How can you maintain peak concentration during difficult tasks? (Besides just chugging coffee, of course.)

Staying sharp can be tricky. Even when you desperately need to focus, it can be hard to stop a wandering mind. You might get stuck, unable to push past what ought to be a simple problem. Persisting through these moments of frustration can require a lot of willpower.

Below, I’d like to touch on ten tools I use to stay mentally sharp. While doing so, I’ll shine a light on some of the cognitive science that makes them work.

1. Take “Smart” Breaks

There’s nothing wrong with taking a…

Last week I read John Doerr’s Measure What Matters and Jerry Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics back-to-back. Needless to say, they did not agree.

Measure What Matters is a peppy business book about the importance of setting clear goals and backing them with metrics. Acronyms and buzzwords abound. These sentences, found on page 186, might go down as the most business book-y passage of all time: “Modern recognition is performance-based and horizontal. It crowdsources meritocracy.” The bulk of the book consists of case studies. …

I admire when other authors showcase the best evidence against their position. It’s disappointing to finish a book and find the author ignored a good, well-known rebuttal.

In that spirit, I want to consider some of the best arguments I’ve heard against doing the real thing.

To recap my position:
Most learning occurs by doing the thing you want to get good at. Skills are narrower than people think, and transfer is tricky. Practicing the real activity in real projects, real jobs, or for real results is more effective than many substitute or purely preparatory efforts.

The applications of this…

I’ve been writing about productivity for fifteen years. In that time, my life has gone through many changes. I’ve gone to university, graduated, lived abroad, built a business, written a book and gotten married. But easily the biggest shift was the birth of my son, last year.

How I’ve thought about productivity has shifted dramatically. Not just in the obvious ways of having less time and needing to coordinate childcare. But also in deeper ways of what goals are really worth focusing on.

Does Becoming a Parent Make You Wiser, or Just Different?

Becoming a parent is a dramatic shift in perspective. But, not necessarily a privileged one.

Every stage…

We all have an intuition about what it means to understand something. We all know what it’s like to be confused. We know both the pain of memorizing an answer you don’t understand as well as the satisfaction that comes from finally “getting it.” Yet what that intuition points to is hard to pin down.

The impetus to really understand what we’re learning was a central theme in my early writing. While I still agree this is important, I’m less clear what it means. Beyond this satisfying feeling, what does it mean to understand?

Some Understandings of Understanding

To sort out this confusion, let’s…

Stop sidelining what’s important in favor of what you can check off your to-do list

Photo: PixelChoice/Getty Images

Human beings crave progress. That craving distorts what we work on. Vital pursuits with less tangible progress are frequently sidelined for trivialities we can check off a to-do list.

Think of the last time you updated your computer. Just having the progress bar made the wait more bearable. The inching left to right may have been inconsistent. It may have been downright misleading, as the frustration at witnessing it stall forever at exactly 99% can attest.

But imagine how much harder it would be to wait if the progress bar weren’t even there.

Recently, I embarked on a research project exploring the topics of learning by doing, apprenticeship and transfer. I’ve just finished a big reading binge of a few dozen books loosely related to this topic.

Since I’m fully aware that at most 1% of the material I read will make it into any future writing, I thought I’d highlight some of the more interesting books I’ve read while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Here are some of the books that made me think the most…

1. Democracy and Education by John Dewey

John Dewey was one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals a century ago. Today, few…

I recently came across an essay by Tanner Greer about the rise and decline of public intellectuals. Many appear as geniuses for a time, before later becoming a punch line. Why does this happen?

Greer starts with an obvious explanation — genius peaks. As we age, our raw talents decline and we can no longer sustain brilliance. I’d add to this regression to the mean. Chance will allow some the right idea at the right time to make them seem prophetic. But luck fades.

However, toward the end of the essay, Greer offers another explanation. Using Thomas Friedman, the veteran…

I recently came across the following Nature article, “People systematically overlook subtractive changes.” From the abstract:

“Here we show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations. Across eight experiments, participants were less likely to identify advantageous subtractive changes … Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape and damaging effects on the planet.”

This research fits into the theme of books such as Essentialism, The ONE Thing or Hell Yeah or No. When we want to improve life, we think of…

For the past several years, I’ve been trying to get better at research. I’m far from a master, but I’ve learned some strategies that have helped.

I’ve done smaller research-driven essays, from looking into explore-exploit tradeoffs, how aging affects learning and whether speed reading works. I’ve also worked on longer efforts that had me reading quite a bit of material, like I did for my book or my guide on motivation.

Research is an essential part of thinking for yourself. For if you can’t find and understand other people’s arguments, you tend to get stuck either with what your intuition…

Scott H. Young

Author of WSJ best selling book: Ultralearning | Twitter: @scotthyoung

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