Thoughts from 200 days of blogs

Today I hit 200 days straight of writing and publishing this blog. I was inspired to do the challenge by a Seth Godin interview on Modern Wisdom, Chris Williamson’s podcast, where they talked about the importance of process in your work. For 200 days, I have sat for an hour at my laptop each evening and shared my thoughts in 500 words.   

Here are the lessons I have learnt: 

1, Just write what you are thinking – the beauty of focusing on the process and the daily deadline is you remove the need for the work to be perfect before you publish. I sit down at the end of the day and write what is on my mind. I was always terrible at writing at school, from special 1:1 English lessons with learning support at primary school to poor marks on essays during GCSEs – I could do maths and science, and I could talk for England, I just did not get writing. It took me years and a lot of work before it clicked, but I still feel self-conscious about producing extended writing for work. The beauty of writing for its own sake is you have space to learn and develop a style – and connect your thoughts with the words you put on the page.

2, Consume with intention – A side effect of writing what is on your mind at the end of each day is that you start to look out for things that make you think, challenge your assumptions, or inspire you. Life becomes a little richer because you pay more attention. My mum instilled a habit of reading through example, constant trips to the public library, periods of no TV growing up, and paying for my first-years subscription to the Economist when I started at the LSE. With a constant flow of input, producing a daily output becomes easy. 

3, Challenge your thinking and make connections – If I got my reading habit from my mum, I inherited my memory from my Dad. I am not a fast reader; I like to read, reread, and spent time deep in thought when something strikes a chord. My wife often catches me in these deep contemplative moments where I stare out the window vacantly, making random connections from something I learned six years ago. When she asks what I am thinking about, as a running joke, I tend to reply ‘football’ (apparently the second most common thought for an Englishman) or, if that fails ‘The tension between utilitarianism and free will’ (an essay question from my ‘Modern political thought’ module at uni). These periods of contemplation allow me to pull up related memories of something I heard on an audible book while shopping in Tescos, from a random article, or a conversation over coffee many years ago. I try to capture these connections in my writing, spending a bit of time finding the source of the memory and adding it to the essay.

4, turn comments off and write your authentic thoughts – I decided that I was writing for the process and not the outcome at the start of this journey. I would be lying if I said I did not care if anyone reads my posts, I have an ego like anyone else, and I am humbled that 184 people worldwide follow my blog and get 20-30 views per day from every corner of the world. It is unbelievably satisfying when someone in a conversation mentions they have read the blog or that something in a post connected with them. However, in the podcast that started my practice, Seth says that he turns comments off so that the anticipation of people’s reactions will not colour what he writes. I wanted my writing to be authentic, so I turned them off too. I have the link to my social media at the top of each page, so I know if there is a fact check, something accidentally offensive, or someone wants to connect, they can; it is just not directly accessibly under my writing. The Economist famously does not include bylines on their articles for a similar reason, and I think it is a great way to remove some of the fear of putting your thoughts out into the ether. 

5, Technology is incredible – Grammarly might just be the best invention since the printing press for writers who lack confidence. I use Grammarly with the assistant turned off as my word processor, then turn the assistant on for edits. Grammarly has a clean interface, the editing tools in the premium version make a substantial difference, and the immediate feedback is teaching me to be a better writer. We do, however, disagree on the use of the Oxford comma, but no technology is perfect. I publish using WordPress.com as its reader tool provides an instant audience. I save articles to Instapaper to read later and highlight key ideas, and I link it to Readwise to automatically save the highlights and send me collections of these daily. I do most of my book reading with a Kindle for the same reason. I link Readwise to Roam Research which allows me to find anything I have ever highlighted with a particular word to supplement my memory making connections. I automatically post links to everything I write to my Twitter account, link to my blog via my Instagram, and post a link to anything I write related to Learning Design to my Linkedin profile.

My life now

I drove down to the south coast a few days ago, and my wife put on a podcast with Alan De Botton, who made a brief comment on how religions all seem to understand that the effectiveness of learning is highly related to the architectural environment where you learn. That observation got me thinking, while driving, about learning spaces and the vast investment universities make in beautiful campuses. The seed was watered today when I visited the Canterbury Cathedral – how much easier it must have been in 1000 AD to understand the idea of an all-powerful God when you were sat in an incredible, gigantic, and ornately decorated space. The idea will continue to percolate while I stare out of our Margate Airbnb’s third-floor window overlooking the sea. Tomorrow I will find the podcast again and listen to the clip to note it down accurately before searching out some research on how our learning is connected to the environmental context. I will then sit down in front of the sea-facing window and write 500 words on the importance of learning spaces.

Beating existing hierachical systems

I just got my pre-ordered book from Dan Bigham, Start at the end: How reverse-engineering can lead to success. Dan is the brain behind one of the most exciting and innovative sporting stories in recent memory; how four friends from Derby took on the world’s national teams at track cycling’s individual and team pursuit, and won.

In the book, Dan argues that…

‘Every hierarchical system based on performance contains some element of complacency, of lazy thinking and of vested interest. That means these systems can be beaten.’

Dan Bigham

Dan suggests taking the reverse engineering approach of committing to an ambitious goal, identifying precisely what it takes to achieve it, identifying where you are now, and creating a plan to bridge the gap.

Reverse engineering

Reverse engineering is a process that can be used to learn anything given enough time. The goal is to make a big jump in performance based on a target endpoint. 

  1. Set a goal
  2. Take it apart – know precisely what it will take to achieve that goal
  3. Assess your resources – what you have and what is missing
  4. Develop your tools needed to bridge that gap
  5. Set the plan into motion – creating positive feedback loops
  6. Deliver the performance

Once you have achieved your goal, and if you choose to stay in the same environment and team, you need to move to continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is the pursuit of minor incremental improvements to keep you at or above your previous goal. A famous example of this approach is Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen (Kai = ‘change’, Zen = ‘for good’):

  • Teamwork
  • Discipline
  • Organisation
  • Standardisation
  • Quality cycles

To make continuous improvement work, there needs to be a feeling of psychological safety. A culture of risk-taking and creativity is developed through the freedom for team members to make mistakes. This fearless culture empowers employees to contribute ideas and feedback, knowing they will be taken seriously.  

High-rep kettlebell snatches

Photo by Taco Fleur on Pexels.com

Lockdowns over the last year have made kettlebell training a central element in my daily routine. I write this on a seaside holiday in the southeast of England, to which I brought a 24kg kettlebell in the car (no joke). Working from home means I risk spending all day sitting down with little reason for any meaningful movement, so I have a couple of kettlebells in my conservatory for quick access between meetings. I know that each day, with just 10 minutes, I can get 10×10 swings with a 40kg kettlebell or if I am swamped and only have 5 minutes, I can do 10×10 single hand swings with 24kg.

I think every household should build a collection of kettlebells as a home gym or a ‘Courage corner’ as the Russian Military calls it, according to Pavel in The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. Kettlebells are cheap, will outlast you, require no additional equipment, and the techniques are easy to learn from Youtube. 

Progression on Kettlebell swings

  1. Two-handed swing
  2. One-handed swing
  3. Clean
  4. Snatch

High rep kettlebell snatches are hard; they test your mental resilience, conditioning, grip strength, and shoulder strength and mobility. High rep kettlebell snatches will highlight and fix problems and asymmetries in your swing technique. As a ballistic movement, it is a great way to build a powerful hip snap that will carry over into other activities like running, and it will burn fat at the same time.

Before trying high rep or heavy kettlebell snatches, it is good to build solid technique on the push press and the more accessible swings. Once you start to train the snatch, think of it as a one-handed swing that goes all the way up and swing from the top – pauses with the kettlebell overhead and let your bell drop into the swing movement. 

Start with a 16kg Kettlebell (if you have one) and spend time learning the groove of the movement before you move to a 24kg kettlebell. Until you have mastered the movement, treat it as a practice rather than a workout, take your time building up the reps and weight. Use heavy swings, cleans, and presses for your strength and conditioning work until you feel confident with the snatch.  

Milestones

The first big test is the StrongFirst snatch test that forms part of the entry-level certification. Dan Johns rep recommendations of 20/15/10/5 (per hand) starting with your weaker hand is a great way to approach the test. As Dan points out, by the end of the first set of 20, you can smile as you have completed the most challenging part.

  1. StrongFirst Certification Snatch Test: 100 snatches in 5 minutes with a 24kg kettlebell
  2. The US Secret Service 10-minute snatch test: 200 snatches in 10 minutes with a 24kg
  3. Tactical strength challenge: max snatches in 5 minutes with a 32kg kettlebell
  4. Girevoy national ranking: Snatch a 32Kg kettlebell 40 times with one arm, then 40 times with the other back to back 

Training

High rep snatching with a kettlebell can be tough on your hands, and once the skin on your palms rips, it will take time without training to heal. Only snatch 2-3 times per week to avoid over breaking the skin and supplement with other types of swing and presses that are easier on the grip.

I like to use a combination of Pavel’s rite of passage method, including the clean and presses from Enter the Kettlebell and the progression ladder from Jason Marchall’s TSC prep plan.

Monday: 5-10 snatches per side on the minute every minute for 7 minutes with competition weight based on the milestone you are working towards.

Wednesday & Thursday: 3 sets of 1-10 snatches with the weight above your Monday workout weight followed by 3 sets of 5-10 heavy swings with 3 minutes rest between each set. 

Start with five snatches on each arm, and each week add a snatch on each arm until you get to 10 reps on each side, then start the ladder again but with a heavier kettlebell or add a minute (e.g. 5/5 for 8 minutes with 28kg). For the snatches on the mid-week workouts, start with three sets of one rep on each side and add a rep per side for each subsequent workout. Progress to a heavier kettlebell once you reach 10 per side for three sets.

So, if you haven’t already, buy at least a decent 24kg kettlebell (cheaper bells can have uneven and rough handles) and work through the progression of the swings, training most days based on feel. From there, get a 32kg and then a 40kg kettlebell and build your ‘Courage corner’. 

Getting to Zero and Building Back Better

Zero: Building back greener

The UK released around 600m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) into the atmosphere in 1990. As signatories of the Paris Climate Accord that aims to limit average temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, they have committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Since 1990, the UK has reduced its emissions by 40%, a faster reduction than any other major developed country, and aims to get that number to 78% by 2035.

The UK achieved this reduction in large part to cleaner electricity production, moving from coal to gas and renewables. Other factors include the reduction of energy use by both industry and homes, few total miles being driven and more efficient vehicles.

2019 UK Carbon emissions produced by sector:

  • 27% transport
  • 21% energy supply
  • 17% business
  • 15% residential
  • 10% agriculture

In 2020 The Government released the ‘Ten point plan for a green industrial revolution’ that included an investment promise of £12 billion by 2030 to be directed to green technologies including hydrogen, offshore wind, nuclear, electric vehicles, heat, and buildings.

By 2030 the UK Government has committed to:

  • 600,000 heat pump installations per year (2028) to replace gas-based heating systems
  • 40 GW from Offshore wind, including 1GW of advanced floating rigs 
  • Capture 10Mt C02 per year using Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS)
  • 5GW of low carbon hydrogen energy
  • Ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans and accelerating EV charging rollout
  • Building net-zero ready homes

Read the full Build Back Better paper on the UK Government’s website.

What gets measured gets managed

“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so.

Peter Drucker

And…

Goodheart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Because…

Campbell’s Law: The more a metric counts for real decisions, the greater the pressure for corruption, the more it distorts the situation it’s intended to monitor.

And…

“Quantitative measures of performance are tools, and are undoubtedly useful. But research indicates that indiscriminate use and undue confidence and reliance in them result from insufficient knowledge of the full effects and consequences. Judicious use of a tool requires awareness of possible side effects and reactions. Otherwise, indiscriminate use may result in side effects and reactions outweighing the benefits (…) The cure is sometimes worse than the disease.”

V. F. Ridgway

So…

“It’s Not About the Result, It’s About Awareness.

The trick is to realize that counting, measuring, and tracking is not about the result. It’s about the system, not the goal.

Measure from a place of curiosity. Measure to discover, to find out, to understand.

Measure from a place of self-awareness. Measure to get to know yourself better.

Measure to see if you are showing up. Measure to see if you’re actually spending time on the things that are important to you. (Make sure to measure backward, not forward.)”

James Clear

People want economic security and to be left alone

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

In a recent interview, Chamath Palihapitiya said, “people just want economic security and to be left alone”. The ‘left alone’ part needs no explanation, but what exactly does economic or financial security mean? 

Economic security or financial security is the condition of having stable income or other resources to support a standard of living now and in the foreseeable future. It includes:

– probable continued solvency.

– predictability of the future cash flow of a person or other economic entity, such as a country.

– employment security or job security

Wikipedia

To have economic security, you need to have and maintain a reasonable standard of living. Beyond the basic needs of shelter, warmth, and food, this standard tends to be heavily comparative and determined by the living standards of those around you. Someone who has a standard of living near or above the average of those they interact with will feel like they have economic security. However, this standard of living must be sustainable through continued solvency, a predictable future cash flow, and job security.

Continued solvency means that you have more assets over time than you have liabilities, so the total value of equity in your house and car and the amount you have in savings and investments is greater than the value of your mortgage, loans, and credit card debt. The predictability of cash flow means that you have a good idea of your income over the next few months to a year, either through a reasonable promise of continued employment as an employee or entrepreneur and/or a stable investment income from stocks, bonds, or a pension. Employment security refers to the confidence that if you continue to do your job, you will keep it and that you have control of your continued employment.

Anything else?

Beyond a comfortable living, what other factors are essential in living a happy life? Since early 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been identifying and tracking metrics that the government can use as a measure of prosperity separate from the financial measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

According to this well-being study, you are happier in Britain if you have a high level of perceived health, are married, employed, own your home, and earn slightly above the average household income of £29,900 per year. You are also happier if you are female. Multiple studies show that self-reported life satisfaction is heavily age-dependent following a U shape, with a dip in happiness in your late thirties and early forties. 

So if you want a safe bet at happiness, you need to find a stable job that pays just above the national household average, live below your means, avoid unsecured debt, build security with additional income streams, stay healthy, get married and buy your home. 

If you are a government, you should focus your efforts on getting as many people as possible to the situation described above and then leave everyone alone. 

The Student Futures Commission

To mark the launch of the Student Futures Commission, the UPP Foundation, using Cibyl as a research partner, sent out a survey to 1.5 million students at over 140 institutions to understand their university experience during the pandemic. 2,147 students responded between 14th-19th May 2021. Like the rest of us, students miss face to face community. 

Students want universities to prioritise a return to in person teaching and are missing face-to-face interaction around their wider student experience, according to a major new survey.

Student Futures Commission

The key findings: 

  • The preferences for study structure next year: 
    • 45% mostly in-person with online teaching once or twice per week. 
    • 29% fully face to face
    • 21% mostly online
    • 6% fully online
  • The majority of students did not participate in any extracurricular activities this academic year
  • 63% believe the pandemic has negatively affected them academically
  • 48% do not believe they have missed any aspect of teaching despite disruptions to delivery
  • 72% are neutral or satisfied with changes to academic assessments
  • 65% believe their course will still help them find a job. 

The full data set can be downloaded from the UPP Foundation website.

Advanced HE’s flexible learning framework

Flexible learning is about student choice, putting learners at the centre of the learning experience and providing them with the flexibility to access learning opportunities around the different areas of their lives. To deliver this requires balanced pragmatism in delivery methods and institutional agility in the structures and systems used by the university to provide choice in an economically viable and sustainable way.

Flexible learning in higher education | Advance HE
Advanced HE Flexible learning framework

According to the HEA’s flexible learning framework, a choice should be offered to students in how, what, when, and where they learn through the pace, place, price, and mode of delivery.

“When well supported, this positively impacts recruitment, retention and progression; widens participation; and offers opportunities to learners of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities.”

Advanced HE

Pace

An undergraduate degree is 360 credits. A postgraduate degree is 180 credits. One credit is equivalent to ten notional learning hours; an undergraduate (UG) course should take a maximum of 3600 hours and a postgraduate taught (PGT) degree a maximum of 1800 hours. Current rules on the maximum duration of study for UG studies is eight years and five years for PGT; this means that the pace of study can be anywhere from 90 weeks to eight years at UG and 45 weeks to five years at PG based on a maximum 40-hour study week. Most university courses currently run off 32 weeks a year for institutional convenience, but the pace could be altered considerably to fit the student.

Place

The place where learning is delivered or received is becoming more flexible. Traditionally courses have been offered on-campus with students travelling to the lecturer and their facilities. The Univerity of London began offering courses by correspondence in 18, posting out study materials, and asking students to attend in-person for the exam only. More recently, these correspondence courses have been replaced with online learning. As work-based learning becomes essential and workplaces increasingly partner with universities for higher education, this provision is being delivered in the workplace or other facilities where specialist equipment or experiences are avalible. 

Price

Most mature students see higher education prices as the most significant barrier to enrollment. Changes to funding have seen considerable drops in part-time student numbers over the last ten years. The Augar report made suggestions to address this, and the Government is set to enact many of these, including a part-time postgraduate loan that allows students to study flexibly. Many part-time postgraduate courses have begun to offer flexible payment options, including per module, per term, or annually.

Mode

The OECD lists the mode of study as the student’s study load, whether full-time or part-time, but may also refer to distance, a mixture of on-campus access methods, or various work-based learning options. HESA, the higher education statistics agency, lists up to 16 different modes of study, categorised primarily for funding purposes, including: 

  • Full-time – according to funding council definitions or other
  • Sandwich – thick, thin, or other
  • Part-time – regular, released from employment, or not released from employment
  • Evening only
  • Open or distance learning
  • Writing-up – previously full-time
  • Continuous delivery

These modes aim to provide students with options to access study that fits their need and availability.

Sign up to view the full framework on the Advanced HE website.

Utilitarianism and skills

The FT published an interesting article yesterday on the current financial troubles facing universities by both tuition fee freezes and, more recently, the changes enforced by the pandemic.

The article ended with paraphrased comments from Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of Portsmouth university:

The bigger danger to universities was a “utilitarian” government view that they existed only to train workers in “skills the government decides are needed”. “Our broader role in producing well-rounded graduates . . . is being lost,” he said.

FT

First, Is a utilitarian view a bad thing for a government to take on mass education? 

Utilitarianism: the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority. The doctrine that an action is right in so far as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.

Oxford Languages

Second, how are the government deciding on the skills needed?

“The drive to place employers at the heart of the skills system comes as the Prime Minister launches a new Build Back Better Business Council. The new group will see business leaders work directly with government to fuel the Covid-19 economic recovery.”

Pioneering reforms to boost skills and jobs, Gov.UK

After years of government-supported rapid expansion, in part at the expense of cash-starved further education colleges, the university sector faces genuine challenges. According to the Office for National Statistics, university student numbers have almost doubled since 1992. Graduate numbers are now over 50%; informed by the Augar review, the government has moved its attention to the other 50%. 

Forward-looking universities are working with the government to deliver new qualification such as degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications. Both parties are working with businesses to address the genuine global, national, and regional skills gaps. Students, too, are looking for the promise of a more economically secure future and are voting with their feet towards attractive courses, reputable universities, and the perceived boost to career opportunities.

The solutions are far from perfect and often seem like two steps forward one step back, but they are transparent in their direction of travel and open to universities involvement in helping write how we get there. What is included in courses to make students well-rounded is still in the control of those delivering them and businesses are still keen on students that can think, solve problems, and be agile. Universities need to decide if they want to be small elite institutions that service a minority or mass centres of learning that prepare students for a better future.

The tricky thing about a free market in higher education is that it is democratic; the supply and demand have to respond to each other.   

New daily exercise recommendations for healthy

The current recommended levels of physical activity to reduce the risk of early death by up to 30% is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or a combination of the two per week. Just under a third of people globally do not achieve this minimum standard and it is higher in richer countries. But a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has found that these recommendations for activity levels are not enough to avoid chronic illnesses for those that spend most of their day sitting down. 

The study looked at the effects of various daily amounts of different intensities of exercise, lack of exercise, and sleep on early death using six previous studies covering over 130,000 adults in the UK, US, and Sweeden. The paper suggests that most of us in the UK and other wealthy countries spend up to twelve hours a day sitting and so require higher levels of movement to counteract the negative effects of a sedentary life than those that sid for just six to seven hours used to model the original recommendations. They suggest a minimum of three minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise or twelve minutes of light physical activity for every hour spent seated each day. 

For a person who sits twelve hours per day, the recommendations would mean 36 minutes of vigorous or 144 minutes of light activity each day. If we just followed this for five days per week that is 180 minutes of vigorous exercise, 2.4 times the amount previously suggested for the same level of risk reduction. If you are in bed for eight hours and working for eight to nine hours and then sitting in front of the TV in the evening it is likely that twelve hours seated is realistic and possibly low for some people. 

In addition to increased weekly exercise time to offset all the sitting, the paper also suggests using a variety of movements each week to accumulate the required vigorous or light activity. This means that if a person had previously completed three to four runs per week to get in the minimum recommended activity, then adding some strength training, a swim session, and a bike ride could bring better health benefits than more running when using the new benchmarks. For the health benefits, the important thing is to get your heart rate up each day and use a variety of movements across the week, so be creative and use what you have. 

Above the suggestion that people should create a daily exercise habit, The study also suggested that moving regularly between exercise and getting good amounts of daily also presented benefits. The UK National Health Service has some good suggestions for exercise and the Canadian government has already adopted a daily approach to movement

On this blog, there are recommendations of training goals for running starting at the beginner level, suggestions for strength and conditioning using kettlebells, and recommendations for four-minute movement breaks that can be used throughout the day.