Ultralearning is deep self-education to learn hard things in less time. It focuses on learning depth-first, breaking impasses down into prerequisites you can finish step-by-step, creatively using resources and balancing theory with practice.

This article will show you how to start your own ultralearning project. This article is split into two parts: the first part, explaining why you should start an ultralearning project and how to design it. The second part, available here, will tell you how to find time to work on it and how to improve your ability to focus.

Why Ultralearning?

Ultralearning projects are hard work. Not only do they require you to take time out of your life, but they’re also mentally demanding. Given this, a good question to ask might be, why bother ultralearning at all?

The opposite of ultralearning is dabbling. This means playing around with something and eventually learning it. There’s no commitment. No time put aside. And if it becomes too mentally difficult or boring, you stop.

There’s nothing wrong with dabbling, and often it’s by dabbling that everyone explores whether to learn something through an ultralearning project. However, despite the investment of time and energy, ultralearning projects can help you achieve breakthroughs in whatever you’re trying to learn.

Reason #1: You Can Learn Much Faster

Ultralearning projects are hard. But the trade-off is that intense focus enables rapid learning progress. Eliminating distractions, learning the hardest parts first, driving at your weaknesses and investing concrete chunks of time all enable you to take a learning endeavour that you might normally imagine learning over a few years and compress it into a few months.

Reason #2: It Gets to the Fun Part of Learning Faster

Many learning opportunities become more interesting when you get better at them. Languages are much more fun when you can actually hold conversations. Work skills are more useful when they actually help your career. Drawing, sports and music are all more fun when you’re good at them.

Ultralearning can allow you to push faster through the frustrating parts and get more quickly to a level where continuing mastery is enjoyable and fun.

Reason #3: Ultralearning Projects are Interesting

Self-education is results-driven. It doesn’t matter which resources you use, as long as you get to the point. You could skip assignments you don’t think would help you master the material. If lectures are boring or you didn’t understand, you have the choice of fast-forwarding them or re-watching them. Ultralearning is more interesting because everything you do feels like it actually matters.

Reason #4: The Opportunities for Quick Learners are Ever Increasing

Ultralearning is a skill. Once you’ve mastered the process you can repeat it again and again on anything you want to learn.

It’s also a skill that’s becoming increasingly valuable. The economy is hollowing out in the middle. Workers are expected to adapt faster and faster to new ways of doing things. The best in the profession are earning ever more than the average. Flexible, rapid learners have a golden opportunity, while those who struggle to keep up are going to find it harder and harder to survive.

Practice an ultralearning project and you will have an edge over your competition.

How to Design Your First Ultralearning Project

Designing your own ultralearning project has three parts:

  1. Figuring out what you want to learn deeply, intensely and quickly.
  2. Choosing which format you want for your project.
  3. Preparing to start learning.

Step #1: What Do You Want to Ultralearn?

What would you like to learn? It could be a subject—say you want to quickly learn a lot of history, business or math. It could be a career skill—you want to master Excel or Word. It could be something you’ve always wanted to learn for fun—a language, guitar, French or painting.

Suggestions:

  1. Only pick one thing. Ultralearning projects need specificity. Attempting to learn guitar, French AND cooking is a recipe for disaster. Pick one thing and save the other things you want to learn for a later project.
  2. Shorter projects need more constraints. The smaller your project is, the more it needs to focus on something specific to make progress noticeable. If you’re only going to spend a month, one hour a day, then don’t make your project “learn programming” or “learn Chinese”. Instead, make it more focused: “learn to make text-only games in Python” or “learn pinyin and master set phrases in Mandarin.”
  3. Avoid overly specific goals and deadlines. Don’t set a particular goal and deadline. Once you start learning, you’ll quickly realize whether your goal is realistic, too easy or too hard. If it’s too easy, you won’t focus. Too hard, you’ll probably give up. That means you have a fairly narrow range to shoot in order to be successful. A better approach is to pick the direction you want to learn and choose a target when you’re about one-third to halfway done the project. So a good approach might be: You want to learn Spanish. Once you start, decide how far you can go in the time you have.

Step #2: Choose the Project Format

There’s a lot of different ways to do an ultralearning project. Which you use will depend heavily on your schedule and the importance of the challenge to you.

Here are three different styles for an ultralearning project:

  1. Full-time projects. These are the most intense, Possible the most costly and fastest projects. The advantage of a full-time or nearly full-time project is that you can really get learning done in incredibly short time periods. Good if you’re between jobs, classes or otherwise can devote yourself to the project.
  2. Fixed-schedule projects. These are projects which have concrete hours you’ll devote to them every week. One example could be spending an hour each day before work, two hours before bed, or two 5-hour bursts on the weekend. The amount of time isn’t too important (although less weekly investment = slower progress) but I wouldn’t recommend putting in chunks of time less than 30 minutes. Fracturing the time over too many spots in the day doesn’t enable the focus required.
  3. Fixed-hour projects. These projects don’t have a particular schedule, but they do have a number of hours (3, 5, 20) that you’ll put in each week wherever you can find time in your schedule. This is the hardest type of project to successfully execute, but it may be the only feasible way to do ultralearning for some people.

In general, it’s okay to keep working on other things and maintain habits. But ultralearning projects don’t work well if they’re just one of many things you’re simultaneously trying to achieve.

Once you’ve picked a format, you need to select a length of time. In general, if your weekly time investment is low, you’ll need either a long project or a more severely reduced scope. If I wanted to learn a language, but only putting in 3 hours per week for ultralearning, you would either need a long time horizon (say 6-12 months) or reduced scope.

Step #3: Preparing to Learn

The intensity of learning can make it very easy to quit if you haven’t planned it properly.

A good ultralearning project starts with some amount of time in preparation. This allows you to gather material, research different learning strategies for your particular skill or subject, plan out your time and conduct a pilot test of the schedule.

Preparation is key. Here’s what you need to do in that preparation time:

  1. Research how learning works best for that particular domain. Hunt around for all the possible learning methods, strategies and recommendations. Note common themes and complaints people make. Note also alternative strategies that differ. This should give you a good idea of how you want to learn, as well as backup options in case your first approach doesn’t work.
  2. Gather material and design a preliminary attack plan. Order books online if you need them. Sign up for online courses. Get tools, material and equipment if you need any. Then create a simple plan for approaching them to learn.
  3. Conduct a pilot week of the schedule. Before you fully commit to starting the project, test it out. See how it fits into your life and get a sense of how difficult it will be. If it is too hard, or your schedule is unrealistic, adjust it, DON’T give in!!

Now It’s Your Turn

If you’ve followed this far, I’m assuming you’re at least somewhat interested in starting your own ultralearning project. So why not just do it?