Creating Space to Cultivate Skill

by hamnox6 min read13th Oct 20178 comments

8

Personal Blog

TLDR - Take a day to literally hide all distractions out of sight and attempt every task a second time whether you succeeded or failed

Intro

I want a ritual that does for skill cultivation what Sabbath does for rest. I want a coherent practice, one which systematically promotes sustained motivation and deliberate practice. I want an established pathway and routines to effortfully move potential blockers out of my way.

This is another post in my series of weekly ritual ideas. See also: Learnday

Reasoning

I took the morning to consider what hinders practice and mastery. Why think in terms of removing blockers rather than promoting tools? Well, people vary in what works for them, and their real problems may not fit the mold I expect. The least a system can do is not tie the hands of intelligent agents who want to solve the problems it's built for—that is my personal variant on 'first do no harm'.

  • Complex skills barely get anywhere for lack of the basics.

    • You need to start adding challenge from the level you're at.

  • You quit a course of mastery prematurely.

    • This might come from lack of diligence in grabbing reliable incremental gains, or frustration with a perceived plateau, or general pessimism and distractibility.

  • A chaotic environment confuses your attention.

    • It competes against what you've decided to focus on, and adds unnecessary noise to your performance.

  • Decision paralysis ensures you never come to a decision about what to focus on at all

    • Or at least not one you can stick to in difficult moments.

  • The setup phase stumps you

    • You can't move on to actual practice.

  • Untrustworthy feedback.

    • You need a timely, relevant improvement signal to follow, whether you judge your own progress or take direction from others. Lack of embodiment or mindfulness can block building your own feedback loops.

  • Your practice reinforces the wrong skill or bad form.

    • You might misinterpret which parts of competent examples matter, or have insufficient channels of feedback from reality.

    • You also might learn habits too narrowly if you never test them in other contexts or conditions.

  • You flinch away from mistakes and "wasted" time.

    • You will struggle to put in the work to improve if you spend every second resenting that you're not competent already.

  • Your mindset or self-image conflicts with trying or, worse, with succeeding.

    • You can't move forward until you've resolved that conflict sanely.

I like the framing of ritual in Sabbath Hard and Go Home:

"One more useful attribute of the Jewish Sabbath is the extent to which its rigid rules generate friction in emergency situations... If something like the Orthodox Sabbath seems impossibly hard, or if you try to keep it but end up breaking it every week – as my Reform Jewish family did – then you should consider that perhaps... you are in a permanent state of emergency." - Ben Hoffman

Rather than offer solutions in search of problems, I want to shift a context to surface existing problems and remove pressures that disincentive actually trying to solve them.

My sketch of a practice

Key Concepts

Remove distractions. Emphasize your intentions. Work first with what's already within your skillset. Suspend sense-of-failure/awkward/waste and try stuff anyways. Decouple satisfaction with practice from satisfaction with absolute performance. Practice task setups. Keep task contexts whole and meaningful. Shorten feedback loops.

It's the concepts that are important, not the specific path people take to achieve them. That said, I did have an idea for one possible implementation.

Simple Implementation

Start a 10-hour timer

Going room by room, cover all the clutter with plain sheets and clear every surface. Only leave out what you will use that day.

When that's done, do whatever feels appropriate... but whatever you do you must try twice.

When the timer goes off, take down the sheets and put back the items you moved.

Take 5 minutes to reflect on your day.

Expanded thoughts

(Because a lack of context leads to misunderstandings and lost purposes.)

Start a timer to cover as long as you commit to. This whole day will have you make small commitments and stick to them; this is the first. Better if you can display it prominently, like a 7-hour hourglass.

All those irrelevancies you could just ignore? Make them invisible instead. Lay plain sheets over cluttered areas in your home or workroom to keep them out of sight and mind. Clear off all visible surfaces, e.g. tables, counters, beds. Clear the home screens on your devices. Maybe draw your curtains and cover your wall art.

Clear the air of unintentional sounds and smell if you can. Open doors as needed to get fresh air, close windows as needed to block sounds from the street. Put on white noise, apply scent or deodorize, set the thermostat or (de-)humidifier. Silence your device notifications.

Do the same for your mind, if you think it will help. Write whatever thoughts, ideas, worries come to mind in 2 minutes' thought onto little cards of paper. Put your stray thoughts under the sheets with everything else.

Leave nothing laying out, unless you've made a clear and considered decision to use that day. No plans are invalid—"stare at this object for a while" totally counts as a thing you can prioritize iff you want to—but take care not to collect more intentions than you can act on. You may leave out mirrors and clocks—or objects that similarly provide continuous, relevant feedback on your actions.

Deciding how far to take The Clearing will get tricky in some cases. I intended for it to bring those problems to a head. If you're on a tight schedule, you want to prioritize the changes you make and what places you need them in. If you switch between environments often, you want to decide how much setup effort to spend at each one. If you spend lots of time in a place you don't get to rearrange at will, you want to consider how that changes what you work on there or how long you stay. If you need to keep things looking professional or guest-worthy, you want to think of things like using fancy room dividers instead of sheets. You might converge on keeping a pre-established Practice space easy to setup, and maintaining a set of tools there for making incremental progress on your long term goals.

With that done, everything you work on today you will try an even number of times. If you do something once, you do it again. If you do something three times, try for a fourth time. It's basically up to you what you count as a discrete task, and what you count as trying again.

Possibilities and examples

  • You might put everything back as it was and start over.

    • Go to the store, go back home, go to the store again. Pull out an instrument to practice, put it away, pull it out and practice it some more. Write a page, open a blank page and rewrite it from scratch.

  • You might divide your day into blocks of time and spend every other block doing approximately the same activities as the last.

    • Timer goes off and you remember writing some code, sneaking snacks from the kitchen, and browsing funny cat pictures. You write some code, grab more snacks, and look at funny cat pictures. You set another timer

  • You might decide on specific activities to do and incorporate both instances into a whole day plan.

    • Listen to a podcast in the morning, listen again in the afternoon. Make the same meal for dinner as for lunch. Work through some backlog stuff, take a break, clear some more backlog. Call your friend to talk about plans, call them later to confirm they're still on for it.

  • You might split a task into many little pieces and aim for doing even numbers of them

    • Wash pairs of dishes at a time, count your steps or distance, speak in couplets, buy even quantities of groceries, read pairs of of pages.

  • You might create elaborate Trigger-Action chains to more arbitrarily satisfy "trying again".

    • You could technically repeat the high level action of "think of a thing to do then do it" all day long. Do what makes sense for you.

Yes, repeating a one-off after you got the result you wanted gets awkward and retrying in general looks clumsy. Yes, your extra efforts may not create any useful outcome. Yes, it will probably take more time. I intended this. When do you value self-improvement enough to actually spend resources on exploring and iterating? How much leeway do you usually give yourself to handle genuine errors and unprecedented delays? What skills could you improve if you gave them more focus than you currently do? Where do everyday tasks cause you the most trouble, such that you dread doing any more than strictly necessary, and can you make those parts easier?

When your day's timer goes off, remove the sheets and put moved items back. Reflect on your experience.

~*~

Some References:

"Book Review: How Learning Works" by whales
"How to grow faster" by BayesianMind
"Bring Back the Sabbath" by Zvi
CFAR Turbocharging class

h/t to lahwran, Xer Rowan, and Carrie for reading over my drafts

(CSS to add a prompt to all LW comment boxes)

Comment prompts:
Do you have a "stupid" question? A wishlist of what someone would write?
What impressions or sensations came up as you read? How thoroughly did you read/consider it and why?
Can you see any potential inferential gaps? How big? Where is the gulf widest?
What best makes a person qualified to speak on skill mastery and ritual?
Is this something you would do? Is it like or unlike things you already do?

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8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:00 PM
New Comment

I find something offputting about covering things up with sheets, and am uncertain why. A large part is possibly along the lines of unfolding all my sheets, and then having to fold them back up later. Also, I've worked moderately hard to make my room a nice and comfortable living space. It might be that covering everything up with sheets is better than being surrounded by a cluttery mess, but making your space actually nice and clean with clear surfaces is best.

One thing that works for me when there are skills/ projects that are hard to get started on is to have a day where you get together with friends and work on <x> all day. This presupposes that you have friends who also want to work on the same sorts of thing you want to work on.

Really cleaning beats out covering up messes for sure!

I wouldn't want someone to think they have no options short of making the place spotless, though. That's the sort of thing that leads one to sit stressed out in the middle of a mess because they have no energy to clean, and have no energy to clean because they're in the middle of a stressful mess.

I think it would be very useful to talk about a specific skill as a case study. When I considered skills that I might be interested in cultivating (for example, playing guitar, juggling, or learning a new programming language came to mind for me) many of the steps varied from unimportant to explicitly antagonistic. If I want to practice a skill like programming where my feedback loop necessarily involves searching the internet for syntax, my set of relevant distractions will be very different than if I need to go outside to an open space to juggle clubs.

It's antagonistic to that end because a specific skill is the wrong case study.

I think by the time someone decides on a specific skill they can have already baked in really critical mistakes.

They aim for a goal that only vaguely fits what they really care about, so their clarity and motivation bleed out as they spend time on it. (I want to stop feeling like an imposter! Guitar players are objectively impressive, let's learn guitar!)

Or they fail to prioritize effectively, so open 50 projects and make scant progress in any of them.

Or they have a broken understanding of what learning looks like, so intentionally trying to learn mostly stifles the actual process of discovery and integration. (I must ace this course, or must memorize all the syntax and best practices, or must dive straight into complicated Real Project use.)

Or they forget to have a gears model of successfully acquiring the skill at all, and instead half-assedly hope it will fall out of the sky if they perform the right gestures. (If I give myself a few hours of exposure therapy to embarassedly dropping clubs, I'll learn to juggle right?)

The right class looks more like:

You feel like an imposter. All your successes are flukes and lightning won't strike twice, but on this day you're setting yourself up to replicate the conditions for success anyways. All your failures were inherent and inevitable, but on this day you're giving yourself a chance to notice small things that vary the experience.
YOU WANT TO DO ALL THE THINGS! When you clean up the space and leave out only the things you need today, that's still a lot of things! When spending double
time on everything, you also wind up getting to fewer of them than you expected. After a dozen iterations of this you have probably gotten the hint that your calibration is off. There's obvious solution avenues you can try once you have a way to gauge the problem—hide everything by default, limit yourself to a few solid projects you pick every time, tighten your standards of picking, use a new selection strategy entirely, accept the bias and work around it.
You have cleared your desktop, physical and digital, and closed all your open tabs. You're working on this course for a half hour. Yay celebrate, maybe take a breather. You're going to work on this course for another half hour.
You've been going over syntax for 10 minutes. Wow this really sucks and you hate it. What could you do that would be more rewarding and still, in some sense, be equivalent to going over syntax for 10 minutes? Well... what was the important part here? Was it the specific information—can you read in a different way, switch up note-taking styles, make anki cards? Was it the reviewing—could you use different sources, prioritize different information, go over some other topic entirely? Was it understanding the language better—maybe you could go through a tutorial, or read source code, or mess around in a REPL instead.
After a couple dozen cases of beating your head against a big project plan you don't understand enough to work on, then being faced with the prospect of repeating the exercise knowing you still can't make progress, you start to appreciate the value of leveraging prior knowledge and performing small empirical experiments.
Your friends are raving about language X, so you read an intro on it. You read a different perspective. It does sound neat, and you've got time to mess around. You go through a basic project setup to get a feel for it. You set it up again and get slightly more comfortable. Maybe you end there, satisfied, and explore other things... maybe you want to try to do something a bit more complicated. Maybe you try and struggle at both attempts so you shift to reading docs or working from an example. You stay focused on specific actionable goals at every step, keeping in tune with they pan out.
You spend way too much time stuck on the task 'get rid of distractions' and don't get around to doing anything useful. Removing distractions takes unsustainable amounts of upfront energy, or there's a debilitating backlog of cleaning and organizing to get through. Of course this wasn't less true any other time that you needed to be free of distraction. So, you pick a standard to care about and painstakingly familiarize yourself with the actual costs and benefits of reaching it. Working through the backlog in pieces will just be what DoubleDay is for you until that's no longer your bottleneck.
You're totally in a half-ass, satisfice mindset about this problem. But you've already satisficed a nice environment and are making plausibly deniable dummy attempts regardless, so you could stand to occasionally throw in a sincere try. Do something that has a real chance of working whether or not it fits the narrative. No need for anyone to know your secret audacity.

I really like the "even number of attempts" idea. Especially when doing practice that is a bit on the tedious side, it can be easy to just stop doing it without realizing. Forcing yourself to do an even amount is a good hack around that.

What particular skills are you specifically working on?

Critiques:

The 7 - 10 hour time commitment can be really intimidating or not even possible for a lot of people. While I do think that long chunks of deep work and deliberate practice are the best way to get results, I'm dubious as to whether or not such a dive is an approachable way to develop a new skill. Where you thinking of this as more of a technique for learning a new skill or doubling down on an existing one.

Also, I don't think that your implementation directly tackles any of the road blocks that you mentioned at the beginning of your post. It seems like the effectiveness of an aggressively protected 10 hour practice block helps because it forces you to keep confronting whatever road block you are currently at. If you're two hours in and you feel like you're experiencing some decision paralysis, as long as you commit to the block, there's only so much time you can stare at the wall before you mind rage quits and makes a choice (or at least that's how I often experience it). Do you agree or disagree with that?

Thanks for engaging!

I worry something got lost in translation, with the question about specific skills I'm working on.

This isn't a technique. It covers a whole day; the timer only gives a clear signal to yourself that "yes, the context has really changed and we're following different rules now".

You don't use it for building a particular skill. It specifically doesn't require skill goals to start with or end with. To the extent it is for something it's for learning how to balance diligence and adaptability.

~*~

You correctly doubt the value of deep diving to build a new skill. I agree that most people who offhandedly committed to a 10 hour block of deep work would end up staring at a wall and rage quit. I would not recommend that to anyone. I think people can often commit to doing one more of whatever they were already planning to do.

People will absorb new information when starting from what they know.

When they try something, notice what did or didn't work, then try again.

When they seek out multiple examples to generalize from.

When they split large skills into smaller actions, to work on independently or in new combinations.

When they've gotten good at taking (admittedly arbitrary) intentions to return to a task seriously, and can spend a couple of hours on a hard thing knowing they can trust themselves to spend another couple hours if that's what it takes to master it.

I'm betting it adds up.

When they've gotten good at taking (admittedly arbitrary) intentions to return to a task seriously, and can spend a couple of hours on a hard thing knowing they can trust themselves to spend another couple hours if that's what it takes to master it.

I think that right there is the core benefit of a several hour committed work block. Having a level of moment to moment commitment that makes it so you don't just stop when things get hard. The other things you mention are also useful tips, but they aren't inherently baked into the practice you suggested (through any sort of checklist or workflow).

I don't want to bake the intended lesson into the practice; if I have to tell you what the moral of a story is then it's not doing a very good job of making its own point.