This is a temporary archive of the 2015 Learn Faster bootcamp emails. After Monday, July 6th, 2015, this will be removed. If you want to get access to the other emails in this series, please sign up here.
This is the fourth lesson in the week-long, Learn Faster bootcamp. In this lesson I’ll tell you about some of the strategies I used to sustain focus during the MIT Challenge.
In case you missed it, here were the other emails:
Day 1: How to stop forgetting what you read
Day 2: What matters more: method or motivation? The answer might surprise you…
Day 3: How to learn backwards (and why it will actually save you time)
One of the most common questions I get asked about the MIT Challenge, my goal to compress four years of MIT’s computer science undergraduate program into 12 months of self-education, was what schedule did I use to study?
The schedule I used was actually pretty straightforward. In the beginning, when I was going at my highest pace (this is actually a productivity technique called top-heaviness I discuss in Learning on Steroids) I was waking up around 7am, start studying immediately and study until about5-6pm.
Later, when I no longer needed to do each class at a pace of one class per week, I would wake up around 8am, start studying around 9am and go until around 4-5pm.
That means studying for around a 10-hour chunk in the beginning and around 8 hours near the end. I kept up this pace for an entire year, minus two weeks of vacation.
There were a number of factors that helped me sustain focused studying during this time that I believe you can replicate, and I’m going to discuss them in this lesson.
The first major advantage I had was simply that I never studied in the evenings or on the weekends. Even when I was putting in 50-60 hours per week to prepare for an exam the next day, I would never study overtime.
Good focus doesn’t just require you to set aside time to put in effort. It also requires you to set aside time when you know that you won’t be working. Knowing I could only relax in the evenings and Saturdays (I used Sundays to keep running my blog/business), meant that I wouldn’t hold myself back while working.
Too many learners, in my opinion, fall into the trap of only scheduling their working hours, never their off hours. Unfortunately a non-stop schedule simply isn’t sustainable for high-intensity work like learning.
If you don’t schedule your off hours, your brain will do it for you—by procrastinating, getting distracted and losing focus.
You need to treat your learning time like it is—a scarce resource that must be used efficiently. If you treat it as an unending obligation, you’ll actively resist working when you start.
This tool applies doubly for people who are learning on top of a full-time job. Although you might not be able to take every evening and weekend off, you still need to set boundaries for recovering your energy.
Focus Strategy #1: Decide first when you’re NOT going to work.
Another major advantage I had when studying for the MIT Challenge was in how I took breaks. Done correctly, taking breaks has an envigorating effect on your focus. The problem is that most people take breaks poorly, and zap their motivation to work once they take a pause.
First, I would never deny myself a break if I felt I needed one. Breaks can help you reset your focus if you feel your mind is wandering off. Breaks can help you restore some of your energy. Interestingly, breaks may even help you solve problems as switching to a diffuse mode of thinking allows you to solve problems you were stuck on while focusing.
Taking breaks is a good thing.
The key to taking breaks intelligently however, is to pick an activity as a break that is more boring than actually studying. A break shouldn’t be fun, it should be relaxing.
Some of my favorite mental breaks would be going for a short walk, drinking a glass of water, sitting quietly or taking a 10-minute nap (be careful with naps though, if you start entering deep sleep they will do more harm than good).
These are all good breaks because after ten minutes of sitting quietly and doing nothing, you’re itching to get back to doing something. If your break is surfing online, texting or chatting with a friend, you’ll struggle to pull yourself back.
Focus Strategy #2: Take breaks as often as you need them, but take smart breaks.
Finally, focus is not something fixed inside you, but something you can improve through practice. Monks have known this for millennia, training their ability to focus to levels that would make my MIT Challenge look jumpy and distracted.
Focus is a lot like weight training. Yes, some people start off with unusually strong and athletic. But if you go to the gym every day and lift weights, almost everyone will eventually get stronger. Similarly, if you spend time engaged in deep focus each day, you will be able to slowly stretch that capacity and deepen it.
The MIT Challenge wasn’t my first time attempting this type of work or focus. I used similar studying strategies (albeit with less intensity) during my time in university and when I needed to do important work for my business. The challenge itself lasted only a year, but I had already accumulated years of practice beforehand.
If you’re struggling with focus in your life, try setting aside just 15-minutes a day for meditation. I don’t believe medidation is the only route to training focus, but it is a good starting practice.
Focus Strategy #3: Focus is a skill that can be trained. If you practice, you can increase your ability to focus.
Take Action Now
I’ve been loving receiving all the responses for this bootcamp and I’ve seen every one of them. It’s great to see how many of you are taking action on these learning methods. Hopefully some of you are even going to continue the effort into making some of them permanent habits.
Don’t stop now. Take action on today’s lesson:
Define your not-working hours. Be explicit about this in advance, even if you can’t make them very large, so that you won’t force your brain to take time off for you (by procrastinating and getting distracted).
Decide on an activity for a smart break. Pick something you would find relaxing, but won’t be hard to pull yourself out of later when you need to go back to work.
That’s it for today. Tomorrow I’ll continue with a new lesson for improving how you learn. Stay tuned!