How to Learn Many Things at Once (And Stay Sane Doing It)

One of my good friends (let’s call her Linda) is struggling with a terrible problem–her life is too interesting and she doesn’t know what to do about it.

Linda’s question for me:

“How many goals can someone realistically pursue at one time? …there’s so much I want to learn – writing, marketing, dance, Spanish… how to best go about it without falling apart and giving up?”

My answer is below.

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Dear Linda,

You’re really excited about your future. There’s so much you want to learn—so much, in fact, that you don’t know where to start. Congratulations! That’s much better than being bored. And, even better, you are aware of the common pitfalls.

Most people get inspired for some goal, sprint at max effort for 1-2 weeks, burn out, push the goal into the back of their mind, and never touch it again. New Year’s resolutions are a classic example.

Let me see if I can offer some words to improve your chances of success.

First things first—check your bases.

You mentioned you want to learn many things. That’s great. The first thing you should do is touch base with yourself. Ask: “Is what I want what I want?”

Sometimes, we lie to ourselves about what we want. Other times, we are being deceived and we don’t even know it. We might want to do something because of vanity, because our neighbors are doing it, because of our self-identity, or because of some long-held ‘dream’ grasped claw-handed from childhood.

Begin by doubting yourself. Find the things you actually want–not the things you say you want. It will save a lot of time in the long run.

Reflect and make space.

Next, you need to make space. Before you decided to change, your day was already full of somethings. You slept, ate, work and did stuff—24 hours a day, every day. To make room for new things, something else will have to go. There is always a sacrifice.

In an ideal world, we would go into our day, surgically remove the habits, activities, people and work least in line with our goals and add in only those things most in line with them. Sadly, behavioral change isn’t quite that precise. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be systematic about it.

Here’s how I’d do it:

  • Track. Figure out what your typical day looks like: when you woke up, when you went to work, how many hours you spent on task A, B, C, etc. and what time you went to sleep.
  • Dissect. Figure out what you can sacrifice. Are you wasting time on the Internet? Are there low-quality people in your life? What are the 10-20% of activities that are making up 80%+ of your empty, meaningless time?
  • Replace. Notice I didn’t say add. Adding is hard—you were already using all 24 hours before, remember? You can’t exactly live on 25 hours. Much better is to replace. I’ve written about this before, but the basic protocol is: (1) identify the trigger for the activity or habit you want to replace, (2) spent 1-2 weeks “re-programming” that trigger to your new, more beneficial activity.

Again, remember that making space is hard. You will only be able to do one new thing, two at most.
Choose the most important thing, spend 1-2 weeks making that practice into a habit, then repeat the above process for new changes you want to make.

Okay, but how to choose the “most important thing?” By choosing the lead domino.

Choose the lead domino.

I heard of this concept from Tim Ferriss. When you have a lot of interesting things ahead of you and you don’t know what to choose, choose the thing that makes everything easier. If you want to run a marathon, you might want to start by quitting smoking first. If you want to be a martial artist, you might want to “bulletproof” your joints against injury so you can train harder.

This obviously requires an exercise in imagination. You need to be able to see second order and third order effects—how certain skills, habits and life changes cascade into future changes and how those future changes keep snowball into even more changes down the line.

A few more tools before you go.

I’ve got a lot more to say about this, but I’ll have to flesh it out another time. Let me give you a few tidbits to get the creative juices flowing, though:

  • Aim for a 80% success rate. Humans learn best when they are optimally challenged. This happens somewhere around 80%. Keep track of your weekly practice goals, and aim to achieve them 5-6 days a week. If you’re under that, you’re being too aggressive. If you had a perfect week, maybe it’s time to add some more challenge to your life.
  • Work in phases. When you’ve spent 4-6 weeks on some skill, seen considerable improvement, and progress has slowed, it makes sense to put that skill aside to work on a new one. Even better if this new skill has synergistic effects on your old one. Maybe you were working on writing and now you’re going to work on public speaking. Maybe you take a break from dance to work on yoga.
  • Put skills on maintenance. Hidden law of the universe: changing is a lot harder than staying the same. Useful side effect of this law of the universe: putting skills on maintenance requires very little effort. This is why athletes can retain muscle mass despite dropping training to 10% of previous levels. This is why someone can still speak Japanese despite working on it much less than they used to.
    • It takes very little, maybe 15 minutes 3 times a week, to maintain a skill. This prevents regression, which is costly. Forgetting a language and then relearning it costs a lot more than keeping it on maintenance.
  • Deload. This is another concept from athletic training. Most high level athletes halve the amount of training they do every 4-6 weeks. This gives the body a chance to recover from pent-up stress and actually produces a wave of “super compensation” where the athlete reaps all the benefits from training during that rest and recovery period.
    • Try scheduling reloads for your own daily practice. Let to subconscious do its work. Go on vacation every one or two months. Take a day off. Read some fiction. You might find it easier to concentrate after you come back.

Hope that helps, Linda.

A lot of these concepts are still in their “seed” stage—I’ll be refining them, adding concrete protocols and publishing new stuff in long form over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Too Many Fucking Excuses, Appearing Superhuman and the Loser’s Mindset

too many excuses

“You’ve got more excuses than a pregnant nun.” -Ido Portal

The longer I live, the more I realize people are full of shit.

Can’t get ahead in life?

Yes, it must be because the guy at your job interview was an absolute prick; because your genes failed the genetic roulette and you almost look like Benedict Cumberbatch except your nose is too big and now you can’t be an actor; because that demon of a Bulgarian calculus teacher Mrs. Petkova didn’t like the way you looked at her; because your parents were too nice to you growing up AND they didn’t send you to the right school; because the your damned financial advisor told you that tech stocks could only go up and then the bubble burst… Yes, that must be it.

No, of course you didn’t fail your interview because you stayed up late too many nights chasing frat girl tail to actually learn any useful skills; of course your lackluster career has nothing to due with how you look like a pregnant horse every time you try to smile on camera; of course your lack of a nest egg has nothing to do with you not knowing the word “asset allocation”…

No, of course it isn’t because you didn’t try or anything—we wouldn’t want to think choices actually played some role in life outcomes! That’s too much responsibility! Hey, bring me my silver spoon!

Never taking responsibility for your life–that’s the loser’s mindset.

Yes, life is random. And, yes, some end up with a better dice roll than others.

But this “hands-in-the-air” way of looking at the world is a bear trap. Why? Because, a lot of the time, the people that seem lucky are just working a hellofalot harder than you.

The way a “successful” person runs a marathon or a business (smirk) may appear effortless, natural and “inborn”. But what we don’t see is all the 16-hour days, hard high-altitude training in the mountains, weeks away from the family, and the fire of a life driven by complete obsession with what one does.

We only see the outside, and the outside looks superhuman.

Below are two exercises I’ve used to retake life control. This is old stuff; it comes straight from Stoic philosophy.

As many wise philosophers have said: Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t control. Sweat the stuff you can. (I believe that’s a direct translation from the original Roman texts.)

Two exercises:

Catch excuses and reframe.
Use a small notebook or your phone to write down every time you find yourself making an excuse. Reframe the excuse into an actionable point. (“I’m hot and life sucks.” -> “Maybe I can slow my heart rate down with breathing exercises and it won’t be so hot…”)

Track your day. Reflect.
Spend an hour tracking everything you do in a single day. Every minute of it—what you ate, where you shit, what people you met. Let it sit for a few days, then review it as if you were looking at another person. How in line is that person’s behavior with their goals? Wait, do you even have goals? Oh god… That’s a topic for another day.

Frankly, most people (a) aren’t operating at even 50% of their maximum potential and (b) don’t know where they’re going in life anyway.

Try out some of the exercises and spent (a lot) of time thinking what you want out of life. Or don’t.

Holding the Line: Week Review #4

The main purposes of a Weekly Review are (a) track the onboarding of new habits and/or mindset changes, (b) get direct feedback on progress towards mid-term goals and (c) a top-down view of how time/resources are allocated each week. See my other weekly reviews here.

How did we do this week?

This week’s spreadsheet:
Total Focus Time: 4.62 hours per day
Work Time: 4.07 hours per day
Training Time: 0.55 hours per day
Work focus stayed essentially the same, but we got some more training in this week. It kind of looks like we stalled, but hours per week aren’t the whole story.
But let’s look at some context.

Context

This week was another hectic travel week: three different airports, hours on run-down Chinese buses, poor internet connectivity (damn the Great Firewall), reunions with relatives, etc. If anything, the theme for this week was to “Hold the line!”
I knew prior to this week that it would be nigh impossible to both keep up training and maintain a regular work schedule. Hell, this country doesn’t even have coffee. I went into it with the goal of “Hold the line!” instead. The goal this week was to try to improve, but be satisfied with status quo.
And, in that regard, I deserve a pat on the back.

What went well this week?

Virtues Checklist

The biggest spreadsheet change from last week was the “Virtues Checklist”. The idea, in brief, was to sculpt personal change by reinforcing certain types of behavior. More on this in another post, but the basics were:
  • Smile – Go out of your way to make somebody (a friend, a stranger, anybody) smile once a day.
  • Spiritual – Spend a block of time every day *not* doing things for personal gain. This means no time tracking, no “studying”, no income generation. Read a good fiction book, go see some friends, look into the sky and enjoy the clouds, etc.
  • Fortitude – Build mental toughness by designing a willpower goal for yourself based on the day’s circumstances. Hungry? Let operating without hunger be your goal. Raining? Get wet and laugh at it. Bored? Deal with it.
These were a fantastic change–the best I’ve made yet! Because I wanted a little green checkbox in my spreadsheet (silly, I know), I found myself going out of my way to make someone smile or reframing a perceived negative event into a positive one. 
These are basic principles that we know make people satisfied, happier and more capable in a variety of situations, but my biggest problem has always been converting knowledge into action. This virtues checklist gives me a way to take knowledge, program it into an achievable set of week goals, and execute to reinforce that behavior.

Garbage Time

I hit a turning point this week. For years and years, my go-to activity when mentally fatigue was some sort of video entertainment. It used to be anime and Japanese TV shows. Recently, it was online streaming of poker and online games.
No matter how much I “willed” it, the change wasn’t happening. I would try to resist, give in, feel guilty, and do it all over again.
Somehow, being present, tracking my wasted time, and adding to my awareness of the little “triggers” throughout the day that would send me down the path of no return has helped. The amount of wasted garbage time has drastically fallen.
And this is a win-win scenario too. I waste less time. This means my brain is less clouded. I have more time to focus on other types of activities as well. My sleep quality increases. This was always the biggest monster for me, and now I can see the light at the end.
Basically, this was a week filled with many small victories. And all the green on the spreadsheet supports that. I’ve come to see the spreadsheet tracking as a form of meditation–it requires awareness of your day to day action and provides direct feedback on the choices you make in a day.

What’s changing for next week?

The only qualm I had with this week’s spreadsheet was how high adherence was. When I start succeeding too much, I start to worry that I’m not setting the bar high enough.
Still, this particular setup worked quite well this week, and I’d like to give it another week of testing under more “stable” scenarios (Thailand next week!). Get some more information about where the leaks are.
I’m did some basic pruning (moving training to another spreadsheet), and that’s it!
Next week’s spreadsheet:
Let’s keep the ball rolling.

On (Not) Being Average

Meet Johnny, our average American.

Johnny is in debt, overweight and unhappy but blames it on his boss (and bad parenting); doesn’t stretch his hip flexors; unlocks his smartphone 100+ times a day to check Instagram photos of his favorite Russian model; can count the books he read this year on one hand (at least he can count!); watches Netflix on the couch after work; sometimes goes to church on Sundays; couldn’t identify a barbell if it bounced off a trampoline and hit him in the face; and has so much free time that he manages to sleep 6 hours some nights.

Regardless of what we might think, most of us are part-Johnny. Most of us are mostly-Johnny, even.

A scary yet obvious thing nobody is thinking about: if you do what everyone else does, you are the definition of average.

And the corollary to that: to be the exception, the un-average person, you need to make “un-average” decisions.

Most humans are on autopilot, look to their peer group (or whoever happens to be famous on TV) for decisions, and make up reasons for doing what they can’t explain (“It’s just who I am”, “It makes me happy”, “I’ve always done that”, “It’s in my nature”).

An easy predictor of somebody’s future life: (a) whatever their life looked like last month and (b) whatever the life of their friends looks like.

Uncommon results come from uncommon action. If you take a peek around you and don’t like what you see, get your ass off the couch, turn your brain off autopilot, and start making some changes people.

I’m writing from China this week. I’m swamped by weddings, relatives and the shoddy Chinese internet system, but I’ll be posting whenever I can. Stay tuned!

Building Steam: Weekly Review #3

This is the continuation of my weekly productivity reviews where I aim to operate at 80%+ of capacity. Also see Week 1 and Week 2.

This was a hectic week traveling in Japan, with typhoons and hours on public transportation most days. 

How did we do this week?


Spreadsheet for Week 3
This Week’s Focus Time: 4.43 hours per day.
Last Week’s Focus Time: 3.56 hours per day.

We managed a 24% increase on last week. However, because of travel, training time dropped dramatically (to around 30 minutes a day). Meanwhile, focused computer time nearly doubled to an average of 4+ hours a day.

What did we learn?

  • I’m more aware of my mind wandering. Spreadsheet tracking seems to function as a kind of mindfulness training. Before it would take hours sometimes to catch myself distracted. And, even then, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself back on track. In the last few days, I’ve had the catch happen within minutes and bring myself back on course.
  • Decisions about food are a HUGE willpower drain. I was on the road this week and spent a lot of energy evaluating food choices, finding good places to eat, etc. This was a huge drain on willpower, and several times I found myself so tired that I wasn’t able to resist. On the spreadsheet, you can see a binge several days this week with 300-400 grams of carbs. 
  • Naming your problem areas does help. After identifying that my biggest problem area is the evening, I’ve been better about not blindly wasting 3-4 hours a night. This is without any significant structure, though I plan to add this in for this week’s objectives.
  • Motivation matters a lot. If I’m not “Hell Yes!” about a project, I might lose focus within 20-30 minutes. If it’s something I’m super-excited about, I find I can focus for over 2 hours at times.
  • Focus power ramps up slowly. My average focus time went up 30 minutes this week. It also went up 30 minutes last week. Not nearly enough to extrapolate, but I suspect that this gradual change will continul (albeit slower). Two reasons for this slow change: (1) the willpower “muscle” of the brain adapts slowly and (2) improvements that come from general lifestyle changes happen gradually week on week.

What’s changing for next week? Why?

Radical results require radical action. While I’m still working on the fundamentals (not spending time on useless activity, planning, outlining, goal-setting, etc.), this week I also want to play with some less mainstream techniques for behavioral change.

“Virtues” checklist.

This is the change I’m most excited about. I’ve been thinking about how to create changes in “character” – something traditionally believed to be innate / unchangeable. The process I’m testing tries to (1) meditate on what virtues I want to represent, (2) make them black and white as possible, and (3) repeatedly make directions that “habituate” us in that direction.
I chose three “virtues” I want to focus on for this week:

    • Spiritual – Being over-rational has some tradeoffs. I’m trying to spend some time doing things without purpose to help balance this out.
    • Smile – Did I make someone else smile today? Hopefully this will protect me from isolation and also habituate me to providing happiness for others.
    • Fortitude – Willpower is a trainable muscle. I’m trying to take negative situations that come across in life and reframe them as a challenge to my willpower.

Three focus sessions instead of two. 

I’ve been doing some research into circadian rhythms and focus cycles. There tends to be a 5-hour dip midday where performance is reliably lower than the other two. This week I want to divide my 16 waking hours into 6-5-5 blocks and see how my ability to do good work fluctuates within these.
I have subjectively felt a dip in energy during the midday, and, if this is something I see happening this week, maybe I can design my midday to build around this fall in energy. I could do less intensive tasks in the afternoon, take some sort of supplement to keep energy levels high, take naps, etc.
But first we need some data, so I’m splitting the day up into triple blocks.

Evening ritual tracking. 

Although we had some winners, I still lost 4-5 hours on my worst nights this week. This continues to be my biggest weakness area. To address this, I’m going to track several positive habits that might increase the chance of evening success.


With those things in mind, this is what the new spreadsheet for Week 4 looks like:
Spreadsheet for Week 4
It’s gonna be another hectic week – I’m traveling more in Japan before flying to China for a wedding. The goal is the same: ramp up towards double-digit focus.