I was reading the book A Mind for Numbers when I came across the term learned industriousness. The words immediately seduced me. Industriousness is a word we love in football - to work hard, to be gritty. Learned - to have acquired through study or practice. Together, you have a term meaning something to the effect of ‘having acquired the ability to work hard through study or practice’.
For context, the book is a guide to learn how to learn. It discusses the types of thinking we need to solve problems, methods for dealing with procrastination and how we can form good study habits (and much more). The author Barbara Oakley uses the term learned industriousness to describe the process whereby we rewire our brain to build good habits through deliberate practice and reward. Another way to think of this may be the deliberate training of focus.
The Distraction Habit
I recently set myself some personal challenges to try harness my focus and train against bad habits. Examples include:
- Never check phone when I go to the bathroom
- No Twitter when I’m at my ‘work’ desk
To some, these may seem like small changes. But the implications can be quite profound.
Consider the first example, no phone when I got to the bathroom. The alternate case of this habit is to always check my phone when I go to the bathroom. Habits can be thought of in a similar way as exercising muscles - the more reps you complete, the stronger they get.
Similarly, in this specific case, the more times you check your phone in the bathroom, the stronger this habit gets. The result is that whenever you go to the bathroom, you check your phone automatically. Ring any bells?
(Re)Training the Focus Muscle
The tasks I mentioned above are just one way to combat that. They are a way to train yourself for focus.
The example of checking your phone in the bathroom may be trivial. But you can see a productive case for the second example. How much more productive would we all be if we didn’t open Twitter at our desk?
What is key here for both, is that the exercise is the same. The process whereby we deliberately rewire our brain to have a different habitual response to something, whether that is our phone in the bathroom or Twitter at our desk, can be very powerful. That is the essence of learned industriousness.
Thank you for reading. I’d also like to say thanks to Derek Sivers. He first got me thinking about this when he said “I’ve been deliberately cultivating this long attention span” in his post Parenting: Who is it really for?
If you liked this post, you can sign up to get my future essays via email.