At the beginning of his discussion of Principle 2, Focus in Ultralearning
, Scott Young begins with another case study. This one is about Mary Somerville
, an eighteenth century wunderkind in math and languages who did a lot of self-teaching because she lived in the eighteenth century and who wanted anything to do with educating a woman back then? I'm not that fond of other people's case studies, especially when they involve people who make me feel like a slacker.
But here is the important point in Young's material on Somerville: Putting aside the whole eighteenth century issues, she was dealing with a life that many writers deal with today...childcare, maintaining a home, and living within a network of friends and family. Young says of her and her situation: "I'm more interested in the kind of focus that Somerville seemed to possess. How can one in an environment such as hers, with constant distractions, little social support, and continuous obligations, manage to focus long enough not only to learn an impressive breadth of subjects, but to suchdepths that the French mathematician Simeon Poisson once remarked that 'there were not twenty men in France who could read [her] book'?"
Well, Young says that people face three "struggles with focus": starting, sustaining, and optimizing quality of focus.
Failing to Start Focusing (Procrastination)
Oh, wow. If there's one thing we know about here at Original Content
, it's procrastination
. So I'm just going to jump to what Young says we can do about it.
- A lot of procrastination is unconscious. Try to recognize that you're actually procrastinating and not doing marketing for writing that hasn't been produced yet or networking again and again and again. Make recognizing procrastination a priority.
Our Case Study
- Give yourself a short period of time in which you have to work on a new task. Most of what we don't want to do with a task won't take all that long. Forcing ourselves to work for five, ten, fifteen minutes could be enough time to actually get us into the project and over the worst of the part we were putting off. The Swiss Cheese Method of time management!
- You can then progress to the unit system or segmented time program. Break your worktime into units during which you have to work. You get a break between units. This is a classic time management technique.
- Use a calendar to plan when you have units of time you can use to get started. I recalled recently that when I restarted writing after having children, I worked forty-five minutes, four evenings a week. That's how I wrote my second published short story.
- If you find that you're procrastinating on using the units of time you've charted out on your calendar, go back to the beginning and work for five minutes, then give yourself a break. Begin again. That's kind of a zenny thing, I believe.
: My particular learning project involves coming up with the historical, or historical process, knowledge a character in a book I'm working on must have in order to be able to have an impact on the not completed plot I'm working on. Need was a big part of getting me started. I felt I couldn't proceed with the overall writing project until I'd acquired this knowledge
. Also, knowing that I want to continue with the overall project because I want to bring material to my writers' group each month is a motivator in getting started on the learning project. Accountability.
Failing To Sustain Focus (Distraction)
First off, a couple of things we've discussed here before:
- Maybe you won't be studying in flow, according to Young: Working in flow is a type of concentration that involves achieving a state of effortlessness, even enjoyment, with your work. It happens with writing, on occasion, anyway. You're not distracted. You're maybe not thinking a whole lot. Work is just sort of flowing because, particularly with writing, you know so much about what you're doing. Young says that may not happen with ultralearning. Learning, particularly if you're learning a skill like a new language or coding with specific goals, requires deliberate practice and feedback. Maybe too much thinking?
- Studying in units of time: Young says researchers have found that people retain more new information if they're working in multiple periods of time rather than one long one. That is similar to the research that shows that efficiency in workers declines after a few hours. The really positive angle with this information is that with both studying and writing you can make progress using small chunks of time. You don't have to give up because you don't have days to commit to the program.
Okay, now, the three reasons we struggle to sustain focus while learning (or probably doing anything else):
Your Environment as Distraction
: Phones. Internet. TV. Writers know these are issues, and even methods of fleeing from the stress of working. (We just did the stress book for Time Management Tuesday, remember?) Young says, though, that many people don't realize these things are distracting them, just as they don't realize they procrastinate. He suggests we be aware of our working environment and test what works best for us.
Your Environment Related To Our Case Study
: Sadly, Young doesn't mention children and sick family members as environmental distractions. Personally, I have found that far more difficult to work with than phones, Internet, and TV, which are relatively easy fixes. Perhaps he covers that elsewhere in the book.
Your Task as Distraction
: Certain activities, or learning tools, are more difficult to focus on than others. For instance, are you using videos, podcasts, or books as learning tools? Some are easier to focus upon than others.
An interesting point Young makes is that some tasks are less cognitively demanding than others. I would think that would mean they are easier to focus on, but Young says, no, they can be harder to stay focused upon
, because the more difficult tasks are harder to do on autopilot. Autopilot is when you're more likely to become distracted by other things.
This probably explains why I gave up listening to podcasts years ago.
Your Task Related To Our Case Study
: I still have to come up with my learning tools. Clearly I need to do some thinking/planning on this point.
Your Mind as Distraction
: What Young is talking about here is unrelated worries and problems. Upcoming appointments...holidays...your day job...the meals you have to plan and then find time to cook every day for the rest of your life. Young's suggestion for dealing with this will sound familiar if you've ever tried meditation: Recognize these random thoughts and then bring your mind back to the task at hand. He quotes a meditation teacher from a mindfulness research center who says learning to let a thought come, recognize it, and let it go can instead of trying to suppress it can actually diminish it.
Your Mind Related To Our Case Study
: I wasn't too impressed with this aspect of the book when I first read it yesterday. However, it does reinforce something Kelly McGonigal writes about in The Will Power Instinct
, which is that having to bring a wandering mind back to the breath over and over again while meditating can develop the brain and impact impulse control. I just have to remember to do the catch-and-release thing while trying to focus.
Failing To Optimize Focus
I have to admit, I had problems with this section. Essentially, it sounds as if different tasks require different levels of focus, intense or more relaxed. It also sounds as if Young is talking about no focus breakout experiences
for some creative tasks.
Our Case Study
: I didn't come away with any new ideas from this.
My overall impression of the Focus section of Ultralearning
: This section will be a lot more helpful if you know nothing about time management. If you do, there's not a lot of new information and what there is is subtle.