During my summer break after class 10th, I hit upon a treasure – the Air Force library in the unit where my father was posted.
It is from the yellowed and brittle old pages of the books that I found there, that I first learned calculus, the history of Arab-Israel conflict, and a zillion other things.
But look at our luck today – we have thousand-fold more content at our fingertips. Books are cheap and one click away. Our kindle is chock-a-block full. Free online courses are raining. For learning, there has never been a better time in history.
Naturally, our learning should have skyrocketed. But has it? Not really.
Because content itself is not enough – we also need the time and attention to consume it. And that piece is totally missing.
Unfortunately, just as technology unlocked access to such amazing content, it took away our time and attention.
Today, we are so busy with emails, calls, and seemingly urgent tasks that we hardly have time for long-term priorities like learning. Even a useless message gets us to reply immediately but our online courses keep waiting for us to become less busy. And that, of course, never happens.
There is always something more urgent than learning.
In some sense, it is not our fault – evolution has wired our brain to prioritize the urgent over important. After all, our ancestors in the savannah did not have to worry about their career moves five years later – there was very little stuff that was long-term and ‘important.’ Yet, they surely had to find food for that day and survive attacks by lions – the urgent stuff dominated their life.
Today, we don’t live in the savannahs but our mind is still the same – it continues to prioritize the urgent over the important.
That is why, replying to that dumb email feels satisfying enough for us to push our learning to tomorrow. And as they say, tomorrow never comes.
And as if this was not bad enough, there is more bad news.
Even when we somehow sit down to learn, our mind is far too agitated and distracted to learn for even half an hour without checking our phone or switching attention. Our smartphones and online distractions have decimated our ability to focus. Our mind is constantly seeking excitement – learning is way too boring for that.
But we surely can’t keep living like that. So what is the way out?
Here is a step-by-step solution I suggest:
1. Commit to specific learning slots.
And once you commit, don’t break that commitment for anything less than life and death emergencies. As simple as it sounds, it inverts the prioritizing of urgent over the important.
But how can we ignore urgent stuff? If we did not reply to the urgent email, won’t we run into some trouble pretty soon?
But before you jump to a conclusion, allow me to share this real-life incident. Many years ago, I was working at McKinsey, the busiest job I have ever had. In those days when BlackBerry was the rage, it was just becoming fashionable to reply to emails in real-time. And I was doing it just like everyone else.
But one day, due to some technical glitch, my BlackBerry stopped syncing. For the next few hours, without any notifications, I was peacefully working on my PowerPoint deck.
And then I felt something was off — this was too quiet.
When I checked, I saw a flurry of unread emails. Instantly, my mind went, “Oh God! This will be a nightmare.” I frantically cleared the email backlog, planning an apology to the frustrated and angry people whom I had slowed down.
But then it struck me — nothing had broken down. Nobody seemed frustrated or even cared. The crisis was only in my head.
If it didn’t kill me in a client service organization, it probably won’t kill you.
Remember that we hugely overestimate the urgency of things. Therefore once you commit to a learning slot, there is no going back.
In fact, in our learning bootcamp, we use this approach by asking participants to commit to weekly learning slots. And once you commit, no excuses are allowed.
2. Start each session with focus-building rituals
E.g., in our learning bootcamps, our ritual includes sharing of goals, a brain dump to put all your worries on a piece of paper, followed by a meditation to create focus.
These rituals tell our mind, “This is a special occasion – take this seriously.”
Therefore, when your mind gets bored and seeks distraction, you will remember to not do that, unlike in normal life. Commitment and accountability are game-changers.
To take the game to the next level, we need to overcome our smartphone cravings. That is a longer discussion, outside the scope of this piece.
But you can check out our ‘Beat Smartphone Addiction’ bootcamp, if interested.
3. Set a timer and don’t deviate till it is ticking.
Don’t do open-ended, long learning sessions. Decide on a time-length and set a timer. Once the timer starts ticking, no excuses allowed – you are not allowed to switch attention to any task. Personally, I even leave the timer’s ticking sound on to remind me.
The solution we shared is not theoretical – thousands of people have gone through our bootcamps where we follow these techniques, and we know that they work.
I have followed these very same techniques to bring focus in my life. Very few things have been more rewarding for me than focused learning and work. But don’t take my word for it – try it out and see for yourself.