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

Charles Chu
Dec 9, 2016 · 5 min read

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.


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.

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand

Charles Chu

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Rethinking the obvious @ http://thepolymathproject.com

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand