Inside Mark’s Head: Musings on Time Management, Critical Thinking, Effective Learning, and More

Behold! More musings on topics like time management, critical thinking, effective learning and more. And as always, you’ll find actionable takeaways to get better results in your life and business. Enjoy.


Learning: 5 Tips To Improve Your Skill and Wisdom Development

Long time readers know that learning and reading are my personal obsessions. And in today’s day and age, there’s never been a better time for self-directed learners. We have resources unheard of even fifteen years ago: access to most of the world’s books with one-click ordering, instantly downloadable audiobooks, free online courses from the world’s best universities and teachers, small computers in our pocket to absorb digital options, etc. 

However, like anything in life, working smarter is better than working harder. Furthermore, there’s a difference between getting the gist of an educational resource vs. deep understanding vs. reliably being able to utilize the skills and frameworks presented. I’ve spent the past year or so doing a deep dive on how to learn most effectively. Here are my latest actionable takeaways.

1) Physiology Matters – Exercise and sleep are a big part of successful learning. When we exercise, we are literally creating new neurons. And sleep is a crucial component in long term memory encoding. Regular exercise and consistently sleeping seven to eight hours per night will do wonders for your learning.

2) “Bite By Bite” – When we’re looking to encode knowledge and skills into our long term memory, we do best by spacing out our learning over time. We can’t truly remember concepts for the long haul until we start to forget and then manage to recall. While it can be fun to go on an education binge every once in a while, effective long term memory creation is best served by repetition over time.

3) Environment – Interestingly enough, learning (and recall) is often environment dependent. In addition to spending some dedicated time recalling, articulating and/or practicing what you’ve been learning, you’ll get extra bang for your buck by doing it somewhere other than where you learned it in the first place.

4) Learning By Doing – Particularly if the goal is skill acquisition, one has to experience some discomfort. Without going through the four stages of competence, you’re likely creating what’s called “The Illusion of Competence”; you have a superficial understanding of the topic or skill masquerading as mastery because it hasn’t been tested. Real time practice with immediate feedback and teaching others are both great ways to solidify your learning.

5) Active Engagement – Learning is an active process. While there’s nothing wrong with passively exposing yourself to information for enjoyment, you won’t have the same outcome as actively engaging with the material. Examples of active engagement include asking and answering questions like:

  • How can I apply this in my life/work?
  • How would I restate this concept to explain it to someone else?
  • How sure am I that the author is correct about this point?
  • Where else I have encountered concepts like this before?

A pro-tip here is to actually write your thoughts and questions in the margins of your book. For digital resources, consider creating a separate set of notes to capture your observations and questions.

Here are a few more resources if you’re interested in joining me down this rabbit hole:

  • Learning How to Learn – Amazing course on Coursera that shares some best practices based on our current understanding of how learning works. The MFF Team is actually doing it as our next group learning assignment.
  • How To Read A Book – The classic book by Mortimer Adler on how to be an effective reader. A bit dry, but still some valuable considerations.
  • ZingTrain’s Bottom Line Training – This course is technically about learning how to train other people, but of course that means you’ll learn more best practices for learning, specifically as they relate to training people in work environments.

Time Management: Saying “time management doesn’t work” is silly and clickbait-y, BUT it is true that some approaches get major things wrong.

There’s very good reason to push back against time management methodologies that seek to turn people into robots. All work outputs are not “timed widgets.” It makes sense to question an obsession with prioritizing work productivity at the expense of quality of work and quality of life.

However, this understandable bit of introspection has led to a number of articles, books, and methodologies that proudly declare “Time management doesn’t work! Do this instead.” This proclamation is followed by… the author’s preferred time management system. This is sort of like saying “Diets don’t work! Do this instead,” and then outlining the author’s suggested diet.

An example of this straw man argument is “Work with your energy, not time.” Agreed! But how else does one do that besides planning various tasks or actions at various points in the day based on how the individual functions best? No (good) approach to time management lacks an emphasis on your body’s energy rhythms.

Part of the challenge is semantics. After all, you can’t actually manage time; you can only ever manage yourself. Time is the most stubborn foundation of our mortal life, and it’s going to keep on marching no matter what we do. It’s for that very reason that being intentional about how we spend it is so important. And any system worth its salt is both intentional AND humane. It honors the principles of how your brains work best, AND makes space for the individual’s preferred working methods.

Admittedly, there are systems and approaches that simply strong-arm your into strategies that require heroic discipline. And I concede, poor time management systems don’t work. Instead of being a slave to an external system, one can and should find an approach that is flexible enough to fit your personality and lifestyle.

Leadership: Anonymous Team Morale Surveys Are Imperfect. Use Them Anyway

Anonymous surveys are great because they give you candid feedback about how your team is feeling. They also suck because you can’t ask follow-up questions on confusing comments or numeric assessments, and it’s not always clear just what an individual means with their response. No matter how clearly the questions are worded, different people will interpret the exact same question slightly differently.

In a dream world, our team would always feel comfortable telling us what’s not working for them. And some of your less conflict-averse team members will indeed have no issue sharing their true feelings. 

However, in my experience, the best results usually come from doing some of both: anonymous surveys and one-on-one (or small group) conversations about how to improve your organization.

At Mark Fisher Fitness, we’ve historically used the Gallup Q12, a series of twelve questions team members rank from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” Examples include:

  • “Do you know what’s expected of you at work?”
  • “At work, do your opinions seem to count?”
  • “In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?”

The Q12 is not without its detractors. Questions like “Do you have a best friend at work?” strike many people as out-of-scope of management responsibility and inactionable. However, as the staticians say, “all models are wrong, some are useful.” It may not be perfect, but it’s a good starting place for conversation and a valuable source of data.

For more on the Q12, check out First, Break All the Rules.

Interested supernerds looking for an alternative can consider Inc. Magazine’s “Best Workplaces” survey. You’ll find a different set of questions (many related to perks and benefits) and be able to benchmark your results against similar size businesses and industry-specific standards.

Public Speaking: Create And Use A Mantra To Get Your Mind Right

Long time readers know your author is a passionate advocate of the craft AND business-building benefits of public speaking. You can find a thorough overview of my approach in these articles HERE and HERE

After recently talking with some friends, I’ve realized I have one other simple tool that may be valuable. I have a short mantra I repeat to myself before going in front of an audience.

“Have fun, love people, be Mark.”

Once my preparation is done and it’s time to walk on stage, it’s time to let go of my prep and focus on these three goals. I’m the first to admit, this isn’t super scientific and there’s some overlap. Nonetheless I’ve found using a mantra a helpful practice.

I know I’ll be more successful if I choose to enjoy myself in the process and “have fun.” I also want every talk to be an expression of my genuine care, appreciation, and love for the people who are giving me their time and attention. 

And finally, I want to “be Mark.” When I get nervous or intimidated, I have a tendency to become very pleasant and boring and vanilla. There’s nothing wrong with being pleasant; I just know it’s a better experience for all involved when I bring my natural eccentricity and playfulness into the talk. It requires a bit of chutzpah, as to be frank, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. So it always feels like an emotional firewalk. But it’s the only way I know to get into the flowstate required for me to deliver at a high level.

Critical Thinking: Read Charlie Munger and Intentionally Learn the Main Models of Different Disciplines

Ever since seeing legendary investors Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger speak at the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, I’ve been down quite a rabbit hole. 

While I was already a big fan of Warren Buffet, I knew a bit less about Charlie Munger. Sure, I’d read the most popular Charlie Munger biography Damn Right! And of course, he was prominently featured in the ten or so books I’ve read on Buffet. But I’ve only recently devoted serious time to studying just how his famously brilliant mind works.

The full disclosure is… I’m still unpacking it in real time. He’s got one hell of a brain. But if I were to attempt to distill Munger’s approach to thinking it would be as follows:

There a handful of “mental models” from the main disciplines of academic study that carry most of the freight required for rigorous thinking. If you only master one field, you’re the proverbial person with the hammer who only sees nails. You may know a few models from your field, but without an interdisciplinary approach, you don’t have a mental latticework that supports deep learning and effective critical thinking. You’re just remembering isolated fun facts with no way of putting them to use.

In many ways, Munger’s life is living proof of the thesis proposed in David Epstein’s excellent new book, Range. Instead of following conventional wisdom and becoming hyper-specialized, Munger is a serious student of everything from physics to engineering to psychology to sociology to mathematics. He knows full well he doesn’t qualify as a true “expert” in most of them. But it’s the breadth of his knowledge base that allows him to review challenges from different angles and with different tools.

Like I said, I’m unpacking this in real time, so as of now I’m largely trusting that Munger is correct. I’ve always thought of myself as a generalist, so I also acknowledge this feeds my confirmation bias. Nonetheless, I’ve identified a few core disciplines I really struggle at, and I’m going to start methodically doing my best to at least master the basics. For instance, I was never a whiz at physics. I could memorize formulas, but I was a total faker. So I’m going to spend some time reading Richard Feynman’s books on the topic, which seem to be generally regarded as the best entry points.

Will this work? Will this actually be useful and make me a better thinker?

I have no way of knowing yet, but I’m inclined to trust Munger’s perspective. In a worst case scenario, it will be fun to go a bit deeper in fields I don’t know as well. In a best case scenario, I’ll see meaningful improvements in my critical thinking skills as a human, business operator, and investor.

If you’re interested in the Charlie Munger rabbit hole, check out the following books and audiobooks: