3 Reasons Why Winning the Attention War Is Vital for Peak Learners

how to optimize attention span

The great deep-thinking blogger Cal Newport thinks he’s tough because he’s not on Facebook ;-). Get this, I don’t even have a cellphone or smartphone. I’m not saying never, but I can’t afford that thing just yet. It consumes too much attention.

For knowledge workers, attention is the most vital thing in the world.

If you can’t use your processing power (aka attention) strategically, you’ll never grow, professionally and personally.

When it comes to highlighting the upside of exercising your attention muscle, most bloggers point to the increase of general productivity. Obviously, if you can’t focus your attention on your goals, you can kiss them goodbye.

Today let’s go deeper and look at cognitive output. Sustained attention is the power that enables you to think deeply. In other words, elaborate mental operations are impossible if you can’t hold your attention and dismiss distractions.

But why should you care about deep thinking?

For three reasons. Deep thinking produces high value, enhances your learning capacity, and provides profound satisfaction.

Deep thinking is radically different from everyday rule-based thinking that allows you to function in the world and make a living. Only deep thinking can produce creative breakthroughs, paradigm shifts and solutions to complex problems. Simply put, deep thinking will turbo-charge your value (personal intellectual capital).

Deep thinking will also make you a better learner. As Cal explains in many posts, reaching expert level in anything requires deliberate practice, and deep thinking is the ultimate mental deliberate practice. The higher you get in Bloom’s learning taxonomy, the more demanding the cognitive activities become.

Finally, producing great insights and output won’t only advance your career, it will also provide you with a sense of worth. The feeling following fruitful cognitive effort is simply great.

But there’s bad news; most of us are losing the attention war (look at the length of my paragraphs). The average attention span is apparently contracting.

Let me finish with the good news though. You can easily learn to control your attention. Practice going deep on a topic in your head. Uninterrupted. This means every 8 seconds (the current average attention span) you need to make the conscious effort to stay on that topic.

If you can do that for one hour, you’ll hold one of the major keys to peak learning.

The 5 Types of Knowledge Workers (or 5 Ways to Use Knowledge)

who is a knowledge worker

What’s the objective of my blog? Help knowledge workers become peak learners.

Our environment is now changing so fast that knowing (static) has become less important than being able to know fast (dynamic).

But before looking at the how, let’s settle the what. What is a knowledge worker?

Here’s the definition put forward by the famous Peter Drucker: “Someone who knows more about his or her job than anyone else in the organization.”

Insightful, but a little vague.

A good way to grasp what defines these workers is to inspect their relation with knowledge. According to the knowledge management expert Tom Davenport, knowledge workers deal with knowledge in five different ways.

They can:

  1. create it
  2. find it
  3. package it
  4. distribute it
  5. apply it

Knowledge creators are the prime movers of all knowledge work. More than the four other types, creating takes place in the worker’s brain. Examples include researchers, authors and inventors.

Knowledge searchers are expert at quickly finding the right information for other users. Examples include librarians, intelligence analysts and head hunters.

Knowledge packagers put together the knowledge generated by creators. Their main purpose is to make other knowledge workers’ tasks more efficient. Examples include publishers, editors and designers.

Knowledge distributors communicate knowledge or create systems and processes to improve access to it. Examples include teachers, journalists and managers.

Knowledge appliers are at the end of the knowledge line. Their job is to use and reuse knowledge to accomplish specific goals. Examples include doctors, accountants and lawyers.

Before finding strategies to improve your performance and become a peak learner, you should first clarify what you generally do with knowledge at your job.

So what kind of knowledge worker are you?

You Want To Be a Peak Learner? Find Where You’re Stupid

what is stupidity

“That was stupid of me!” If you aren’t saying that to yourself at least once a week, you’re not getting as smart as you could.

When do I feel stupid?

Whenever I don’t operate optimally. Either due to a failure to plan correctly, to think effectively, or to find an obvious solution.

It’s cliché to say that you learn from your mistakes, but this is different. Most people don’t even register their own stupidity, and when they do, they quickly sweep it under the rug.

What is stupidity anyway? 

Einstein said it best when he defined it as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So doing something stupid doesn’t mean you have a low IQ; it means you’re not learning from experience (yes, I’m an incremental theorist).

Stupidity is a failure to change, to adapt.

As the paleoanthropologist Rick Potts explains, what has taken us from caves to rocket science is our gradual ability to adapt to variation itself. In other words, we became increasingly allergic to inflexibility (read: stupidity).

Feeling stupid is a signal.

Don’t shy away from noticing your own stupidity, and welcome the unpleasant feeling it creates like a straight-shooting messenger. Receptiveness (self-awareness) is indeed the prerequisite first step of any learning.

So whenever you act stupid or fail to act smart, don’t shake your head in disbelief and rush to forget about it. Rather, grab that info and course correct. This is the be-all and end-all of learning.

Why Rewards Aren’t Good for Learning

kids and rewards

I want my kids to become peak learners. So, I have them play creative games, do cognitive activities, and practice foreign languages.

And to get them fully on board, I’ve been using the magical power of rewards. I started with cute little stickers, then I moved to a token system, but now I’m giving cold, hard cash.

Is it yielding results? You bet it is! They’re hooked on it. Skinner was dead on the money. Rewards act as powerful reinforcers; they do increase the occurrence of behaviors.

So what’s the problem?

As it turns out, external rewards undermine autonomy and intrinsic motivation, which are the holy grail of lifelong learning. According to the self-determination theory, in order to persist in their learning, people need to feel in control; they’re also better at what they choose to do. Rewards do the opposite, as they basically tell you that someone wants you to do something.

For example, many studies have shown that when you give people a reward for an activity at one time, later they’re less likely to choose that activity over other options, and when they do, they don’t persist for very long.

I can see this with my kids. When I stop paying, sorry, rewarding them for their efforts, they wonder what is going on, and they don’t instinctively turn to puzzles and memory games afterwards.

So what’s the solution?

First, don’t discard rewards altogether. Incentives like grades and competitions are wonderful motivators and provide great feedback. What you want to do is make sure the learning continues after the exam, contest or bonus is gone.

How do you do that?

Boost the learner’s autonomy and sense of competence. For example, focus on his/her own happiness of doing well instead of yours, reduce monitoring, and offer as much choice as possible (when, where and what task to do).

You want to train peak learners and really ignite their desire to learn? Give them passion, not rewards.

How To Create Teachable Moments

perfect teachable moment

What is a teachable moment? How do you provoke such a moment in the classroom, the office and the playroom?


This is usually how I start my class. Question. Silence.

A teachable moment is often defined as an unplanned opportunity to offer insight to learners.

I don’t agree. You can plan teachable moments. As a teacher, trainer or parent, you should try to create them all the time.

How do you do that?

First, you need to grasp this fundamental principle: learning happens when thinking happens.

So what’s the easiest way to make learners think?

Here’s my two-step recipe:

  1. Ask a thought-provoking question.
  2. Wait.

Your thought-provoking questions must bring about vulnerability and curiosity, and they best achieve that goal when they start with how and why.

In Globalization, Lifelong Learning and The Learning Society, the education expert Peter Jarvis explains that learning can’t occur without a tension or disjuncture. He describes a disjuncture as a situation when our unthinking harmony with our world is disturbed, or when our past experiences are no longer sufficient to cope automatically with the situation.

This is exactly the kind of situation your questions must create.

The second step is as important, but very often omitted. You must give learners time to think about your questions. If you answer your own questions right away like I used to do, the whole process becomes worthless.

Waiting for the learner to come up with an answer often feels awkward, but that’s where the gold is found. As Jarvis shows, learning occurs when sudden changes or novel situations make people stop in their tracks, because they don’t know automatically what to do or how to respond.

That’s your teachable moment.

People don’t remember much of what they’re taught unless they stop and think. Asking (ourselves) questions is key here. So peak learners must do like kids. Never stop asking why.

Study Less and Learn More with the Spacing Effect

how to optimize studying

Today I’m going to answer the first and foremost question any learner has in mind.

What is the minimum amount of study time you need in order to score high on a test or a new task? 

This is exactly what I was wondering when I did my certificate in accounting. I had to know lots of rules and procedures with perfect accuracy, but I led a busy life, was efficiency-conscious, and had no intention of wasting precious time on unnecessary study.

First, you need to fully understand the power of the spacing effect, which the psychologist Frank Dempster called “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning.”

The spacing effect says something we all intuitively know. With the same study time, you’ll remember more for longer if you learn your material a few times over a long period of time instead of repeatedly in a short period of time.

For example, a 1992 study showed that teaching third graders addition once a day for ten days was far more effective than twice a day for five days (Benedict Carey).

Now the real question is, what is the optimal learning schedule?

Intervals between your learning periods should be as long as possible to get the most of the spacing effect (i.e. the minimum number of repetitions), but short enough to make sure knowledge is still remembered.

According to the creator of SuperMemo, Piotr Wozniak, ever-expanding intervals are the most effective way to increase your knowledge. For example, you should review your material one day after your initial study, then a week later, then a month later and so on and so forth.

If you only have little time in front of you, you can’t afford this golden rule though.

In How We Learn, Benedict Carey presents this typical case. Let’s say you have a window of 15 days and 9 hours to spend on studying, here’s the optimal schedule:

  • 3 hours on day 1,
  • 3 hours on day 8,
  • 3 hours on day 14.

As a peak learner, it’s crucial to leverage the power of the spacing effect. This needs planning though. See when your deadline is and how much time you have for review or rehearsal. Then design the schedule leading to the best result.

Remember, efficiency means getting great results with the least time and effort.

The Path from Belief to Knowledge: 5 Levels of Certainty

how to think like a scientist

An old friend of mine recently told me that video games are harmful for my kids’ brain. When I asked him why he thought that, he didn’t bring up some scientific data or research. Instead, he pointed to an acquaintance of ours whose kids are gifted and guess what? They never play video games.

I was flabbergasted.

How can a university-educated man show so little critical thinking and make such unbridled inference? Of course, I quickly made him admit that a ton of other variables could play a role here. And even if a correlation existed, as any college freshman knows, it wouldn’t imply causation.

This story highlights one important fact about belief and knowledge.

As Gary Marcus shows in Kluge, humans often believe first and think later, rather than the other way around. In other words, once we decide that something is true (for whatever reason), we’ll look for reasons to support that belief. The conclusion comes before the premises.

This is a fascinating topic, which I’ll explore in a future post, but today I want to talk about the truth. No less.

How can we make sure that A causes B? How do I know if video games will really damage my kids?

Here are 5 degrees of certainty.

  1. Anecdotes. People just love anecdotal evidence (ex: this cured my brother-in-law), because it’s vivid and personal. But understand this, it’s the weakest kind of proof you can offer.
  2. Experts’ opinion. Experts’ knowledge is more comprehensive, but it often suffers from biases.
  3. Empirical research. This is where beliefs start becoming knowledge, but its reliability level greatly varies due to the presence or not of controls (variables and groups) and peer review.
  4. Meta-analysis. When findings of several independent studies point in the same direction, your claim rests on a solid foundation.
  5. Mega-analysis. When meta-analyses say the same thing, this is as good as it gets. A good example is Hattie’s Visible Learning, which is a synthesis of 800 meta-analyses including 80 million students.

As a peak learner, assessing the validity of new data and current beliefs should become a reflex. Using the 5 levels of certainty presented here can be an excellent start.

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