Principles of Ultralearning: 2) Focus

The modern world is a carnival of distractions. Every person, every device, every surface is screaming for your attention.

How can anyone get any work done? With Focus.

When you’re focused, distractions melt away, your attention is like a laser and you get stuff done. You could even finish reading not just this sentence, but the whole post, without checking your phone.

What is Focus?

Focusing is maintaining concentration on one subject for a period of time.

Focus is becomingly increasingly rare in our distracting modern world.

Therefore, focus is a skill that can boost your effectiveness in any skill.

What Makes Focusing So Difficult?

Focusing is difficult at 3 different stages:

  • The Beginning
  • The Maintaining
  • The Optimising

Failing to Start – The Beginning

Procrastination is not a character flaw, it’s something even the most successful people struggle with. It’s human. Why do you think the George R. R. Martin hasn’t released a book in so long?

Beating procrastination is a 2-step process:

Step 1 – Recognise you are procrastinating.

Are you avoiding work because you don’t want to do that task, or because there is something you do want to do more?

There is no one plan to suit everyone.

We all have our own vices, my drug of choice is binge-watching TV. Streaming services are against me! They’re just so damn convenient.

If you are looking to do something more pleasurable and you have the time and energy to do so, do it. Then it’s no longer a distraction.

If you are avoiding something you don’t like doing, but know you should, move on to Step 2.

Step 2 – Manage to concentrate for 5 minutes.

Just 5.

For some reason, our brains resist work the most in the first 5 minutes. Then your brain realises you aren’t harming it, relaxes and lets you carry on.

Next thing you know an hour has passed and you have written a handy new blog post… Maybe that’s just me.

Failing to Carry on – The Maintaining

Now that you’ve started and passed those gruelling 5 minutes, you just need to keep it up.

There are 3 forces conspiring to pull you away from your work:

  • Your Environment
  • Your Task
  • Your own Mind!

Environment: The Stuff Around You

Why is the environment trying to distract you? Is it because you didn’t recycle last week? Probably not, but shame on you all the same.

Many people prefer to have the TV on or some music (myself included) to make sure they aren’t stuck in silence. But when it comes to learning, anything else taking your attention will actually reduce the amount you learn.

When learning, you’re better off removing anything else that takes your focus. Your brain can only hold 4 chunks of information at one time after all.

Task: Your Project Itself

Have you ever had to do something difficult, taken one look at it, and decided it’s not for you? This is the because difficult things make us uncomfortable which makes us want to quit. Remember Dumbledore drinking that (sadly fake) Horcrux?

Your ultralearning project shouldn’t taste as bad as fresh Horcrux

In this situation, you need to try to organise your resources you learnt about in Principle 1: Metalearning to better suit your style of learning. If you know you space out watching videos, try to find the transcript of the same material, for example.

If the topic is truly incomprehensible, you could end up just watching the video, but taking nothing in. You can avoid this by summarising each thing you learn. This will take longer, but you will learn much more.

Mind: Your Mind Has Betrayed You?!

You have finally started typing the essay to end all essays. Scholars will worship your beautiful prose, as your fingers dance across the keyboard, but wait, didn’t you forget to fold your socks?

If there is a genuinely solvable problem distracting you, just do it. Then get back to work with peace of mind.

The real struggle comes from problems you can’t solve.

What will happen with Brexit?! What if a super volcano erupts and blocks out the sun, starting a new ice age? Why did you make that lame joke to the person you liked all those years ago?

These kinds of thoughts are unhelpful and extremely distracting.

If you try to fight them, then they will win.

You will end up going over and over the problem in your head and not focusing on your project at all.

The best method is to take an idea from mindfulness. The wonder drug of the past few years.

If you observe the thoughts distracting you.

Notice them.

Let them go.

The nagging thoughts can leave you and you can focus again.

Admittedly, this is much easier said than done. Fortunately, mindfulness is actually a muscle, even if you fail to get it right first time, you strengthen your mindful maximus (not a real term) and it becomes easier next time.

Failing to Perfect – The Optimising

You have now figured out how to focus like a laser on one topic, but what if you wanted to connect completely disparate ideas?

There are two types of useful thinking when you are learning: Focused and Diffuse. These are a spectrum and can be optimised for each problem.

Focused Mode

Focused thinking is best for doing something that requires very narrow concentration like throwing a dart a specific point or understanding a new difficult concept.

Diffuse Mode

Diffuse thinking allows your mind to wander more and pull connections from different parts of your store of knowledge.

This is best for constructing a creative idea from multiple parts that don’t link in any obvious way.

The more you learn the more you will know which type of thinking is better for the situation.

Learn about the rest of the principles here.

Have any more tips on better focus? Please let me know in the comments below.

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