I am a late bloomer and I can’t help it. I tried hard to do well back in my youth but my focus and maturity were just not there. They have finally caught up with me later in life. But was I too old in my 30’s to change my ways? Hell no!
I made that drastic decision to take up studying going through a certificate, 2 diplomas and a masters with a career in full flight and a family in tow. I’ll be the first to admit that I struggled, stumbled and had to move mountains to get through it all. My attention span has always been short and I always had trouble focussing.
I managed to turn it around recently and I have a workflow that allows me to work effectively, whether I am designing, learning to code or blogging.
And so what did I do and how did I do it? It wasn’t easy and there were a fair few things I had to change to get there.
ReWiring my Mind
“Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.”
– George Orwell
My reality when I first picked up the books was: I was in my 30s, I had to study alongside students a decade younger, and my peers at this point were moving up-the-ladder, whereas I was using my extra time burying my nose in books. I had to rewire my brain if I was to succeed.
There were a few things I had to do:
1. I had to admit to myself that I had a problem
The warning signs were there early on: I have a short attention span and my drive was missing early on. I knew that I had to change when I saw some of my peers advance with their careers. You can’t fix what you can’t see.
2. I had to forget my age and fears
Goneski, nonsense, noise and it’s something that simply does not matter. The more I forgot my age and those fears, the better I attacked the subject (pardon that pun).
As a friend once said “I used to work in the hospital with their equipments. If we screwed up, people could have died. What’s the worst thing that can happen in your situation?” Exactly.
3. I had to teach myself DISCIPLINE
I initially tried studying after work but soon found that it was next to impossible (my head space was just not there e.g. there were numerous times I would doze off halfway).
And so I switched things up and started waking early in the morning instead which worked wonders. But that is my story and you have to go with yours; as long as you can recognise what works best for you, set a routine and be disciplined about it.
4. I needed to learn how to FOCUS
My mind drifts after 5 minutes or so and so I knew I had to approach studies a little bit differently. To help improve my focus, I now do the following:
- start early (4 am)
- the environment is kept distraction-free
- the workspace is kept clean and organised
- I do 1 thing at a time
- I create visual notes
- I re-read and doodle on my notes
- I like pointing to the words or highlighting text when reading
- I sit straight when working (while making sure I’m quite relaxed)
- I throw an exercise routine between breaks (for pure adrenaline)
- If I listen to music, I make sure it’s music that helps me focus.
And of course a healthy diet always helps the cause too (its garbage in-garbage out after all).
5. I use a few sources of information
I might not get a concept written in one book, but I might get that same concept on first read in another. This point is to therefore acknowledge that information out there is diverse, which is why I read 2 – 3 different sources per topic.
6. Combining reading notes with visuals, audio and writing
Studying for me is not just about reading reams and reams of pages. I mix up my material to include videos (e.g. screencasts), visuals (slide presentations), audio (podcasts) and creating handwritten notes.
The only disclaimer to this is that my main subject material is always my number one. After a iterations of working, I tend to get into this working rhythm whereby I knew when I needed to switch.
7. Keeping abreast with the latest
If I am ‘in to’ something, I am both IN it and ON it, which is to say that I like looking at the detail and the big picture.
Outside the notes and supplementary reading material, there is a world of material out there on the net for big picture developments. I subscribe and follow industry insiders on both mainstream and social media to keep abreast of current developments which keeps the interests ‘high’.
8. I surrounded myself with like minds
It’s always good to surround yourself with people who are going through the same experiences and have the same interests. Sharing not only reinforces concepts, it also makes you look at the same concept through a different light.
9. Setting goals and checking progress
It’s so much easier to see where you’re going after you have a general plan. A simple statement like -“by the end of this week, I will finish the first 3 reading topics and I will write corresponding notes” works wonders particularly if the schedule is tight.
Failure to set goals and check progress may result in playing catch up, and we all know what could happen here.
10. Take a break
For small breaks during my morning routine I do a few different activities, like going for an exercise routine or hitting Lumosity.
For bigger breaks outside the morning routine, I spend time with the family, I read a book, go for a walk or watch a movie.
Find your rhythm and make sure you take a break (but do time that break or things might get out of hand).
11. I watch for error signals and take corrective action
Once in a while when I lose focus and I slip up. I have learned to watch out for these error signals and heighten the state of consciousness. The trick here of course is to recognise the warnings signs.
12. I started writing about it
Occasionally, you might stumble on a post where I am explaining things. It’s therapeutic for me to write and explain it as simple as I can because just like Einstein once said ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’
n.b. And I hope you don’t mind reading these random posts.
13. I think positively
The only reason this is last on the list is because I am quite a positive person by nature anyway. But it goes without saying that thinking positively has a good effect on how I approach studies.
Prepping the Body
“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”
– John F Kennedy
I used to be a little over my ideal weight for my height according to the BMI. This did not bother me until I visited my doctor who reminded me to look after myself – this triggered me to implement some practical changes. First I had deal with some constraints:
- I hated gyms. I used to go frequently before work or during my lunch breaks but really hated finding free equipment, the process of showering, changing and getting back to work – and perhaps rushing through a meeting with your lunch in tow. Going after work, after a loooong day did not appeal to me too.
- I only had the morning to get fit. Exercising in the evening was a No-Go; I get home too late and wake up to early to even consider it. The only practical time is in the morning when I have time.
- I hated wasting time. I wasted so much time doing the wrong types of exercises that did not really help my cause i.e. set an ideal BMI.
- I would lose interest, easily. I really had to do something I enjoyed or else I would just lose interest and fail to implement a routine.
Then I had to work around those constraints and find a better way of doing things. So my situation was this: I had some time in the morning to do some interesting and effective exercises.
And so I had a look around for cardio exercises that I liked and so I turned to shadow boxing (there’s a ton of cardio exercises out there in Google but these did not interest me, and I guess I always admired the physical strength/shape of boxers).
The beauty of shadow boxing is that it is an entire body workout from arms-body-leg movement. 15 minute sprints of this per set (I usually do 2 sets) with the music plugged served as a great warm up before I launched into other exercises (push ups, sit ups, bench dips etc.). I dropped 10 kilos under a month by exercising and following the diet below. I have manage to keep it off to this day and my focus has been better because of it.
Incorporating the exercises into my workflow
At first, I really got my study flow messed up and tried all different types of routine:
- I woke up and hit the books first thing etc.
- I woke up, made some coffee, hit the books, watch study vids etc.
- I woke up, listened to audio, did some stretches and exercises etc.
- I woke up, made coffee, did some stretches and exercises etc.
- I woke up, hit the books, slept again, hit books again etc.
I finally realised that I was most productive when I followed a set workflow (which I describe below) and exercising plays I described above plays BIG role in that.
Mental strength works better with firm physical foundations, after all.
A great man once gave me this list – taken from The National Heart Foundation (Australia) – to follow.
The list is quite straightforward and although I haven’t followed it to a tee at times, the below serves as a great diet guideline.
|Fats and Oils use in moderation||Polyunsaturated margarine, low-fat spreads,polyunsaturated and mono unsaturated oils||Polyunsaturated mayonnaise||Butter, lard, copha, suet, ordinary margarine|
|Milk & Dairy products||Skim milk, SHAPE, Lite White, low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, cotto cheese||Polyunsaturated ice cream, reduced fat cheese||Full cream milk,cream, sour cream, block cheese, ice cream|
|Meat and Meat Products / Poultry||Lean red meat, chicken, turkey (trim off the fat and skin), eat smaller serves||Fatty meals, sausages, rissoles, bacon, liver, kidney, brains, duck, devon, salami etc.|
|Fish & Shellfish||Fish (all types), oysters, scallops, mussels||Crab, lobster, prawns, calamari|
|Eggs||Scramblers (yolk free) mix, egg white||Eggs (up to 2 per week)||More than 2 eggs per week|
|Bread and cereals||Bread (all types), breakfast cereals, flours, rice, spaghetti, crispbreads, Crackerbread||Croissants, toasted muesli, cakes, pastry, biscuits|
|Fruit & Vegetables||All fruits and vegetables except –||Avocados, Olives|
|Nuts||Walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts – use in moderation||Peanuts, peanut butter, macadamias, pistachios, brazils||Coconut, cashews|
|Sauces & Spreads||Tomato paste, herbs, spices, pepper||Salt, Soy Sauce, Tomato Sauce, Vegemite, honey, jam|
|Drinks||Water, tea, coffee, fruit juices, mineral water||Alcohol, soft drinks, cordial||Milkshakes, coffee whiteners|
|Confectionery||Boiled sweets, jellied sweets, licorice||Chocolate fudge, caramels|
|Snack foods||Fresh or dried fruit, fresh vegetables, bread, crispbreads||popcorn, pretzels||Potato crisps, Twisties, Cheezels etc.|
|Takeaway foods||Sandwiches, barbecue chicken (no skin), low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit||Hamburgers (no cheese)||Fried chicken, hot chips, fried fish, potato scallops, pizza, meat|
I average between 6-7 hours of sleep these days depending on what I need to do the next day. It is not ideal and thing I know I have to work on.
But I do have exceptions, for example if I’m down with the flu, have a headache or if I am feeling exhausted, I will sleep in for as long as my body needs it, and I will therefore skip my routine. There is no point in burdening the body and mind with more load when it needs rest.
On the weekend I occasionally splurge out on a siesta here and there. When the mind and body needs a break, I usually oblige. Common sense applies here.
“Whether you’re a programmer or a seamstress, it’s all about new techniques, simplifying old techniques, and consolidating steps. Making things go faster – but not worse.”
– Martha Stewart
I used, and continue to use, a lot of tips and tricks to get my current study cycle, including:
1. Timing / measuring work with Pomodoro
Practical application would be reading 5-10 pages for one Pomodoro cycle and then followed up with writing notes for those pages in another cycle. The amount of work that can be accomplished by performing this technique is startling!
2. DOODLE your notes
For most, reading is not enough to soak in and retain information; making notes is therefore an essential step in committing information to memory. This process is meant to be a dirty and messy affair, and is best described by example:
3. Mind Mapping to connect the dots
Connecting and associating concepts in your mind works for some, but is hard yakka for others. Retaining information is as easy as a 5-minute exercise on my MindNode, or plain pencil and paper.
4. When writing notes on a Word document: WRITE EVERYTHING FIRST, format and design the template last
A personal bugbear of mine was trying to find a format/template that worked visually for my eyes before writing notes. Later on I reminded myself that content is king and that the entourage of style/presentation should come after.
5. Exercise the memory
We gain, retain and retrieve information everyday but at times I’ve struggled with the last 2 points. The simplest thing to do is to write things down, particularly at work when information overload is a stark reality.
Another great way to exercise the memory is to play some memory games like the ones they have in Lumosity:
The last item that has helped me here is mnemonics like the knuckle mnemonic for the number of days in each month. I really need to build a personal list of mnemonics particularly since they are so effective in recalling information.
6. Give the old pencil / pen and paper a go
Just because we have computers, doesn’t mean that everything must be done with computers.
Most of the time, handwritten notes work just as well. In fact handwriting notes has kept me awake and alive in the mornings.
I also took some pictures of my notes and kept it on the cloud, e.g. Evernote, for later reference.
Speak of the devil. I haven’t been application-specific until now; Evernote is great way to keep your notes everywhere.
And of course you don’t have to be tied to that application, Microsoft OneNote, Google Keep or Drive and even plain emailing yourself can also work (although that last option can be annoying for your inbox).
If you ever need to revisit the notes, then it’s as easy as summoning them in cyberspace.
8. Catching up with my mentor
What does mentorship mean? Early on I thought mentorship was the process whereby a company assigned a senior to check up on you.
Later, I realised that the process of mentoring just meant imparting knowledge. I have been lucky in recent years to have good friends who are not only a lot smarter and more experienced than I am, but they were willing to guide, hear and bounce ideas off.
In addition, there are also a lot of people who I can follow on the net that can impart knowledge via their updates (blogs and other posts).
But of course nothing is better than the real thing, if you can get it. And you may be able to get mentors at work, through your alumni, LinkedIn groups, Meetups and other introductions.
9. Grab a study buddy
This is a little bit different from having a mentor because a study buddy is exactly that; they are up-to-date with the latest info and know exactly what you’re going through. I found some helpful guys in study forums and through my alumni groups.
10. Take a break part 2
This has already been called out above, but it is so important that I will call it out once again. I stretch & exercise for short breaks, but I also read a book (particularly something stimulating like a Non-Fiction book e.g. I enjoy Matthew Reilly action), catch-up with family and friends for longer breaks.
Approaching the WORK
“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
With everything said above, a typical morning study routine that works for me looks like this:
That’s a typical morning.
By the time my working day job comes in, I’m all revved up to attack whatever comes my way.
Now I can’t accomplish the above without some sacrifices. Most are compromises at home, like limited TV (don’t ask me about the latest Game of Thrones) and getting to bed around 9 pm during week nights etc. to ensure that I kept my workflow going. Of course I would slip up now and then, which would result in lower productivity the next day.
Sometimes my day job overflows which means that I have to do work from home. And of course I when I feel like it, I blog. The best thing about self-study is that I don’t have to conform to a very strict schedule.
With that all said, I do try to balance my life on weekends and ensure I take holidays when they come. The benefits of coming back to work after a break are amazing!
But as soon as work hits again, it’s another cycle of finding my inner hunger and executing the above.
I can’t let the kids have all the fun.
About this post
Perry Carbonell, project mountain-mover by day, writer & designer by night, and a hustler looking to create something special every other time.
This is a post I almost never wrote, started writing, tossed out, then resurrected once again. This post simply could not be written half-arsed.
I really wish I knew then what I know now. But I’ll chalk this up as experience and this ‘How To’ is something I swear by. I hope that it helps you in some way.
Feel free to leave a comment below or reach out via my Twitter handle @ThoughtsbyPC