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.

See my earlier post to learn about the first principle of Ultralearning – Metalearning.

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

The Principles of Ultralearning: 1) Metalearning

ULTRALEARNING: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense” – Young’s self-described imperfect definition.

Ultralearning is a tool used to teach yourself things extremely quickly and effectively. In the book, Young gives many examples of people he calls “ultralearners” who master things from languages, public speaking, scrabble and chess. He even has examples of his own achievements: completing the MIT Computer Science course in 1 year, learning 4 languages in a year and drawing very realistic portraits in 30 days.

The book draws on 9 principles of ultralearning:

  1. Metalearning: Learning how to learn
  2. Focus: Learning how to focus more deeply and for longer periods of time
  3. Directness: Learning by doing the skill or using the knowledge you wish to learn
  4. Drill: Ruthlessly attack your weakest points until you don’t block your learning anymore
  5. Retrieval: Using testing as a way to learn
  6. Feedback: Getting genuine critiques on your work to confirm if you are truly learning
  7. Retention: Making sure you remember what you learnt
  8. Intuition: Learning how to understand at a deeper level, not just memorising
  9. Experimentation: Learn how to keep learning even once you have reached mastery

Metalearning

Metalearning is learning how to learn.

An oversimplified example would be to say that you can memorise 2+2=4 but learning how to add the numbers allows you to figure out any addition, rather than memorise every possible sum.

Why, What and How?

Metalearning can be broken down into why you want to learn something, what will count as success for you and how you will achieve your goal.

Why?

Your reasons why can either be Instrumental or Intrinsic.

Instrumental: You are learning the skill or knowledge in order to achieve an outside result, such as a promotion or a new job.

Intrinsic: You are learning for the sake of learning and don’t necessarily care if there is an immediate use for the skill.

What?

The what of your Ultralearning Project can be broken down into 3 main categories: Concepts, Facts and Procedures:

Concepts: Ideas you need to understand

Facts: Information you can just memorise

Procedures: Anything you can only learn through practice, such as pronunciation

How?

You need to know all the resources you have available to you. These can be planned through Benchmarking and Emphasise/Exclude methods:

Benchmarking: Figuring out the common learning methods as a starting point for your project. This can be reading lists, internet searches, or advice from an expert.

Emphasise/Exclude: Go through all the resources you listed in your benchmark and if they are not relevant, Exclude them. If a resource is not only relevant but more effective than most, you can use it more, Emphasise it.

How Much Should You Plan?

Young says to aim for 10% of the total duration of the project, but he says this isn’t law.

If you are doing a particularly large project (thousands of hours +), then you may only want to spend 5% of your time planning.

Also, don’t feel your planning all has to be done at the beginning, you can do more research during the project, such as when your learning slows down.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

The longer you keep using a specific technique or working on a particular skill, the less improvement you will see.

At the beginning, there is so much you don’t know, that every time you progress, you progress a lot. Once you know more, the amount more you knew is much smaller.

Imagine you have no water, then you get a pint of water from the tap. You now have infinitely more water than you had. Get another pint, you have twice as much water, another pint, you have 1.5 times what you had, this keeps going on until one more pint is just a drop in the ocean.

Learning using the same method will eventually lead to you progressing in tiny drops at most.

This is a sign you need to try another technique for your Ultralearning project. If you don’t have an idea for one, it is time to do more research.

I will write a summary of each principle outlined in the book, but I highly recommend reading the full book for yourself. The stories Young tells and the depth of explanation are much greater.

Ultralearning, is a new book by Scott Young, who is most well know for his blog about learning and the impressive learning challenges he has completed. The book can be found at the follow address: https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/ultralearning/