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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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.

Project 2017 (Update #1 of n?)

UPDATE:
I’ve decided. Project 2017 will be all about FOCUS.

Something I know I’ve always been bad at, but something I know I need to meet the project objectives.

The target for the first week of 2017 is to clean up 2016 leftovers.

While transitioning bullet journals, I realized I had tasks in my future log that I never got around to doing. Things that weren’t urgent but had value: Updating my resume, setting medical appointments, renewing my passsport, etc.

I can’t expect to complete them all in one week, but the target is to do the hardest step: START. Start on all the leftover tasks. Have a plan in place for all. Plan out when to do the next steps.

That’s what my first week will be all about.

danna is a dork

At around this time each year, I take some time to reflect. What were the year’s highlights? Lowlights? What were the mundane but should not be forgotten?

And then I’d think of a theme. A catchy word or phrase that sums up the year.

Except 2014.

In 2014 I didn’t even need to reflect. I KNEW what the theme was.

The Year of Firsts.

I tried a lot of things for the first time that year. From big things like formally learning 日本語 (Japanese language), to small things like watching a movie alone. I explored side streets as often as I could and tried their hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The gastronomic adventures weren’t always successful–curse you weak stomach!–but they were adventures nonetheless.

All because I made one tiny resolution at the start of 2014: To scare the shit out of myself, as often as possible.

And I realize now, as I’m struggling to come…

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Project 2017 [Working Title]

At around this time each year, I take some time to reflect. What were the year’s highlights? Lowlights? What were the mundane but should not be forgotten?

And then I’d think of a theme. A catchy word or phrase that sums up the year.

Except 2014.

In 2014 I didn’t even need to reflect. I KNEW what the theme was.

The Year of Firsts.

I tried a lot of things for the first time that year. From big things like formally learning 日本語 (Japanese language), to small things like watching a movie alone. I explored side streets as often as I could and tried their hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The gastronomic adventures weren’t always successful–curse you weak stomach!–but they were adventures nonetheless.

All because I made one tiny resolution at the start of 2014: To scare the shit out of myself, as often as possible.

And I realize now, as I’m struggling to come up with a theme for 2016, as I can’t even remember what 2015’s theme was, that this theme thing isn’t working. That whatever I did in 2014 worked better.

So I’m changing strategies. I’m going to do what I’m paid to do.

I am going to manage Project 2-0-1-7.

These past couple of years, most of my growth were the direct results of desperation, of firefighting, or from grabbing an opportunity. All good reasons, but all reactive.

That’s what I want to change. Next year, I want to be more proactive. I want to push myself to grow, not be “forced” to grow. Because that’s the only thing different in 2014, but that one change made a resounding impact.

Over the remaining days of 2016, I’ll be project planning.

What is Project 2017?

Project 2017 Objectives.

Project 2017 Minimum Success Criteria and Methodology.

 

What is Project 2017?

Project 2017 is Danna’s strategy to make 2017 count. To push herself to grow in the year 2017. To make something good happen within the year’s timeframe.

 

Project 2017 Objectives:

  • Get into data more seriously. I plan to get more involved with data science. Or data analysis, or data visualization, or data whatever (options are open). Not only as a growing interest but as a possible career shift.
  • Shake things up in my career. It’s been uncomfortably comfortable.
  • Ingrain this self-learning discipline (again, because of data science) into something permanent.
  • Improve my writing. A perpetual resolution but this time I’m serious!
  • Network more often (i.e., actively work on a personal crux).

 

Project 2017 Minimum Success Criteria:

Project 2017 will have no minimum success criteria. I want it to be FUN. I don’t want future self to feel pressured to follow what-would-become-past self’s standards. I don’t want to be constantly checking with myself,

Are you on-track with your my life?

NO. I intend to run Project 2017 the way I run most of my projects lately: in Agile.

For the uninitiated, Agile is… Well, it’s a project management framework, but with radically different values from traditional project management.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan”

–The Agile Manifesto

Traditional project management will always have it’s place, but there’s a reason why Agile is hot right now. It’s easy. It’s sensible. And what I love about it the most: It adapts to change.

The only thing constant is change. Cliché but true. I’m a different person from who I was in 2014. And I might will change again by the end of 2017. I want to set Project 2017 up for success then, not the standards of success I have now.

Instead of having success criteria against the whole of 2017, I’ll start small. Target something every 1-4 weeks. That’s the size of the sprint in scrum terms (Scrum = an Agile methodology. This post is quickly turning into project management bootcamp.) At the end of the sprint, decide on a new target to work towards.

It’s similar to the Kaizen method, or the method of continuous incremental improvements. I just need to align those improvements toward the objectives.

So objectives, values, and process? Check.

What I don’t have is a project mission. The “scare the shit out of myself” version of 2017.

That’s why Project 2017 is still a working title. I’m not happy with it. I want it to be more descriptive of what I’m trying to achieve.

As of writing, I have 15 days `til go-live. Crunch time.