Farnam Street Course: The Art of Focus, a review

UPDATE: The Art of Focus course is now closed.

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.


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?


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.

Migrating to a New Bullet Journal (plus a tour of the old one)

It was around June this year. A friend of mine, a fellow stationery enthusiast, asked if I’ve heard of the bullet journal. She’d seen my to-do lists and how obsessed I am with productivity. She thought the bullet journal was right up my alley.

She was right. Six months and one bullet journal later, it most certainly was is right up my alley.

Old and new bullet journals, side by side.

I’ve finally made it to the last page. So today, as I transition to a new notebook, I’ll go over the lessons I learned from my first bullet journal.


But first, what is a bullet journal?

The Bullet Journal is a customizable and forgiving organization system. It can be your to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, but most likely, it will be all of the above.

-“The System”, bulletjournal.com

Hang around long enough in any productivity site (Lifehacker, anyone?) and you’re bound to hear about the bullet journal, or BuJo for short. A quick search of #bulletjournal or #bujo through any social media platform greets us with images of neatly-inked notebook pages.

The creator’s site (above) is already a pretty accurate answer as to what a bullet journal is. So instead, I will define what a bullet journal is by how I use it:

For me, a bullet journal is a systematic to-do list.


Danna’s bullet journal: A love story

My love of to-do lists established, what the bullet journal offered was a way to take my to-do lists to the next level. It offered a simple way to track and migrate the tasks from my to-do lists, from one day to the next.

It does this through it’s namesake: the bullets.

Screenshot of key page (aka bullets)

The bullets also offered the option of writing down non-tasks without having to establish a separate “place” for them.

By changing the bullet, I can change the context of the text that comes after–Is it a task? An event? A note to self? This eliminated the need for having a separate journal and day planner.

These bullets were the primary reason why I knew the bullet journal system was going to work. It was easyIt was just extending something I already do (to-do lists), but offered a system for not a lot of extra effort.


What does my bullet journal look like?

To commemorate, I want to show off what my old bullet journal was like before I bid it goodbye.

My very first bullet journal, June to December 2016.

I use an A5 double-ring 70-sheet notebook from Muji. On the cover is a watercolor temporary tattoo I painted in class and a sticker label of my name. There’s a built-in elastic to keep the notebook in place.

First page of journal, and dot grid up close.

On the first page of my bujo is the original of the watercolor tattoo. The pages are cream-colored and made of recycled paper. I use dot grid because it strikes a nice balance: It has the structure of lined and grid notebooks, but with more freedom akin to blank sketch pads.

I stick to two colors of ink: black and pink. No special reason this time.


Lessons learned while migrating to a new bujo

As I migrate to a new bullet journal, I’ve had the chance to review the old one. I’ve had the chance to review what went well, and what I could have done better. I’ve listed down the lessons learned here.

Learn from my mistakes–so you won’t need to make them in case you ever decide to give bullet journaling a try.

1. Put the index at the back

If you follow the classic bullet journal format, it will tell you to allocate about 2-4 of the first few pages of your notebook for the index.

But, is two too few? Is four too much?

Index that ended up having two columns

In my case, I allotted two pages and ended up about two lines too short. As per above, I squeezed in the two lines into a second column.

Moving forward, I will do what books do: Put the index at the back. My entries and the index will then meet somewhere in the middle.

No more worries on how many pages to allot!

2. Use categories
Categories (see left)

When I started on the bujo, I had listed all the tasks along a single column like I would a to-do list. This was okay for the first few weeks, but as I got used to the bujo and started listing more and more tasks, the single list started to get confusing.

Respond to Brad’s email? About which?
And which report was I was supposed to update again?
Why did I have to do this again?

Etcetera. To resolve this, I added categories before the tasks to help give context. As a bonus, it complemented the Outlook categories I was already using.

3. Don’t be afraid of whitespace

In an attempt to save paper, I would sometimes put 2-3 unrelated topics on the same page.

This wreaked havoc on my index, especially when I would add something new to an existing topic and found I didn’t have enough space. Moving forward I’ll stick to 1-2 topics per page, never more.

4. Rapid log as often as you can

Something I realized while reviewing my old bullet journal: I underutilized its journaling capabilities. While I would occasionally note an event or thought, I found that for the most part I would still refer to emails and phone messages when trying to recall when did I do something.

If I had chronicled it properly in the first place, this shouldn’t have been a problem.

5. A bujo is not an art journal

One of my friends had started on her bullet journal around the same time as I did. She even bought a fancy notebook and a couple of expensive pens to go along with it. Six months later, and she still hasn’t gone past the first few pages.

I asked her why, and she said it’s because she didn’t want to ruin how it looked. 

Like myself, this friend frenziedly writes up a to-do list first thing in the morning.

Unlike myself, she doesn’t do this on her bullet journal. Instead she writes it on a memo pad we got as a freebie.

Not the bullet journal, she says. It’s too pretty for that.

Look up #bulletjournal online and you’ll see artsy pages decorated with calligraphy, collages, and illustrations. It’s easy to correlate that because other people make bujos an art journal, that it’s the proper way to do it.

It’s not.

The whole point of the bullet journal is customization. You make it work for you. If you like making art journals, go ahead.

I don’t. Rather, I can’t. Not in the morning when I’m gulping in my daily caffeine while rushing off to a meeting.

My use of the bullet journal is utilitarian. It’s just a bunch of to-do lists broken up by the occasional essay draft. It’s not pretty to look at, but it’s damn useful.




That’s the big lesson really.

The bullet journal offers a system. How you use that system is up to you.

How to write like Hemingway

The elevator doors close.

I look left, and see a familiar face. The way his stoic face breaks into a smile tells me I’m familiar to him too. We exchange pleasantries, and talk about the great past time of adulthood: work.

The elevator goes down. My eyes try to maintain eye contact, but keeps going to his hands instead. Rather, that thing in his hands. That thing I only ever see in bookstores. On the reference shelf, which nobody cares for because the Internet exists.

Ding! Ground floor. The doors open.

If I don’t ask now, I might never know…

We’re just about to part our ways.

I break down. Continue reading “How to write like Hemingway”

It’s Normal to Love Lists (I Promise)

During a recent desk move at work, we uncluttered three years’ worth of, well, clutter. A lot of re-discoveries were made: Lost pens were reunited with their owners, papers overdue for the bin finally met their dues, and this:

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

I had managed to accumulate six notebooks’ worth of daily to-do lists.

Seeing them piled up like that was a bit alarming. I mean, SIX NOTEBOOKS? Isn’t that a bit much? It’s not like I was particularly busy these past years… And given those blue Coronas are about a 100 pages each, it would mean I was averaging about 2.3 pages per day… hoooowwww? But more importantly, WHYYYYYYYYY???

Continue reading “It’s Normal to Love Lists (I Promise)”