineness of the video. But in reality, using a TelePrompTer is just smart. It means I can stay on topic and communicate more clearly. If anything, using a telemprompter is more genuine because it allows me to spend time beforehand carefully considering what it is I want to say, and then ensure I say those things.

With everything set up, we are ready to record. Some videos I’m able to knock out in one take. And some take a few tries.

Yesterday we were in a groove, and we recorded every single video in one take…. except, for one… For the audio, we use a lav mic plugged into my iPhone. And though I had my phone on Do Not Disturb, my mom called me toward the end of one of the video shoots. Since she’s a Favorite her calls go through, and even though I didn’t answer the incoming call caused my recording app to stop its background recording, and thus we had to re-shoot the final 5 minutes of one video. (Hi, mom! 👋)

Gear List

Okay, if you’re interested in the nerdy details, here they are:

  • I use Ulysses to write and plan all the video scripts.
  • This Teleprompter app paired with my Apple bluetooth keyboard. The keyboard is kept by my foot and I tap the space bar to start and stop the scrolling words. This allows me to move through the script at my own pace, which is so nice.
  • This Teleprompter rig is how I set my iPad Pro up to function as the teleprompter.
  • For recording audio, we use this Lavalier Microphone plugged into my iPhone with Røde iPhone app.
  • Camera: Canon 6D with either the 50mm f/1.4 or the 20-70mm f/2.8 that we borrowed from a friend.
  • These umbrella lights.
  • This Tripod, that has an adjustable telescoping extension so we could shoot the overhead video where I walk through exactly how I use my notebook and set up the different pages for my weekly and daily planning, etc.

If you have questions, or suggestions, hit me up on Twitter: @shawnblanc.

Behind the Scenes: Shooting Video for ‘All the Things’

Ryan Holiday defines a commonplace book thusly:

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits.

More or less, my commonplace book exists within both Ulysses and Day One. With the former holding my ideas and quotes, and the latter holding my observations and information.

Over on The Sweet Setup, my friend Chris Bowler wrote a three-part series on keeping a commonplace book. Part One gets in to the what and why, and parts two and three get in to the details of how to toss all that stuff in to Day One.

Keeping a Commonplace Book with Ulysses or Day One

After considerable deliberation, over on The Sweet Setup, Things 3 has become our new pick for the best productivity app.

I was an avid Things user way back in the day, but then switched to OmniFocus because of over-the-air sync. About a year ago I switched to Todoist for a few months, and then back to Things when version 3 shipped in the spring of 2017.

As I wrote back in December, Things 3 has been getting consistent updates since it shipped. And many of those updates have been some of the most commonly requested features that I’ve seen — such as adding in the ability to have repeating to-dos within projects, keyboard shortcuts to iPad (basic, but still better than none at all), iOS drag and drop support, and the Send to Things email feature.

Things has been around for quite a while, and over the years Cultured Code had developed somewhat of a reputation for shipping awesome updates and then going silent and letting their product begin to stagnate. But from where I’m sitting, that is no longer the case.

You can read the full review here (were we also casually announce something brand new that is in the works).

The Best Task-Management App

Over on The Sweet Setup, Marius Masalar wrote an epic article detailing how to use an iPad for your photography workflows.

I’m still loving and using my Olympus gear, but I can’t remember the last time I opened up Lightroom on my Mac. These days I import, edit, save, and share photos from my camera almost exclusively on my iPhone or iPad. And Marius’ article has shown me some awesome new tricks.

For one: I just downloaded Cascable, as an alternative to the “official” Oi. Share app. With Cascable you can remotely control your camera and wirelessly import photos. The interface is about a million times better. Though it does seem to be a bit slower at importing photos over the WiFi connection.

Using an iPad for photography workflows

Speaking of notebooks, if you like the idea of using an analog notebook but you do not like the idea of filling in all the details on your own, you should definitely check out Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner.

In my office I’ve got one each of the Freedom Journal, Mastery Journal, Best Self Journal, Passion Planner, and a Cultivate What Matters planner.

Of all of these, I think the the Full Focus Planner is the best one. Though I don’t use it personally — I prefer the blank pages of my Baron Fig — the Full Focus planner emphasizes the things that matter most for managing your day and doing the things that matter. I basically follow a very similar structure in my own notebook, but I fill it in myself.

The Full Focus Planner

Matt Ragland’s Minimalist Bullet Journal for Productivity

A few weeks ago my friend, Matt Ragland, posted this video showcasing how he uses his notebook for planning out his day, week, and month.

There are two things I like about this video. For one, Matt’s journal is not a picturesque scrapbook. While I love the gorgeous lettering and sketches that so many people do with their notebooks, for me, I need something more basic and pragmatic.

Secondly, and most importantly, I found many really interesting ideas in here. Particularly, I love how Matt maps out his week with 10 time blocks of 4 hours each (see below and at the 08:29 mark in the video). These time blocks help him gauge if he is spending too much time in one are (such as meetings) and not enough time in another area (such as reading).

Matt Ragland Minimalist Bullet Journal for Productivity

If you’ve never taken a week to track how you are spending your time, you should try it. If you dare.

Anyway, speaking of notebooks, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the Baron Fig Confidant notebook. I’ve been using one to plan my day for almost four years now, and I have some thoughts on the analog planning approach that I want to share about, particularly as it relates to the seeming tediousness of it.

In the next few weeks you can expect me to dive in to the nerdy details of how I use my notebook to take action and keep moving forward.

Matt Ragland’s Minimalist Bullet Journal for Productivity

The Law of Diminishing Intent

This is a principle that Jim Rohn taught. It goes like this:

The longer you wait to take action, the less likely you are to take action.

Meaning, when you get clarity about something because of a lightbulb moment when in the shower, or you get advice from someone that just makes sense, that’s when you have the most energy to take action.

Thus, whatever it is, you should take action as quickly as possible. Immediately if possible. Why? Because, over time, your intention and motivation for taking action will diminish.

Michael Hyatt, whom I first learned this from, says to “never leave the scene of clarity without taking action.”

For the sake of taking action, the best thing you can do is act now. If, for some reason, you cannot act now, make a note to yourself about what you need to do and then follow your own advice as soon as possible.

Many folks, for whatever reason, are prone to waiting. Why? What purpose does it serve to sit on it?

Often we delay because of fear or doubt. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes:

Life can be frustrating. Oftentimes we know wha our problems are. We may even know what to do about them. But we fear that taking action is too risky, that we don’t have the experience or that it’s not how we pictured it or because it’s too expensive, because it’s too soon, because we think something better might come along, because it might now work.

And you know what happens as a result? Nothing. We do nothing.

Choosing not to move forward has the same result as being stuck, unable to move forward at all.

Holiday continues to say that courage, at its most basic level, is really just taking action.

Once you are clear on what needs to be done, there is no advantage in procrastination. Take action and move on.

The Law of Diminishing Intent