Intentional, Focused Practice

An especially effective method of learning is intentional, focused practice.

Intentional means you’re consciously, explicitly trying to learn. You have a goal to learn something. You’re trying to learn on purpose.

Focused means you’re trying to learn only a couple things at once. Limiting what you learn means you can pay attention to everything you’re actively learning. If you learn one thing at a time, you won’t forget about what you’re working on. If you try to learn a dozen things at once, you’ll forget about some of them in the middle of “practicing” them.

Focused learning requires breaking topics into smaller parts. You can’t just learn “math”. Math isn’t one thing. If your goal is just to learn math, you won’t focus your attention on anything specific. You need sub-goals. It’s fine to have “learn math” as a broad goal that you keep in mind. But “learn math” can’t be the goal for intentional, focused practice. You need a smaller goal that you’re capable of focusing on.

You should go through a succession of many goals. You should finish many of them, successfully, in a short time frame. Even if your big picture goal is to learn math, which takes years, you can finish some sub-goals in a day and others in a week.

Focusing on learning one thing at a time is a good place to start. If you have a lot of success, you may find it’s sometimes advantageous to focus on learning two or three things at a time. But the maximum number will never be large. And even if you could learn five things at once, you’d still want to learn fewer most of the time, including often just one. Splitting one’s attention is something typical people do way too much of. Be conservative with splitting your attention. Try focusing on one thing.

Practice means doing activities to help you learn. In often involves doing the thing you want to get better at or doing a sub-part of it, but you can also do something else with some kind of similarity (e.g. practice flying an airplane using a simulator). People generally already understand the concept of practice for physical skills, e.g. you could practice kicking a ball or practice hitting nails with a hammer. It’s also well known that you can practice mental skills with worksheets (e.g. with a bunch of math problems). There are other ways to practice mental skills too. Most ways of practicing mental skills are underused.

For an example of intentional, focused practice, suppose that you’re trying to improve at video game like League of Legends or Starcraft. If you just play lots of games, that’s practice, but it isn’t focused and may not qualify as intentional. Watching videos with tips isn’t practice. Reading guides isn’t practice either.

(People sometimes try to learn philosophy almost entirely by reading and watching, without practice. While you can learn something that way, and it may be beneficial for you, it’s unusual to get really great results that way. Note that if you can’t figure out how to practice something, that usually also means you don’t know how to use it in your life. If you knew actions to take to use the idea, then you could practice doing that.)

To improve at League, it helps a lot to do intentional, focused practice. One way to do that is play a game of League while keeping in mind one specific thing that you’re practicing. Instead of focusing on winning, you focus on doing that one thing well, and pay attention to any ways it goes wrong. For everything else in the game that you aren’t focusing on practicing, you play in more of an autopilot mode. You can give it partial attention but can’t get too caught up in it – you don’t want to divert too much attention and forget about what you’re trying to practice. It’s also helpful – often better – to do practice drills where some other aspects of the full game aren’t even present to distract you. The same techniques work with sports too.

A common tip is watch replays of your video games afterwards to look for mistakes and missed opportunities. This can help you figure out what to change and see what you did wrong. This often helps people learn. And it’s more effective than just playing a bunch of games without doing anything intentional to help you learn. However, if you do intentional, focused practice, then for most activities you should actually be able to pay attention to what you’re doing while you do it, so there’s less need to watch replays. Being unaware of what you did wrong, so you need to watch replays to see it, is a sign you were trying to learn too many things at once or otherwise weren’t focusing well. You may need to break the learning goals into smaller parts or go slower. Ideally, if you do intentional, focused learning well, replay viewing would be a learning supplement you use sometimes rather than a main tool that you use routinely. If you’re losing track of what’s going on and needing to review it, try focusing more narrowly (and doing shorter practice activities) until you usually don’t lose track. It’s hard to learn when you’re doing too much, too quickly, all at once, to the point that you don’t have a clear understanding of what happened immediately afterwards.