How to Start Your Own Ultralearning Project (Part One)

Ultralearning is deep self-education to learn hard things in less time. I’ve written before about how I’ve used this approach to learn MIT computer science, multiple languages and cognitive science.

I’ve touched on some of the aspects of ultralearning in previous articles. It focuses on learning depth-first, breaking impasses down into prerequisites you can finish step-by-step, creatively using resources and balancing theory with practice.

In this article, I want to show you how to start your own ultralearning project. To make things easier, I’ve split this article into two parts: the first part, explaining why you should start an ultralearning project and how to design it. The second part, available here, will tell you how to find time to work on it and how to improve your ability to focus.

Why Ultralearning?

Ultralearning projects are hard work. Not only do they require you to take time out of your life, but they’re also mentally demanding. Given this, a good question to ask might be, why bother ultralearning at all?

The opposite of ultralearning is dabbling. This means playing around with something and eventually learning it. There’s no commitment. No time put aside. And if it becomes too mentally difficult or boring, you stop.

There’s nothing wrong with dabbling, and often it’s by dabbling that I first explore whether I’d like to learn something through an ultralearning project. However, despite the investment of time and energy, ultralearning projects can help you achieve breakthroughs in whatever you’re trying to learn.

Reason #1: You Can Learn Much Faster

Ultralearning projects are hard. But the trade-off is that intense focus enables rapid learning progress. Eliminating distractions, learning the hardest parts first, driving at your weaknesses and investing concrete chunks of time all enable you to take a learning endeavor that you might normally imagine learning over a few years and compress it into a few months.

My language learning project was a good example of this. Yes—the No-English Rule and intensive study did require a lot of effort. But the advantage was that I reached a level in three months that often takes a year or two of more typical study.

Reason #2: It Gets to the Fun Part of Learning Faster

Many learning opportunities become more interesting when you get better at them. Languages are much more fun when you can actually hold conversations. Work skills are more useful when they actually help your career. Drawing, sports and music are all more fun when you’re good at them.

Ultralearning can allow you to push faster through the frustrating parts and get more quickly to a level where continuing mastery is enjoyable and fun.

Reason #3: Ultralearning Projects are Interesting

When I told someone I was about to take on the MIT Challenge, they said, “You must really love studying.” But the truth was, I didn’t actually enjoy most of the classes I had in university. I found many of them simultaneously boring and frustrating. I hated the busywork, the group projects, the classes where the professor didn’t say anything useful and I had to struggle to stay awake. Traditional learning involves long stretches of boredom peppered with random frustration.

When I did the MIT Challenge, however, almost all of my classes were interesting. I think the reason was that self-education is results-driven. It doesn’t matter which resources you use, as long as you get to the point. I could skip assignments I didn’t think would help me master the material. I could watch lectures faster if they were boring, rewatch them if I was confused. Optimizing for faster learning, in turn, also optimized for being completely engaged with learning.

Ultralearning is more interesting because everything you do feels like it actually matters.

Reason #4: The Opportunities for Quick Learners are Ever Increasing

Ultralearning is a skill. Once you’ve mastered the process you can repeat it again and again on anything you want to learn.

It’s also a skill that’s becoming increasingly valuable. The economy is hollowing out the middle. Workers are expected to adapt faster and faster to new ways of doing things. The best in the profession are earning ever more than the average. Flexible, rapid learners have a golden opportunity, while those who struggle to keep up are going to find it harder and harder to survive.

Practicing on ultralearning projects gives you an edge like almost nothing else will in skilled professions.

How to Design Your First Ultralearning Project

Designing your own ultralearning project has three parts:

  1. Figuring out what you want to learn deeply, intensely and quickly.
  2. Choosing which format you want for your project.
  3. Preparing to start learning.

Step #1: What Do You Want to Ultralearn?

What would you like to learn? It could be a subject—say you want to quickly learn a lot of history, business or math. It could be a career skill—you want to master Excel or JQuery. It could be something you’ve always wanted to learn for fun—guitar, French or painting.

What you want to learn doesn’t matter and I can’t choose it for you. But I can suggest a couple things to keep in mind when picking the subject:

  1. Only pick one thing. Ultralearning projects need specificity. Saying you want to learn guitar, French AND cooking is a recipe for a mess of a project. Instead pick one thing and save the other things you want to learn for a later project.
  2. Shorter projects need more constraints. The smaller your project is, the more it needs to focus on something specific to make progress noticeable. If you’re only going to spend a month, one-hour a day, then don’t make your project “learn programming” or “learn Chinese”. Instead make it more focused: “learn to make text-only games in Python” or “learn pinyin and master set phrases in Mandarin.”
  3. Avoid overly specific goals and deadlines. For first-time ultralearners, I don’t recommend setting a particular goal and deadline, like I did with the MIT Challenge. The reason is that once you start learning, you’ll quickly realize whether your goal is realistic, too easy or too hard. If it’s too easy, you won’t focus. Too hard, you’ll probably give up. That means you have a fairly narrow range to shoot in order to be successful. A better approach is to pick the direction you want to learn and choose a target when you’re about one-third to halfway done the project. So a good approach might be that you’ll learn the MIT computer science curriculum, but once you start you can decide how far it is realistic for you to get in the time you have.

Step #2: Choose the Project Format

There’s a lot of different ways to do an ultralearning project. Which you use will depend heavily on your schedule and the importance of the challenge to you.

Here’s three different styles for an ultralearning project:

  1. Full-time projects. These are the most intense, most costly and fastest projects. The advantage of a full-time or nearly full-time project is that you can really get learning done in incredibly short time periods. Good if you’re between jobs, classes or otherwise can devote yourself to the project.
  2. Fixed-schedule projects. These are projects which have concrete hours you’ll devote to them every week. One example could be spending an hour each day before work, two hours before bed, or two 5-hour bursts on the weekend. The amount of time isn’t too important (although less weekly investment = slower progress) but I wouldn’t recommend putting in chunks of time less than 30 minutes. Fracturing the time over too many spots in the day doesn’t enable the focus required.
  3. Fixed-hour projects. These projects don’t have a particular schedule, but they do have a number of hours (3, 5, 20) that you’ll put in each week wherever you can find time in your schedule. This is the hardest type of project to successfully execute, but it may be the only feasible way to do ultralearning for some people.

In general, I recommend an ultralearning project be your principle goal during the period you’re doing it. It’s okay to keep working on other things and maintain habits. But ultralearning projects don’t work well if they’re just one of many things you’re simultaneously trying to achieve.

Once you’ve picked a format, you need to select a length of time. In general, if your weekly time investment is low, you’ll need either a long project or a more severely reduced scope. If I wanted to learn programming, but was only putting in 3 hours per week for ultralearning, I would either need a long time horizon (say 6-12 months) or reduced scope (a particular language, type of program, etc.)

Step #3: Preparing to Learn

I actually don’t recommend starting right away when you have an ultralearning project. The reason is that the intensity of learning can make it very easy to quit if you haven’t planned it properly.

A good ultralearning project starts with some amount of time in preparation. This allows you to gather material, research different learning strategies for your particular skill or subject, plan out your time and conduct a pilot test of the schedule.

My rule of thumb is that preparation should be no less than 50% of the length of the project itself with full-time hours. So when I did the MIT Challenge (a full-time project over one year) I would want six months minimum of low-intensity preparation. If you’re doing five hours per week over 8 weeks, I would want to spend at least a week doing preparation.

Here’s what you need to do in that preparation time:

  1. Research how learning works best for that particular domain. Hunt around for all the possible learning methods, strategies and recommendations. Note common themes and complaints people make. Note also alternative strategies that differ. This should give you a good idea of how you want to learn, as well as backup options in case your first approach fails you.
  2. Gather material and design a preliminary attack plan. Order books online if you need them. Sign up for online courses. Get tools, material and equipment if you need any. Then create a simple plan for approaching them to learn. This doesn’t need to be complicated. For the MIT Challenge it was: (1) Watch/Read, (2) Practice Questions, (3) Feynman Technique. For the Year Without English it was: (1) No-English Rule, (2) Tutoring, (3) Book Study.
  3. Conduct a pilot week of the schedule. Before you fully commit to starting the project, test it out. See how it fits into your life and get a sense of how difficult it will be. If it is too hard, or your schedule is unrealistic, now is the time to adjust it.

Now It’s Your Turn

If you’ve followed this far, I’m assuming you’re at least somewhat interested in starting your own ultralearning project. So why not just do it?

Write in the comments here below what ultralearning project you want to tackle: what you want to learn and the format you’re going to use to pursue it. In response, I’ll try to reply to as many people as possible offering advice on how to make their ultralearning projects a success!


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  • Scott Young

    Learning actively just means learning via using the knowledge in a way that is closely related to what your eventual end-use is. If that is writing articles, that means probably a good way to learn material would be to write about what you’re reading. Maybe keep an informal blog where you write/summarize research findings to show you understand them.

  • Scott Young

    I suggest iTalki. It might be hard to find partners, but I think, especially if you’re okay with speaking with non-Natives, you might be able to get an exchange going with someone who has semi-decent English.

    I think it’s a mistake a lot of people make of assuming there’s no benefit to practicing conversations with non-natives. Although you’ll be more likely to say things incorrectly, a lot of conversation practice isn’t about figuring out the correct way to say things, but about making automatic the rules and vocabulary you already know are correct. Given that you’re reading and listening, I think forming a partnership with another Brazilian in your hometown, or online with a speaker from a different country could be quite productive.

  • Scott Young

    I suggest iTalki. It might be hard to find partners, but I think, especially if you’re okay with speaking with non-Natives, you might be able to get an exchange going with someone who has semi-decent English.

    I think it’s a mistake a lot of people make of assuming there’s no benefit to practicing conversations with non-natives. Although you’ll be more likely to say things incorrectly, a lot of conversation practice isn’t about figuring out the correct way to say things, but about making automatic the rules and vocabulary you already know are correct. Given that you’re reading and listening, I think forming a partnership with another Brazilian in your hometown, or online with a speaker from a different country could be quite productive.

  • Scott Young

    Yeah, I think this is more an example of figuring out *what* is a successful workshop style and then trying to emulate it. Go to workshops, take notes and practice.

    I have a similar experience in trying to build courses, but the learning approach comes from seeing a lot of examples, deciding on a style you like and trying to emulate it.

  • Scott Young

    Yeah, I think this is more an example of figuring out *what* is a successful workshop style and then trying to emulate it. Go to workshops, take notes and practice.

    I have a similar experience in trying to build courses, but the learning approach comes from seeing a lot of examples, deciding on a style you like and trying to emulate it.

  • Scott Young

    Very interesting. I think you’ve got an interesting approach. This is definitely one of the more interesting/unusual ultralearning projects I’ve heard of!

  • Scott Young

    Very interesting. I think you’ve got an interesting approach. This is definitely one of the more interesting/unusual ultralearning projects I’ve heard of!

  • Kyrie Garlic

    This year I am going to be taking AP Calculus BC. I took Calculus AB last year and while I earned a 3/5 on the AP exam, I didn’t understand all the material as thoroughly as I wish I had. This coming year I will be taking an hour long class 2-3 times a week in preparation for the test in May. Along with that, I want to create a study plan that will help me digest all the material and understand it better.

  • Kyrie Garlic

    This year I am going to be taking AP Calculus BC. I took Calculus AB last year and while I earned a 3/5 on the AP exam, I didn’t understand all the material as thoroughly as I wish I had. This coming year I will be taking an hour long class 2-3 times a week in preparation for the test in May. Along with that, I want to create a study plan that will help me digest all the material and understand it better.

  • Manisha Garg

    Thank you Scott for your much needed advice. In the part 2 of this ultralearning project you had asked about the difficulties one is facing while starting his/her own ultralearning project…well from my ongoing experience i would like to share that for few days the things go smoothly and then suddenly there is a dip in motivation and things go awry. How to tackle this…

  • Manisha Garg

    Thank you Scott for your much needed advice. In the part 2 of this ultralearning project you had asked about the difficulties one is facing while starting his/her own ultralearning project…well from my ongoing experience i would like to share that for few days the things go smoothly and then suddenly there is a dip in motivation and things go awry. How to tackle this…

  • emid04

    Hey Scott,
    So I want to learn German. I have previously studied German but intermittently. I got to level B1 in the Goethe Institut. However I did not really like their materials.
    I was planning on doing Duolingo as preparation time to refresh what I knew with some of my old notes from classes. I was thinking of dedicating about 1 and a half hours 4 days a week.
    Any other suggestions will be welcome since you probably know a lot of good resources for learning languages from your year without English. Thanks!

  • emid04

    Hey Scott,
    So I want to learn German. I have previously studied German but intermittently. I got to level B1 in the Goethe Institut. However I did not really like their materials.
    I was planning on doing Duolingo as preparation time to refresh what I knew with some of my old notes from classes. I was thinking of dedicating about 1 and a half hours 4 days a week.
    Any other suggestions will be welcome since you probably know a lot of good resources for learning languages from your year without English. Thanks!

  • SkorpEN

    Languege releated tools: I use WordWiz in chrome and anki droid with goustures on all phones in home. Youtube for grammar from time to time.

  • SkorpEN

    Languege releated tools: I use WordWiz in chrome and anki droid with goustures on all phones in home. Youtube for grammar from time to time.

  • In one month’s time I will be competing in the Mental Calculation World Cup, and in Memoriad (the Olympics for mental calculation, memory and speed reading). Before then I will be travelling around Europe, exploring new places and activities while training more techniques for the competition. Does anyone have any advice for balancing the demands of a difficult project with the opportunities of backpacking?

  • daniel16056049

    In one month’s time I will be competing in the Mental Calculation World Cup, and in Memoriad (the Olympics for mental calculation, memory and speed reading). Before then I will be travelling around Europe, exploring new places and activities while training more techniques for the competition. Does anyone have any advice for balancing the demands of a difficult project with the opportunities of backpacking?

  • John

    I’m want to learn Esperanto. Gonna aim to get the basics down in a week and be fluent in three months.

  • John

    I’m want to learn Esperanto. Gonna aim to get the basics down in a week and be fluent in three months.

  • MJ

    Hello Scott,

    I am currently on my college summer break and have got one month of it left. I have given myself the following goals over this summer:

    – Read “Programming: Principles and Practice” by Bjarne Strostrup
    – Read “Think Like a Programmer” by V. Anton Spraul
    – Read “Code” by Charles Petzold
    – Write my own basic OpenGL program

    While I have written my own basic OpenGL program, I am only halfway through the “Think Like a Programmer” book and have only read 7 out of 27 chapters of Bjarne’s book “Programming:Principles and Practice”. The strange thing is, I invest 2 to 5 hours each day in learning. I read a book about learning called “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” and they recommended interleaving learning with different subjects. However, I may have been interleaving too much. Do you think it is best if I focus on one thing on one day – say, I focus on just reading “Programming: Principles and Practice” for 4-5 hours (with the addition of doing my habits) and then shift my focus to something else the next day? I’ll also incorporate recall and other effective study techniques.

    Also, a bonus question: Is it possible to commit myself to an ultralearning project in college? I don’t think I would manage 8 hours a day, but I think I could fit in 1-2 hours a day while in college.

  • MJ

    Hello Scott,

    I am currently on my college summer break and have got one month of it left. I have given myself the following goals over this summer:

    – Read “Programming: Principles and Practice” by Bjarne Strostrup
    – Read “Think Like a Programmer” by V. Anton Spraul
    – Read “Code” by Charles Petzold
    – Write my own basic OpenGL program

    While I have written my own basic OpenGL program, I am only halfway through the “Think Like a Programmer” book and have only read 7 out of 27 chapters of Bjarne’s book “Programming:Principles and Practice”. The strange thing is, I invest 2 to 5 hours each day in learning. I read a book about learning called “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” and they recommended interleaving learning with different subjects. However, I may have been interleaving too much. Do you think it is best if I focus on one thing on one day – say, I focus on just reading “Programming: Principles and Practice” for 4-5 hours (with the addition of doing my habits) and then shift my focus to something else the next day? I’ll also incorporate recall and other effective study techniques.

    Also, a bonus question: Is it possible to commit myself to an ultralearning project in college? I don’t think I would manage 8 hours a day, but I think I could fit in 1-2 hours a day while in college.

  • Joshua Morgan

    I tutor students in math up to Calculus. Language and understanding the concepts seem to be what trips my students. Then, on the building capacity, it seems to be a lack of structured study and useful strategies that hold the students back. For instance, I ask my students to always give a reason for each action they take. It forces them to work within the bounds of mathematical properties, etc. Sad, but one of my students didn’t get into Calculus….because he failed to retain the concepts and when to apply them.

  • Joshua Morgan

    I tutor students in math up to Calculus. Language and understanding the concepts seem to be what trips my students. Then, on the building capacity, it seems to be a lack of structured study and useful strategies that hold the students back. For instance, I ask my students to always give a reason for each action they take. It forces them to work within the bounds of mathematical properties, etc. Sad, but one of my students didn’t get into Calculus….because he failed to retain the concepts and when to apply them.

  • Scott Young

    I think motivation comes in waves. The key is to set up your habits well enough so you can do the bare minimum to keep momentum on your project going in the dips, and then you can recover when you get more enthusiasm and go more intensely.

  • Scott Young

    I think motivation comes in waves. The key is to set up your habits well enough so you can do the bare minimum to keep momentum on your project going in the dips, and then you can recover when you get more enthusiasm and go more intensely.

  • Scott Young

    Great!

  • Scott Young
  • Scott Young

    Great!

  • Scott Young

    Used fixed-schedule productivity: http://calnewport.com/blog/200

    Then enjoy your off hours

  • Scott Young

    Join iTalki.com and either do conversation exchanges or tutoring with the goal of only speaking in German. Translators/dictionaries are allowed. If you’re at B1, you’re ready.

  • Scott Young

    Join iTalki.com and either do conversation exchanges or tutoring with the goal of only speaking in German. Translators/dictionaries are allowed. If you’re at B1, you’re ready.

  • Scott Young

    Check out BetterExplained.com for better math understanding.

  • Manisha Garg

    Thanks a lot Scott for your expert advice. I am following your ultralearning project method and have started work on my first paper…will also keep in mind your suggestion regarding how to tackle motivation dips…will it be alright with you if i report my progress or ask you for suggestions when i am stuck in the middle…

  • Manisha Garg

    Thanks a lot Scott for your expert advice. I am following your ultralearning project method and have started work on my first paper…will also keep in mind your suggestion regarding how to tackle motivation dips…will it be alright with you if i report my progress or ask you for suggestions when i am stuck in the middle…

  • Hisea

    Hi Scott, having some trouble with choosing between two projects , any ideas I would greatly appreciate.. 🙂

    I run my own practice in Chinese medicine that could use business developments (marketing, accounting, medical treatment planning) , and that is one area of ultra learning. ~ started three years ago

    Additionally, I naturally gravitate to the metaphysics and want to dive into a system of seasonal changes “wu yun Liu qi” which I could benefit from in my practice. ~ dabbled 2 years ago

    How would you choose?

    With thanks, Hisea

  • Hisea

    Hi Scott, having some trouble with choosing between two projects , any ideas I would greatly appreciate.. 🙂

    I run my own practice in Chinese medicine that could use business developments (marketing, accounting, medical treatment planning) , and that is one area of ultra learning. ~ started three years ago

    Additionally, I naturally gravitate to the metaphysics and want to dive into a system of seasonal changes “wu yun Liu qi” which I could benefit from in my practice. ~ dabbled 2 years ago

    How would you choose?

    With thanks, Hisea

  • Thanks Scott – I’ve tried various things over the past 3 weeks and discovered that:
    (1) fixed-schedule productivity is effective (as you recommended)
    (2) it’s best to have travel plans arranged a few days in advance otherwise time gets wasted in deciding plans for the rest of the day

  • daniel16056049

    Thanks Scott – I’ve tried various things over the past 3 weeks and discovered that:
    (1) fixed-schedule productivity is effective (as you recommended)
    (2) it’s best to have travel plans arranged a few days in advance otherwise time gets wasted in deciding plans for the rest of the day

  • Scott Young

    I think you can interleave. I worry more about switching costs to focus. Namely, there’s some minimum time you need to invest in focusing to get into the groove of working. If you switch too frequently between tasks your focus will suffer. However, if you try to go on too long with a particular subject you might also see your focus dropping off (so imagine there is a “peak” focus duration that varies depending on the individual and the task in question).

    Try to set up your studying times to find that peak focus duration.

  • Scott Young

    I think you can interleave. I worry more about switching costs to focus. Namely, there’s some minimum time you need to invest in focusing to get into the groove of working. If you switch too frequently between tasks your focus will suffer. However, if you try to go on too long with a particular subject you might also see your focus dropping off (so imagine there is a “peak” focus duration that varies depending on the individual and the task in question).

    Try to set up your studying times to find that peak focus duration.

  • Scott Young

    I don’t think there’s an algorithm I can give you that will tell you which project to work on. I suggest trusting your intuition about which seems most exciting.

  • Scott Young

    I don’t think there’s an algorithm I can give you that will tell you which project to work on. I suggest trusting your intuition about which seems most exciting.

  • Katya Seberson

    Scott, your MIT challenge inspired me many years ago. I agree that there is nothing better than self-education. It’s faster, it’s more enjoyable and allows you to be in charge, which is why it is more enjoyable. However, I do think that online learning is much harder than we think. We go into a diffused mode when turn on the screen, especially if we watch our video courses on the TV screen, I watch mine on the Apple TV. There are a ton of reasons actually. I made a whole video course about it. https://www.udemy.com/katyaseberson/

    Scott, what are your tips for Ultra Learning, specifically for learning from video courses. Would you be doing anything differently?

    executivemind.net

  • Katya Seberson

    Scott, your MIT challenge inspired me many years ago. I agree that there is nothing better than self-education. It’s faster, it’s more enjoyable and allows you to be in charge, which is why it is more enjoyable. However, I do think that online learning is much harder than we think. We go into a diffused mode when turn on the screen, especially if we watch our video courses on the TV screen, I watch mine on the Apple TV. There are a ton of reasons actually. I made a whole video course about it. https://www.udemy.com/katyaseb

    Scott, what are your tips for Ultra Learning, specifically for learning from video courses. Would you be doing anything differently?

    executivemind.net

  • Susi

    Hi Scott, I am self-employed which is quite a full time job, but I have decided to follow my dream of studying biology. I at least wanted to give it a try. So, two days ago I started studying “life science” in college but I wonder how to learn biology, physics, chemistry and maths all at once. I never understood maths and physics in school, and now I am confronted with college level maths and physics 🙂 I am determined to learn it. I guess I just need the proper strategy. Would you have any advice? Thank you very much.

  • Jaimin Patel

    Hello scott,

    First of all your blogs have inspired me a lot on starting my own ultralearning project and specially after this article it makes a lot of things clear. I have two ultralearning projects I am planning on starting:

    1) Completing the physics 1 (classical mechanics) and physics 2 (electromagnetism) topics with depth from a book. This time not just to get good grades, but to understand the concepts properly.

    2) Completing Java and Android development course, create my first app and release on app store in about a month.

    Will let you know how it went with the projects.

    Thank you.

  • Jaimin Patel

    Hello scott,

    First of all your blogs have inspired me a lot on starting my own ultralearning project and specially after this article it makes a lot of things clear. I have two ultralearning projects I am planning on starting:

    1) Completing the physics 1 (classical mechanics) and physics 2 (electromagnetism) topics with depth from a book. This time not just to get good grades, but to understand the concepts properly.

    2) Completing Java and Android development course, create my first app and release on app store in about a month.

    Will let you know how it went with the projects.

    Thank you.

  • wjb

    Hi Scott,

    I’m going to take on an ultra learning project in artificial intelligence and the internet of things. Over 12 months for 1-2 hours per night. (using the fixed schedule format you proposed)

    Thanks.

    Now for the preparing to learn phase!

  • wjb

    Hi Scott,

    I’m going to take on an ultra learning project in artificial intelligence and the internet of things. Over 12 months for 1-2 hours per night. (using the fixed schedule format you proposed)

    Thanks.

    Now for the preparing to learn phase!

  • Mahmud

    Since I have finals and am in a crunch…I need to hack at Fluid Mechanics and Mechatronics. Going to try the hack at problem so first approach and grind through those learning the material for those problems via YouTube videos like Simmy Sigmas. Afterwards I’m going to move on from HW problems and attempt similar problems from the book.

    It’s basically the only way.

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