Four strategies to help you build your writing capacity

Four strategies to help you build your writing capacity
Your laptop is ready. A cup of freshly brewed coffee sits next to you. You’re ready. You sit poised. You start. Then nothing comes out. Nada. Zilch. Nothing. Sound familiar? Writing is challenging. I’d like to say that the words flow from my fingers but I would be bullshitting you. There are days where it does and there are days of tumbleweeds. The thing I have learnt over the past two months of writing every day that it does get easier to write. But those two scenarios don’t disappear. Writing is equal parts cathartic and despairing.
This post will share a few strategies that I have borrowed or concocted to build my writing capacity. The first one is the maintenance of a daily habit. I have written here about this. A daily habit is the engine room behind consistent writing. I have written some work I am proud of over the past few months and some work that may not pass Year 7 English. I liken it to my guitar playing. I have riffs I have written that I love and then a whole lot of crap. The joy of writing a great riff is what keeps me playing. Same goes for writing.
The next part is feedback. It is sad to say but in the hyper-connected world we live in, this is not as easy as pressing publish. There are a few people who I can always count on to engage with my out loud thinking (Thanks Aaron!). Medium is a great space to reach an audience that lives outside the world of my PLN. To get feedback on my writing structure I use an app called Hemingway app. This has helped to improve the clarity of what I’m trying to say.
The hardest part is figuring out what to say in a post. This is where we battle ourselves for original ideas. Don’t. Austin Kleon says it best in his book “Steal like an Artist”,
“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”
The Beatles and Rolling Stones began as cover bands. Be inspired by the work of others. If we continue with the music analogy, most of my blog posts riff off of the original ideas of others. I write to understand them further. I write to engage with the opinions of others. I attribute their work but in essence, I’m borrowing their ideas. I’m intrigued by their work. Kleon also says that “if we copy from one artist, it is plagiarism. If you copy from many, it is research. Copying is reverse-engineering”. The key is to connect with a multitude of angles and ideas. Be a cover band of many artists!
The next strategy I use I have borrowed from a multitude of people. In “How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen”, Ewan McIntosh calls it the “Bug list and Idea Wallet”. Kleon calls it the “Swipe File”. McIntosh’s Bug list is a space (digital or physical) where you gather “things you notice that just don’t work as well as they could do.” The Ideas wallet is a space to capture inspiration as it happens. This is similar to Kleon’s Swipe file. A Swipe file is where you swipe ideas you connect with. To achieve this, I use a Trello board. Trello is a huge part of my daily workflow and it works with so many modes of media. I like that I can send items via email. I can copy links via the browser. I can type ideas straight in. It provides me with a great space to revisit to find an item to riff off. Often this leads to a rabbit hole of inspiration and then I’m off.
My bug list and idea wallet
I also read and read and read (a post coming shortly discussing some my recent favs). As I read, I sticky note the heck out of the book. Quotes, research, other books to check, important facts, interesting stories, anything that jumps out at me. I then revisit these notes once I have finished the book and type them up in OneNote. I started this practice for two reasons. Firstly because I wanted to continue to connect with these thoughts and insights. I wanted access to these thoughts when I was writing. Secondly, I didn’t own the books, having borrowed them from my awesome local library. It is a practice I wasn’t sure I would sustain but I have. I enjoy it because it is like compiling a mixed tape of my favourite parts of the book. I often find myself jumping back into the book to continue to explore. I then revisit these ideas long after I have returned the book. It is an interesting way to connect with the ideas. Typing them out connects me physically to them. The ideas roll out around in my head as my fingers pound the keyboard. While it may appear a mundane process, it does work.
Continuing my sticky note addiction
My mix tape collection of ideas in OneNote
Having these strategies in place helps with the conditioning required for regular writing. Like stretching and eating right work for exercise, these strategies work for my writing. For the regular writers out there, I would love to know what you use to help you with your conditioning. As always, thoughts and feedback welcome.

Take control and find out where all your time goes.

Take control and find out where all your time goes.

Where does all your time go? What has the greatest impact on your daily energy and is it the right use of your time? I have long pursued living a deliberate life. A life where my energy is used in the right places. Where conscious decisions lead to a better home and work life. We are all driven and ambitious. Wanting to live a life that is rich and fulfilling. The challenge is often time. While it is often a legitimate hurdle, sometimes it can be a ‘get out of jail free’ card. There are so many things we could do with our lives if we just had more time. Oh, the skills we could master, the projects we could complete.

So where does all your time go?

I have spent the past two weeks figuring this out. On episode 7 of Design and Play, my co-host Dean Pearman put me on to an app called Toggl. Toggl is a time tracking application that allows you to capture where you spend your energy and time. It is available via a browser, desktop (Mac & PC) download or as a mobile application. It is free but you can upgrade via subscription for some more features. The free version is more than enough.

Toggl’s default screen

To start, you create projects. These are broad categories like Meetings, Ordering, Email, etc…. You then specify the details of the category. For example, if your broad category is Meetings, then your subcategory would be what that meeting is about. When that meeting starts, you press the green play button and a timer starts for that meeting. When the meeting finishes, you press the stop button. It’s that simple. Consciously recording your time for your tasks during the day really changes how you view your time allocation. There are so many times when I reach for my phone while waiting for something. It’s just habit. I recorded all of that time. It was really interesting to see how much time I spent each day looking at social media. It also stopped me many times from just checking it randomly. Instead, I would consciously check it. I would batch check in with my PLN. Instead of constantly responding to messages as they came in, I would wait until I deliberately chose to respond. I would then check all social media. Batching tasks together has been a game changer for me. This deliberate approach allows me to focus my attention and to be more present and productive.

Batch email – Working on taming the email beast

Times can be collected automatically by pressing play or by manual entry. This is a great feature as it allows you to add entries you may have forgotten. As I started using Toggl more, I started to add in categories that I have never logged. Informal meetings and ordering (like you Dean) took up a fair amount of time. The interesting thing about these new categories was when they took place and how often they would cut into a period where I was working deeply. In Toggl, you can see this by enabling the timeline feature. This feature allows you to see when in your day these items took place. Your energy is the best at the start of the day so this is the time that should be devoted to the most demanding tasks. This insight led me to adjust my environment. If I needed to work on a project that required intense concentration, I would find a quiet spot away from my team until that was complete. Once I was back in the office, I was present and ready to chat. This deliberate choice allowed me to feel like I was giving each of these important elements the right attention. Cal Newport calls this the ‘hub and spoke’ approach. Solitary work with large periods of concentration mixed with communal conversations. In David Thornburg’s words, cave time mixed with watering hole time.

Using the timeline to see when you complete deep work

This approach then lead me to utilise another feature of Toggl. Each recorded time can have tags added which can provide another filter to view your data through. I started to categorise each task as shallow work or deep work. I classified items such as email, ordering and social media as shallow work. Deep work examples are daily writing, teaching and staff professional development. Using the Report section of Toggl, I could break down each day into how often I worked in deep concentration on cognitively challenging tasks. I could then compare this to how much shallow work I was completing. This data really does open a Pandora’s box of questions. Deep work needs to be scheduled for the morning and in large chunks of time. Shallow work should be scheduled for the afternoon when my brain is slowing down. Toggl’s timeline feature also allows you to visualise this. You can see where your time goes throughout the day and see if you are setting your day out to fully optimise your body’s natural energy flow.

My deep work for the week
My shallow work

By using Toggl, I am being more proactive in how I decide to use my time. I reflect on the days that work better than others. Sleep is a big factor in how the day will pan out and so I am deliberate in my sleep routine to allow for a good night’s sleep. Measuring where my time goes is a conscious and deliberate decision. I want to feel like I have accomplished something with my day. I want time to work on the projects that make me feel alive. I don’t want the excuse of time to dictate how I live my life.

You have more time than you think.

The first step is to find out where it goes in the first place.

The next is to analyse it.

Are you spending your time wisely?

The power of being present

The power of being present

How do you power down?
What strategies do you use to switch off from the pressures and pull of work?
What conscious steps do you take to transition from work to home?
What routines and habits do you have that allow you leave work at your front door step?
How are you present at home?
What conscious choices are you making to leave work at work?
You decide.
You set the expectations.
You create the precedence.
You set the standard.
You create the habit.
You choose to be where you are.
Take the time to build a routine that allows you to be present at work and at home.
You decide.

Find your ‘flow channel’ and grow by 4% every day.

Find your ‘flow channel’ and grow by 4% every day.

The “challenge/skill” ratio is listed in the ‘Rise of Superman’ by Steven Kotler as one of the most important triggers of flow. Flow is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, calls the ‘optimal experience‘. Csíkszentmihályi lists ten core components of flow, which I won’t go into detail in this post. I do have however want to pick one up. The challenge to skill ratio. Finding the right balance between the challenge of an activity and your skill level is a sweet spot called the ‘flow channel’. The activity is just hard enough to grab your attention. Too hard and fear takes over. Too easy and boredom sets in. Finding this balance is the optimal zone for flow. Kotler’s research lists the challenge factor as a 4 percent increase on your current ability. 4 percent. That’s it. If each day, you improved by 4%, you would have improved by 1460% in a year. That’s an astronomical rate of growth. The stretch is the key part. Differentiation in schools is a complex beast. 25+ students in a class. Each with individual needs, talents, learning dispositions and personal baggage. How do you design a learning experience that stretches each student by 4%? The first step is to understand motivation. In his book ‘Drive‘, Dan Pink lists Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose as the key ingredients for motivation.

1. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
2. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Daniel Pink – Drive

How is learning differentiated in your classroom? Is that learning stretching your students to grow by 4%? If not, where is it falling down? Thinking of my own class, the challenge to skill ratio definitely plays a factor. Another key factor is self-perception. Beliefs about their own ability often can prevent students filling their mastery bucket. It is better to save face than to risk the social fallout of a public failure. In a program, I run for students called Creative Minds, we use the making of Rube Goldberg machines as the trojan horse to develop student capacity to self-start and stretch themselves. They see the mental and physical investment as within their reach. They have complete autonomy over the direction of the project and the purpose is stated clearly. They know where they need to go and they can build the path to get there. Students volunteer to stay back and continue with their work. True motivation. Motivation that leads to the ‘flow channel’.

How Might We design learning that finds the ‘flow channel’ for all learners?

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Stepping off the FOMO treadmill.

Stepping off the FOMO treadmill.
“Dad, why are people always rushing?”
This was a question my six-year-old daughter Zara spurted out as we were driving to school last week. On that day, we weren’t rushing to get to school. In fact, we were early. The question came from her constant observation of people in a hurry to get somewhere. The observation came from watching her Mum and Dad always in a rush. That question hit me at the core.
Why are we always in a rush? We toot the horn when the person in the car in front of us is a millisecond late in moving. We curse them if it’s longer than that. We rush from meeting to meeting to meeting without a break or pause. Why are we always running?
What happens when we stop running? When we stop trying to keep up. That fear of missing out, the constant need to keep up with the Jones’s, to keep in the loop. To feel that we have to be running all the time to keep up with everything. What happens? In a word, nothing. That fear of missing out. That fear is false. You aren’t missing out…especially in education. Everything has been around before in some iteration. That meeting. That meeting would go on without you. The thing we need to do more of is stopping. Letting things pass. Once you stop trying to keep up and let things pass, nothing changes. Often we are more relieved than anything else. Instead of focusing only on the destination, we can take stock of the journey.
Stopping and noticing is more important. Appreciating a moment by being present in that moment. Stopping allows us to step away from our the magnifying lens on our life and zoom out. It is in this zooming out that we notice new perspectives. New horizons. New ideas.
Being on a treadmill always going means that we lose sight of the things in our life that are important. What we need to do is to stop more. Choose when you rush. Be deliberate with where your energy goes.

Amplify strengths and build human capital.

Amplify strengths and build human capital.

A Digital Leader program is more than using technology to assist learning. It is about building self-worth and confidence. It is about building human capital. The success of our program is the human story.

One story stands out for sure.

Joe (not his real name) began at our school in Year 4. At his previous school, he had been the target of playground bullying. He arrived to our school timid and unsure of himself. Due to a talent for working with technology, Joel was selected as a Digital Leader. The Digital Leader program provided Joe access to like-minded people. through a role that was authentic and respected. He learnt to harness his talent for using technology and use it in a way that made people feel at ease. He learnt to speak to large groups and to allow the ideas of others to flourish. Joe was learning when to double down on his strengths and when to ease off the peddle. The Digital Leader program provided him with a safe haven to be himself and to see the worth in who he was.

The best part of all this was that Joe was happy. He wanted to come to school. He started to feel welcomed and valued and his parents were over the moon. The Digital Leader program provided Joe an environment to share his value and thrive. Seeing him now in Year 7, I see a confident, happy young man who can hold rich conversations with anyone. He is a talented user of technology but even better than that, he sees the value in his own talent.

Every learner has strengths and every learner wants to feel success. It is only natural to want to play to these strengths. The challenge for schools then is to find ways to notice these and harness them. To find ways to help students feel success. Learning isn’t easy. It is messy, frustrating and different for everyone. School needs to be a place where we allow all learners to feel that their strengths are being amplified. That the environment of school can be fertile for them. A little confidence goes a long way…




Own your morning!

Own your morning!
The inclination to check your email, and social media feed when you first wake up is powerful. Get out of bed and reach for the phone. Thumb through the feed or emails and get that dopamine hit. How many of us have then had our morning ruined by a nasty email or a horrible news story? Before your day has started your day derails. You spend your time processing that horrible email from a parent/colleague/boss. You cannot think of anything else. Work hasn’t started but you are already stressed. Your body’s natural stress mechanisms are kicking in and already your mindset for the day is off. Why do we do this? Why do we let others own our morning? Now I am a morning person. I enjoy rising early and getting the day off on the right foot. For those who don’t enjoy mornings, starting the day with unsettling news isn’t a good way to start. So why do we do this? I am pretty sure that checking your email first thing in the morning is not an expectation of work. It’s not in your job description. It is a choice. A conscious choice. Once you make this choice, it becomes an expectation. Then an unconscious choice. A habit. Don’t let it become that. Your mornings are yours. Yours for family time, personal time, exercise, coffee, whatever floats your morning boat. Break the trigger that sets that behaviour off. Put your phone away until you are in the office or in school. Check your email/feeds/messages on your terms. Make it work for you. Your energy is yours. Set the tone for your day by owning your morning.