The Irony of Focus: Why Doing Only One Thing Actually Lets You Do More

In my article series on ultralearning, one commenter wrote to me that he has trouble picking a project because there are just too many things he wants to learn. He starts one project, but then is enticed by the many other things that suddenly seem more interesting.

This is a common problem and it isn’t exclusive to learning.

When I think about traveling, it’s hard to think of one place I’d like to go. Instead its dozens of places. I’d like to go back to China. I hear Iceland is really good. Someone told me about a safari they did in Africa. Too many ideas than time or money will allow.

When I think about self-improvement, possibilities also overflow. I’d like to get better at meditating. Really get to a new level of fitness. There’s some business projects I’d like to tackle. What about a new hobby? Again, there’s no way I can do everything.

Why I Focus

Earlier in my life, I used to easily succumb to these temptations. I’d start a project, but when the reality of the project set in, and things were sometimes difficult or challenging, I’d flip back to imagination mode and pull myself into a different idea.

Eventually I realized that these temptations are mirages. That flitting back and forth between projects, goals and fantasies, isn’t how you end up with an interesting life. It’s how you end up daydreaming all day and never actually doing anything interesting at all.

Do concrete projects sequentially. Ones which demand focus and exclude other possibilities. This can feel limiting, but it is also liberating. Because by doing projects, you actually get stuff done. And when it’s done, you can move onto a different project and passion. Focusing gets things done, so you end up doing a larger variety of things, averaged over a long period of time, than the back-and-forth daydreams most people waste the majority of their time on.

Why Focusing is So Hard

A useful concept for understanding the temptation to distraction comes from construal level theory. This suggests our brain has two modes that it uses for thinking, a near-mode, which works with practical matters close at hand, and a far-mode which is used for thinking about ideals and identity.

The relevance to our discussion here is that projects you’re currently doing are in near-mode, while projects you imagine yourself doing are far.

A near-mode project makes clear that working hard isn’t always fun. You’re tired because you had to wake up earlier to start working. You’re frustrated because of a lack of progress. You realize that actually speaking another language isn’t that impressive, that learning to program is endless, that this new skill doesn’t immediately make you smarter in every possible way.

Imagining far-mode projects doesn’t have these drawbacks. You can focus on how wonderful it would be to own your own business, learn another language, be in incredible shape or understand quantum physics, without any of the work. There’s no complexities, drawbacks or difficulties.

When people start a project, and switch from far to near, they suddenly realize that it isn’t as glamorous as they realized. The mistake they make, however, is in believing that this is a defect to this specific project. They think they must have chosen the wrong pursuit, rather than this being a general feature of all projects they undertake.

Overcoming the Temptation of Distraction

Assuming you actually want to do things and not just daydream about them, there’s two processes I’ve found helpful for overcoming this temptation.

The first is to learn to fall in love with the actual process of doing things. No, it’s not always sexy, and it has obstacles and frustrations. But there’s also a special satisfaction that comes from being a doer and accomplishing your dreams instead of just dreaming about them. The more time you spend with the process of doing, the more real it seems and the more enjoyable it becomes compared to just fantasizing.

The second process is to recognize that the only way you can even come close to living out all the ideas you have in your head is to actually work on them one at a time. Set projects and work on them. In the moment, it may feel like they’re excluding everything else, but over time you’ll start to see a bigger picture. You’ll see that you’re actually out there doing the things you wanted to do.

Focus is powerful because it allows you to actually get things done. It can be hard because it also forces you to confront the reality of the things you want to do, instead of living in the mere fantasy of them. But while the reality of working on your goals, learning new subjects or going on adventures may not be as rosy as it first appears, I believe it is ultimately a lot more satisfying.

How to Start Your Own Ultralearning Project (Part Two)

Last week I wrote the first part of this two-part series on how to start your own ultralearning project. I wrote about why you should take on an ultralearning project and how to design the project to maximize the chance of success.

Ultralearning projects, like the MIT Challenge or Year Without English, are goals to learn something concrete in an intense, aggressive way, so as to make rapid progress. They are the opposite of dabbling in something, where you learn without a firm direction and intent.

Learning through low-pressure dabbling is great. But it’s like floating along a river—you can get stuck in rocks or rapids if you’re not careful. Through ultralearning projects that you can paddle forward and make progress.

In today’s article, I’m going to explore the two most common barriers to doing an ultralearning project: finding time and being able to focus.

How Do You Find Time to Ultralearn?

I occasionally get emails from people who’d like to do the MIT Challenge themselves. Strangely, one of the big questions I get asked is whether I think you could the challenge in one year while also working a full-time job.

Although I wouldn’t rule it out, my guess is that if you’re emailing me asking for help you won’t be able to. I spent about 50-60 hours per week to complete the challenge on time, and I only worked one day per week on my business. If you know how to finish the challenge while also putting in 40 hours/week on a full-time job, I should be the one emailing you for advice!

This, of course, raises an obvious question: how are you supposed to do ultralearning if you do have a full-time job? Most people can’t take a year off to pursue self-education.

Part of the answer to that is in designing your project. While I don’t think completing the MIT Challenge in one year is feasible with a full-time job, you might be able to complete it over a longer period of time, or focus on a subset of classes that really interests you. I like to choose projects with a grand scope because they make for interesting material for my blog, but smaller, narrower projects can also be quite successful. For instance, here’s one approach that cuts 2/3rds of the curriculum I took, but preserves essential computer science education.

But let’s say you’ve winnowed down your project to a narrow scope and decide to take on a fixed-hours or fixed-time schedule to tackle it, putting in 7 hours per week, let’s say. How can you find that time in your schedule?

1. Time is Abundant, Attention is Not

If you conduct a timelog of your activities throughout the day, almost everyone could find at least a few hours of time that doesn’t feel particularly useful. Many people, especially the busiest among us, are often shocked by how much of their day is occupied on things they could probably eliminate without much negative impact: television, Facebook, random web surfing, emails, etc.

Even if you don’t have large chunks of time wasted during the day (a rarity), you might find your time is more fractured and messy than would be ideally productive. Sometimes just by organizing your time better and eliminating interruptions in your work can save a few hours of productive time.

Given this assessment, I don’t think it’s reasonable for the 95%+ people here to say they couldn’t spend 5 hours per week on an ultralearning project that’s truly important to them. Time isn’t what’s in short supply.

What is in short supply is attention and coordinating your focus to accomplish something. The biggest barrier to doing an ultralearning project isn’t that there’s no time to work on it, but that you’ll always be forgetting to put in work on it, getting distracted by other things.

The solution? Make working on your project a habit. Set up a concrete time to invest in your project every day. Even if it’s not a lot of time, try to make it as consistent as possible with your schedule so that working on the project will be relatively automatic.

2. Choose Projects that Really Matter

Ultralearning projects are hard work. If they’re going to compete for time in your schedule, they better be at least as important as the other things you regularly give time to. Given their intensity, it’s probably good that they be at least as important.

I can’t say what matters to you, or your priorities for life. But if you’ve never done an ultralearning project, you need to dream up one which would have major benefits to you if you could complete it. Luckily, for a lot of people who don’t regularly do this, there are usually dozens of ultralearning projects that could easily have a better return on investment for their time than many of their other activities.

I tend not to start ultralearning projects unless I find them intensely interesting and motivating to pursue. If a project still feels kind of boring, or that it’s something I “should” do, rather than something I want to do, I keep brainstorming and thinking about the project to try to resolve its weaknesses.

How Do You Focus on Ultralearning?

Even if you manage to set aside time for your ultralearning project, many people struggle with actually executing it. Working on intense, hard learning activities requires enormous focus and energy. Many people start an ultralearning project with good intentions and planning but shortly give up when they try to sit down and actually start working on it.

Luckily, I think focusing is a skill that people can learn. To focus well, you need three parts: environmental design, self-monitoring and progressive training.

1. Designing a Focus-Friendly Environment

The first step is to design an environment for doing your ultralearning which doesn’t have distractions or temptations.

One way to do this is to modify your existing environment to work in. This can mean putting on apps like Self Control or Leech Block to prevent electronic distractions. Put your phone on airplane mode. Hang a do-not-disturb sign outside of your workplace.

This can work, but for many people the residual distractions will still be too great. An alternative, therefore, is to select a new environment that is mostly disconnected already. Libraries, coffee shops or park benches, might all serve as potential learning environments.

However, it is not possible to create a completely pure and sterile learning environment. You’ll always have some distractions or interruptions, so it’s important you build the skill of focusing on top of creating a focus-friendly environment.

2. Monitor Your Focus

Now you’re sitting down, ready to learn, in an environment with minimal distractions. You open the book or start practicing and five minutes later… I wonder what John is up to right now? I feel like getting up and doing something else. I caught my mind wandering, I’m not really paying attention at all, maybe I should just give up…

This is normal. Everyone gets distracted by the buzz of their own internal monologue. Everyone gets bored or frustrated. You may feel like quitting or taking a break quite frequently.

Focusing is like running. If you’ve rarely done it for long stretches of time before, it can feel like agony every second. However, if you can push through the temptation to quit, you’ll realize that you aren’t actually that tired and can probably keep doing it for a lot longer. Best of all, if you keep at it, eventually you’ll love doing it.

I recommend some rules of thumb to help you think about focusing better:

  1. If you catch your mind wandering, don’t feel guilty, just let it naturally gravitate back to the subject. Mind wandering is common, particularly with more passive learning activities like reading or video watching. The key is to not get upset, just let your mind drift back on task.
  2. If you feel like quitting, look at the time and set a deadline to allow yourself to take a break if you can reach it. So let’s say you’re struggling to focus and it’s 8:37. You look at the clock and tell yourself if you can wait until 8:45 and still can’t focus, you’ll take a quick break. Very often, 8:45 will fly by and you won’t even notice it because you’ll be focused again. When you feel the same urge to quit, perhaps this time at 9:03, you can repeat the exercise. This realization that most urges to quit are fleeting greatly extends your focus.
  3. If you hit your deadline and you still can’t focus, take a smart break. Smart breaks are boring, mentally quiet tasks that allow you to relax your mind without risking opening up new distractions. Have a drink of water, go for a short walk, do some pushups, meditate quietly, close your eyes and lean back (if you might fall asleep, set a timer though!).
  4. If you can’t focus because you’re frustrated, talk out loud about the problem. Talking out loud (or writing notes in a journal) helps you wrap your head around the problem and find a new solution. This can alleviate the pressure of frustration while still allowing you to make progress on the problem.
  5. If you can’t focus because you’re bored, make the learning activity you’re doing more active. That means if you’re watching a video or reading, try taking more notes. The more action you take, the less likely you’ll be bored and have your mind wander.
  6. Feeling sleepy/angry/strained/drained/etc.? Mentally take a step back and let the feeling pass. Don’t react to the feeling by immediately getting up and doing something about it. If you notice the feeling, let it pass and continue, you can recover 90% of the time. Procrastinate on reacting for as long as possible and you’ll end up ignoring many non-problems as they pop up.

I highly recommend anyone who struggles with focusing to practice meditation. Here is a good email course on meditation which explains the basics. Meditation is kind of like “raw” focus, where there isn’t a particular productive output of the focus, but instead the contents of consciousness become the object of focus. Practicing meditation teaches a skillset which then can be transferred over to ultralearning.

3. Progressively Improve Your Focus

Focus, particularly for people who aren’t used to it, can be very difficult. You might feel like it’s impossible for you to really focus, that you don’t like it, or that it’s too exhausting to be worth completing your ultralearning project.

But I think if you push past that, you’ll find yourself getting slowly better at focusing. As you improve, you’ll be able to persist for longer. Complete a few ultralearning projects and you may feel like focus is just a switch—turn it on and get results.

One way you can improve your ability to focus is by improving your moment-to-moment self-talk and reactivity while actually focusing. You’ll get better, for instance, at letting fleeting internal distractions pass without reacting to them. You’ll get better at holding out for slightly longer periods of time before triggering a break or quitting.

Another way you will get better is through conditioning. As you get more used to sitting and focusing for long periods, they feel more normal and natural. Many people aren’t used to having any time at all away from distractions and interruptions. For those people, focusing is such an alien task that it may take awhile before it feels fully comfortable.

Start Your Own Ultralearning Project

Last time I encouraged you to post your own ultralearning project and I could offer feedback. That offer still stands for anyone who wishes to comment there. In this post, I’ll make a different request—share with me your difficulties with an ultralearning project you’ve already started and I’ll do my best to offer advice.

Ultralearning projects are challenging and intense. But they also have enormous rewards and benefits. Being able to learn something quickly, impressively and with confidence can trickle down into many areas of your life. What do you want to learn?