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!


Should Learning Be Hard?

How hard should learning be? This may feel like a silly question, but it’s one of the biggest unanswered questions I have about learning strategy.

One view of the question argues learning should be as intense as is sustainable. The research on deliberate practice suggests that intense practice focused on improving a skill is the road to expertise. Without intense practice, your skills might get “good enough” and you’ll plateau in ability.

Another view of the question argues that learning should be made easier to encourage more of it. A popular view on second language acquisition is that students should focus on extensive, rather than intensive practice. Extensive practice is reading or listening situations where the person understands almost everything being written or said. Make the material too difficult, and it will be hard to reach the sheer volume of material necessary to reach fluency.

So which is it? Should you be making your learning activities as intense as you can maintain? Or should you be making them easy enough to increase exposure?

How Should I Improve My Writing?

The answer to this question has practical consequences. Consider my career as a writer. I would like to improve my writing. While sufficient in many cases, my writing isn’t the beautiful, well-researched prose of New Yorker articles. I’d like to get better.

But how should I get better? The intensive view of learning, as suggested by deliberate practice research, would encourage me to focus on making my writing harder. Attend creative writing workshops. Struggle to get my work placed in publications at the edge of my current writing ability. Do practice which improves selected aspects of my writing (storytelling, research, editing, etc.).

The extensive view, in contrast, would say that the main barrier for writing better is writing lots. That I should focus on writing more, and with greater volume I’ll get better at writing even if I’m not actively struggling to improve my writing.

In this particular situation, I lean towards an intensive view of learning. After having written over a thousand articles, I don’t feel like my writing quality is getting much better just by writing more. I need to be pushed to get to a new level, and that requires intensity.

How Should I Improve My Chinese?

But consider an alternative example: learning Chinese. For the last three years I’ve been practicing Chinese, including a particularly intensive burst for three months in China. I’d like to get to an advanced level of Chinese.

How should I do it? Again, there’s two viewpoints. The intensive viewpoint suggests I should strain myself on hard material, correct my weaknesses and aggressively work to reach a new level of ability.

The extensive viewpoint suggests the opposite: use it in situations I find easy enough to be comfortable. That means reading books I understand almost completely. Watching programs I don’t need to put effort in to listen to. Having conversations with people where I can easily follow along.

In this situation, I side with the extensive view. I feel my Chinese has improved mostly through easy activities, applied in high volume, than taking the intense approach. Even the quick progress I made during my three months in China owed mostly to having large volumes of low-pressure speaking, rather than intense situations.

What are the Principles that Make These Two Situations Different?

My intuitions about the best way to improve my writing and Chinese are very different. My open question is: what is the systematic difference between these two that makes an extensive or intensive strategy more appropriate? Can we use those principles to clarify situations where we don’t have a good intuition about which strategy works best?

Here are some possible explanations for why my intuition is different:

  1. Is practice going to happen anyways? I have to write for my job, so extensive practice is mostly guaranteed. Thus if I’m not satisfied with this growth rate, intensive practice might be the right answer. For Chinese, I could easily make my learning plan so intense that I rarely follow it.
  2. Building habits or breaking bad ones? Presumably, a lot of my writing improvement won’t come from new skills, but from breaking old habits of writing and replacing them with better ones. With Chinese, I’m still early enough that I mostly need to learn more words and phrases. (Side note: this suggests intensity might be the remedy for notorious problems of calcified errors in pronunciation when learning a language)
  3. How much motivation do you have? Intensive learning is a motivationally costly learning approach. It requires more energy, effort and focus. Since writing is my livelihood and Chinese is a side pursuit, I may not be able to focus enough for an intense strategy with Chinese the way I could easily justify with writing.
  4. Frustration barriers and skill plateaus? Perhaps intensive and extensive practice are just different tools for tackling different types of learning obstacles. For frustration barriers—where you are frustrated and don’t want to learn at all—extensive practice can glide you through that initial period. For skill plateaus—where you get locked into “good enough”—intensive practice can break you out of the rhythm.
  5. How much do you enjoy the skill? Another way of looking at it is that intensive practice is like rocket engines and extensive practice is gliding. You want to put a lot of thrust out when the activity has a lot of friction—i.e. you don’t enjoy doing it enough. When things get smoother, you switch to gliding since it can take you further on a fraction of the effort.

Of course, none of these excludes the possibility that my intuition is simply wrong. Maybe extensive works better for both writing and Chinese, or intensive is better for both, or even that extensive is better for writing and intensive is better for my Chinese.

What are you trying to learn? Is your learning mostly intensive or extensive? Why have you adopted that strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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