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What is the best way to focus, learn and understand any concept?

Here’s another answer to a Quora question, which you can find here as well as in this post.

string-theory-2First, you have to pick a concept. I’m not just being flip here. Picking a concept can be difficult, and it is the essence of focus. If you want to learn string theory, you can’t learn to program, study the economy of Tahiti, and grok the subtle nuances of a TV show about super heroes at the same time.

You have to budget your time. I like half hour segments, but you may find something else works better. For me I tell myself that for this particular half hour, all I’m going to do is study this concept I want to study. I have a plan for the day where each free half hour segment that I have is set up ahead of time. Of course making the plan is one thing; actually following it is another. That would be another Quora answer, and my solutions for that may not work for you.

The point is that you must devote yourself to the thing you want to learn for at least some span of time. The more time you devote the better, although you may find some diminishing returns if you get too obsessive. You may have heard how many of the best musicians played until their fingers bled; the best programmers spend all night on code surviving on cheesy poofs and energy drinks. These stories may be true, but sometimes passion doesn’t come as naturally. Sometimes you have to cultivate it. So for half an hour, or whatever you can manage, attack the concept with all the will you can muster. After the time is up, you have permission to stop.

Devoting yourself to learning the concept means, no internet beyond what you need, no texting, no talking to friends, no video or TV watching, and no distracting music. You may have a playlist of songs that help you concentrate. I like instrumental music with a dance or techno rhythm sometimes for that, but most of the time I find I’m so worried about whether or not I can work with a particular song, that I just learn to deal with silence. This can be difficult, even dangerous for some people. Your job may depend on you being available. But if you want to focus on something, you are going to have to let something go for a little while. If you can’t find some time to devote to this thing you want to learn, I’m afraid you aren’t going to be able to learn it.

Now, after you’ve picked a concept, and devoted yourself to it, the next thing you need to do is step away from it. Ask any writer who has managed to overcome writer’s block. Sometimes obsessing over something, especially something complicated and difficult to understand, just does not work. Sometimes you have to give the logical part of your mind a rest. Do something else for a while. You may need to schedule this you-time just as stringently as your concept-time, but it helps. Although it’s true that learning the concept will be it’s own reward, the human brain wants instant gratification. After the third time you read about some one arguing over whether there’s six dimensions or eleven, you are very likely going to want to say “screw string theory” and eat a hot dog.
(There’s nothing difficult to understand about a hot dog. You can ponder it’s origins and chemical make up if you want, but it will only last a second before you tell yourself “Dude, it’s a freaking hot dog!” Much like religion, hot dogs require faith, but with faith comes solace, and you can make yourself one with everything.)
Wait until your devotion time is up, but then go for it. Take it easy for a while. After you’ve worked on it for the duration you set for yourself it will feel like a reward, and you’ll be more likely to want to study again. Don’t forget you’re human. Don’t burn yourself out.

Finally, for all the times when you aren’t intensely concentrating on some concept, you should remember to be open to serendipity. You may suddenly understand why there has to be six (or eleven) dimensions while you’re sitting in traffic on your way to work. It all has to do with rollerskates, you realize. Suddenly your boss calls. You pick up your phone. You could answer it right away, or you could text “rollerskates” to yourself while traffic is stopped. Text those rollerskates. As long as it’s not going to get you fired to let the phone ring a little longer, let your brain work in it’s weird and wonderful way. Remember that you care about string theory. It’s important to you. Later on, when you’re diving into it again and you’re lost you’ll remember you texted yourself something and then you’ll go “Oh yeah, it’s like rollerskates!” and you’ll be back on track.
So in review:

  • Pick your concept (don’t do everything at once)
  • Devote yourself to it (schedule it)
  • Step away from it (when you need to)
  • Be open to serendipity (when you can)

That’s my advice. Hope it helps


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Switchblade Pisces Pt. 17


Chapter links:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

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Chapter 17


On one side of the large parking lot outside the main entrance of the clinic Delacroix, two FBI agents, four local police cars, and a SWAT van sit there looking mean. On the other side there’s Eklund, Janis, Jazz, a few doctors in lab coats carrying tasers and me. Things don’t look that good. I’m betting on a number of things that might not be true, but at this point my plan is the only thing that makes sense. A hail mary pass, that just might get us all killed. Fun.

Eklund walks across the no-man’s land of the parking lot. Janis follows him. Delacroix joins him in the center of the space with the two agents to back him up.

“What’s it going to be, doc? The hard way, or the really hard way?”

Eklund looks older than I’ve ever seen him. He wipes sweat off of his brow and glances at me. I nod at him, even though I’m not sure about this either. Then he clears his throat and speaks. “What is will power, Agent Delacroix?” he asks.

“That sounds like a question, doc. I’m looking for an answer.”

“True, but you see, your reasons for attacking us seem to be contingent on whether or not the agent we took from the hospital wanted to be saved or not. But he was unconscious, how can we know what he wanted?”

“Your Pisces there put him in the hospital, I don’t think he’d be running to join her again.” Delacroix walks closer to Eklund using his height to intimidate the smaller, older man.

“You don’t think, but you don’t know,” Eklund points out.

“Sure, fine. Why don’t we wake him up and ask him? Oh, that’s right, we can’t, because he’s in a fucking coma.”

“Janis?” Eklund turned toward Janis, who’s rubbing her wrists in discomfort.

Delacroix and the two agents tense up, expecting an attack.

“Go to Delacroix. Do whatever he asks.”

Janis’s eyes go wide, but she follows the order, walking over to Delacroix.

“Go ahead. Give her an order,” Eklund prods.

“Stand on one foot,” Delacroix asks, and Janis does so. “Jump up and down.” Janis still follows the order. Delacroix’s face hardens into a scowl. “Kill yourself.”

The blade snaps out of Janis’s wrist, but she doesn’t raise it to her neck or any other part of her body. She wavers still on one foot. Then, slowly, her raised foot comes down.

“Kill yourself!” Delacroix yells, but now Janis’s blade retracts back into her wrist. She walks, slowly at first and then with more determination, back to Eklund’s side.

Eklund smiles. “She has a computer in her brain. It has a very simple program. Follow every order. A couple of days ago, she would have followed your order. But she has gained a will of her own. She has learned how to ignore her programming.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed? One of your robots is malfunctioning, how does that change anything?”

“Janis, if you could go back, would you rather I hadn’t helped you out? Would you rather I had left you in a coma?”

Janis swallows and shifts her weight. “Sometimes…sometimes I think I feel that way. But not right now. I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to be in a coma again either. I’m sorry if I’m not supposed to say that!”

“It’s okay, Janis. You’re a human being, now, not a robot at all. You’ve made me very proud.” Eklund pats Janis on the shoulder and turns to Delacroix. “You say Agent Fox wouldn’t want to be here. I say at the moment he has no will of his own. I say that anyone with an ounce of willpower would rather they have a will than not, and the only way we can give Agent Fox any semblance of will, would be to let us help him. Afterwards, he can decide if it’s worth it or not, but until then, let us do what we can.”

“How do I know you didn’t just program her to act this way? She’s your robot, you could tell her whatever you wanted.”

“I’m not a robot!” Janis says suddenly, her blades out of her wrists. She seems a little startled by her own outburst, but then she slowly smiles. “I’m not a robot,” she says again. “I have a will of my own.”

“Oh yeah? How do you know that? How can you be sure?”

Janis steps in front of Eklund, powerfully, resolutely. She is her own woman. “I know I’ve got it,” she says, “Because it makes me feel good.”


There was a flurry of decisions that had to be made, most of which I couldn’t quite follow. Eklund and his clinic were allowed to continue under stringent government surveillance. He was no longer classed as a terrorist threat, but was required to pay a fine and work a few hundred hours of community service for the injuries the two agents sustained.

As for me, I have a job now, working for Eklund. As to what that job actually is, that’s difficult to say. I can usually pick things up pretty quick and passing the tests for certification in different areas hasn’t been a problem. Sometimes I work in the operating room, assisting one of the doctors, sometimes I’m fixing some electrical problem. Eklund understands how bored I get doing the same thing and lets me work on whatever needs doing. It’s perfect for me and I get paid more than I would ever make doing something else.

Janis visited her mother again recently. I think they bonded a little. There was mutual crying. I asked her out on an official date, and we’ve gone on a few of them since. That’s going pretty well. Janis still can be a little too accommodating at times. I don’t think we’re going to stay together. I think she’s still learning who she is, and at some point she’s going to have to see other people just to make sure I haven’t influenced her too much.

I think I’m okay with that. I think I love her, and I think I’ll be a little jealous of whomever she’s with, but I think I’ll be able to deal with it. I’m still learning who I am too after all. Maybe we’ll find each other again. Maybe we’ll drift apart, but whatever happens, it will be because of our own decisions. Our own will.

When Agent Fox wakes up the first time, I’m there in the room with Dr. Eklund and Dr. Gardener. He opens his eyes and blinks a few times. “Don’t worry, Fox” I tell him, “We aren’t going to hurt you.” The fans on his prosthetic cortex whir. “I’m Ethan Yates. I’m a friend. These two helped you out of your coma, their names are Dr. Eklund and Dr. Gardener. For a while, you’re going to have to do whatever we say, but eventually, you’ll be able to make your own decisions. Nod if you understand.” Fox nods slowly, and I know he’s going to be okay.

I love my job.



Chapter links:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

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