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.

Have a plan to get lean, to get fast

Getting to a healthy race weight is a crucial part of performing well in endurance events. You need to have a target weight, a plan to get there, and then weigh yourself each day, adjusting the programme when required based on your weekly average weight. A simple strategy is to eat better and move more, but what if you need more guidance?

Researchers at the University of Oxford have created a list of 53 weight loss actions as part of their PREVAIL programme to help people make daily action plans. The weight loss actions are divided into seven categories:

  1. Eat in a structured way
  2. Avoiding or swapping specific foods
  3. Changing what you drink
  4. Creating a healthier diet
  5. Meal-time tactics
  6. Burn more calories
  7. Be more active as part of your daily life

The Oxford researchers carried out a study measuring the effectiveness of self-regulation on weight loss, allow individuals to weigh themselves daily in the morning and then create an action plan from the list for the day based on the result. At the end of the week, they evaluated the effectiveness of the actions chosen and their effect on weight change. Over an eight week study, participants, all starting with a BMI of over 30, lost an average of 4.18kg, 3.2kg less than the control group.

How to create a self-regulation intervention plan for weight loss

  1. Find your A: Weight yourself first thing in the morning
  2. Find your B: Set a target weight
  3. Weigh yourself first thing each morning
  4. Choose one or more actions from the list for the day
  5. Perform the planned action(s)
  6. Reflect on the effectiveness of the actions weekly
  7. Repeat until you reach your target weight

Aim for no more than 0.5kg per week, increase your protein intake, and do regular resistance training to avoid muscle loss. If you are continuing to train hard while losing weight, make sure you have a clear plan for fueling pre, during, and post workouts to ensure you have the energy to perform the planned activity and feed your body with what it needs to recover. This fueling plan should be differentiated for the various intensities and durations of your workout; fuel long and intense workouts but perhaps do some of the shorter, less intense workouts fasted.     

My plan

My current average weekly weight 83.7kg, according to my Withings Body+ scale weekly email. I have a target race weight this season of 78kg based on the Stillman height/weight ratio table and my current body fat percentage. I have signed up for the Maderia Skyrun, so I aim to hit my race weight for the 8th of October. This goal gives me just under 24 weeks to lose 5.7kg or 0.24kg per week. 

Each day this week, I will weigh myself immediately after waking up and pick at least one action from the PREVAIL study to focus on that day. My Witherings email summarising my weekly weight is sent on Mondays, so I will use that day to evaluate my progress. I prefer the positive actions where you add things rather than remove them. I will focus on these actions first, including burning more calories, drinking at least a litre of water a day or a pint of water before each meal, and using fruit and veg or a protein shake as snacks.

When to stop

I love productivity; I read books about it, watch Youtube videos about it, and follow the feeds of productivity ‘gurus’ on Twitter. It is important to get things done and use your time wisely, but when we are tired, should we rest and push through?

I am tired this evening writing this. I have got a reasonable amount done today; I trained, completed a full day at work, and had an Aubergine Katsu curry prepared for my wife shortly after returning home. But I still have to take the garden waste bin out, and I have to put away some clean washing. I have to sort out my messy gym gear draw, and tidy the kitchen and clear my desk. I had a big post planned for this evening on some teaching theory, and I have to send some links to my cousin and have a few missed calls during my run to return.

As an adult, I know I need to do these things, but where is the line that you stop and start again tomorrow? The bin must be done as they come early in the morning, a messy kitchen will irritate me, and I am committed to writing posts each day. The rest will have to wait.

I can’t help but think that I would feel better if I get my head down and do all of it, I might start doing the first few items and then get a second wind, but equally, I could fall asleep on the sofa where I sit and start again tomorrow. We shall see.

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.

Posture and a flat stomach

We all want to look healthy and make a good impression, but with a year of staying at home hunched over laptops and slumped down on sofas with only a little walking, our bodies have lost some of their stature. In England, lockdown is beginning to be lifted as the days become warmer and the successful vaccine programme takes its effects on infections. Now is the time to start undoing some of the negative impacts of remote working and returning our natural posture. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger has two suggested daily activities that will significantly impact how we look, and probably how we feel as a result; stomach vacumes to build the muscles that hold in our stomachs and wall stands to straighten out our bodies and stand tall.


Arnold suggests we spend five minutes daily standing with our back to a wall. Your feet should be a couple of inches away from the wall, you should stand tall imagining a cord being pulled up from the crown of your head, and you should have three points of contact with the wall; bum, shoulders, and head. I like to put my B&W PX7’s on and enjoy a 5-minute track while my muscles stretch back into position.

Flat stomach 

Most of us have weak stomach muscles from lots of sitting around and from under-exercising them. Try three sets of 15 seconds stomach vacumes. To perform a stomach vacuum, pull in your belly button as far back towards your spin as possible and hold it there for 15 seconds. You may find bending over slightly and resting your hands on a table helps you get into the position and hold the vacuum for longer.

Arnold also recommends 200 crunches first thing in the morning.

Dead hang

I find that dead hanging from a bar for 30 seconds works great to undo my poor sitting posture too. I do my first 30 seconds after exercise in the morning, the second when I break for lunch, and the third as I finish up working at the end of the day. You can learn more about the benefits of the dead-hang from my post on shoulder health. 

These three exercises performed daily will have a noticeable difference in the way you look and feel in just a couple of weeks. You will stand straighter, have a flatter belly, and healthier shoulders. 

Time-limited project approachs

Today, I was asked to do a last-minute presentation on my teams approach to course and module design for online and flexible programmes. The main aim is to get the right people in the room and create space to take them through a practical approach based on what we know to work and addressing what has gone wrong in the past. 

In the presentation, I focused on three key characteristics of the approach;

  1. Parkinson’s law where work expands to fill the time allocated 
  2. Capabilities Maturity Model, where we formalise and optimise the process to reliably and sustainably produce required outcomes
  3. Design thinking, a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.

Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. The more time we allocate to a task, the more of it we waste, the less time we assign, the more efficient we have to be, cutting out anything that is not essential to getting the job done. When a deadline is far away, we tend to spend some of our available time in active procrastination or giving away the time to other demands. It is only when a delivery date approaches that we ruthlessly trim anything non-essential to complete the task and constrain our activity to what matters. Restricting the delivery time allotted to only what is needed to complete the task creates focus.

Once we have trimmed the time, we need to use a defined series of actions to help get the outcome required. Process maturity refers to the extent to which the process is managed, defined, measured, and controlled to ensure a reliable and sustainable development each time the process is used. As a manager, I need to know that no matter who is assigned to a project, I can have confidence that a certain level of service and quality is achieved; a mature process with frequent feedback loops supports this. The Capability Maturity Model has five levels;

  1. Initial: Unpredictable and reactive – each individual runs each project based on their own with little standardisation
  2. Managed: Project management – projects are dealt with in a systematic and organised way
  3. Defined: Proactive – standards and process are provided across all projects
  4. Quantitatively managed – Measured and controlled – metrics are used to monitor and improve performance and provide a predictable level of quality
  5. Optimising: Stable and flexible – feedback loops offer continuous improvement and the ability to be agile and innovative.

Design thinking is a structured approach to product development and provides the process that the capability maturity model fits around. There are three broad phases; First, you understand the problem, explore possible solutions, and then finally materialise the selected outcome. Within these three phases, there are six main activities;

  • Understand
    • Empathise: carry out research such as interviews and observations to understand the user or client and their stories.
    • Define: use the research to write a clear definition of the problem. This might include user personas that use cases.
  • Explore
    • Ideate: Divergent thinking is used to generate as many possible solutions without judgment. Then, Convergent thinking is carried out, with each idea evaluated, and the best is chosen. 
    • Prototype: A version of the solution is created to test the idea with the user or client. This might be as simple as a paper prototype on a series of slides or a one-page document, or a quickly generated but fully working minimum viable product.
  • Materialise
    • Test: The prototype is put in front of users to refine and validate the proposed solution. 
    • Implement: The solution is built and delivered to users.

To illustrate the approach, I used three examples;

  • Example 1: Google’s Design Sprints
  • Example 2: The universities Course Design sprints
  • Example 3: My teams adapted ABC Module Design Workshop

Time-limited approaches to projects work as they create focus. A mature process optimises the time available, and divergent and convergent thinking produces better ideas. Testing the solution allows a design to be refined and validated before it is released.

Limiting delivery times and defining the process is effective once working, but the transition creates challenges. The first is that those implementing the changes need to build credibility, so they are trusted. Most people know how they want to solve a problem and can be resistant to a design process they see as unnecessary and overly structured. Finally, most people are busy but are unpracticed at estimating how much time something takes to complete; they tend to panic when they see work in clearly defined packages and want to ‘just get work done.

This weeks training

An example of a current week of training:

Bike30/15 – 3 sets of 11 reps @125% FTP60 mins between 62.5 and 75% FTP90 mins + 6 second maximal sprints30/15 – 3sets of 12 reps @125% FTP60 mins between 62.5 and 75% FTP 90 mins + 6 second maximal sprints Off
S&CMP 5x(2,3,5)
Snatch 3×7
Swings 3×7
Squat 8-6-4
Deadlift 120kg
Swings 10×7
C&P 5×1
Snatch 3×7
Swings 3×7
C&P 5×1
Snatch 3×7
Swings 3×7
Squat 8-6-4
Deadlift 120kg
Swings 10×8
Loaded carries
C&P 5x(1,2,3,4,5) Off
Core50 sit-ups
60-sec  plank
50 sit-ups
70-sec plank
50 sit-ups
80-sec plank
50 sit-ups
90-sec plank
50 sit-ups
100-sec plank
50 sit-ups
110-sec  plank
Run20-25 minsHill sprints 3x 8 sec 20-25 mins
10 min warm-up
Surges 8x 20 secs w/ 40 sec jog
5 min cooldown
Hill sprints 3x 8 sec
20-30 mins
20-25 minsOff
StretchDead hang
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Training plan for week commencing 22nd March

My main goal is to get to a four w/kg FTP on the bike and total around seven hours of riding on Zwift each week. As my main priority, the riding is done in the morning to make sure I don’t ever miss it. The schedule follows a polarised programme with two HIIT sessions per week. The 30/15 intervals involve repeats of 30 seconds at 125% FTP, followed by 15 seconds at 50% of that number.

The strength and conditioning workouts support my riding goal and is mainly maintenance. Swings are with a 40kg kettlebell (The Bulldog), the presses are with a 24kg kettlebell and a 32kg for the 5×1 clean and presses. The strength sessions are short and fit into a break at lunch on most days.

I am using the running to get some additional aerobic training, get out of the house, and prepare for the second half of the year when I transition to focus on getting to the next level of the distance runners progression 40 minutes 10km. I run in the evening after work.

My current morning routine

6:00 Wake up

6:05 50 sit-ups

6:10 Protein shake

6:15 Plank

6:20 Yogurt + berries

7:00 Bike

8:30 Shower

8:40 Stretch

8:50 Work

Getting started with deep work

Most of us spend our day constantly switching between tasks while being disrupted by notifications from our phones, email, and instant messaging apps like MS Teams or Slack. This ‘context switching’ has a cost on our ability to focus on the things that matter in our work.

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work separates work into two categories, deep and shallow work: 

Deep work: “Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Cal Newport

Shallow work: “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Cal Newport

You need to be intentional about how you spend the working day, or you will default towards shallow tasks at the expense of what matters. Newport argues that to be the best at what you do, you need to focus your time on as much deep work as you can manage first, and then use the rest of the day for shallow work such as responding to email, direct messages, and attending meetings.

“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

CAl Newport

Most of us are so used to shallow and distracted work that we have, at best, forgotten and, at worst, never learnt how to truly focus on our work. Developing a deep work practise requires periods where we block out distractions and concentrate on high-value tasks.

Building a deep work habit

  1. If you have a reasonably predictable schedule and can plan your week and day ahead of time, block out time for deep work to develop a regular habit. 
  2. Assign a task to each deep work block in your plan.
  3. Schedule your shallow work, including checking email around this to protect deep work from distractions.
  4. choose a comfortable workspace where you can minimise distractions
  5. Turn off your phone, close your email and messaging apps, and mute notifications.
  6.  Set a timer for your desired duration and commit to concentrating only on your assigned task until the timer finishes.
  7. Once complete, note down any distractions or anything that stopped you from concentrating on the task. Make an effort to prevent this from happening next time.

Start with 15 minutes of distraction-free focused work and gradually increase the time over several weeks till you can do 90 minutes of uninterrupted deep work.

Weekly planning

If you have a job that requires you to complete work that can’t be completed in a single day, you need to write weekly plans. Spending time to plan how you will spend your week will allow you to get more done by identifying what you need to do and then moving your commitments around to make space. Daily planning for 5 minutes each morning using time-blocking is the best way to be productive. Still, most of us have projects that can last weeks or months; starting with a high-level weekly overview will help you make room for these daily plans, first dividing the work into smaller chunks and then moving around your commitments to fit these into your schedule. Weekly planning will also allow you to find time for your two hours of deliberate practice each day.

Build smart weekly plans. Use these plans to develop effective daily time-block schedules. Execute those daily schedules with intensity, and then when done for the day, shut down completely.

Cal Newport

Start with a blank A4 page and do a mind dump of everything you can think of that you need to get done. Not using a specific format provides flexibility for the challenges and specifics of the coming week. You might choose a chronological approach where you write the days of the week with some bullet points for each day to support time blocking, or you may take a thematic approach for weeks that are taken up by meetings and appointments. Planning using themes will allow you to fit tasks around when you have free time.

Do a weekly plan on the weekend or first thing Monday morning. I prefer Sunday afternoons after lunch at a coffee shop to keep focused on the task and get out of the house. It can take 30-60 minutes to do a brain dump, look through your calendar, review current projects in your planning system and possibly empty your email inbox. I like to write a short, three minute read, review of the week for my team as part of the process but this can take extra time.

It’s this combination of high-level weekly plans with detailed daily time-block schedules that unlocks the full potential of this productivity system. The Weekly/Daily approach is what allows you to move around obligations like pieces on a chessboard and construct configurations of your schedule that enable you to accomplish head-turning amounts of work, all while staying on top of the various small requests and tasks pulling at your attention.

Cal Newport

My one o’clock Sunday afternoon calendar prompt 

The following text is in a recurring calendar event on Sundays at 1 PM. I go to my favourite local coffee shop, get a strong coffee, put my headphones on, and work through the steps. 

Calendar event text:

Aim: Have all your time accounted for (including rest/relaxation/recovery time) 

  • Step 1: Mind dump – tasks, ideas, and commitments.
  • Step 2: Review the previous week – write a three-minute summary and send it to the team.
  • Step 3: Unstructured plan for the week – write a plan.txt.
  • Step 4: review plan daily.

Ideas for weekly planning

  1. Set weekly goals – one per role (husband, student etc.) and sharpening the saw goals (physical, mental, social, and spiritual).
  2. Reoccuring time blocks – 1. sharpening the saw 2. daily planning.
  3. Plan your big rocks – most important tasks – block them on the calendar.
  4. Fill in the gaps from using the mind dump.

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.