Farnam Street Course: The Art of Focus, a review

How do you learn to focus?

We don’t need to be reminded about the importance of focus. But if its so important, why is it so hard to learn how?

There’s a lot of material out there claiming to teach you how. Anywhere from psychology, self-improvement books, to Lifehacker.

Which one actually works?

As part of Project 2017 (i.e. Continuously improve myself throughout the year, through a series of sprints ), I set out to learn how to focus in six weeks.

Given the deadline I didn’t want to waste my time sifting through all the options, so I decided to just pay someone to teach me

After a bit of research, I narrowed it down to two choices:

  1. Farnam Street’s The Art of Focus
  2. Shawn Blanc’s The Focus Course

 

How I heard about these focus classes

I’ve been a regular reader of the Farnam Street blog for a while. I firmly believe Shane Parrish (the original blogger behind Farnam Street) and his team have some of the best content in the web. From books to the pursuit of wisdom, Farnam Street writes about things I truly care about.

Through his blog he mentioned the FS courses, one of which was The Art of Focus.

In Shawn Blanc’s case, he had featured in some of Sean Wes’s videos and podcasts back in December where he talked about the Focus Course he was developing. Sean was a big fan: he recommended the course to his subscribers, even offering a discount.

Sean Wes, in case you aren’t aware, has a huge online presence. Getting a plug like that is practically guaranteed revenue.

 

Why Farnam

So why did I go with Farnam Street? Even if it had no discounts? And so few reviews?

Because it’s Farnam.

Before The Focus Course, I had never heard of Shawn Blanc. I didn’t know if he was any good aside from the selected testimonials on his landing page.

On the other hand I’ve been a longtime reader of the Farnam Street Blog. I can attest to the quality of the content. But I didn’t know if this quality translated to the courses.

I came to the conclusion that even if the course doesn’t work for me, I can consider the course fee as a form of donation to the fantastic blog.

 

So was it worth the money?

Its hard to quantify if the course fee was worth it. Doing so would mean putting a dollar amount to my hours, and that I have a baseline to compare against.

I don’t.

But I will admit I learned a lot.

If you’ve read Cal Newport’s Deep Work, much of the material in The Art of Focus course is based there. What the course offers is a structured way to execute the material from the book.

I had enrolled in the course before reading the book, so much of the content was new to me.

Now that I’ve read the book, I wish I had done it the other way around: I felt I should have had context first (something the book does well) before being taught the plan (something the course does well).

One big con is that the course felt very much one-way. i.e., Shane explains, you absorb. There was no feedback mechanism to tell if you’re headed in the right direction. Maybe that was the idea behind logging your hours (one of the steps Shane implements in the course), but it didn’t work for me.

I felt annoyed considering I thought I had paid for a course, not just content.

But as I said earlier, I had gone into the course with the mindset that the money was a donation to the blog, rather than the fee for the course. I couldn’t stay annoyed for very long.

Especially since the material itself—whether it was Farnam’s or Newport’s–was good.

 

Would I recommend?

So in spite of all my complaints, I would recommend The Art of Focus if:

  1. You are looking for a structured way to execute the strategies taught in Deep Work.
  2. You are very much a self-learner and do not expect interaction nor feedback.
  3. You learn well through videos.

That last one was a doozy. Most of the material is delivered through videos–a miss for someone with poor hearing like myself. Shane does offer transcripts, but I’d appreciate subtitles more as transcripts don’t allow me to view the video content at the same time.

I guess I should be thankful it wasn’t something like podcasts, or else I’d demand a refund.

 

Key takeaways

Much of the content of the Art of Focus is based on Deep Work, so its difficult to say who was the source for which takeaway.

I did notice that the Art of Focus gave a lot more err, focus, to these topics:

  1. Attention residue
  2. Meditation

Which is why I’m finding that, even without implementing the other Deep Work strategies, just addressing these two have already made a significant impact.

The latter especially, as I’ve never really meditated and assumed it was something only yogi do.

The course seems to assume you already know how to meditate though, so I had to look up elsewhere to learn how. FYI, the Headspace app is great, but lately I’ve been using Smiling Mind.

I’m considering re-doing the course again in a few months, maybe even next year, now that I’ve finished Deep Work. I’ll give myself more time to digest the content before I start implementing such structure again.

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How can I do well in school even if I don’t like it?

If there is no real relationship between academic achievement and attitude, then what motivates bright students to achieve academic success? It certainly isn’t from an abundant passion for school.

–Jihyun Lee, Why the most successful students have no passion for school

Over the weekend I met up with some pretty interesting people:

A statistician who works in HR analytics by day, and on his masters degree in statistics by night.

A computer science professor who’s one paper away from getting his PhD.

And the HR head of my university alma mater, who excused herself early to attend a class for her second master’s degree.

While we met to discuss a project we’re all part of, small talk couldn’t be avoided.

And given everyone’s backgrounds, it should be no surprise much of this small talk was on coursework, interesting class projects, and the research for whatever paper they were working on at the moment.

For someone who did not find value in what she learned in school, I felt very much out of place.

 

What we had in common: Went to the same top schools, got decent (if not good) grades, and got degrees known for being difficult.

What I did not have in common: I didn’t like it.

 

Turns out, doing well in school and having to like it don’t have to be mutually exclusive. At least according to this research by Jihyun Lee:

 

My research has found that there is in fact no relationship between how well students do academically and what their attitude toward schooling actually is. A student doesn’t need to be passionate about school to be academically successful.

 

So what does impact academic performance? Self-belief.

Collectively, research shows that students’ self-belief in their own problem-solving abilities is far more important than their perception of school itself.

 

To conclude, Jihyun makes similar recommendations as I did when I talked about why I disliked school: The education system needs to be revamped.

Adults responsible for making decisions about schooling need to be more cognisant about the long-term influences that the school experience can exert on students’ attitudes and beliefs. A stronger emphasis must also be given to the inclusion of hands-on group activities that emulate what they may do in life once they graduate.

 

The research was based on the results of a survey asked of 15-year-olds globally. Below is a sample of this survey, along with my answers:

(a) school has done little to prepare me for adult life when I leave school

True. Very much so.

(b) school has been a waste of time

Waste is too harsh a word. I made a lot of connections through school which I still utilize today. And I have to admit, coming from a top university has its own perks in today’s competitive job market.

Rather than waste, I’d say the time wasn’t optimized.

If the answer has to be strictly True or False though, then my answer leans closer to true.

(c) school helped give me confidence to make decisions

False

(d) school has taught me things that could be useful in a job

Given I have a degree in Chemical Engineering but work in IT, then False.

Granted, I am loooooonnnnggg past the age group the study was based on, but its pretty striking how my own experience-based opinion seems to match that of the students’.

 

My key takeaway from this research: Confidence in your own skills matters. Even more than “passion”.

Project Focus (formerly Project 2017): Update #2

A quick update on the Project Focus series, aka my resolution to increase awesomeness by harnessing the power of focus. Specifically, by applying Agile project management methods to my life.


Sprint 1: 2016 Clean-up.

The first sprint, which lasted for the first few weeks of January, was on cleaning up leftover 2016 tasks. That went extremely well.

I was forced to file for a lost passport. I finally stopped fooling myself that I’d simply misplaced it, and that it would eventually show up. No. Time to take action.

I also showed up for a medical appointment two years too late. There weren’t any adverse findings, but I wouldn’t risk it next time.

Among other trivial things. I cleaned them all up, and I’m rather proud of myself for doing so.


Sprint 2: Choose and complete a course.

Next sprint was to focus on my data analysis studies.

In my last update I talked about jumping from one MOOC to another trying to find the best fit for me.

Well, I told myself to stop jumping. I should at least finish one course first. Right now I’m almost done with Udacity’s CS 101 class.

I also started clocking my study time with Toggl to gauge if I was on-track with their estimated completion dates.

Turns out I am, but more importantly tracking the time made me realize that:

  1. I’m only actively studying 40-60% of the time.
  2. I need more than an hour to get into state #1.

I should really learn to focus.

As part of that effort, I’ve *gulp* restricted my book budget.

Normally I’d allow myself to purchase one book a month. Now its one book per course completed. Every day I look at my To Be Read pile and my heart aches a bit.


Sprint 3: Study next course? Or focus on focus?

With sprint 2 coming to a close I’m already considering what’s next.

I’m choosing between:

  1. To proceed with the next course on Statistics, or
  2. To work on actively improving my focus.

For the first option I plan to follow along Udacity’s Data Analyst path and thus take Intro to Statistics next.

Alternatively, I could segue into option 2; a long-term investment. I plan to either enroll in a focus course, or maybe just read some books on the subject (such as Cal Newport’s Deep Work or David Levitin’s The Organized Mind). Maybe I could do both.

Dear reader, which of the two sprint options should I go with?


Overall:

Thinking of my life as a series of sprints with constant deadlines has forced me to realize how limited and valuable time really is. I have to do what I can do today, because tomorrow will be another sprint.

That isn’t to say I don’t slack. I have to confess, I spent the better part of last weekend just completing the heck out of FFXV sidequests (P.S. I have gaming OCD and must complete all possible sidequests before moving forward with the main story).

BUT, to my defense, in order to be able to do that I invested extra hours studying earlier in the week to make up for it so… I guess its not too bad?

What I’d like to improve on is…

1: My focus, so I can make better use of the time I allot to studying. And

2: Keeping shorter sprints. Sprints are normally around 2-4 weeks, but right now I’m averaging 4-6. Not good.

I also have to wonder if this sprint style is costing me my health.

I’ve been feeling exhausted more often since the start of the year, but I can’t objectively say if the cause is that feeling of stress induced by the constantly looming sprint deadline.

On the upside, while my physical health may have deprecated, my brain is now performing better than ever. I find I’m able to give more valuable insights and opinions now, thanks to my well-curated books and all that self-studying.

This brings me back to a conversation I once had:

Friend: Let’s hit the gym!
Me: No thanks. I get enough exercise.
Friend: Really? How?
Me: My brain. It already has a six-pack.

How to fall, and stay, in love in 58 questions

Over the weekend I had a lovely meet-up with some high school friends. We met up at our old school, sat on the grass, and talked the afternoon away.

We quickly caught up with each other’s lives (we’re kind of boring in that there’s not much outside of work), so to avoid the awkward silence that usually follows we played an upgraded version of Ice Breakers.

One friend had asked advice on his relationship so our questions revolved around romance. Some of those questions include:

What’s an ideal first date?

You’ve been dating for some time; name 3 ideal dates.

It’s time to plan for your wedding! What are the 3 things you’d go bridezilla (or groomzilla) for? i.e., What are the 3 things about your wedding you’ll prioritize above all else?

I absolutely adore these kinds of questions as the answers are always insightful. I discovered new things about my friends even though we’ve known each other for over 15 years!

So if it can do that for long-time friends, can you imagine how powerful these questions would be for perfect strangers?

Such as these 36 questions designed to help you fall in love with anyone.

The questions are based on a study by psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron (et al.) which explores if intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by a specific set of personal questions.

The idea is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness. To quote the study’s authors, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, so this exercise forces the issue.

The series of questions is broken up into three sections in increasing intimacy. You start off with,

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

And end with,

36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

The study also encourages you to wrap up with four minutes of staring into each other’s eyes–sure to be uncomfortable if you’ve only met!

But the big question: Does it work?

Well, the logic is sound. And there’s a documented case where it worked. I’ve never given it a go myself, but I guess it couldn’t hurt to try..?


 

Now assuming you’re past the falling stage and are already together, how do you stay together?

We’ve got another set of questions for that thanks to the Book of Life, 22 to be exact.

Instead of revealing insights, these questions are centered around clearer communication and setting realistic expectations to your partner.

1. The things I would like to be appreciated for…

The Book of Life didn’t cite any scientific studies, but instead they offered explanations behind each chosen question. A lot of the explanations correlate to the five love languages, so I recommend giving that a try as well.

 


 

I realize it may be un-romantic to take such a logical approach to dating and relationships, but I think most of you will agree that post-infatuation, love is just as much about the head as it is about the heart.

These questions don’t guarantee the perfect relationship, but they can at least help with effective communication. THAT, I guarantee, is a must for any relationship.

Why modern work is so boring

Remember when I said specialization is out, generalists are in?

No? Let me remind you then.

The Book of Life just released a new chapter, “Why Modern Work Is So Boring.” The answer is the same as I’ve told you before:

One of the overriding reasons why modern work is so boring is that we keep having to do more or less the same thing every day. We have to be specialists, whereas we would – deep in our hearts – surely be so much more fulfilled if we could be wide-ranging, endlessly curious generalists.

The book points to the same cause as I did, which is division of labor.

Its interesting to note that their takeaway message is different from most. Rather than have a call to action to convince people to become generalists, they basically say, suck it up and do your part for society:

We have collectively chosen to make work pay more rather than be more interesting. It’s a sombre thought but a consoling one too. Our suffering is painful but it has a curious dignity to it, because it does not uniquely affect us as individuals…

…In suffering in this way, we are participating in the common human lot.

A message I can live with. Not necessarily a piece of advice I’ll follow, but one I respect and can find merit in.

 

 

Some suitable related reading:

The challenges of choosing a career speaks of how, collectively, we all stress about our careers and why we do so. Yes, its normal to stress.

And even if you don’t end up choosing the right career, its okay. The “right” career is all a myth anyway.

And one I’ve struggled with, the job investment trap.