On Skill Development and Attention – Using All Your Processing

(Epistemic Status: Endorsed – this is why I like starting things for like a month and then drop them when I have to get actually good at them.)

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re trying to learn something new. Whether you’ve signed up for a class or are practicing something you’ve just read about, what is going through your head? Are you thinking about what you’ll have for dinner, or how cute that barista was, or any of the other countless trivialities that fill your life? If so, are you performing well at the thing you’re learning? I would predict not – very little is likely sticking. You probably are picking up a little bit, just by doing something over and over, or having an instructor guiding you – you aren’t going to come away having learned nothing, you just might not have learned a lot. Odds are, if you keep doing the task, you’ll get better at a steady, but very slow rate.

However, some of you out there might actually be fully present when you’re learning new things. As you imagine yourself picking something up, are you focused fully on what you’re doing? Paying attention to the keys of your piano, to the movements of a new dance, to the reasons you used that particular command in your script? Then you likely will understand the concept of using all your processing.

One dimension of skill development is the compression of physical and mental motion. As you get better at something, you are thinking less about the basic motions and instead using a combination of the basic motions as a building block for more complex motions. At certain levels of compression, instead of increasing single thread complexity, you can use the freed up processing to do another task at the same time, or even just keep the cognitive effort unused – i.e. merely operating at 20% or so capacity when using a very well understood skill on a basic task involving said skill. This is, in fact, how the majority of people do things. Using all your processing, all the time, is exhausting. It is inefficient. It is like using a world destroying laser to kill an ant at sufficient levels of skill. When you are using a skill for practical reasons and have defined the scope of the task at hand, it’s generally a good move to use just enough mental effort to accomplish the task.

However, humans are in fact cognitively lazy and largely run on habit. Learning new skills, combining skills, and improving skills are in fact causes to use all your processing – and some people do not approach new things this way. This type of person is like the tortoise in the Tortoise and the Hare – they pick things up slowly and steadily, not overly exerting themselves mentally to learn a new talent, but using a lot of time investment to get the idea. It’s easy to go into a class on a concept intending to just go through the motions and hope the technical bits just osmose through. To an extent, they do – the tortoise is still going in at 40% or so. They save some willpower or effort from needing to change the way they do things, and they do still learn. The drawback is that skill acquisition does become a relatively high time cost endeavor, so the consideration when learning something new is how much time will need to be invested for this to be worthwhile. Tortoises also tend to learn fewer skills over time – but they tend to be better at sticking with things because it’s not as tiring. Overall, I think schools and classes are probably optimized for tortoise types.

There are, of course, other ways to do things. When developing skills, some people are more like the Hare in the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare – they pick things up incredibly fast, but eventually want to take a nap halfway through. They’re very good at using all their processing at first – giving 100% in the first few lessons, whether self directed or other directed. The skill gain rate really is incredible – people will doubt a hare really is doing the thing for the first time because they go from bad at the thing to kind of ok at the thing extremely quickly. The hare understands things the first time they hear them and the second time they do them. The hare is engaged with their task, and in turn the task engages them. However…that’s just the first lesson. The second or third lesson or so, it’s less of a novel experience, and while using all your processing can get you the gist of a thing very quickly, it sometimes misses the technical details. Skill development can’t be short circuited so easily and when you do lesson one at 100% capacity, doing the next few lessons at a lower capacity actually makes you way worse at the thing. The hare starts to get lazy and it shows; suddenly the social and intellectual rewards from the new skill are not so easy to get, which causes the hare to lose interest. Hares tend to have a lot of things they are kind of sort of ok at, but never really got deep enough into to really know their stuff. As you might have guessed, I’m kind of a hare type. It’s really hard to master my focus to the degree that I can always bring all of my processing to a task, which in turn means I miss out on the much more steady, consistent reward curve of the tortoise. Which, in turn, makes it an uphill battle to learn something new to a level of competence I can actually consider useable in the real world. The hare is flashy, but not particularly good at things. The trade off for the hare is the ability to use willpower instead of time to pick up skills – skill acquisition isn’t going to take a long time, but it is going to be an ongoing willpower drain to keep pushing at full processing to get to the intrinsic rewards of skill acquisition – in a sense, it makes it almost seem like waste to start learning a skill.

Of course, there are those rare people who I call lions, completely leaving the frame of the Tortoise and the Hare. They are lions because they are the kings and queens of doing things and being competent. They are able to use all their processing, exactly when they need to, and it seems almost effortless. This kind of person just seems talented at everything. They seem like they are naturally better than everyone else – like they won the genetic lottery or something. This might be part of it, but the real secret to a lion’s success is in fact attention and focus. They only really need two metacognitive talents to achieve the level of competence they do – focus and discernment. The ability to wield their focus like a laser, narrowly drilling down on the task at hand. The ability to discern when this is necessary, when they can pull back to recharge a bit. The hare struggles because they only know how to go all or nothing. The tortoise struggles because they don’t know how to go all in. The lion succeeds because they can access the spectrum of cognitive effort. The lion’s tradeoff is largely choice – it’s not about how long it takes to pick something up, or how much effort it will take – it’s about what is actually worth doing that’s in line with their goals. The lion can learn to do anything, but there’s a whole wide world of things out there to do.

Using all your processing is largely the focus half of the lion’s skills – it’s exhausting at first, but it’s a trainable skill. The mental motion for using all your processing is similar to meditation. It’s use the skill or the task at hand as your focus and not letting anything outside the container of that skill intrude. It’s removing distractions but paying attention to what others are doing (if in a group), paying attention to what feels “off” (in yourself or others), and existing as an instrument for the skill you are trying to pick up. Consider both the motions as well as the concepts when you are learning. This is likely to be a little tiring, so I’d advise against signing up for a 3 hour workshop on underwater basketweaving and expecting you’ll be able to use all your processing the entire time. It’s important to be forgiving to yourself when your attention wanders. Still, even in short bursts, this sort of focus can be helpful.

 

As you improve at the skill you’re using all your processing to learn, you don’t want to get complacent like the hare – you’ll want to do some practice using less processing to make sure the basic motions of the skill compress properly, but you want to make sure you stage back up to full processing to start to blend things or add complexity – you want to master more advanced uses of the skill. Another use for using all your processing is to practice multiple compressed, complementary skills in tandem – multitasking is the art of splitting your attention across multiple disparate tasks at once; you don’t want to do this. You instead should do something called polytasking – the art of doing multiple complementary tasks together so as to maintain flow. Synthesis as opposed to haphazard combination.

Overall, using all your processing is a metacognitive skill that requires knowledge of how you use your focus and active decisionmaking on what is worth your focus. Using all your processing on a routine task is wasteful. Using all your processing on multitasking Is inefficient. Not using all your processing for learning new skills is slow. Not compressing the cognitive load of your skills is exhausting. This is largely an efficiency technique, but one that can pay big dividends on time spent.

Discussion questions: Are you a tortoise, hare, or lion? Which approach you think best – while the lion seems “superior” in some senses, they still are putting a lot of work into things that may not be strictly necessary, and missing out on experiences. What other approaches can be taken to skill development? How do you visualize your mental motion for using all your processing?

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