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.

What I discovered When I Tried Warren Buffett’s 5/25 Rule

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I saw a video recently about Warren Buffett’s 5/25 rule in which it is claimed that Buffett once had a conversation with his pilot. For anyone who doesn’t know, Warren Buffett is one of the most successful investors in the world and has been top of his game for decades. After realising he’d had the same pilot for 10 years, he was perturbed to find that the pilot had not moved on in all that time. I will be paraphrasing, but Buffett says something along the lines of “if you’ve been working as my pilot for 10 years, I must not be doing my job right” so he instructs the pilot to write down 25 career goals and that he can write anything he wants.

Next Buffett tells the pilot to prioritise the top 5. This is more difficult, but the pilot does it. Now, Buffet asks him

“What will you do with the other 20?”

The pilot says “I will treat these as 2nd best and work on them when I have spare time”

Buffett replies “No. You avoid those at all costs, until you had achieved your top 5.”

Buffett explains that spreading yourself too thin means you don’t make any significant progress towards any of your goals. Focusing on a goals instead, is the key to making progress.

This doesn’t mean that you are limited to do just 5 things for the rest of your life, never trying anything new, just repeating the same cycle of days for the rest of time. BUT you can’t do number 6 until you have achieved ONE of the top 5. This is the crux of the idea.

This idea can be applied to any area of life where you have too many options. Too many options meaning there are multiple things you want to achieve, but you never quite seem to get any of them done, they just remain on a wish list for all time. For example, do you have too many hobby projects you never complete? Too many career skills, so none seem to improve all that much? Too many new business ideas, but you don’t ever seem to start any? All of these can be whittled down to your top 5, allowing you to focus and make real progress.

I tried this for myself. I don’t have 25 career aspirations, so I wrote down 25 things I want to do in my life in general from hobbies, to work, to travel. The top 5 I prioritised, see below:

  1. Improve my writing
  2. Improve my blog
  3. Exercise regularly
  4. Travel outside Europe
  5. Start a Side-Hustle
  1. I have been reading more and more lately about the benefits of being able to write well, which was part of my inspiration to start a blog, so that was always going to end up on this list.
  2. This blog is new, there’s lots of room to grow and improve, but I’m enjoying the process so far With a lot of practice I hope to be writing better articles, have a better website and anything else that would make the blog better.
  3. I have been trying to do this for years, but I always give up a few weeks in. I was recently pointed towards “Couch to 5k”, which aims to make running a habit by easing you in. Instead of going too hard too soon and quitting, as I always have done in the past, you build up to longer runs until you can do 5k even if you started from a point of doing no exercise at all. The best part for me has been the structure the app provides, as I tend to just run hard, then get tired and never want to run again.
  4. I love to go on solo-travel trips, but I have played it pretty safe so far, going to European cities where pretty much everyone speaks English and the culture isn’t too different to our own. I want to go further away and experience more, even if it is a little scary to not speak the language or know all the customs, that’s part of the fun, right?
  5. I recently read a fantastic book by Chris Guillebau, in which he describes the merits of having a “side-hustle” and how to start one. The book is very clearly written and inspiring, with great advice. I aim to write a post on it someday soon. The main reason the idea drew me in, is it allows you to have a project of your own, that gives you a sense of achieving something of your own. Guillebeau says it’s not about workaholism, having a second job would be a nightmare for many people. Side-hustles come come in many different forms, as you can see on his podcast it’s a creative outlet for some people for others it gives them a sense of independence. It’s a great way to do some work you enjoy, just for you, without going all in and quitting your job to start a business.

If this post or the original video inspires you to try the idea for yourself, please let me know in the comments below, how it worked out for you!