A New Year’s Revelation (Part 2)

Outlining the Focus Six™ learning programme

In the last post, I introduced a problem. However many books I read, podcasts I listened to and talks I attended, my retention was frustratingly low. This post is the second in a series of three about how I challenged myself to apply a set of self-management principles to develop a new programme for continued learning.

Since publishing the last post, it’s been fascinating to hear from people experiencing the same dissatisfaction with their learning. The pattern through all the messages is not the motivation to learn, but the difficulty in maintaining focus. It seems I’m not alone in feeling that our world of instant and incessant access to information reinforces our scattergun approach to learning, in turn making details harder to recall and fathering frustration when our perceived effort has not achieved our intention to learn.

This pattern is intriguing as it both confirms and contradicts one of the most useful models of designing behaviour-change interventions: BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model.

The model poses that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behaviour to occur: motivation, ability and a trigger.

The pattern of feedback I’ve received fits the model. Motivation is high, so this isn’t the problem. Also, the pervasive nature of technology means our ability to access learning has never been greater, so we should also measure our ability as high. With both thresholds exceeded we should see action. Examining the surge in popularity of self-learning books, self-learning talks and platforms for enrolling in self-learning courses, you can infer that action is indeed occurring. And yet, we still have our problem.

Let’s pause to look at another example for a moment. User-Experience Design 101 advises that setting passages of text in a hard-to-read typeface is an obvious no-no. As your eyes sweep across your screen, you’re probably unaware of the consideration Medium’s design team put into choosing Charter as the font, but a great deal of thought did indeed go into the choice. Historically, we credit serif typefaces with increasing the readability of long passages. Pick a novel from your shelf, and it’s likely to be set in a serif typeface. However, research is only as valid as the measurements built into the experiment. When calibrated to reading speed and legibility (culminating in ‘readability’) the user-experience rules hold true, with serifs topping the usability charts. However, if you change the measurement from speed and clarity to retention, you get a different result.

Graphic Designer David Carson famously didn’t mistake legibility for communication.

In 2010 a team of psychologists published a paper concluding: if you want people to remember and learn what they’re reading, you’re better off making it harder to read. It seems our retention is significantly improved when we’re pressed to work a little harder to process the information.

“When people find something easy to read they often mistake this as a sign that they’ve learnt it.” — Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer & Vaughan (2010)

We could apply and adapt the structure from the statement above to our current interest: ‘when we find it easy to watch and read the information we often mistake this as a sign that we’ve learnt it’. Fogg’s Model presents a formula for action, not outcome. And here’s where we got to last time, our feeling that the amount of effort we apply to learning doesn’t necessarily correlate with how much we’ve learnt.

At the end of the last post I introduced the simple principle of Focus Six:

Here, I’ll go into more detail on each of these elements.


When starting something new we naturally share our intentions with our partners, family or even co-workers. During January, it’s common to overhear pronouncements of joining the gym, bringing homemade lunches to work or abstaining from alcohol. Vocalising our intentions to others feels good as it signals our determination to better ourselves, and also makes it harder for us to renege.

A large body of work in psychology has focused on the power of ‘social influence’ and has shown how group pressures influence our behaviour (Asch 1951, Deutsch & Gerard, 1955 and many many more).

At some level, we know our psychological processes can be manipulated by social influence, and we try to harness this to commit to behaviours we want to adopt. Understanding that coming face-to-face with temptation is very different from thinking about it beforehand, we intelligently set-up as many commitment devices (or Odysseus Contracts) as possible to shield against the inevitable times of temptation.

“If we consciously acknowledge a commitment, the commitment and consistency effect is stronger. In psychological terms, this is getting people to sign a behavioural contract.” — Deutsch & Gerard (1955)

With this in mind, the first insight into my learning journey was to create some commitments. I told Jane—my partner—and phoned a couple of psychologist friends to bore them with my latest idea. I even added a small footer to my emails with details about what I was currently reading. All-in-all not a great deal of effort, but enough to make me think twice about going back on my word and picking up an off-topic book.

Introducing a subtle commitment to my email footer.

As an undergraduate, I stumbled across a self-published book called “How to Fulfil Your Wildest Dreams: And Maybe Get a First Class Honours Too” by Richard Parsons. With such an ambitious title, how could I not scour the pages for the secret sauce of scholarly success? One idea from the book has stuck with me for over twenty years. Parsons writes:

“The first step is to write it [your goal] down, preferably in large clear lettering on a bit of white card. That way you can look at it and read it as often as you like. And the more times the better.” — Richard Parsons

This quote may sound like it’s dangerously close to Noel Edmund’s cosmic ordering, but this embodies two principles of Focus Six — make a commitment and regularly repeat it to yourself (and anyone else that’ll listen). Of course, before you commit you need to decide on a topic.

Single topic

Focusing on a topic was my biggest problem and one that’s reflected in the messages I’ve received since writing the first post in this series. With a deluge of fascinating subjects available to learn, where do you start? If you look across my bookshelf, you’ll see topics from poisons to particles, religion to the Third Reich and mythology to magic tricks. I’ll read one, then pick another subject, and then move to something else entirely. With each fresh start, I wasn’t taking advantage to strengthen my previous knowledge. I wasn’t filling in gaps as different experts presented diverse views on the same issues, and I lost focus. I contentedly skipped across pages and podcasts, at best gaining an elementary understanding, but more likely just entertaining myself with random topics.

Committing yourself to a single topic of study encourages focus. One of the most significant stumbling blocks for many people is their discomfort with compromising, even for a short time, other priorities. With all the subjects of the world barking for attention through our social feeds, it’s hard to voluntarily adorn the blinkers of focus. Your commitment to a single topic acknowledges the future push and pull of our attention and gives us a substantial reason to stand firm. We shouldn’t feel guilty for all that we have not read, but instead celebrate our dedication to achieving a more in-depth understanding of what we have.

In his inspiring book, Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton explores techniques employed by religion that our secular world has happily pushed aside. He proposes that although we may not believe in their belief system and central tenets, religions still have some fundamental things to teach us. We should not shy away from ‘importing’ ideas that have worked across the centuries to support our contemporary and secular needs.

“Once we cease to feel we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.” — Alain de Botton

One of the lessons from religion is that for a topic, idea or teaching to take hold, we should habitually repeat them. Religion has widely adopted routine repetition as a learning technique. In contrast, how often when finishing a book do we return to the beginning to strengthen our learning with a second reading? With the feeling of the next big lesson just around the corner, how can we justify spending time repeating what we’ve already experienced?

“How free our secular society leaves us by contrast… It associates repetition with punitive shortage, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information — and therefore it prompts us to forget everything.“ — Alain de Botton

Throughout my year of adjusting and tweaking my learning behaviours, I struggled with this one. I understand the thinking and agree with the principle, but when finishing a book, the feeling of returning to the beginning conflicted with my need for progression. If my motivation dropped because I felt I was going nowhere, I knew I would lose interest, so I explored if there was a way to combine repetition with progression.

Multiple channels

So far I’ve condemned the superabundance of stimuli as convicting us to consumption without absorption. Now with a focus and a plan we can use the plethora of available material to our advantage. We can inject organisation into our pedagogical chaos and combine the techniques of repetition with a sense of progression.

If we commit to learning a single topic, we can plan to build on our learning with new material from different sources. If done well, each resource we find will support the last, repeating concepts from a different vantage point, as well as nudging our knowledge forward.

We can even exchange the type of media while keeping the source constant. For instance, when focusing my learning on ‘the brain’, I started with David Eagleman’s book, ‘The Brain: The Story of You’. I followed this up by listening to his appearance on the Infinite Monkey Cage, watching his TED lectures and also his documentary for the BBC. Each time I experienced the same overall message, but each being slightly different to the last. I felt the concepts sinking in, finding myself being able to recall not just the general idea but also more of details. As I gained a good grounding in the subject, I felt I had completed level one of my learning game, and was ready to level up.

The notion of incorporating levels into learning appealed to me as a potential organising principle. When consulting for health and finance companies, I often walk through the positive motivational effects of building in dynamics more likely recognised from computer games than behaviour-change interventions. Game designers have leaned on decades of research into human motivation and psychology to construct escalating levels of challenges to keep the gamer hooked. A well-designed game goes right to the heart of the human psyche, and we can steal these ideas back when creating our programme for learning.

“Map out the player journey in your gamified system as a collection of short-term missions and long-term goals, which play out as a rolling series of progressions.” Kevin Werbach & Dan Hunter ‘For the Win’ (2012).

Starting my first phase of Focus Six by picking up Gray’s Anatomy and working through the dense latin nomenclature of the brain was never going to be a suitable level one. Instead, I picked media that was short and light, allowing me to feel the joy of completion while also laying the foundation for future facts. Radio shows and podcasts presented 30–40 minutes of learning, the perfect accompaniment to a hot bath. And popular science books such as Override by Caroline Williams took me on the author’s personal journey to better her brain. These light bites teased my learning palette and encouraged me to move to more meatier courses, progressing through my levels and giving me enough feedback to keep going.

Identifying between a light bite and a main course requires some preparation, and I found I needed to allow for an initial planning phase before getting started. Taking time to rummage the internet for media, judging their experience level and arranging them accordingly gave me a starting point. Combining the objective measures of length (e.g. the number of pages in the book or the duration of the lecture) with the subjective measure of density (i.e. what level of expertise it was aimed at) gave me a solid basis to judge media I picked out. I also considered which media would best suit the various environments I found myself. Audio fitted my long commutes and not so long baths; short video lectures gave me a 20-minute escape at lunchtime; and denser books or academic papers needed daytime concentration whereas bedtime reading needed to be light and help me drift off dreaming of dancing dendrites and camping hippos.

Finding unusual sources for learning: Image taken from Neurocomic by Dr Matteo Farinella & Dr Hana Ros.

Creating a plan allowed me to swing swiftly from one learning branch to another without thought. As I finished one book, I already had the next lined up and avoided the temptation to stop and sink into procrastination. When I started the car, my phone was primed with podcasts. And I had a YouTube playlist that would keep me away from the modern-day trap of lost hours watching cute kittens jumping into boxes.

The question now is when to stop.

Set period (and repetitions)

Stopping is not the right term. The idea of committing to a set amount of time is to both keep sight of an achievable goal and also to schedule time to reflect and replan.

The success of social commitments like Dry January and Movember is partly due to their adoption of a technique from behavioural psychology called bright lines. The principle is simply the setting of very clear and unambiguous rules, so you know when you’ve broken them. Not drinking any alcohol for the entirety of January is a much easier rule to follow than trying not to drink more than four units of alcohol per day (which is incidentally the advice from the UK’s Chief Medical Officer). Reducing the cognitive effort of sticking to your commitment, by introducing an achievable length of time for learning a single topic, increases the likelihood of you lasting the distance.

But why six weeks? I initially looked into research exploring how long it takes for humans to form a new habit. I knew the often cited ’21 days’ was a myth that came out of a spurious self-help manual from the 1960s, but I hoped more methodological research had been carried out since then. Around 2010, I helped create a smartphone app for the breast cancer charity CoppaFeel! and my research put me in touch with a team of researchers at University College London. Phillippa Lally and her team were about to publish their research on modelling habit formation, and their finding that, while it can range from as little as 18 days to as much as 254, the median time to form a habit was 66 days. While the experiments Lally et al conducted are not directly applicable to our discussion, they do give insight into how time plays a role in promoting behaviour change.

I was also interested in applying principles from another psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect. Over six hundred studies into productivity have shown that on a task we feel committed to performing, we will remember things better if we have not yet had the chance to finish it. This finding resonated with a method I discovered worked when writing essays for my undergraduate course. When writing, instead of trying to reach a natural stopping point to take a break, I found that stopping in the middle of something helped me get back into it again after my break. When my allotted study time was up I would immediately stop and move away from my desk, sometimes mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence. Robert Cialdini remarks on a similar practice adopted by one of his colleagues:

“She never lets herself finish a writing session at the end of a paragraph or thought… She uses the motivating force of the drive for closure to get back to her chair quickly, impatient to write again.” — Robert Cialdini, Pre-Suasion (2016)

In my self-experimentation, six weeks achieved a balance between the 66 days for something to take root, harnessing the Zeigarnik Effect’s drive for closure and personally feeling the goal was achievable. It also benefited from not aligning to the months of the year. When I started, if my learning times accidentally mapped onto our calendar months I found myself stopping when I missed the start of the month. After four weeks of focused learning, I would pause to reflect and plan the next phase. This time for planning meant I moved into the month by a few days, or sometimes a week, and I’d find myself waiting until the start of the following month to restart. This pause made it so much harder to get going, and often meant I didn’t get going again at all. It seemed the bright line of the calendar month conflicted with my process. Changing the phase to six weeks separated me from the calendar and helped me slide from one phase to the next.

And rest…

When talking about these ideas with Jane she questioned if she could, when using the Focus Six programme herself, still read Jack Reacher before going to bed. I realised the principles outlined here might come across as somewhat all-encompassing; six weeks of hard slog without any rest for the little grey cells. What I want to put forward is a very simple concept to motivate people to learn one thing at a time, but only for the time you already dedicate to learning. Focus Six allows us to conduct our thinking to the same score, combining the piccolos of podcasts with the heftier percussion of publications to form a learning symphony, but the players can still listen to Taylor Swift once they leave the concert hall.

In my experimentation with Focus Six, I found that I started to dedicate more time to learning, especially when I unearthed material that could easily bleed into my leisure time. Traditionally, my bedtime reading leaned toward the soporific stories of spies and sorcerers, but finding lighter writing from journalists exploring similar subject matters meant I could keep focus until I succumbed to the seduction of sleep. Your approach should be something you feel for yourself, balancing your learning time with your rest time. If at the end of six weeks, you decide you don’t wish to move to a new phase, that’s fine — choose another topic and off you go again.

With many false starts, as I found what worked and what didn’t, I tweaked the context of my learning through six phases of Focus Six on my topic of the brain. I found that with my topic selected, my commitment shared and my plan in place I could better enjoy my reading, listening and watching. My car journeys were filled with the wit of Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox and their Infinite Monkeys. My coffee shop reading took me on a trip with Caroline exploring the frailty of her brain and taking control of her mind. And I didn’t feel out of my depth when accompanying Professor Jeanette Norden though her university course exploring the inner workings of our white and grey matter. As I quickly ticked-off radio programmes (even managing repeated listenings to many) and introductory volumes, I observed a feeling of purpose and progression, while my steadier progress through the denser and lengthier material gave me a more profound sense of learning.

And most importantly, I was remembering.

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”
—Kurt Vonnegut

In the last post in this series, I will question if Focus Six could really develop into more than my personal technique for learning. And could the tools technology now puts at our fingertips help to break through some of the problems with the programme and support anyone wanting to increase their capacity to learn?

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