Metacognition: thinking about thinking

Metacognition is the process of actively seeking to understand and improve your thinking. Metacognition includes planning how to think, monitoring your thoughts, and then reflecting on how you think in certain situations—choosing models or strategies to help you think about and solve problems. By seeking to understand the way you think, you can change it to produce improved outcomes.

Metacognition is an awareness of one’s own thought processes and an understanding of the patterns behind them.


There are two components of metacognition:

  1. Knowledge about cognition
  2. Regulation of cognition

Knowledge about cognition refers to what you know about yourself and how you and others think. Through monitoring and reflection, you might notice that you perform better in one type of situation than another, or you could develop an awareness of common cognitive biases like ‘loss aversion’ to help you understand how and why you and others make decisions. Regulation of cognition is the act of controlling the way you think. Standard regulation methods include developing habits through repetition to reprogram your mind to new presets or arranging your environment to encourage a particular form of thinking. 

A simple cycle to improve metacognition: 

  • Plan
  • Change
  • Monitor
  • Evaluate

Searching (2018)

Today I rewatched the 2018 film ‘Searching’ directed by Aneesh Chaganty. The movie is worth a watch just for the way it is filmed. All the shorts are through the desktop of the main character’s computer, with the story told through video calls, text messages, web searches, and the occasional TV news report. It sounds like it would not work, but it does, partly down to the excellent editing.

The exciting thing about this film is how much you can do with your computer if you set up a link between your phone and laptop. The main character approaches the investigation into his daughter’s disappearance like a ninja project manager. He starts by creating a table with questions that he then goes through each of his daughters 96 Facebook friends completing a row for each. He goes through search history, social media accounts, text messages, and email, meticulously logging everything he learns and gradually finding clues to create a timeline of the days running up to the disappearance. 

The situation in the film is extreme, but it showcases how much of the world’s information is online and how a computer can aid a systematic approach to solve a problem. It raises the question about how much more productive you might be if you learned to use your computer better and how methodical you are in your approach and documentation when problem-solving.

Two tasks for me this week:

  1. Become a power user with my computer
  2. Be deliberate in my approach and documentation in my problem-solving.

What is an MBA

In the early days of Google, the company got rid of all their managers. They assumed that as they hired the brightest and most driven engineers, they did not need layers of bureaucracy stopping people from doing their job. The Google founders believed if you get intelligent people, you could give them pretty much any problem to solve, and they would work out how to do it. Within a short period, Google brought management roles back and started the ‘re:Work‘ programme to find the best scientific management methods. 

Fredrick Taylor introduced scientific management in the 1880s, and the theory’s ideas of economic efficiency and labour productivity formed the basis of the first Master’s of Business Administration at Harvard in 1908. Taylorism was one of the first attempts to apply scientific ideas like analysis, empiricism, and standardisation of best practices to process management and the move from craft, to production, to mass production made famous by Ford and the Model T. 

Thankfully, management science quickly evolved to include social ideas like behavioural science and care for employees as people. Still, the basic idea of applying the scientific method to increase productivity forms the basis of management in most fields. The MBA is where people go to learn this science.

It is possible to learn everything you find on an MBA curriculum in books and on the job, particularly if you join a graduate scheme and the places you work have strong internal development programmes. Most companies do not provide a rounded leadership and management training and support offer, so bright-minded individuals either end up not meeting their potential or seeking degree courses.

Peter principle…people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”: employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.


There are two strong reasons to do an MBA; the first is that if you want to progress to senior positions with a major corporation, it is a requirement, the second is that you want to learn a scientific approach to managing effectively.

An MBA curriculum should teach the fundamentals of management. It will cover the core functional areas, including accounting and finance, human resources, marketing, operations. A good programme will also cover leadership ideas such as strategy, law, and ethics. Most MBA courses will provide optional modules that cover entrepreneurship, digital transformation and global trade.

Many tech entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, have talked down the need for an MBA favouring people gaining technical skills. But good managers are essential, and the skill set is different from just being good at the technical parts of a job. The best MBA courses are highly selective and expect people to have gained technical proficiency in their specialist area and have ample experience in their field before joining. 

First, get good at the technical parts of your field, and then, if you choose to move up in an organisation and manage people, get an MBA.  

Learning as a habit

I have signed up for an MBA. After a three year break, I am ready to get back to formal study. An executive MBA seemed to be the logical option at 37 and for the current stage in my career. Since graduating, I have enjoyed unstructured learning, reading around my interests and focusing my intellectual energy on work. I have made significant progress on my journey to expertise, and I am building something at work to create disruptive change. To take my output to the next level, I need to learn more.

A part-time Masters degree is a big commitment, and making the most of the opportunity can take up to fifteen hours per week. Formal courses are designing to help students find this time with the accountability of regular deadlines, the curated path through content, and a community of peers for support. However, Fifteen hours is a significant addition on top of working forty to fifty-hour per week, training for at least 10, and spending an hour publishing 500 words per day. Finding those fifteen hours is going to require a conscious effort to make learning a daily habit. 

I read an article today from John Coleman on the Harvard Business Review website that suggested five ways in which you can cultivate a learning habit

  1. Have a clear outcome
  2. Set goals to achieve your outcome
  3. Build a community around your learning
  4. Develop your ability to focus
  5. Use technology to support your learning

I have a clear outcome of improving my performance at work by completing an MBA and applying what I learn to my career. I have a realistic goal of committing fifteen hours per week or around two hours per day to study, writing, and apply what I learn to work. The time commitment is made more accessible while I am not commuting to and from work, and I have built up a habit of writing each day. 

The MBA as a format is unique because it is built around community learning, making my role contributing to the pre-made community rather than having to create my own. The skill to focus for two hours per day over eighteen months will be the biggest challenge, but it is something that I have been working on for a while with daily blogging and in elements of my work. Finally, working in EdTech, the use of technology to support my learning should be easy.

I will dedicate a future post to each of these habits but is a formal course something you are interested in doing? Are you able to cultivate your learning habit using Coleman’s five suggestions? 

Contact me on Twitter if you want to discuss building a learning habit or starting a new course of formal study.

The Grail Diary

In the film Indiana Jones and the last crusade, Indiana’s father, Henry Jones, played by Sean Connery, has a Grail diary. This notebook is the complete collection of his notes and sketches made in search of the Holy Grail. The Grail is the cup that Jesus drank from at the last support and is fabled to have magical healing powers for anyone who drinks from it. 

According to the film, Dr Jones begins the notebook with his thoughts about the Holy Grail at the start of his search for it and gradually added to it whenever he found a new clue or piece of information that might help him find the cup. The notebook was carried with him at all times and acted as a personal reference guide for all things related to the legend of the cup and its hiding place.

Wade Watts borrows this idea in the book Ready Player One to keep a physical copy of all his research related to the challenge to find Halliday’s Easter Egg. Wade uses the Grail Diary throughout the challenges as an aid to his memory.

While studying for my Information Systems and Management degree, I created my version of a Grail Diary titled The CIO Handbook. I used a Google Drive document to store all my notes for each module and added anything else I picked up in my job or more extensive reading that might help me in the future. I still have this document and have created a couple of other Grail Diaries related to significant, long-term goals that I have set myself.

Many note-taking apps provide a better platform for a digital Grail Diary than a Google Doc. OneNote, Notion, and Evernote are great tools that make it easy to take and store notes that you can organise and quickly access when you need to remind yourself of something you have previously read or an idea you have had. The ultimate software for a Grail Diary is Roam Research; it is not the easiest tool to master, but it works like your own personal Wikipedia.

In knowledge representation and reasoning, a knowledge graph is a knowledge base that uses a graph-structured data model or topology to integrate data. Knowledge graphs are often used to store interlinked descriptions of entities – objects, events, situations or abstract concepts – with free-form semantics.


If you have a big challenge or goal, start your own Grail Diary. Add all your notes and ideas to the diary and use them as a reference whenever needed. You could start with a dead tree notebook or a simple Google or Word doc, but to make the most of the digital format, sign up to roam and begin to build a personal knowledge graph. 

Get in touch with me on Twitter if you have your own Grail Diary or start one and want to talk about your ideas on using one.

Think first, then write

Cal Newport recently published a post titled ‘In Defense of Thinking‘ where he writes about the importance of spending time thinking about what to say before writing. He argues it is the deep contemplation, not the writing, that is important. This idea is in direct opposition to writers’ advice to just sit down each day and get in a predefined word count done.

My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.

Ernest Hemingway

When I started studying at the LSE, I had not written an essay in several years. In the first few weeks, I read the university’s ‘Strategies for success’ study skills handbook guidance. The guidance given was that a large portion of the marks came from the quality of the answer to the essay question rather than just writing everything you could remember about the topic. The argument should be laid out in a single sentence in the introduction, with the rest of the writing build around this. The handbook said to think of an essay as a game where you show you can think and have read widely and then evidence your knowledge, analysis, critical skills and understanding. 

The typical format of the exam essays was to spend 45-60 minutes on a single question. From this time, we were taught to use 5-10 minutes to plan out the answer and structure of the argument. Within the 45 minutes, the aim was for around 1000 words that included a structured introduction, conclusion, and at least four paragraphs, each covering a specific justification of the answer. This structure was critical in making you think about the reasoning of your argument and structure theories, examples, rules, and texts to support it.

Writing guides like Writing that works by Keith Roman and Ninja Writing by Shani Raja suggest you start by structuring the narrative as bullet points before you write it out in continuous pros. Andres Erricson in Peak suggests that good writers start with what they want the reader to do before building an argument. The 5-10 minute essay plan, the bulleted narrative, and beginning with the call to action are tools to help you think about what to write before you start to put it into extended writing.

Experts do it differently. Consider how my coauthor and I put this book together. First, we had to figure out what we wanted the book to do. What did we want readers to learn about expertise? What concepts and ideas were important to introduce? How should a reader’s ideas about training and potential be changed by reading this book? Answering questions like these gave us our first rough mental representation of the book – our goals for it, what we wanted it to accomplish. Of course, as we worked more and more on the book, that initial image evolved, but it was a start.  

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

When you pick up books on writing that talk about the practice of writing as a method to beating writers blog, question if the approach being given will lead to quality writing. That last 45 minutes of actual writing might be the end product of hours of reading and thinking before sitting down to work. Separate your thinking from your writing and only write once you have something meaningful to say. This practice is about quality over quantity in your writing and about making you more intelligent in the process.

The MBA Intervew

Most Executive MBA programmes are highly selective and use various tools, including an application form and interview, to pick the course’s best candidates. Admissions officers are generally interested in three things; are you going to complete the course, are you going to do well, and what do you add to the cohort. 

Attrition rates can be as high as 23% for UK Masters degrees in some subject areas, and on average, 10% of MBA students will drop out before the end of the course. Many senior roles require an MBA as evidence that the applicant has well-rounded business knowledge that will allow them to lead large teams with significant budgets. If you are in a role where progression requires an MBA, then that is a good marker that you will complete. If not, you will need to provide evidence that you can commit to a long term commitment alongside your work. 

Masters degrees are graded into three categories, Pass, Merit, and Distinction, with students required to get a minimum of 50% in assessments to get a Pass, 60-69% to get a Merit, and over 70% for a Distinction. A part of the national and global ranking of a course is determined by the percentage of students who graduate and what grade they achieve, so admissions offices can be highly selective to keep these statistics high. You need to show that you can work at a high level and produce academic writing.

What you add to the cohort is particularly important for an MBA, where discussion, peer work, and networking form a large part of the course and a significant selling point for applicants. The Admissions Officers need to know that you fit with the course’s ethos and that you have unique perspectives on topics that will be covered to add to academic conversations. Finally, it is important that after graduation, you will raise the prestige of the course and institution by achieving things of note. For an Executive MBA, you should have a clear idea of what you want to achieve professionally and what sets you apart from other applicants.

The interview

Your application form’s success is largely down to your experiences and achievements so far and is not something that you can quickly improve. However, the interview is a chance for you to provide context to your application, so it is essential to prepare. An Executive MBA is a significant commitment of time and money, so the interview is also an opportunity for you to ask questions to help you make your decision if the course is right for you. 

The Admissions Officer will want to ask you questions about elements of your application, including details of your experience, your career goals, and how the course will help get you there. It is an excellent idea to do some reading about the course, and advisor you are meeting, past graduates, and come prepared to discuss personal and professional achievements. University cohorts and graduate opportunities are increasingly international, so it is essential to note your international experiences. 

QS HE insights and rating organisation suggest some questions that you should prepare some answers for before the interview:

  • Why the EMBA and what led you to make the decision about attending business school at this time?
  • How will the EMBA assist you in achieving your short and long term goals?
  • What are you looking to get out of the program?
  • Tell us about your work experience and how an MBA will fit with plans for the future?

Final notes

  • Treat it like an important meeting and dress appropriately.
  • Know what makes you stand out from other applicants.
  • Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve in your professional career and why an MBA is necessary.
  • Do some brief research on the admissions officer you will meet to show your interest and commitment
  • Have some notes around:
    • Your background
    • Education
    • Career history
    • Goals and aspirations for the future
    • Why this specific course is of interest to you
    • Why a business degree


I completed my degree part-time while working full-time in my early thirties. One of the first modules I took was Introduction to Economics, which had pre-calculus level maths as a prerequisite. I had taken an AS in mathematics at school ten years before but had not done anything since. I found Khan Academy on the internet and started to work through the knowledge map towards my goal. The site used rudimentary gaming principles, including rules; you used to need ten questions correct in a row to ‘master’ the skill. It also required you to set goals, provide feedback, and give rewards. I spent four to six intensive weeks relearning maths from the ground up and complete my economics module.

Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. It can also be defined as a set of activities and processes to solve problems by using or applying the characteristics of game elements.

The three core elements of gamification:

  • Points as visual identifiers of progress and provide meaning and purpose
  • Badges display and reward achievement
  • Leaderboards present competitive placement as a sign of social status

Gamification in education attempts to add elements of fun into learning by making lessons into games. Games are motivating; sports were created to keep people motivated to stay fit and healthy, and Games like chess help people learn strategy. By making learning more fun, it can potentially become more engaging.

Kahoot is an excellent example of simple gamification in education. Kahoot is a multiple choice quiz tool that teachers can use in live sessions to use a leaderboard to motivate students. Students use their mobile phones to follow along with the teacher’s questions and are scored on the speed of their correct answers. A leaderboard is presented after each question showing the highest-scoring students self-assigned title providing a level of anonymity where needed. 

Yu-kai Chou provides eight universal core drivers of gamification in the Octalysis model framework described in Actionable Gamification

  1. Meaning – the desire to feel that our actions have purpose
  2. Accomplishment – The drive to achieve and overcome challenges
  3. Empowerment – The desire to choose one’s own direction and try a variety of solutions to a problem
  4. Ownership – The desire to own things and have possession
  5. Social Influence – The drive to interact with, help, learn from, and compete with others
  6. Scarcity – The drive of wanting things you can’t have
  7. Unpredictability – The drive of wanting to know what will happen next, and…
  8. Avoidance – The drive to avoid pain or negative consequences.

The UX knowledge base has a three-part series on gamification that is worth a read if you are interested in learning the basics: 

Solving problems

Problem-solving can be explained in four simple steps:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Generate multiple solutions
  3. Evaluate these possible solutions and select the best fit
  4. Implement the solution and gather feedback on its effectiveness

All design and development methodologies, from software engineering to city building, follow these four steps. The QS Global Graduate Skills Gap in the 21st Century employment survey placed problem-solving as the number one skill missing from graduates in the workplace. If you can get really good at performing each one and put them together in order, you will be effective in most jobs.

The financial return on investment of a degree

The average student from a low-income background will borrow £53,000 to attend a three-year degree at university, which rises to £28240.75 with interest if left unpaid over 30 years. The first £27,750 covers tuition fees, with the rest used for maintenance costs, including rent, food, and socialising, with four-fifths of students living away from home to study.

The graduate or professional premium is a term used to describe the increase in average wages that university graduates can expect having achieved a degree.

Students are told that going to university is an investment. The UK Government has claimed a graduate premium of an additional £400,000 of income over a lifetime. 1999 Age-earnings reported The Economic Journal showed the premium at an average of £410,000, the premium has reduced to just £100,000.

Over a 45 year working life, £100,000 is just £2,222 per year before income tax and national insurance. This increase in earnings does not cover the interest accruing on the loan. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, 20% of students would have been earning more ten years after graduating if they had skipped university and gone straight into work instead. 

It is important to note that the graduate premium is an average, and the return differs significantly by gender and subject area. According to the Institute of Economic Affairs, male Medical and Dentistry graduates earn an average of £400,000 more over their working lives than non-graduates. Male Creative Arts and Design graduates earn £10,000 less than non-graduates over their working lives.   

There are many reasons to go to university. Still, the financial return on your investment of delaying starting your career by three years and the £28k-£53k dept is only financially beneficial if you choose your degree specifically for that reason.