I am going to make the assumption that you are a programmer.
If so, then you probably spend a lot of your day doing intense mental gymnastics, and wrestling with obtuse and painful logic puzzles, or ‘programming’ as it is referred to by some people.
You also probably enjoy it.
You sadist you.
The problem solving side of the job is for many of us a large part of what makes it enjoyable.
It sure is tiring though.
What’s your point? Programming is fun but tiring?
My point is that although this application of mental effort is satisfying and challenging, it comes at a price.
We only have a certain amount of focused attention we can spend in any single day, and if you spend all day hammering your brain at work, it will be pretty useless by the time you get home.
This is fine, unless you want to spend your time outside of work also tackling problems or learning things which require sustained focus.
Why do you care about this? Surely you can just spend your time outside of work playing PlayStation or watching the Apprentice? Problem solved.
That is true…
Let’s assume for now though that you have some side project or learning goal that you want to pursue in your spare time, which requires sustained mental focus.
In my case I am trying to consolidate my wobbly maths skills, and learn some physics.
To this end I’ve been bashing my head against A level and university level maths and physics text books in my spare time, and attempting to teach myself enough of these things to scratch my curiosity itch.
To learn and understand the concepts covered in these subjects definitely requires focus, and I’ve managed through trial and error to get to a point where I can make progress on my learning goals, without impacting my productivity at work, or suffering a brain meltdown.
OK smarty pants, how?
My approach has been influenced heavily by Scott Young, who challenged himself to learn and pass the exams for the entire MIT computer science undergraduate course in one year:
His writing focuses heavily on how to optimise the time you spend studying, to achieve maximum understanding in the minimum time.
He calls these kind of intense learning projects ‘Ultralearning’ projects, and he even has a book on it which is worth a peek:
Another key influence was the book ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport:
This books forwards the idea that in the modern, and highly technical world, the ability to focus on and solve hard problems, and to learn difficult things, is at an absolute premium.
Meaning that the rewards for getting good at learning and solving difficult problems are very high currently.
Additionally, he lays out a series of techniques for achieving this focused work.
I recommend you consult both of these sources as they are very interesting, and they probably have a wider application that my own interpretation of these ideas.
That said, this is my blog, so here’s my approach.
My super special technique for learning hard things during spare time:
Every morning, before work, try and do two 45 minute sessions of extremely focused work, on whatever problem you are currently tackling. Then as many sessions as you can fit in to the weekend in a sustainable way (probably Saturday or Sunday morning).
For me at the moment the problem might be a physics problem, a mathematical technique, or a new concept I’m trying to understand.
The activity itself during these sessions varies quite a bit, and is not really important. The important thing is that this should be very very focused work with a clear goal (for me generally this means understanding something well enough to solve problems related to it, and to explain it to someone else).
Focused means no phone, no social media, no distractions.
In my case I work better with noise cancelling headphones, and music. I quite often just play the same playlist or song on repeat for the entire session.
Focusing like this will be hard at first. If you are learning difficult new things, you will feel stupid, and your fragile ego will start to panic.
My early attempts went something like this:
‘Ok focus time. Trigonometric identities. Let’s go’
‘I don’t want to just remember these, lets find a proof for them so I can understand them better’
‘Ouch! this proof is hard. I don’t understand how they got from there to there. Maybe I’m too stupid for this. I probably should get some food or coffee first anyway. Urgh this is horrible. I’ll just have a look at this test for dyscalculia (maths disability), maybe I have it and that’s why I can’t to this.’
And so on.
For me, the key thing was to commit to doing the whole 45 minutes. I would tell myself that regardless of how badly it is going, I have to focus for this time, and after that I can stop and do whatever else I want.
This is difficult at first, but over time becomes habitual.
In fact, developing habits that support your sustained focus sessions is key to being successful in this area, and both of the resources above outline techniques for achieving this.
The general idea though is that willpower is finite, and deliberately choosing to do hard things is tiring.
Habits on the other hand, are automatic, and painless.
Think about other good or bad habits, such as checking social media, smoking, or cleaning your teeth. You probably don’t think too much about these things, they just happen automatically, after certain cues.
The basic pattern of a habit is cue => action => reward.
This applies to bad habits and good habits.
For me, the habit loops I have been successful in drilling into myself to drive this morning routine are as follows:
up at 6 => go downstairs and start making coffee => browse smart phone while coffee is brewing (sweet sweet internetz)
take coffee upstairs and sit at desk => focus hard for 45 minutes => relax for ten minutes, get a snack, more coffee, do some stretches etc.
and repeat the last loop over and over again until I’ve had enough.
The reason this works, is that over time, consistency is more important than just about everything when it comes to making progress on difficult long term goals.
If you can consistently hit a set number of these sustained focus sessions during the week, you will make solid progress towards your goal. If you don’t track things this explicitly, it is easy to become demoralised, not see your progress, and give up.
If I get half the normal amount of focus sessions done in a week as I normally do, I know something is up, and I can go rooting about for causes.
Maybe staying in the pub till closing time on Tuesday evening had something to do with it? OK, next week let’s try not to do that.
But doesn’t this mean that you’re spending your valuable focus time that you should be spending at work, and spending it on yourself instead!?! What about your poor employer
Firstly, outside of working hours, I will always prioritise my own goals over those of my employer, and I would suggest you do the same.
That said, I also don’t think it works that way.
The difference between starting my day by:
a) Rolling out of bed as late as possible, dragging myself to work and spending the first hour waking up and inhaling coffee
b) Achieving two hours of calm and sustained focus in pursuit of a goal I am personally interested in
The second one results in my arriving at work awake and ready to tackle problems, the first one… not so much.
Cal Newport also as part of his research for the above book, found that engaging in deep focused work over time, actually increases your ability to tackle difficult problems in the future, and to do more deeply focused work.
Getting better at the meta skill of focusing on tough problems, improves your ability to do this in other settings (like at work).
So although it is true that you only have a set number of hours you can focus hard on any problem during the day, deliberate practice and consistently pushing yourself to improve at solving hard problems, improves your ability to do your job.
It’s a win win! You can be happy and pursue your own goals, and also be more effective at work!
Based on my sample of one, I definitely have found this to be the case.
So there you have it, my totally biased and personalised approach to learning hard stuff outside of work, when your day job involves brain melting activities. What are your thoughts?