Rapid Improvement

December 14th, 2008 by Steve Pavlina

When we want to build a new skill or just increase our comfort level with a new activity, the frequency of the activity is a key factor to consider. Squeezing the same experiences into a shorter period of time can greatly increase your performance gains.

A Personal Example

During my first few years of blogging, I’d typically do one or two interviews per month. Sometimes a couple months would go by with no interviews at all. With this level of frequency, I reached a certain level of comfort and competence and pretty much stayed there.

But after my book came out, I started doing 30-60 minute interviews a few times a week, sometimes as often as three times a day. I noticed improvements every week, and my skills picked up fast.

I’ve gotten so comfortable doing radio and podcast interviews that I feel like it would be easy to progress to TV. If Oprah called, it wouldn’t seem like such a big deal at this point. It would just feel like more of the same.

It should be obvious that by doing more interviews, I’m improving my calibration in this skill set. There are lots of subtle adjustments to make, such as being able to feel the difference in flow between a 30-minute interview and a 60-minute one, knowing how podcasters differ from experienced radio DJs, determining when it’s best to deliver quick sound bites vs. longer replies, adapting answers and examples for the target audience (students, teens, spiritual seekers, etc), and so on.

Now what if I did the exact same interviews, but I spread them out over a few years instead of doing them all in several weeks? Would I reach the same level of performance and comfort, just over a long time period? No, certainly not.

Another expectation is that if I were to take a year off from doing interviews, I could probably get back up to speed very quickly because I’d retain most of the gains from my current calibration.

Full-Assed Is Better Than Half-Assed

If you want to learn a new skill, it can take you much longer to get good if you learn the skill too slowly and gradually.

You may also reach a greater level of skill overall if you condense your learning into a shorter period of time, even if you end up investing the same amount of total time you’d have invested by spreading it out more.

Obviously you can still err on the side of going too dense, but for most people the lack of frequency is the more common problem.

One of my friends wanted to improve his speaking skills. He joined six Toastmasters clubs — that’s a lot! — and attended meetings almost daily. He had the opportunity to do lots and lots of speaking. Toastmasters obviously became a huge part of his life — he even joked that it is his life. Let me tell you… he got really good at public speaking in a fairly short period of time, racing beyond people who’ve been in Toastmasters for decades but who stuck with one or two clubs and didn’t push themselves as hard.

By making a short-term sacrifice, this guy took his speaking skills to a whole new level. This calibration will benefit him for the rest of his life. Even if he takes time off from speaking, he’ll be able to pick it up again rather quickly. He’ll only need to refresh the old patterns he’s internalized.

When I was going through college in three semesters, I learned how much more efficient it is to go full-assed vs. half-assed. Most students spread their studies out over four years or more. This may be common, but it’s also very inefficient. Common and inefficient are practically synonyms.

By condensing my college experience into only three semesters, I not only graduated quickly, but I also spent significantly less time on my studies compared to other students. Within the first few weeks of school, I calibrated to a high level of performance and learning, and I was able to maintain that level thereafter. Most students never calibrated themselves for high performance, so it took them a lot longer to learn the material and complete assignments.

The funny thing is that this wasn’t my first college experience. The first time I tried going to college, I mostly partied, messed around, got drunk, did tons of shoplifting, and ditched my classes. I was eventually expelled.

Earlier this week I was doing an interview for a college radio station. When I shared these stories, the interviewer noted that I separated the typical college experience in two equal halves. First, I got all the partying and socializing done. Then I did the academic portion. I laughed because I’d never heard anyone describe it like that. That’s a pretty accurate insight though.

Despite my unusual college experiences, it was actually an awesome trade-off. I made major gains in my social skills and courage during the party and shoplifting time. And I made huge improvements in my self-discipline and time management skills during the academic portion. I think the overall results would have been much worse if I tried to achieve balance between academics and a social life.

Balance

Balance is a good thing to have over the span of a lifetime. But within a shorter time span, even during a period of a year or two, over-balancing your life will only decrease your effectiveness because it will dilute your focus.

I like to think of life in an episodic manner. I don’t try to pile everything into each day. I can’t even deal with everything that interests me during a single month.

If you were to look at a typical week from my life, it would appear to be totally unbalanced. For example, you might see me working like crazy on an interesting project or hobby and ignoring virtually everything else. My kids would barely see me. I’m in office hermit mode.

But another week I could totally switch gears. Now maybe I don’t want to work at all. Perhaps we go on a family trip, and I spend day after day with Erin and the kids doing fun stuff.

This week I’ve been doing several months’ worth of accounting work for my business. I prefer to do my accounting in a few sessions per year instead of doing a little each week or month. If I do it a little at a time, it just steals my attention from other things. I do a better job with the marathon sessions. Some people would say this is procrastination. To me it’s intelligent batching.

In the short term, I largely ignore balance. It’s meaningless.

But in the long term, I consider how to balance my focus between a variety of different interests. A month here. A year here.

This way I still enjoy a sense of balance at the big picture level. I pay attention to all the important parts of my life. Everything gets handled.

But within the span of any given week, my focus is usually pretty tight. Most weeks I have a theme or major focus for what I want to get done. Everything else gets blown off until later… or never.

Even during the span of a year, I tend to pick just one or two areas of my life in which to focus the bulk of my growth efforts.

This year my major focus was on improving my diet and health. I knew that if I could become a raw foodist this year, even if it took a lot of effort to push through the learning curve and initial resistance, it would be worth it. This was the most important goal I accomplished this year… even more important to me than the release of my book. I’m so glad I did it. I doubt I would have achieved this goal if I didn’t focus so much attention on it in a relatively short period of time.

I’ll have a different primary focus for 2009. Most likely it will have to do with social dynamics and relationships. This is an area that’s been fascinating me lately. Other parts of my life, such as my diet, will simply go into maintenance mode next year.

Focus

It’s a mistake to try to balance your day with a small slice of everything that matters to you. It spreads your focus too thin. It dilutes your learning process. It promotes stagnation.

It’s better to pick a strong focus for a certain period of time, set a breakthrough goal in that area, and then push hard until you lock in to a higher-level calibration.

Stephen Covey wrote that it’s better to focus on the rhythm of the week instead of the rhythm of the day. In other words, attend to your various roles and goals over the course of a week, but don’t worry about packing everything into every day.

That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still too unfocused. Well… it’s okay for baby-sized goals, but it’s no good for going after the big stuff. It will slow you down with unnecessary baggage.

If you want to make faster progress, you need to lighten your load by letting some things slide for a while. Not every aspect of your life needs your attention every week.

For working on significant goals, the rhythm of a month, quarter, or even a year is better for making meaningful progress.

When I want to learn something new, I try to immerse myself in it as much as possible. I’ll buy 5-10 books on the subject and read them back to back. I’ll contact several experts and learn from them. I’ll dive in with action and do some kind of 30-day trial.

This is a great way to learn. It keeps your enthusiasm up because you can enjoy rapid progress through the beginner phase. You get to the intermediate level quickly, where you can finally start applying what you’ve learned.

Big goals often require tons of learning. A good example would be starting a new business. If you try to pick away at that goal a few hours a week, you may never get it done. It’s better to put the rest of your life on hold and just go at it like a madman for a while.

You don’t have to push through from beginning to end on the first try. You can push ahead in focused phases. For example, if you want to start an online business, your first phase might be to educate yourself. Then you can take a few weeks off to focus on a different part of your life — or just relax. Your next phase might be to build your website and get it launched.

Managing Your Attention

Know your primary focus at any given time. Give that part of your life the bulk of your attention. Let the other areas slide a bit… not so much that they crumble, but enough that you can free up extra time to devote to your primary pursuit.

If you divide your attention between too many things at once, your productivity and enjoyment suffer across the board. But if you can focus your attention on just one thing at a time and go all-out with it, just temporarily, you can make major strides. You’ll achieve great long-term balance, even though things may look incredibly unbalanced on a day-to-day basis.

Not having a job obviously makes this approach easier to fully implement. I love the freedom of working 60 hours on a business project one week, and the next week I might devote that many hours to studying a new subject of interest, such as when I was learning to play chess earlier this year. A job with regular hours would kill my efficiency. It would seem like a constant interruption in whatever I wanted to be doing.

If you do have a job, have you ever felt like you could get two weeks worth of work done in a single week if you made an all-out effort? Could you be twice as productive as you normally are, just for one week? What if you could work every other week and earn the same amount of income? One week you would work flat out — no distractions, no socializing, no idleness, long hours, minimal family life. And the next week you could attend to your personal life. Do fun stuff, socialize, be with your family — but give your personal life your full attention.

What if you love playing computer games? Instead of having them be a constant distraction in your days, set aside a period of a few days or weeks to all-out indulge in this hobby. Afterwards you can drop all game-playing and move on to something else.

I’ve done this a number of times (not recently), and it’s a lot of fun. One summer (1991 I think), I took two months to play Ultimas I-VI back to back. It was a lot of fun. By going through the games back-to-back, it was faster, less boring, and not as frustrating as it might have been if I played them over a longer period of time. I didn’t feel guilty playing games so much because I knew it was a temporary experience, like a vacation. Eventually my focus would shift to getting real work done, and of course it did.

If you want to work, then work. If you want to play, then play. But whatever you decide to do, commit yourself to it without holding back. Be aware that your commitment is temporary. It will eventually end. You’ll have the opportunity to shift your focus to something else.

Do you think this approach would make your life more or less balanced?

The only way to know whether this works for you is to try it for a while and find out. If you’ve been living such that every day is virtually the same, you don’t know what you’re missing. Try working flat out for 12 or more hours one day. Then take the next day off completely to do something you love — guilt-free. It’s a fun (and productive) way to live. :)


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