The things every high-achiever should know
During periods in which I have very little free time, I become partially obsessed with being as effective and productive as possible. In my last post, I reminded my readers (and myself) about the dangers of trying to soak up too much information when there is too much to read (blogs, magazines, websites, newspapers, work documents, etc.) and not enough time for disciplined reflection and review. That post functioned as a short reminder. This post will function as a detailed primer on how to generate powerful focus in a world of distractions.
If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to master a skill, but repeatedly meet with distractions and an inability to stay consistent, this post is for you. In this post, I will discuss the method I use to focus myself when learning a new skill that I consider too important to learn half-heartedly. I use this method when I can’t afford to be anything but incredibly effective. If you’ve ever found yourself floundering when it came to learning a skill or reaching a milestone in your goals, you may find this method immensely beneficial.
I call this method The Disciple Method.
Why “The Disciple Method”?
Imagine a scene in feudal Japan, in which a young, eager boy travels many miles to the dwelling of a known grandmaster of the martial arts. The boy’s sole focus is to find this grandmaster and dedicate his life to training under his tutelage. After months of searching, the boy locates the grandmaster and pledges his life to him. The grandmaster is impressed by the boy’s dedication and decides to take him under his wing as his disciple.
Day after day, week after week, and year after year, the boy dedicates himself to the sole purpose of learning from the grandmaster and practicing until he reaches mastery. Sure, he is required to assist with chores, growing crops, and preparing meals, but these activities are to sustain himself as he steadily improves in the skill he has chosen to master.
Ten years after the boy first met the grandmaster, it has become obvious that the years of unwavering effort have paid off. The boy’s skills have surpassed those of the grandmaster and he is now ready to leave the grandmaster’s home to apply his newfound mastery to the real world. The boy had achieved mastery.
Now, let’s re-write this scene as it might play out in the 21st century.
Imagine a scene in downtown Manhattan, in which a boy has a dream of becoming the best chess player in the world. He buys a book on chess by a very well known chess player and subscribes to two blogs on chess strategy. The boy is also interested in photography, football, and stand-up comedy, so he also follows a few blogs on those subjects as well.
As he cracks open the chess book to begin reading, his iPhone buzzes and he sees it’s an update from his favorite sports app notifying him of some big news that he can’t ignore. After this brief distraction, he resumes reading the chess book and starts gaining insights into some of the techniques and strategies the author teaches. This man is a brilliant chess player, the boy thinks. Later that day, he starts jumping around the Internet through StumbleUpon and discovers a well-written article on chess that completely argues against the teachings found in the book the boy’s currently reading. This article convinces the boy to buy another book instead by a different chess master.
Two years later, the boy has jumped ship multiple times between books and resources from various chess masters. He is repeatedly distracted by the constant barrage of new articles on chess, and constant alerts from his computer and smartphone updating him on his other hobbies and interests. He’s gotten somewhat better at chess, but never found the consistent improvement he was looking for. The distractions of the 21st century, along with the conflicting chess philosophies found on the Internet, all took their toll on his focus and progress. Just as he’s wondering if he should continue to put in so much effort towards mastering chess, his iPhone vibrates again with another attention-worthy update. He realizes he just doesn’t have the free time he needs to master chess, and puts it on the backburner, never returning to it with the same passion he had at the start.
Returning to Simplicity
Because the world today has a never-ending stream of distractions, it’s difficult to maintain the intense focus that is required to achieve mastery. The boy in the first scenario achieved mastery by doing three things:
1) Selecting a mentor and sticking with him
2) Isolating himself from unnecessary distractions and less important interests
3) Putting in hard work through repetition of techniques and fundamentals
The boy in the second scenario was doomed from the start because:
1) He kept jumping around from mentor to mentor (in his case, author to author), which caused his mind to be unable to solidify and internalize any one core philosophy
2) He was constantly barraged with unnecessary distractions and updates regarding his other interests through the Internet and his iPhone
3) He put in practice time, but because of the faults above, was never consistent with one set of techniques and fundamentals, so he never broke past the plateau in his progress.
It can be tempting to try and keep up with many sources of information all at once. Last year I tried to read a book on marketing, a book on web analytics, a book on psychology, three blogs on personal development, and two blogs on tech startup companies (in addition to all of the textbooks for my classes). These were all areas I considered very important to my life and I couldn’t fathom letting any of those areas stagnate by removing my constant connection to information sources. However, due to my fear of temporarily removing all but the most important, I experienced extreme information overload, constant distractions, and an inability to retain what I’ve learned.
In order to return to the method of simplicity that has worked for disciples for centuries prior to the Information Age we live in, here is The Disciple Method, which is designed to bring you closer to mastery through prioritization, focus, and practice.
1) Choose your Grandmaster. Pick one or two sources to learn from, and no more. Just as disciples pick a master to learn from, do your research and pick one or two experts in your field to learn from through their books, podcasts, articles, speeches, etc. You can also choose to join a local club/group and seek your “grandmaster” amongst the more experienced members.
2) Prove your dedication. Cut out ALL non-mandatory hobbies. This is the hardest step. If you truly want to master something, it’s already tough enough to do so with your list of mandatory responsibilities, such as work, chores, and maintaining relationships. If you casually play Fantasy Football, but it’s not a true passion of yours, the best option is to drop it temporarily as you seek to master your chosen skill. It will be painful to do this at first, but just remember that it’s only a temporary condition that will do wonders for your progress.
3) Live the skill. Allow the skill you’re learning to permeate your life. The more you accustom your mind to the thought processes that go along with your new skill, the faster progress you will make. To do this, you can review and internalize passages from your chosen sources of information, discuss it with others, join a group that is dedicated to learning the same skill, practice the skill in your mind (most pro athletes do this), and/or journal about your progress.
4) Practice the fundamentals often. The fundamentals of what you’re learning will seem simple and unworthy of frequent review. Don’t make this mistake. It can be tempting to think this way especially if your chosen “grandmaster” isn’t there to tutor you in person. It can be tempting to jump to the more advanced, exciting techniques, but shaky fundamentals will cause major issues with progress later in your practice. The role of the grandmaster is often to impart the importance of daily/frequent practice of the fundamentals.
5) Set ambitious milestones. Just as a disciple one day hopes to match the level of his teacher, you should set an ambitious milestone that will help motivate you to continually improve. You can make bets with friend, or, if your friends also practice the same skill, challenge them some time in the near future to motivate yourself to practice harder. Goals keep you focused and on task, so don’t neglect to take advantage of them.
The Disciple Method in Action
Here is how I’ve personally applied The Disciple Method in my own life, which may help you understand the benefits you’ll experience and some pitfalls you might encounter.
I wanted to learn more about visualizations and hypnosis, a set of skills that have helped many people overcome fears, gain confidence, and change their outlook on life. I first did research on experts in the field. I came across a few and settled on two books and one audio tape. Unfortunately, the two books I had chosen didn’t resonate with me. One, though heavily research-based and very eye-opening, was too vague for me to stick to consistently because I kept doubting whether I was going about it correctly. The other resource was too new-agey, and I kept doubting the science and rationality of the book itself. This is one of the challenges of finding a “grandmaster.” Sometimes, you just won’t vibe with the methods/ideas they teach.
Fortunately, I was very impressed with the audio tape. I was noticing results from it and the man behind it had, in my opinion, a very well-grounded system. So I put the two books I had originally bought by the wayside and bought the book that accompanies the audio tape. I discovered my “grandmaster.”
Next, I had to decide what activities I would temporarily postpone so that I’d have enough time and mental energy to devote towards mastery of this skill set. I decided to postpone my study of content marketing, web analytics, and technology trends. I could easily pick up where I left off in each of these categories, and putting them on hold has freed up a significant amount of time. Unfortunately, this blog has seen a reduction in hits since I haven’t been as vigilant about marketing it, but this is a temporary setback I’m willing to endure for the sake of mastery.
After this, I had to immerse myself into the skill set and “live the skill.” Since this is a skill that most people don’t seek to learn, this was a little tougher than I anticipated. I decided to read a complementary book that motivated me further by tying the skill set I was learning to long-term happiness (for those that are curious, “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt). This gave me a way to discuss what I was learning with friends and family who weren’t familiar with the skills themselves, but were familiar with psychology and certain philosophies on happiness. I also decided to log my progress so I could see a difference over time. In addition, I found a group of people online dedicated to mastering the same set of skills, which has been motivating me to reach their level so I can better participate in discussions.
Finally, I had to dedicate myself to the fundamentals and set aggressive milestones. I created a morning ritual for myself in which I work on certain visualizations and listen to a hypnosis tape every day. These two are the fundamentals that lay the bedrock for every other technique I want to learn (anchoring and calming exercises, for example). And I found it best to challenge myself to hit a certain number of days in which I do this morning ritual over the course of three months. The goal is 70/90 days, meaning I have 20 days of leeway if my schedule gets too busy.
With each of these steps taken, I’m happy to say that I’m already noticing a difference in my life. The consistent practice with little to no distractions has been paying off.
It seems that people run into trouble when they realize that mastery could take years. How long can one reasonably expect to remove unessential hobbies and interests from one’s life? Although the boy in my first story dedicated a full ten years to undistracted focus, I believe that it’s sufficient to utilize The Disciple Method until the skill has become part of your routine.
For example, when I first started working out, I found it difficult to force myself to the gym and had to constantly be on alert for when I could best fit it in my schedule. Three years later, I now find it difficult to NOT go to the gym. I feel weird and slightly off if I’m not going to the gym. Something just feels missing. Although I can’t remember precisely when this switch occurred, I estimate that it occurred after 3-4 months after really getting serious about working out. Because working out has become part of my routine, I can distract myself however I’d like and still manage to make it the gym without extra effort. Utilize The Disciple Method until you reach this state. From there, practicing this skill will have become habit and you will automatically feel urges to practice regardless of your other interests.
The Disciple Method was created in order to help guide people who are overwhelmed by the information overload that we’re all so susceptible to, yet want the focus, discipline, and attention that is required to master a skill.
Had I not adopted the steps described in The Disciple Method through years of trial and error, I wouldn’t have made nearly as much progress in certain areas as I have to date. Likewise, there are just as many areas of my life that have made almost zero progress over four years of effort because I couldn’t stay focused and break through the plateaus that ultimately discouraged me.
A few of the steps in this method are designed to keep your motivation high and distractions at a minimum. Because of this, this method borrows heavily from the research I conducted while writing Unlimited Drive, my free e-book on how the world’s highest performers stay motivated day-in and day-out. There many other methods to stay motivated, and I encourage you to check out the e-book if you want to take your motivation to a higher level after you’ve gotten a feel for The Disciple Method.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave any comments you might have in the section below!
I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart, and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, experiments and lessons learned as I hack my way to happiness, fulfillment and success.
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Unlimited Drive is the result of four years of diligent research on what drives people to achieve great things. I always wondered how the most successful people in the world could reach such high levels of success and accomplishment. Well, I found the answer and wrote an ebook so I could pass it on to you (for free).
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