84: Focus is a Super Power

Just wanted to say, this is one of the best Focused episodes. Going to have to relisten to this with the show notes open. You two made a great deep dive into focus, different techniques and viewpoints, etc. Keep up the good work!


Mike made several great points about Scott Young’s approach (Ultra Learning). I participated in one of Scott’s previous courses called “Rapid Learner”, and found some of the techniques to be useful, but ultimately they were things that I’d heard before in some respects (GTD-like planning, active-recall techniques for memorizing materials, etc).

My overall issue, as Mike said, is that not everyone has the ability to drop everything for three months of massed learning of one topic. We have to pick and choose our battles when deciding what is worth mastering and what is just “good enough” when it comes to learning. Mastery takes thousands of hours of time over years of consistent effort, and those changes are made at the neurological level (which can’t be rushed). I suspect Scott’s approach is better for those “good enough” instances of learning something for temporary change and having a fun challenge experience.

I’m baffled by the thumbs-down review of Scott Young’s fun and illuminating book, “Ultralearning.”

“Ultralearning” is not about being rigid or rushing nor is it a shortcut–quite the opposite–it is about designing projects to optimize specific types of learning by means of deliberate practice (K. Anders Ericsson).

Yes, deliberate practice takes focus, organization, and a degree of control over one’s environment, and, yes, the case studies in this book (i.e. The MIT Challenge) are ones in which the bar is high, but throughout his book, Scott acknowledges as much:

“My advice is this: recognize where you are, and start small. If you’re the kind of person who can’t sit still for a minute, try sitting still for half a minute…” (p 86)

“Ultra learning doesn’t have to be an additional activity, it can inform the time you already spend learning. How can you align the learning and studies you already need to do with the principles for maximizing effectiveness?” (p 38)

“…there’s a spectrum of habits, from zero-effort spontaneous engagement to the high-effort, rapid skill acquisition of ultralearning…The decision of whether the right step forward is to set up long-term habits or to create a concentrated ultralearning project is often not crystal clear and may depend more on your personality and life constraints than a hard-and-fast rule.” (p 230)

Mike asserts that for most people, most of the time, the answer is to set up a long-term habit. Would Scott actually disagree? I doubt it. But Scott is also a child (just past 30) of what Tom Friedman has aptly called the “Age of Accelerations,” interested in exploring what’s possible and pushing boundaries. I am glad he’s done it and written about it and I do think he’s learned things that are broadly applicable.

If you are facing a new learning challenge, if you have an established habit or practice but have hit a plateu, you may find insights on re-engineering your habitual approach in Scott’s book.

Commenting as someone who spent her career in the rapidly changing field of higher education, and as the parent of a dyslexic child, figuring out to how to optimize learning in my own home has been a priority, and I have learned much from Cal Newport and Scott Young, including from some of Cal’s older books, and particularly (full disclosure) when I served as a teaching assistant for their “Top Performer Course” in 2017.

Ironically, the experience of working on that virtual course is what convinced me that I needed to upgrade my computer skills (Digital minimalism?? I can’t even log onto the same website twice!), so I started listening to Mac Power Users, which eventually led me to Focused, where I am now, to my surprise, hearing Scott’s book being panned.

What I appreciate most about Mike is his sensitivity to questions of underlying value–his emphasis that we need to know what our “yes” is. That is where Mike is at his strongest. I am not sure why he felt the need to bring this book up only to warn us away from it. But maybe the discussion that followed about details of exactly which kind of notebook set-up to use is a partial answer. “Ultralearning” is not an all or nothing proposal, but an instructive exploration of one end of a spectrum that I think all of us here are on.

I’d like to suggest that Dave and Mike reconsider their assessment of Scott’s book and that they invite him to be a guest on the podcast.

I agree that not everyone has the ability to drop everything for three months off massed learning and that we have to pick and choose our battles!

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One last thing. Regarding playing “offense” and “defense,” there is literature on that! Heidi Grant Halvorson’s and Tory Higgins’ “Focus: use different ways of seeing the world for success and influence” (referring to whether your “regulatory reference” is positive or negative) is the mass-market summary, as of 2014, and a fun read.

Also note that for many roles, i.e. parent, receptionist, being responsive or “interrupt-driven” is a large part of the job. Sometimes it is the whole job.

Totally agree with some of your expressed sentiments. I, too, work in academia (albeit more as a postdoc researcher) and agree that there’s always a push to optimize learning speed. I’ve fallen more in line with Cal Newport’s approach in that I make sure that I’m scheduling at least an hour or so a day of Deep Work in reading research, making notes and outlines, etc. to increase my experience and expertise in my field (neuroscience). I’d love to have a deep dive sabbatical type thing where I could dedicate a long 12-15 week stretch into just research 30 or so hours a week, that would be grand!

He defines ultralearning as “A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.” Intense to me means fast. He starts with a story of how stressful his MIT experiment was going to be (at least that’s what I felt when I was done with it!) When it comes to productivity and self-improvement, I guess I just have a knee jerk reaction to the whole “faster, better, more” message. Just my opinion, and I wholeheartedly admit that Scott Young is way smarter than I am!

I’m finding myself more and more landing in the “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” camp: https://medium.com/@mikef.design/slow-is-smooth-and-smooth-is-fast-c63c24a6b2b8


Which is exactly the approach I prefer to take, particularly for skills and knowledge that I want to last for a durable purpose.

I recently started learning Japanese on the side, because I want to visit Japan three years from now. I don’t need to be fluent to get around the country today, but 1) I want to be able to really get immersed and enjoy the culture for when the time comes that I am there by speaking with locals, and 2), learning new things is fun :slight_smile:

Plenty of websites are claiming that a years-worth of cramming will get me to a native speaking level… which I find really unbelievable. And I have to question the durability of the material that is crammed in such time frames, as opposed to the slow, smooth accrual of skills over three years that will have greater durability and sustainability.

A friend who recently retired from the State Department was stationed all over the world, was required to learn new languages over his decades of employment, and whose last assignment was in Japan, said that the most effective way to learn, as used by the State Department, was immersion: hours of attention every day, agreeing to speak no English (or as little as humanly possible) day and night, and trusting the instructors and instruction. I took Chinese one summer at Yale, and it was a couple of hours/day with an additional couple of hours of written and audio-lab homework. I learned a lot, fairly quickly, but people I met who were going to the total immersive course at Middlebury were much, much more advanced in the same time than I.

Chinese has fairly simple grammatical rules, but Japanese, from what I’ve seen, is much more complicated. If I wanted to get to a conversational speaking level that I’d remember the closest thing to the multi-month State Department training would be Middlebury’s summer Japanese intensive, 3rd week of June through the middle of August.

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Thanks for the link :slight_smile: My university also puts on summer intensives but I’m not sure they are quite at this level.

I can’t say I’ve read the Ultralearning book, so I don’t know if this is relevant or not, but I have used emersion on a limited level to teach myself things. Not languages and such, but I’ve often found when doing things like switching primary computer operating systems, teaching myself to type well on an iPad keyboard, learning a new piece of software that replaces something I’m already using.

Sure, my productivity often dropped for a while when switching to the new thing, but I often found that it took a lot longer to learn something if I could go back to the thing I was more familiar with every time I had a problem.

In other words, if I was doing something like switching from Windows to Mac, just switch. Don’t have a virtual machine around, don’t have another machine I could use. Just solve the problems that come up and sacrifice productivity for a while.

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I’m finding myself more and more landing in the “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” camp: https://medium.com/@mikef.design/slow-is-smooth-and-smooth-is-fast-c63c24a6b2b8 3

What if we change the formulation slightly, to John Wooden’s “be quick – but don’t hurry”?

Does leading with the “be quick” imperative make this formulation problematic? Is there a risk it could derail the listener, causing them to miss the end of the sentence, and therefore the real message?

Does it cause the real message to change?

Many of us are living in circumstances in which our body’s stress response system is chronically activated, often at great cost and to little good effect. Worse, real, practical urgency can morph into false moral imperative, locking us into habitual responses that are not helpful to ourselves or others.

I am glad that you are sensitive to this. I think the work you have been doing in calling it out, in sharing your own experience, and offering tools and suggestions to help us to find our way through is important and needed.

I just hate to see, in this case, the baby getting tossed out with the bathwater. (Especially when it’s my baby!)

Thanks for your response and for sharing the link :slight_smile:

That’s totally fair :blush: