How to (4): Think about emerging events

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Garfield & time*

It is one of the oldest tricks in the books, and it is extremely effective: the urgency matrix. The urgency matrix is a guide to thinking about events which, inescapably, will emerge in your life. Usually during the course of the day. By email, text, pm, App or phone. Or at your desk. And even though they tend to feel urgent, they rarely are.

The question is; are you aware that your emotions are in play and that you are in control of what you do. Being effective in spending time is a skill you can easily and quickly acquire. All it takes is a healthy framework to assess your decisions through.

Before we dive into the urgency matrix, you need to take a step back and think about what drives decisions. Research tells us that the inability to make decisions is very much related to your ability to feel and interpret emotions related to any decision; decisions are not purely rational.

So coupling an event to a decision is a process that is not facilitated by a sliding scale of pro’s and con’s. Rather, it is a mix of your conscious mind weighing related thoughts and your emotional mind adding feelings about the possibilities you have before you. And you  know that sticking to your work is difficult when the more appealing alternative emerges. But you rarely make a conscious decision to leave your work; you will simply take a quick break.

Who do you think you are you kidding?

The urgency matrix might help you  stop, drop and roll, when you find your work rhythm interrupted. It gives you four categories to consider framing the emerging event. This can be a call from a friend, who has to tell you all about the crazy date he had on the weekend, or a WhatsApp from your girlfriend telling you to pick up milk at the supermarket on your way home.

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Urgency Matrix

The four categories are quite simple to comprehend. Let us start with a question: In which category do you ideally want to spend most of your time? Take a moment to think about it, while you look at the image above.

Could it be “Not Urgent, Not Important”? If every day were a sunday (and sunday is your day off), then you could spend the entire day doing unimportant, irrelevant things. Since this is also the category in which most unfulfilling tasks are aggregated, ask yourself this: What do I do, day to day, week to week, that is not urgent and not important? Is this what you want to spend your time on? Really?

Perhaps “Urgent, Not Important”? Definetely need to take care of this now. No time to waste; I need to get check the Huffington Post, or Perez Hilton, at least three times a day for the latest news and update my friends about my lunch and the great oakleaf in my latte’s foam… Maybe not. Many things seem important, where as they are simply irrelevant to any of the goals you have set in your life, nor are they relevant to tasks you wanted to complete at the start of the day. So why are you spending more than three hours every day on these menial tasks? Is your friendship really going to be put on hold if you aren’t up to date on the latest gossip? Who really cares about your lunch anyway? Seriously…

All right, then it’s got to be “Urgent and Important”? It could be. Life happens, and at times things come up that require your attention; right now. Not always, but you can spot them right off. A friend who is really in trouble (or got heartbroken five minutes ago…), perhaps a paper you thought was due next week turns out to be due tomorrow? Things become urgent and important for two reasons:

  1. You put it off too long, and now you have to get it done
  2. You are confronted with an emergency that is relevant to any one of your goals

Whatever the reason for something to be urgent and important, you need to act now. No time to doubt; make a decision and do something. If you live like this every day it gets real tiring, real fast. Do you really want to life like this? Think about it…


So what is left? You want to plan your agenda in such a way that most things that you need to do are important and not urgent. It is that simple. You do what needs to get done, and you do it timely. That way you avoid finding yourself in the urgent and important zone too often, where it could have been prevented.

How do you decide what is important and not urgent? Think about your goals; and ask yourself three simple questions:

  1. what do I want to accomplish over the course of time?
  2. how does this emerging event relate to what I want to accomplish?
  3. how much time have I spent on this goal in the past week?

Questions like these, with an honest answer will quickly help you discern the distractions from the priorities. And when you focus on your priorities, you get things done which matter to you.

Sometimes things will feel important and urgent. And when that happens, you now know to look for the not urgent but important things in your life as a measure for the appropriate action. You are the master of your emotions, and handling distractions is one of the major tests in achievement.

To answer the question, spend most of your time doing things which are not urgent, but important. That is where true fulfillment lies, waiting for you to find it.

*Source Garfield and Time

How to (3): Memorize a list, use your brainpower

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Figure 1. (Image taken from braininjury.com*)

Memorization is hard. Memorizing a list is harder. Besides using the memory palace technique when preparing for an exam to create an almost full proof memory of lists, facts and figures, it is important to commit relevant facts to memories. Looking further by standing on a giants shoulders’ means that you must climb and stand upon these shoulders first. Learning is crucial in applying the knowledge creatively or critically, depending on the circumstances. Here is how you do it.

Since the brain is a recurring theme in my writing, you and I will go for the maximum usefulness of the exercise by looking into five distinct aspects of the brain. Mind you the brain is a bit more complex than these five regions put together, but knowing about each of them and what we think we might now about their functions (I am talking to a neurologist in a month or so and will bring this blog to his attention for revision), will certainly help explore the brain in greater detail. Oh yes, and you will get a crash course in comprehensive reading and memorizing lists. Deal? OK. Let us get started.

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingSurvey the image above, at the start of the article. What do you see? Make sure you have a notepad handy and simply jot down the central idea of a mind map. This is the first step.

Now you could simply copy the five items in a list, and try to memorize them in order, say counter clockwise:

  1. Frontal Lobe
  2. Parietal Lobe
  3. Occipital Lobe
  4. Temporal Lobe
  5. Cerebellum

But if you have read any of my blogs on reading for the sake fo learning, you know this is a terrible idea. First, your mind is just not that good at remembering lists, in order.  So why bother? Second the list is quite useless as by the end of creating your list, you have no inclination as to which part of the brain you are referring to or any other useful information you may associate this new information to. Rather, let’s take a radically new approach:

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Click to enlarge

As you can see for each part of the brain in the diagram in figure 1, two actions are taken in learning about the brain. First, a question is asked about the location of the brain segment in relation to something you are familiar with, your head or your neck. Second, a description of the location relative to something familiar like “over my eyes” is added.

The next step is to formulate the answers. When you are doing this by hand, it is easy because you can quickly draw a new diagram, and jot down the answers, in a visually relevant way:

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning Studying

OK, so now you have the basic relative positions of the brain sections in mind.

Let us look a bit closer at the prefrontal lobe and its attributes. Ask yourself a question about the prefrontal lobe, such as: “What do I know about the prefrontal lobe at this moment?:

Your answer obviously includes: It sits at the front of my brain, somewhere above my eyes. Further, you could include some random knowledge such as: It is related to memory, I think. Remember, you do not have to be right when you answer these questions before having learnt the material, but it is important start building the associations in your brain.

(A second question might be: what is the function of the prefrontal lobe in my brain?)

Now let’s add some information, taken from Wikipedia on the Prefrontal Lobe:

“The frontal lobe is an area in the brain of mammals, located at the front of each cerebral hemisphere and positioned anterior to (in front of) the parietal lobe and superior and anterior to the temporal lobes. It is separated from the parietal lobe by a space between tissues called the central sulcus, and from the temporal lobe by a deep fold called the lateral (Sylvian) sulcus. The precentral gyrus, forming the posterior border of the frontal lobe, contains the primary motor cortex, which controls voluntary movements of specific body parts.

The frontal lobe contains most of the dopamine-sensitive neurons in the cerebral cortex. The dopamine system is associated with reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. Dopamine tends to limit and select sensory information arriving from the thalamus to the fore-brain. A report from the National Institute of Mental Health says a gene variant that reduces dopamine activity in the prefrontal cortex is related to poorer performance and inefficient functioning of that brain region during working memory tasks, and to slightly increased risk for schizophrenia.”

That is quite some information to sift through. Can you circle the key information in this section, that is the information that will allow you to build on the concept of the prefrontal lobe as it exists in your brain right now? Again, rather than listing them, map them.

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Essentially you repeat these final two steps for each of the five aspects of the brain from Figure 1.

In the end, your narrative may run something like this:

The brain has five main parts I can distinguish right now. At the front above my eyes somewhere is the prefrontal lobe. It is associated with my motor skills, such as my ability to type or tip-toe, but also with dopamine. This substance influences cognition such as attention, short term memory, planning and motivation. In a nutshell my prefrontal lobe is important for my ability to think.”

Piecing the information together,  you can move from a description of its location in your brain to the more functional aspects of your temporal lobe. The power of association is built and strengthened through practice.

As you challenge yourself to describe, place and answer questions as you study, you build and strengthen these connections. It may seem to take a bit longer at first, but after three months, the deep processing you utilize from the onset ensure learning and the ability to use this information in your reasoning, because it is accesible in your mind.

You can go all out, adding images, imagery and vivid descriptions at any step of the way. At some point this blog will be updated to include those examples, but for now these are the basics. Enjoy and give it a try. It is worth it.

*Source Figure 1

How to (2): Making the connection(s)

The Student Achievement Program SQ3RActive reading works. In fact, actively participating in learning is linked to remembering information. Does that surprise you? It sure doesn’t surprise me.

What is surprising is the fact that students simply do not apply themselves to reading actively (even when they see their peers’ results improving as a result) – thus forcing themselves to spend more time re-reading texts, re-writing notes and re-viewing course material than is necessary. Why? So you can save time today; active reading takes time, effort and persistence. As with any good thing, learning does not come easy.

The Student Achievement Program SQ3RStep 1. When you engage your brain in what you are reading, you use the existing pathways between your memories by linking the information you are reading to what you already know. A simple way to do this is to start by surveying the chapter.

To increase your ability to remember, organizing information is key. You already know that your memory works associatively. However, if you store tomatoes in the category vegetable, you might want to rethink your fruits.

Thankfully over time books evolved into well organized tomes of information. Most modern textbooks actually make use of a full array of didactic measures to facilitate learning. Sadly enough, since you are not a professional educator, these measures are often lost on you. Reading the main text is hard enough as it is, right?

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Disney’s Dumbo

Even though you think associatively, clustering information will make it easier for you to remember. As you think of an elephant’s snout or massive body, it becomes easier to describe the other parts of this majestic animal, in turn making it easier to recollect any knowledge you possess about elephants in general. But it’s all categorized somewhere around elephant.

Before you read a chapter go back to the index, or table of contents. Here you will find a list of topics that will be covered in the chapter you are about to read. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I know about the topic I am about to read?
  2. What do I know about the first topic of the chapter?
  3. What do I know about the second topic of the chapter?
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An example of a survey-question-doodle…

And write down what you are thinking! Either in a mind map create a short overview per topic of the knowledge you can connect it to, or scribble some notes; but be involved!

Why? There are two reasons. First of all, when you, before you take  in new knowledge, access the existing memories on, or related to, the topic, you are building the connections in your brain. The more frequently you access these memories through these connections, the easier recall becomes. Every attempt counts.

Second, you immediately start organizing this new within the relevant memories. When roaming about a certain topic in your mind, you increase the likeliness of you stumbling upon the association you are looking for. This puts making the connection in a different light, doesn’t it.  

Comprehensive reading. Now the reading starts. With the topic outline in mind, begin reading the text, sticking to the important topics and their context. Where you can, copy the key terms and their descriptors, while placing them in the context of the main topic. Can you do this? If this is hard, it means that you are constructing, through your effort, the frame of reference upon which you can build more knowledge.

The Student Achievement Program SQ3RIf the learning is difficult, it does not mean that you are not intelligent; rather it means that you are stretching your intelligence, growing in your ability to comprehend and use this new information.

Our brain has the ability to easily recognize and organize known constructs; new concepts need to be formed and categorized. The latter takes time and energy – that is why you may feel very tired after reading just one page of neuroscience-related articles when your field of study is sports management.

By asking yourself questions while you read and paraphrasing the material, either in mind maps or notes, you engage your brain in the material.

You are almost there! When you have completed a paragraph, or a chapter read back your notes to yourself. You may do this out loud – it is called recite for a reason. Can you answer the questions you posed to yourself when you began reading? What do you remember? Which elements do you forget? Can you think of a way to connect these elements to what you do remember?

In the end, over time you can review your notes. When you start of by answering the questions you had at the onset, you immediately move from passively reviewing to actively searching your brain for what you remember about the material.

Reviewing get’s easier over time, and as the new becomes a part of your framework, you enable yourself to learn new, more complex concepts based on these fundamentals even faster. By putting in the effort in when you start with chapter one, you make comprehension of chapter eight easier.

So, Survey, Question, Read, Recite and Review. SQ3R. Give it a try – it works. Science fact.

How to (1): The Timeline Exercise

The Student Achievement ProgramOn these pages you will find a set of “how to” guides in relation to learning. These are all drafts and are regularly revised in order to improve the usefulness of the blog for you. If yo have any comments or suggestions, feedback or ideas, please let me know!

Planning your term. You know you have time. Do you really have as much time as you think? To work towards your exams you need to clearly set the time you have available for yourself in your mind, with a deadline. Not just in your head, on paper. Something visual, that shows you from today, when you start planning the major events in the coming learning term. Why?

You, like everybody, are probably amazing at time-manipulationYou are convinced that the events in the future are just far enough away that doing things today can wait till tomorrow. It is funny how the future has a way of getting closer and closer to you every day.

Stop kidding yourself! 48 days sounds a lot more urgent than one and a half months. Or even better: the end of the term is almost half a year away… No it is not. Likely it is five or even three months away. But months are not exact, they seem long. Three months feels like a long time; a 90 days notice on the other hand means something different entirely.

It is easier to keep track of days than months, especially when you are working on more than one course at a time. Start with the end of the term, the date of your first exam, in mind, and put it to paper.

To help you with this, here is a helpful exercise I use with students in my workshops. Once you get the hang of it, the timeline exercise takes you five to ten minutes to complete. Do it at the beginning of a planning session, and you make sure your plan takes into account most of the events that will almost certainly take place during the term which lies ahead of you.

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Step 1: Draw a timeline

The Timeline. At the start of a session on planning a term, drawing a timeline from your first exam to today is very indicative of how you perceive the time you have. At a first glance, it seems like you have all the time in the world. Here you stand today, and about ten weeks from today you have your first exam. What happens when I ask you to fill out key events which you know will take place within the coming ten weeks? Probably something like this.

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Step 2: Key events on your timeline

That looks a bit different, doesn’t it? In most study programs you will follow a course outline. You know today what is expected of you for the coming period. And likely you also know that you are taking a trip somewhere in October, and that your friend Jane is celebrating her birthday the last weekend of September.

What makes me smile when doing this exercise is that the first timeline drawn at the start of the term is always optimistic. Especially in relation to the time to the first exam. However, as you fill out the events, you start to see that  putting things off might not be the best idea.

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Are you manipulating time in your mind?

Studying is just one part of life. When you plan for your studies, consider that you have a life. Your studies are a part of that life and if you are not careful,  you may lose track of both. By making the amount of time till the end of the term visual, and revising the events in your life week by week, you take charge of your time.

Put this timeline up on a wall next to your desk, or keep it on today’s page of your agenda. It works better than any motivational or inspirational quote you can find, because it shows you what you need to get done as the term progresses. And that will make you very effective in your actions.

Step by step in words

  1. Draw a line from right to left across a paper
  2. The ending point is the date of your first exam
  3. The starting point is today
  4. Moving forward along the line from today, start adding events such as tests, papers, birthdays, trips, appointments, project meetings etc.
  5. Hang this overview in your working space
  6. Create an updated timeline every week