Bruce Harpham writes about productivity, leadership and career advancement at ProjectManagementHacks.com. You can find Bruce on Twitter at @PMPhacks. To receive a free copy of the Career Advancement Toolkit, join the Project Management Hacks email newsletter.
Productivity often focuses on tools such as Evernote and methodologies like Getting Things Done. Now I use Evernote and GTD; they are great tools that have improved my life considerably. But once these disciplines and tools are in place, what’s the next level?
The key to advanced productivity lies in the power of learning.
New ideas and techniques have the power to boost your results dramatically. Back in 2011, I took the time to learn new techniques in Microsoft Excel through a course. The methods I learned there have gave me greater confidence and speed (i.e. tasks completed in seconds rather than minutes) in using Excel, a workhorse tool in the corporate world. Over the past year, I have learned how to present and deliver engaging webinars and it has made a tremendous difference in growing my audience. This skill has expedited the growth of my audience from under a hundred to over two thousand email subscribers in eight months.
The value of learning is very clear. But where can you start? Not many have the resources to jump into a demanding MBA degree, so a flexible learning approach is essential. Here is the five step formula to help you accelerate your growth.
1. Deciding What To Learn: Goals and Problems
There is a world of knowledge out there. Deciding what exactly you want to learn is the first step. While exploring the world and everything in it is worthwhile, this is not your focus. To achieve advanced productivity, our learning has to be connected to a goal or a problem.
In deciding what you need to learn, I advocate choosing one of the following paths:
- Goal-based Learning. We all need to have goals for our lives. To reach those goals faster, learning is the answer.
Example: I am currently working to launch my first online course. With it, I want to achieve a specific revenue goal. I have sought out learning in various forms to learn how to accomplish this goal. For example, I have learned how to structure a course (e.g. videos, worksheets and how many lessons to include). I have also learned how to survey my readers and understand their specific career challenges.
- Problem-based Learning. If you are frustrated by a situation in your life, do something about it! Look for answers by asking people who have done what you want to do. For example, want a book contract with a major publisher? Contact five published authors who have published with that author and ask about their process. To make the most of those conversations, first prepare yourself by learning the basics and the right questions to ask.
Example: I was new to the financial services industry in 2009 and found some of the terminology unfamiliar. I decided to start reading books and newspaper articles about the industry. After that, I enrolled in some courses with the Canadian Securities Institute.
2. Start With Low Cost Learning
As you start to explore a subject, you may feel unsure about whether it will be worth your time. This is why I recommend starting with low cost learning options.
Here are three suggestions that provide low cost learning:
- Books. Books remain one of the best ways to learn a skill. For example, I learned many technical skills in the 1990s by reading “For Dummies” books.
- YouTube Videos. With some patience, you can find useful instructional videos on YouTube that teach specific skills. You can learn how to tie a tie or make a healthy breakfast in 3 minutes.
- Read a how-to article on the internet. Learning the Getting Things Done system may be a difficult hill to climb for some. Fortunately, you can learn some of the techniques from article such as How To Do A Weekly Review.
- Use your library for the amazing tool it is. In many cases you may not even have to get up from your chair with instantly downloadable ebooks and audiobooks.
- Podcasts are another great way to learn. Listen to the Productivityist podcast to get more done in your work. Tune in to EconTalk to learn about economics.
3. Seek The Minimum Effective Dose In Learning
We live in a world blessed with an abundance of information, knowledge and other learning resources. To maintain a productive focus, seek the minimum effective dose (i.e the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome). This is a concept or technique that you can use to achieve immediate results. Putting this technique into action will motivate you to continue learning.
As Tim Ferriss explains in his book The Four Hour Body (and his presentation at the NEXT Conference), the minimum effective dose comes to us from the health field. A specific drug may yield excellent benefits with a 1 gram dose while a higher dose could have terrible side effects.
Let’s say you have collected data in your work. It could be customer satisfaction surveys, customer order data or social media data. Making sense of that data is much easier if you use a tool like Microsoft Excel. I like to use Excel to analyze purchases, plan expenses and analyze different investments. I sometimes even daydream in Excel about different scenarios (e.g. how would investment A compare to investment B?).
Yet, Excel can be daunting to many because it is versatile and has evolved greatly since it was launched decades ago. What’s my minimum effective dose to become better with Excel? Start by learning a few Excel keyboard shortcuts to navigate in Excel faster. That was a technique that I could put to use immediately.
4. Go For Mastery To Double Your Productivity
Once you find a topic or skill set that fits your interests and goals, it is time to go deeper. If the minimum effective dose is the appetizer, going deep is the entrée. A few tips and techniques have the potential to increase your productivity 5-10%, which will save you minutes here or there. In contrast, mastery opens up new possibilities to dramatically improve your productivity by 100% or more. For example, when I learned how to use the Macro Recorder in Excel—a way to automate tasks instead of clicking around and doing 15 keystrokes—I became much more productive in using the application.
The opportunity to achieve mastery with this application is truly significant. You could learn Visual Basic for Applications to automate the production of reports. Or you could focus on mastering PivotCharts and other tools to organize data. Tinkering with code and Excel functions is helpful but usually not enough. You will need to invest in a resource.
Don’t be afraid to dig deeper in whatever it is you are learning. The benefits can be fantastic.
Here are a few options you can use to advance your learning:
- Online Courses. There are a number of great Excel courses you can take from various providers including free course from Microsoft and affordable Udemy courses. Another great online education is the free iTunesU which offers courses from Stanford, Harvard, and many other institutions.
- Traditional Courses. Taking an in person course remains a valuable way to learn, especially if you like to ask questions and obtain direct feedback. A few years ago, I took the Super Excel course in Toronto.
Going through the above steps will transform you into the Excel expert at your organization. If you add a helpful attitude and look for problems to solve, your new skills can even improve the productivity of everyone around you.
Another way to achieve mastery is to improve your management skills. If you can work with a team to accomplish tasks and finish projects, do not overlook this opportunity. Making the leap from individual contributor to manager represents a major jump in your productivity. This applies whether you are an entrepreneur hiring an assistant or just received a promotion inside a large organization.
Here are two specific management skills guaranteed to improve your productivity results:
- Effective Delegation. There is an art (and some science) to giving a work assignment to another person. Until you become confident with delegation, you are unlikely to make the most of your staff. An entry level management skills course is a good starting point to learn delegation.
- Negotiation Skills. Whether you are driven to make deals or simply reach your own goals faster, negotiation skills make a difference. You can start by reading Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The best way to learn negotiation skills to learn in person, so look for a course or seminar in your area.
5. Teach Your New Skills To Confirm Your Mastery
Teaching your new skills to another person demonstrates that you thoroughly understand the material and also know how to communicate it. The ability to teach your new skills makes you more productive because you will also gain confidence in the new skill. A new skill that is never applied does nothing for your productivity.
The best way to get started in teaching a skill is to find a willing student. For example, if your co-worker and you both spend time each week grinding through Excel, then it makes sense to offer to teach a few Excel techniques. Be as helpful and encouraging as possible. Over time, you will be able to look back and see how much you’ve grown. Remember, to keep growing you have to keep learning.
This week, decide to learn something new! In the comments section, let’s start with step 1 – share a problem or goal and what you are doing about it.