🔎AIP 87 How To Stay Focused While Self-Learning

🔎AIP 87 How To Stay Focused While Self-Learning
Photo by Google DeepMind / Unsplash

Exciting news! I’m creating a free email course challenge to help video gamers in the workforce learn to fall in love with and effectively self-learn outside of school for personal and work projects.

I’m in the beginner stages and have nothing yet to sell, but I’m having a load of trouble trying to understand the problems of this intended audience. If you want to join the waitlist to hear more in the future click this link. 

I’ll ask you to fill out a one minute form to understand the problems you’re experiencing in self-learning. I appreciate the help.

"To be a master, you must first master yourself." - Genji, Overwatch

Back in 2011, Eric Barone was fresh out of college with a computer science degree but could not find a job. Driven by a deep passion for learning, he decided to try building his programming skills and job portfolio by creating a video game. He had long loved the Japanese farming sim Harvest Moon but thought it needed an upgrade.

Barone had never made a game before. He had virtually no skills relevant to game development. He didn't have a team of developers, artists, or composers—he was all of them.

To fully grasp the enormity of this endeavor, imagine deciding to build a spaceship in your backyard using nothing but YouTube tutorials, a rusty toolbox, and a fervent belief that duct tape can fix anything.

Creating a hugely successful video game usually demands millions of dollars and the collaboration of hundreds of professionals, including developers, producers, artists, animators, designers, writers, and actors, all dedicating long hours over several years. Each member focuses on specific details to craft immersive worlds. For instance, some artists might spend their days drawing rocks, while audio designers capture the sounds of those rocks being thrown, and gameplay designers calculate the damage they inflict upon hitting an enemy.

It took Barone four and a half years to design, program, animate, draw, compose, record, and write everything in the game, working 12-hour days, seven days a week. Every part of the game was made with maddening meticulousness. Barone needed hundreds of lines of dialogue for the three dozen or so townsfolk you can interact with. He needed thousands of pixel art drawings, which he spent countless hours tweaking and perfecting. He created eight soundtracks just for the Winter Festival, which happens once during a game year.

Finally, in 2016, Barone released his game Stardew Valley to the public. He wasn't confident his game would be successful. In his words, "Imagine playing the same game, every day, for four and a half years. All day. I was just absolutely sick of it, I was bored. I didn't even have an objective sense of if the game was good or not. In fact, I thought it was bad."

In just a few months, it became the largest unconventional indie game hit since Minecraft, selling millions of copies and garnering a passionate fan base. I have fallen in love with the game, spending hours feeding chickens, fishing, and admittingly giving pieces of trash as “gifts” to the townsfolk because I thought it was funny.

Gameplay picture of Stardew Valley

Above all else, the skill that allowed Barone to build Stardew Valley was an incredible degree of focus. To create the game, he needed to learn game design, programming, animation, pixel art, composition, writing, and more. He needed to do this outside of his job search and for over four and a half years of development.

As Barone mastered his craft through focus, we can apply similar principles to our self-learning endeavors. We might be unable to build a degree of focus as strong as Barone. But we can still cultivate it to work on our own self-learning endeavors.

The question is: how do we build our focus?

People's struggles with focus generally come in three broad varieties: starting, sustaining, and optimizing the quality of one's focus.

Starting To Focus: Fighting Procrastination

There are many types of procrastinators.

For some people, procrastination is a way of life. For others, procrastination only shows itself in a few tasks and contexts. This ladder type of procrastination is where I fall under.

I find no problem writing for my content creation, drawing pixel art, or playing video games. But when it comes to work for school or a job I don't think is necessary, I avoid it like kale chips.

Why do we procrastinate?

The simple answer is at some level there's a craving that drives you to do something else, there's an aversion to doing the task itself, or both. Procrastination isn't the same thing as laziness. Laziness usually means not doing any strenuous task. But procrastination can involve doing a strenuous task, just one aside from the one you know you should be doing.

How can we fight against procrastination?

The first and most important step for fighting procrastination is to determine when you procrastinate and why.

Most motivations for procrastinating sound silly when you verbalize them out loud. Identify the internal triggers preceding procrastination. Is it hunger, pain, boredom?

Note the context around when it happened. Over time, you will begin to spot consistencies when you want to procrastinate.

This does two things. First, it informs you on how to manipulate your environment to reduce procrastination. Research shows it's often way easier to influence behavior by changing our environment than to change ourselves—a fascinating science known as choice architecture in Behavioral Economics[1]. Second, it prepares you mentally to resist the internal trigger when it does come up.

You have two options to navigate the trigger–you can evade it or question it.

One of my favorite methods to evade the internal trigger is the "leaves on a stream" method. When feeling an internal trigger toward procrastination, imagine you are seated beside a gently flowing stream. Imagine leaves are floating down the stream. Place each thought in your mind on each leaf. It could be a memory, a word, a worry, an image. And let each of those leaves float down that stream, swirling away, as you sit and just watch.

But sometimes, internal triggers shouldn’t be resisted. Sometimes, they are meant to make you question. Why are you getting distracted from your self-learning? Is it a deeper belief/narrative that you aren’t worthy, that your self-learning is pointless, that you should be doing something else with your time? Going deeply into the why of the internal trigger and healing yourself will dissolve it, negating a need for a mindfulness approach in the first place.

The second way to fight procrastination is to lower the activation energy to get started.

The easiest way to do this is to clarify the next step in your relevant project and where, when, why, and how you will be taking it.

We rarely procrastinate in games because these questions are almost always very clear. Collect X acorns in Animal Crossing, make it to the flag in Super Mario Bros, or cure the diseases in Pandemic. In real life, it’s more like: figure out what you should be doing, then convince yourself you actually want to do it.

We can reduce procrastination by getting clarity over why, what, when, how, and where we will do something. For why and how you should be doing it you should refer to the first lesson on creating a learning map. As for where and when, this enters the realm of time management which is a deep rabbit hole that could be a course in itself. Instead of give you a lecture on time management you don't want, I'll give you the one principle almost all time management techniques follow.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear (2018, Chapter 5) explains how to set an implementation intention[2]: write down somewhere, I will do X thing in Y place at Z time for my self-learning quest.

Setting an implementation intention can give you crystal clarity over the next step in your project and drastically reduce the activation energy. Then you can reduce it further if you use a technique I call Lightning Launch.

Lightning launch works by telling yourself you only have to do a activity for five minutes. If you still don't feel like continuing after five minutes, you can stop, no questions asked. I find that often after five minutes of work, I get into the zone and continue going.

Action creates motivation.

Sustaining Focus: Fighting Distraction

Even if we can get started on our projects, we're often sneak-attacked by focuses other arch-nemesis: distraction.

Simply put, we get distracted to escape the pain of doing something whether it be doing a homework assignment, studying for a test, or something else. Sometimes, however, distractions are harder to spot. This is why Nir Eliyali (2019) differentiates between tractions and distractions in his book Indistractable[3]. Tractions are the actions that pull us toward what we truly want in life, whereas distractions are things that pull us away.

From this perspective, even work can be a distraction if it pulls us away from what we truly want in life.

How much we pursue tractions over distractions depends on our ability to control internal and external triggers. Internal triggers are distractions which come from ourselves--things like physical discomfort, hunger, cold, boredom, etc. External triggers are distractions which come from outside ourselves--things like co-workers, friends, email, phones, etc.

Distractions comes from the inability to control internal and external triggers

Just like any skill, we can train our focus to become less distractable. This can be done in three main steps.

The first step in fighting distraction is determining what and how long you should be focusing in the first place.

Refer to lesson one on creating a learning map to clarify what you should be focusing on. As for how long you should focus, contrary to what you might believe, the literature on focus doesn't promote longer periods of learning. Research finds retention is higher when learning is broken into smaller blocks spread out over the week and that inside a single block you alternate between between different aspects of a skill or knowledge to be remembered--a technique called interleaving[4].

Fifty minutes to an hour is a good time for many learning tasks. If your schedule only permits more concentrated chunks of time you might want to take some breaks in between of 10-20 minutes to give yourself a rest. For some 10-20 minutes is all they have to learn in a single day.

You must find what works best for you. Some learning is better than none.

The second step in fighting distraction is navigating internal triggers.

I'm not going to elaborate on this because it's the same process mentioned before on navigating procrastination. Note when you get distracted and why, find patterns, and use the leaves in a stream method.

The third step in fighting distraction is hacking back external triggers.

Common external triggers include digital notifications, physical environment distractions, interruptions from people, devices, that delicious looking donut sitting in the fridge, and of course, video games.

Digital notifications, such as emails, messages, and social media alerts, can be particularly disruptive. To manage these take your phone and thro---ahem, sorry I got a little excited--turn on do not disturb during your self-learning time.

Consider scheduling specific times to check emails and messages instead of allowing constant interruptions. I personally only check twice per day give or take but I know that might not work for everyone. Don't worry, no one will fail to call you during your self-learning time for help while a meteor comes down to kill them.

Your physical environment also plays a crucial role in maintaining focus. Working in a garbage heap does just that to your focus--makes it garbage. Reflect on whether there is a quieter place you can work, if you can declutter your workspace, and if your seating is comfortable enough for extended focus periods.

People around you, such as colleagues, family members, and friends, can also be significant sources of distraction. Have you communicated your focus time to those around you? Setting boundaries or using a signal, like a do-not-disturb sign , can help indicate when you need uninterrupted time.

Devices, including phones, tablets, and other electronics, often demand our attention. Consider putting your devices on airplane mode or placing them in another room while you work.

By asking these questions and taking steps to address these triggers, you can create a more focused and conducive environment for your self-learning quest. Minimizing distractions before you start working will help you maintain better focus throughout your learning sessions. If you want a more in depth analysis of how to reduce internal, and external triggers I recommend checking out the book Indistractable by Nir Eyali.

If you implement all of these external trigger suggestions and still get distracted, I would recommend going back to questioning your internal triggers, as I mentioned up above. Is there a deeper belief/narrative that is holding you back from focusing intently? Unfortunately, this course would be much to long if we dove into self-healing as well, but that’s where I would go to.

Bonus: Preventing Distraction With Effort Pacts

One last thing I want to mention because of how helpful it has been for me is using effort pacts to make distracting activities harder or more painful to do.

Effort pacts are like setting booby traps for yourself.

For example, I use the Forest app while writing which grows a virtual tree while I'm doing a focus activity. If I go off the app or stop doing what I'm focusing on, the tree dies a horrible bloodcurdling death with many screams. Very sad. I'm actually using it right now writing this lesson.

Cross your fingers this one lives.

Another way you can create an effort pact is by making it physically harder to access the distracting source.

A most classic example of this is in Homer's Odysseus. One of the many dangers that awaited Odysseus on his journey home from the Trojan War was the Sirens: half women, half bird creatures whose enchanted song lured sailors to their death on the rocky cliffs of nearby islands.

In an act of physical self-binding, Odysseus ordered his crew to put beeswax in their ears and tie him to the mast of the sailing ship, binding him even tighter if he ever put up a commotion or struggle. The idea was that by physically binding Odysseus to the ship, he wouldn't be able to fall for the call of the Sirens during their voyage but would still be able to hear their beautiful song. The strategy worked marvelously and Oddyseus was able to make it through without jumping and getting to hear the Sirens song--he got to bake his cake and eat it too.

Here are some examples of how you can use this in real life:

  • Unplugging the TV and putting it in your closet after use
  • Banishing your game console to your garage
  • Only bringing with you cash when you go out instead of Credit Cards
  • Putting your chocolate in the back of the cupboard
  • Committing a certain amount of money to a cause or family member if you don't stick to your focus activity

How To Change The Quality Of Your Focus To Boost Self-Learning

Aside from getting started focusing, and sustaining focus, the third major problem people have with focus is creating the right kind.

Scott Young explains it well in his book Ultralearning[5]: "High arousal creates a feeling of keen alertness, which is often characterized by a fairly narrow range of focus, but one that can also be somewhat brittle (Aidan here: high arousal in this context doesn't mean sexual arousal but altertness--get your head out of the gutter!). This can be very good for focusing on relatively simple tasks or ones that require intense concentration toward a small target. Athletes require this kind of concentration to throw a dart at a target or shoot a basketball properly, where the task is fairly simple but requires concentration to execute properly. Too much arousal, however, and focus starts to suffer. It becomes very easy to be distracted, and you may have a hard time holding focus at any particular spot. Anyone who's drunk too much coffee and feels jittery knows how this can impact your work" (p. 84).

He goes on to say "More complex tasks, such as solving math problems or writing essays, tend to benefit from a more relaxed kind of focus. Here the space of focus is often larger and more diffuse. This has advantages when, in order to solve the problem you're facing, you must consider many different inputs or ideas. Trying to solve a complex math problem or write a love sonnet is likely to require this mental quietness. When doing a particularly creative task, if you get stuck, you may benefit from no focus at all. Taking a break from the problem can widen the space of focus enough that possibilities that were not in your consciousness earlier can conjoin and you can make new discoveries" (p. 84).

Another way of explaining Youngs ideas is for any activity, you want to try and get into your focus goldilocks zone.

The goldilocks zone is the zone in which the challenge of an activity and the relevant skills you bring to it are in balance.

Being in the goldilocks zone primes you for flow--the state in which you are so absorbed in an activity you lose consciousness of the self and become completely immersed in the present. It also improves your skills by putting you just outside of your comfort zone. As you improve, your goldilocks zone will shift meaning you have to continually increase the challenge to keep learning.

This is why video games are so engaging and effective for learning. They are adaptive systems responding to your changing skill by altering challenge to keep you inside your goldilocks zone.

However, we don't always want to be focusing. Paradoxically, when working on a hard learning problem, sometimes the best thing to do is not work on it at all--to enter diffused mode thinking.

In her book, A Mind for Numbers, Dr. Oakley (2014) differentiates between, focused and diffused mode thinking[6]:

  • Focused mode thinking is the mode of thinking we use when we use analytical, sequential, rational approaches towards one problem.
  • Diffused thinking is the type of thinking we use when we spread our awareness outward instead of focusing it on one problem.

One of the secrets of supercharging creativity and learning is in switching between focused and diffused mode thinking.

This is because your brain works on problems subconsciously; that's why you often get the most creative ideas while shopping for groceries, in the shower, or laying in bed.

"The harder you push your brain to come up with something creative the less creative it will be." - Dr. Oakely

One rule of thumb I like to use is to give your brain a rest from a problem after you get stuck for a few hours at least but not for more than a day if it's the first time you have attacked that problem.

In Summary: How To Improve Your Focus

Focus is like any game skill.

With practice, it can be leveled up using a mix of consistency, progressive overload, and recovery. With consistent training you can learn to improve your ability to start, sustain, and alter the quality of your focus.

Here's how to start. Go into an activity with the intention to put all of your focus inside of it. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Anytime your attention drifts during those 15 minutes focus it back on the activity at hand.

As you become consistent, you can than start thinking about progressive overload--intermittently increasing the time and intensity you focus with during your activity. Go from 15 minutes to 20 to 30 to whatever continues to feel good. Along the way apply the principles of fighting procrastination, distraction, and altering the quality of your focus.

You'll find the more you train your focus, the more you adopt the identity of a focused person. Someone that can pursue the things they set out to do. That can embark on incredible feats like Eric Barone creating Stardew Valley.

📸News From The Channel!

✍️Latest On De Blog - Reflections On My First Mushroom Trip Ever: On Sunday, June 2nd, at 4:20 p.m. I took 2 grams of mushrooms with my dad and friend John. It is and perhaps will be the most meaningful experience of my life. This is my reflection on the experience and everything I learned inside of it.

✍️Latest On De Blog - You Can’t Force A Human Connection: In this post I reflect on my journey to realizing true human connection isn't only about having deep conversations, it's about being present with someone and connecting over your shared human experience. You can do this while in silence, while playing board games, while whatever!

💡My Best Insights:

P.S. Some of the links below are Amazon affiliate links.

📖Book - Sid Meier's Memoir!: from the great creator of the Civilization series comes a epic encapsulation of Sid Meier's journey to creating every one of the game she ever made. Even though it's a memoire, this book is riddled with nuggets of wisdom about game design and life in general.

📺YouTube Video - Joseph Tsar: A fantastic creator who talks about mastering rhetoric, speech, and using verbal defense. I've long been interested in public speaking and articulating my learnings coherently. Anyone who wants to do the same should check this guy out!


  1. Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge. Penguin. ↩︎
  2. Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: Tiny changes, remarkable results: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Penguin Random House. ↩︎
  3. Eyal, N., & Li, J. (2019). Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life. Dallas, TX, BenBella Books, Inc. ↩︎
  4. John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, et al., "Improving Students' Learning with Effective Learning Techniques," Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14, no. 1 (January 8, 2013): 4–58, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.11771529100612453266. ↩︎
  5. Young, Scott H. (2019). Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career. HarperCollins. ↩︎
  6. Oakley, B. A. (2014). A mind for numbers: How to excel at math and science (even if you flunked algebra). TarcherPerigee. ↩︎

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Cheers, 🥜


Aidan Helfant 👋Say hion Twitter, My Podcast, orYouTube

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