Wes Schaeffer, CC 2.0
Source: Wes Schaeffer, CC 2.0

Brevity’s benefits often trump comprehensiveness'. So I'm writing this series, Short Answers. Previous installments can be found HERE. Today’s is the first that addresses reader-submitted questions.

Is it possible to quickly become an expert? If so, how?

Bright self-starters can become expert quickly. That's because in many fields, one’s learning quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns—You learn a lot from your first hour of learning and then less and less.

Here’s a personal example. When I came to California, I was amazed that rose bushes bloom here nine months of the year and the plants last for decades—like a romantic flower factory. The problem was that rose bushes are subject to diseases and so must be sprayed regularly with fungicides. I decided to see if I could learn to hybridize a rose that didn't need to be sprayed. Most rose bushes are hybridized by PhD botanists whereas I’ve never taken a botany course. What I did was search for articles on such search terms as “rose breeding for disease resistance.” After reading those, by phone, I asked questions of eminent rose hybridizers cited in the articles. I asked to visit their operation and three said yes. That all occurred within a few weeks. I then started hybridizing roses in my backyard and called the experts when I wanted advice. Today, I have three disease-resistant roses on the market, distributed through a major company, and I receive a four- or five-figure royalty check every year.

Here's a more generalizable version of that model:

  • Read a few on-topic articles and/or watch a YouTube video or two that come up high in a Google search. Even a list of quotes can be instructive, indeed highly time-effective. For example, I googled "writing quotes" and came up with this.
  • For clarification and expansion, query one or more of their authors or cited experts.
  • Perhaps that’s enough to start implementing what you’ve learned. While you are, you may well feel the need to learn more. If so,
  • Get one or two books that feel right after using Amazon’s “Look Inside This Book” feature and reading the reviews. Scan your chosen book to find the meaty portions and read only those.
  • Take an in-person or online intensive and, at most, a carefully selected short, practical course or two. It’s easy to find good ones on Udemy, Lynda, and Udacity because all courses report their student reviews. Plus, you can usually sample a course before paying.

Note that I’ve not recommended certificate and especially degree programs. The You U approach I've just outlined  is more tailored to your needs, is faster, and much less expensive. Of course, as stated upfront, You U does require you to be a self-starter. And not everything can be learned that way. For example, not withstanding the book and movie, Catch Me if You Can, I don’t think you can satisfactorily learn how to be an airline pilot or physician at You U even if the government didn’t arrest you for practicing without a license.

What are the right steps to re-engage if you are feeling unmotivated and unfocused when working alone?

The following are obvious but sometimes we’re too close to the problem to see even obvious solutions. Might one or more of these help?

  • Building in breakfasts or lunches with friends.
  • Phoning or skyping colleagues for ideas or solutions.
  • Taking breaks during the day to do something social: take a class, volunteer, whatever.

Dear reader, your question indicates that the problem isn't the work but that you’re doing it alone. But in case part of the problem is the work itself, might any of the following help?

  • Asking your boss for a different assignment.
  • Doing the work in a more fun way, for example, doing your research by interviewing rather than just staring at spreadsheets.
  • Realizing that even mundane work is important. The example I like to use is accounts-payable clerk. That may seem like unimportant work yet the clerk who does it well ensures that many people get paid the right amount at the right time. That is of important benefit to them.

What is the best way to prevent procrastination?

Prevention is indeed wise because if you’ve already been procrastinating a task, it usually becomes more onerous, perhaps because you now have less time to do a good job. So you wait until the last minute and, adrenaline-driven and nervous, you get it done, perhaps poorly or not at all.

Many people procrastinate because they don’t like being uncomfortable. You have to get used to trading short-term uncomfortability for the more enduring comfortability and accomplishment that accrue from not being a procrastinator.

Once you accept that basic truth, key to preventing procrastination is simply to start with the project’s first one-second task: Sit down, turn on the computer, get the needed paper, whatever. That’s a nice, friendly unintimidating task. Then do the next one-second task, then the next. That's often enough to build sufficient momentum to complete the task, especially if you picture how good you’ll feel to have gotten it done. If you don't know where to start, ask someone who does.

Now, let’s say it’s a task that requires repeated doing, for example, your tax return that demands, say, an hour a day, for a week. Pair that with an enjoyable daily activity. For example, if you like having dinner at 6:00, ritualize starting to work on your taxes by putting your butt in front of TurboTax or whatever at 5:00, knowing that at 6:00 you’re done for the day and can enjoy that dinner reward guilt-free.

Feel free to email me a question you’d like me to address in a Short Answer. It can be about career, education, relationships, recreation, even a philosophical question. My email address is mnemko@comcast.net.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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