Learning Hacks

The one app to help you focus.

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Let’s face it, mobile phones aren’t going anywhere. They’re so integrated into our lives and we rely on them so much that the majority of the population now suffer from ‘low battery anxiety’. No matter how hard we try we somehow find ourselves mindlessly checking our phones and wasting so much of our precious time.

It’s a hard feat to be laser focused on your work or the people right in front of you when you’re constantly bombarded with notifications. If you refuse to turn on your Do Not Disturb Mode for the entire day (this changed my life when I implemented this method), then I have an alternative that might alleviate the number of times you mindlessly pick up your phone.

Recommended Reading: Take back your life with one phone setting.

An app that helps you to stay focused.

With the slogan “Stay Focused, Be Present” the Forest app attempts to lock you out of your phone and enables you to focus on the task at hand. How does it do this? By killing off a tree if you don’t do otherwise. Sounds a bit dark right? Don’t worry, you’ll only be killing off a digital tree that is grown within the app. Although the concept sounds a little bit silly, this method actually works and has helped thousands of users to stay off their phones and focus on the present moment.

Forest is simply a gamified version of the Pomodoro Technique. For those of you that are unaware of this time keeping method here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Step 1: Place a timer for 25 minutes and work distraction-free during that period.

  • Step 2: Once the timer is done take a five-minute break.

  • Step 3: Repeat step one.

  • Step 4: After the fourth 25-minute timer take a 15-minute break

  • Step 5: Repeat step one.

Recommended reading:  What is the Pomodoro Technique?

Forest incorporates this method and adds its own little spin to it. Once the timer is set and the countdown begins, a digital seed is planted and at the end of your allotted time, a digital tree would have fully grown. If however, in that time you decide to pick up your phone and leave the Forest app to reply to a message, or watch a YouTube video or even just to return to the home screen, you’ll find upon returning to the app that the tree has withered and died.

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The aim of the game is to plant as many trees throughout the day and hopefully if you’re off your phone and using that time wisely, you would have had a very productive day. The gamification element is what I find quite rewarding, especially when I’ve ended my day with up to 6 or 7 trees successfully planted, that’s when I know I’ve done a lot of focused work. Looking back at my statistics it’s nice to see a little forest has been grown through all of my focused work.

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More than just an app.

If you’re having trouble focusing whilst sitting in front of your computer, Forest has also created a Chrome extension that’ll allow you to blacklist any websites that are a distraction. Whether it’s Facebook, Youtube or even your own personal website, all you have to do is click on the tree, start planting and focus on your work. Similar to the app, if you find yourself on any website that is blacklisted, your tree will wither and die.

I personally don’t use this feature as there are often times where my work or studies require me to learn from a YouTube video or reply to an email. I actually don’t have a Facebook account so I don’t struggle with the urge of checking my timeline. If you know a particular website that’s stopping you from getting any work done, you should give the Chrome extension a try.

How much do I have to pay?

Moving back to the phone, if you’re an Android user you can download the app free of charge. However, if you’re on iOS you’ll have to pay £1.99 to grant access to it, this will immediately give you access to all the premium features. Once you’ve downloaded the app you can start planting right away. For Android users, there is an option to upgrade and unlock the premium features in the app, but the basic version is more than enough to get you started on your road to staying focused in the present moment.

As I’m an Android user, I paid to upgrade to the premium because I wanted to make full use of the additional features. Below I outline what is available when you have access to the premium version.

Plant a real tree.

Planting a digital tree to help you focus is all well and good, but planting a real tree to help the environment is even better. Forest can help you with both. Trees for the Future is a charity organisation that is partnered with Forest to help plant real trees. The more digital trees planted the more virtual coins you accumulate. Users can trade in those coins with Forest and they will donate to the charity and help plant a real tree. It’s a wonderful gesture and it gives us even more of a reason to support the app.

Recommended reading: Sponsor Trees for the Future Charity

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After planting so many digital trees I had lost track of how many coins I had accumulated. When I had realised I had enough to plant a real tree I jumped on the opportunity. However, I did read that due to budget restraints each user is limited to only planting 5 real trees within the Forest app. It’s strange to think that all I have to do to help the environment is to just stay off my phone.

 

White-listing.

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If you find that you have to use your phone in order to do work, you have the ability to add specific apps to a white-list. This means that when you do start planting your tree and use an app that is white-listed you will not be penalised with a withered tree. Be sure to only add apps that you definitely need access to, otherwise, what’s the point of having the app in the first place?

I found this option useful as I found that there were times where I wanted to record the progress of my piano playing. When I had grabbed my phone to record myself I was immediately notified to get back to the app. Putting the camera app on the white-list sorted out that problem. I’ve kept my white-list small as I don’t want to have free reign on using my phone.

 

Plant with friends.

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It seems that every app includes a social element and Forest doesn’t let us down either. Once you’ve upgraded to the premium app you have the ability to create rooms and invite your friends to join you. This is a great way to start study groups with your peers or even get them off their phones whilst having dinner with each other, but be warned, if one of your friends gets distracted and misuses their phone it’ll kill the tree for the entire group. I’d hate to be the person responsible for that!

Unfortunately, I don’t have many friends that share the same sentiments I have with productivity, so I’ve not had a chance to experience planting a digital tree with a friend. If you want to give it a go, send me a message and I’ll be happy to try it out with you.

 

The tagging system.

If you’re like me and you want to have everything organised, you’ll appreciate the availability of tags on the premium version. Tags essentially allow you to categorise each tree according to what you are working on. If you use the tags correctly, you’ll be able to see a visual breakdown of what you’ve been using your focused time on.

I like to review my tags at the end of the day and analyse what I’m spending my time on the most. If I can see that I’m not spending my focused time wisely I can make changes according to the data. It’s always good to have as much data as possible as you might be able to find patterns that you weren’t aware of.

Other premium features.

On top of everything that I’ve mentioned earlier, the premium feature also includes:

  • Syncing to multiple devices

  • Ad blocking

  • Unlocking more achievements

I didn’t go into much detail with these because they’re self-explanatory.

Conclusion.

Forest’s ultimate aim is to get you off your phone and appreciate the present moment. Whether you use that time to work with no distractions or spend time with your friends and family, it’s important to understand that constantly checking your phone is not a healthy way to live. If you struggle to put down the phone, give Forest a go and see if planting a digital tree can help motivate you to stay off your phone and live in the present moment.

Recommended App: Forest

Continual growth is important, what better way to develop yourself than by learning a new skill? I am on a mission to learn and document new practical skills to better my life. Once a week I update you on what I’m currently learning and share any tips and tricks that I’ve learned along the way. If you want to stay up-to-date and pick up a new skill or two click here to sign up to the 1-minute report card.

How I learned Swedish in three months.

How I learned Swedish in three months.

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Before I begin outlining how I managed to drastically improve my comprehension with the Swedish language in a short amount of time, let me explain why I wanted to put myself through all of those long arduous hours. You see, there’s a girl involved. Don’t all great stories start like that?

My girlfriend was born and raised in Sweden and is of Persian descent, she’s multilingual and can speak English, Swedish and Farsi fluently, which at times I am quite jealous of. With English being her weakest of the three I would occasionally correct her on subtle mistakes. How to pronounce the word ‘determined’, correcting her v’s from her w’s as well as her g’s and j’s. Whenever I would stop to correct her she would jokingly say, “Whatever, I know three languages.” I would reply back with, “Two and a half.”

Every so often she would pull out a complicated word in English and I’d stop to ask her how she learned that word. She would shrug her shoulders and think nothing of it. I, on the other hand, would be amazed and wonder how hard it would be to learn a new language. Being born and raised in England and be of Filipino descent, I never really embraced the Filipino culture. Learning Tagalog (the native language of Philippines) wasn’t really that appealing to me. I stuck with English and always struggled with learning another language. In my early 20’s I gave Tagalog a go and failed miserably, I would periodically go on Duolingo and attempt to learn Spanish too. That didn’t last long either.

Regardless of my lack of experience with learning a new language, I decided for my girlfriends next birthday I would surprise her with learning one of her languages. I chose Swedish instead of Farsi because I thought it would be the lesser of two evils, plus my cousin is half Swedish so I thought I could reach out to her and get some tips. Not only would it be a nice surprise, I thought that I could hit two birds with one stone. Her dad doesn’t speak English well enough to maintain a conversation, so I thought I could use the skill of a new language and be able to communicate with him.

I had carefully planned this out, I wanted to start off by taking photos together with the camera on a tripod, then I would sneakily hit the record button and start talking to her in Swedish and not stop until she took me seriously. Did I manage to surprise her? I guess you can be the judge of that.

I had come up with this idea 12 months beforehand, but I didn’t really do much for the first 9 months. I had no idea how to approach learning a new language and I wasn’t taking the challenge seriously. I had purchased Rosetta Stone for Swedish and hardly used it.Occasionally I would jump on Duolingo for 10 minutes and be so lackadaisical about it. I was making little to no progress, but I could only blame myself. Then with three months left everything changed. I realised with the birthday looming, I had to get my priorities in order if I wanted to successfully surprise my girlfriend.

Instead of dusting off the cobwebs and jumping back into the Rosetta Stone program, I thought I’d do some research on useful techniques on how to learn a language within 3 months. I knew I had to put the work in and time was running out. So I committed to a minimum of 10 hours a week of studying Swedish whilst implementing the different techniques of learning a new language in a short amount of time. The goal wasn’t to be fluent in Swedish but have enough knowledge to get by and surprise my girlfriend. I do regret not taking the challenge seriously from the very start. Who knows, I could’ve been fluent by the time I surprised her. At least I now have enough knowledge to have a basic conversation with my girlfriend. If I keep up this progress I’m sure I’ll be speaking fluently in no time.

A useful guide that helped put everything into perspective for me was an article written by Arthur from Faster To Master.  It outlined how to learn any language fast and I got some useful tips from it. You can check it out here.

With the use of deliberate practice coupled with the Pomodoro technique. I managed to effectively study around 10 hours a week. Here’s what my schedule would normally look like:

 

Monday - 19:00 - 21:00

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of Duolingo

5-minute break

25 minutes of Memrise

5-minute break

25 minutes of watching an English film with Swedish subtitles

 

Tuesday - 0 Hours

 

Wednesday - 19:00 - 21:00

60 mins on iTalki

5-minute break

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of reading the book, “Essentials of Swedish Grammar.” - This was so boring and I dreaded doing this every time I picked up the book, but I knew it was essential for my learning.

5-minute break

 

Thursday - 18:00 - 19:00

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of Duolingo

5-minute break

 

Friday - 18:00 - 19:00

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of writing exercises

5-minute break

 

Saturday - 19:00 - 21:00

60 mins on Skype with my Swedish cousin

5-minute break

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of Duolingo

 

Sunday 18:00 - 19:00

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of Duolingo.

5-minute break

 

That was pretty much it. Of course, the times were flexible and I would often shift things around depending on my schedule. I would mix and match the different exercises according to my mood as well. Regardless of the order, within a week I was trying to cover all the important sections of reading, writing and speaking. I would repeat this week after week for the entire 3 months. Keep in mind that I had to hide this all from my girlfriend, so whenever I was with her it was difficult to practice. There would be times when I’d only study 3 hours for the week as opposed to 10.

Even though at times I failed to study 10 hours a week, I still noticed a steep learning curve within the 3 months. Now that this is no longer a surprise, I have the luxury of practicing with her. I’d like to strengthen this skill to the point of confidently talking with her and hold a conversation about everyday life. I guess I just have to keep up what I’ve already been doing.

For anyone who is attempting to learn a new language or skill, practicing with an intense focus is essential. What helped me commit to each practice was by scheduling everything in advance. Keep track of how much time you commit to a skill and try and not to break the chain. You keep this consistent and I’m positive that you’ll see a major difference within 3 months time.

What Is Deep Practice?

What Is Deep Practice?

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I remember watching a video a friend put up online. It was only a 10-second watch, but it made me realise how I wanted to spend my next few days. Sitting at my desk, fiddling with a Rubix cube. The video was of my friend solving this colourful puzzle and she captured the last 10 seconds of her solving it. After watching this I was inspired to learn the skill too. I remember telling myself, “If she can solve it, why can’t I?”

I found a second-hand Rubix cube at a local market and got it for a bargain, only 50p! I remember sitting at my desk with the cube placed next to me, I was searching the internet looking for tips on how to solve the puzzle. After an hour of researching, I thought I’d get stuck in and give it a go. Naturally, my first few attempts were atrocious. Constantly getting confused with the colours, I had to keep referring to the many guides on the internet. I was going nowhere. Over the week I kept at it. Constantly making mistakes, I would take a few moments to understand where I went wrong. I’d reset and give it another go. Fast forward a week later and I was able to solve the Rubix cube under 2 mins. Now I can solve it in under 90 seconds.

When I look back at those frustrating moments during my learning, I realised I was incorporating a specific type of training that I was unaware of. This type of training not only helped me tackle the challenge of solving a Rubix cube in under 90 seconds, but it has become the blueprint of how I tackle a new skill. This type of training is known as ‘deep practice.’

What is deep practice?

When I came across the idea of deep practice it changed how I approached everything in life. It’s funny because I came across the term in my late twenties. If only I had learned this way of thinking a lot earlier, who knows how many skills I would have under my belt right now? Oh, how hindsight can be a cruel mistress.

I came across the phrase from Daniel Coyle in his book, ‘The Talent Code.’ I highly recommend this book to anyone that wants to take any skill to new heights. He coined the term ‘deep practice’ that has similar attributes to the phrase ‘deliberate practice.’ Whichever term you’d prefer to use the idea is simple; being 100% present in the moment and limiting any distractions that could you take you away from a  heightened state of focus. With this heightened state, you are to tackle the weak points of your skill, slowly struggling and correcting any mistakes throughout the process. If you are constantly training in this manner, you’ll eventually turn a mediocre skill into a world-class talent.

It sounds easy enough, but believe me, it isn’t. There’s nothing sexy about this approach, it’s boring and at times frustrating. Repeating the same process with the same amount of focus can be taxing both mentally and physically. However, I can certainly say that it pays off. I wouldn’t have been able to surprise my girlfriend by learning a new language in such a short amount of time if I had not implemented this way of thinking.

 

Why breaking it down helps.

“Break it into chunks"
- Daniel Coyle


They say ‘practice makes perfect’, but what if the method of your practice is incorrect? You could be practicing with a bad technique for 3 hours a day and pick up bad habits from it. It’s no wonder you’re not seeing any progress in your chosen skill. Understanding what to focus on during your practice is really important, otherwise, you’re wasting your time.

One of the main concepts of deep practice is to break the skill down into smaller manageable pieces, memorising them individually and then bring them back together in larger groups. Coyle likes to call this process, ‘Chunking’.

When learning another language I took this advice to heart and broke everything down. Instead of jumping into Rosetta Stone and going through the motions, I researched what were the common 1000 words used in the language and memorised each word until I was confident with each one. With the use of Anki flashcards, I was able to memorise the 1000 words in quick fashion. Learning the rules of grammar allowed me to put the words together, and I realised that I could construct sentences with more ease. I was able to recognise words whilst reading and pick up words whilst listening, this would allow me to understand conversations a lot easier and help me progress a lot faster.

Breaking down the skill into smaller pieces allows you to not get overwhelmed with your practice. Biting off more than you can chew can deflate you and put you off practicing entirely. With any skill that you’re taking on, try to break it down into smaller pieces. Really take the time to understand the fundamentals, then when you’re confident with it put it all back together again.

Embrace the struggle.

“Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement."
- Daniel Coyle

What puts many people off from practising is the frustration of constant failure. The idea of constantly working on your craft and making mistake after mistake can be disheartening, but it’s in the failing where you will find success. It’s something we all have to go through and accept. Whatever you decide to take up, at the beginning you’re going to suck at it a lot. And I mean a lot. Plain and simple. Your comprehension of the skill is still raw and you won’t be able to grasp the intricacies of it all. However, it pays to be patient. Target the weakest points and constantly develop it until you’ve got it to an acceptable level. It’s the only way you’re going to be able to progress your skill.

When learning Swedish I tried to implement this advice. I made countless of mistakes when conversing with the locals, whenever I would make one I would laugh it off and not be afraid to make another. A lot of the times our insecurities of failure causes us not say anything at all, embracing the struggle and accepting that it’s going to happen often is an important mind-shift for the development of your skill.

Don’t just work on what you’re good at. Really take time to reflect on your progress. Is your dominant hand stronger when dribbling the basketball? Then why aren’t you working on your non-dominant hand also? Are you able to deadlift 200kg? Great, but what’s your flexibility like? Do you call yourself a great a musician? Amazing, but what are you like live on-stage playing with other bandmates? Make sure that you hone in on the weakest parts of your skill and target the struggle.

The importance of going slow.


“It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly."
- Daniel Coyle


Not only is it important to embrace the struggle of any given skill, but it’s important to do it slowly. Everyone wants to pick up a new skill fast, I only had 3 months to surprise my girlfriend with another language. That didn’t mean I crammed everything in and rushed on every aspect of the language. I broke down my days and scheduled intensive hours where I would tackle my weak points slowly. As Coyle would say, ‘Baby steps are the royal road to skill.’

Going slow in your practice allows you to pay attention to your mistakes, allowing you to get honest feedback on where you are right now. This gives you a chance to work on your faults and rectify the issue properly. Being able to study the methods of each breakdown at a slow pace allows the skill to really stick in your brain, so make sure you slow down. You’d be surprised how well you develop with 1 hour of intense deep practice every day. Make sure you do this slowly and often, which leads me to my next point.

Repetition is valuable.

“If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices."
- Vladimir Horrowitz

Another element that needs to be included with deep practice is repetition. This is the hurdle where a lot of people fail, I know at times I did. Being consistent in your practice time is difficult, we all have our lives to live and it can be easy to postpone practice time. I found it a lot easier to commit to a daily practice when I scheduled everything in advance. The question you need to ask yourself is where does learning a new skill sit with your priorities? Another technique I used to keep me accountable with daily practice was by not breaking the chain. When there were times where I couldn’t be bothered to practice, the idea of breaking the streak would motivate me to get off my lazy arse.

The cycle of breakdown and repair is constantly going on in our bodies, this is applicable to our skills as well. If you do not practice your skill for an entire month you will see degradation, that’s why it’s important that you constantly train on your skill. How long should you be practicing for? Well, the greats practice for about 3-5 hours a day. You might think that’s way too much, but how about committing to an hour for now? It’s not really about how long you train, but the intensity of the session. In that hour can you be focused 100%? You want to be training right. Make sure that you repeatedly break your skill down and target the struggle. Do this consistently and you’ll definitely see a change.

My own experience.

“We are all born with the opportunity to become."
- Daniel Coyle

I’ll be honest with you, consistently targeting the struggle was a struggle in itself. Keeping up that intense focus was draining at times, and I can understand why so many people depart from it. However, when I was able to perform a decent level of deep practice I saw great progress in my skill. I’m still a long way from hitting my target, but I’m sure the more I incorporate the format of deep practice, the closer I’ll get to achieving my goals. The quote I previously used about 'having the opportunity to become' means a lot to me. World-class athletes aren't born with God-given skills, just like us, they are born with no idea how to walk let alone run. Eventually over time, coupled with numerous hours of deep practice and intense focus they were able to turn their average skill into something great. I'm not hoping to be a world-class athlete, but maybe I can achieve the same mentality to allow me to learn a few practical skills along the way.