Thanks to an invite from my good friend Jeffrey Biles I was recently able to participate in a weekend session of Sebastian Marshall’s ‘ultraworking pentathlon‘.
The pentathlon consists of five ‘cycles’, with each cycle broken into two parts: an uninterrupted 30-minute work period followed by a 10 minute break. Before each cycle you ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I plan on accomplishing?
- How will I begin?
- What hazards are present?
- What are my energy and morale like?
And after each cycle you ask yourself these questions:
- Did I accomplish my goal?
- Were there any hazards present?
- How will I improve for my next cycle?
- What are my energy and morale like?
Additionally, at the beginning of a the pentathlon you ask yourself this set of questions just once:
- What’s my first priority today?
- Why is this important for me?
- How will I know when I’ve finished?
- Any dangers present (procrastination etc.)?
- Estimated number of cycles required?
- Is my goal concrete or subjective?
And of course when you finish you debrief with this list of questions:
- What did I get done this session?
- How does this compare to my normal output?
- Where did I consistently get bogged down? Is this part of a pattern?
- What big improvement can I make in future cycles?
So each individual cycle is bracketed with before and after questions, and the whole macro-structure is bracketed with before and after questions. At first glance this may look like it would be very tedious and distracting, but once you get used to it it only requires a few seconds to complete.
Though this is just an adaptation of the familiar Pomodoro method, the questions form a metacognitive framework which confers several advantages:
First, asking questions like ‘why is this important to me’ is a great way to orient towards a task. Once I get focused it’s often not difficult to stay motivated hour-to-hour, but it can be very difficult to stay motivated day-to-day. Reminding myself of why I’ve chosen to work on a project at the start of each session helps to mitigate this problem.
Second, it encourages frequent reflection on the learning process and facilitates rapid iteration of new techniques, preserving those that work and discarding those that don’t. It’s easy to have a great idea for an improvement in your work process but to then to get so absorbed in actually working that you either forget to implement the idea or you implement it but don’t notice whether it actually works.
These are non-trivial improvements. If the mind can be thought of as a manifold with attention and motivation flowing through it like liquids, then we can think of mantras, visualization, and a host of other ‘self-improvement’ techniques as being akin to engineering depressions in the manifold towards which those liquids flow. Simply wanting to form a habit often isn’t enough, for example, so building a mantra stack around the habit is like putting a bowling ball on a trampoline: everything is more likely to drift toward the new default behavior. Ultraworking is a scaffold making this process quicker and more efficient. Good ideas can be tested and their results measured in just a few cycles while you simultaneously probe for larger regularities in your output and get actual work done. It’s great!
The development of the ultraworking pentathlon places Sebastian Marshall squarely in the company of thinkers like Cal Newport and Scott Young (hereafter MYN et al.), whose stratospheric achievement is built on the consistent application of simple, pretty-obvious-in-retrospect techniques. This contrasts with figures like Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was one of the most prodigious mathematicians to have ever lived. By his own account he would dream of Hindu Gods and Goddesses while complex mathematics unfolded before his eyes. Decades after his untimely death people are still finding uses for the theorems in his legendary notebooks.
What can a monkey like me learn from a mind like that? Not much. But I can learn a ton from MYN et al. Because, while these guys are very smart, I’m pretty sure Gods aren’t downloading math into their brains while they sleep, and yet they still manage to write books, run businesses, prove new theorems, have kids, and stay in shape.
As valuable as the Ramanujans of the world are, MYN et al. might be even more valuable. Their bread and butter consists of:
- ‘block off as much time as possible to work on hard problems because switching tasks is distracting’
- ‘Summarize concepts in your own words because then you’ll remember them better’
- ‘Do Pomodoros, but also ask yourself some questions before and after to stay on track’
Anyone smart enough to read is smart enough to do that. This means that while Ramanujan can do mathematics that twenty other people on Earth can even understand, MYN et al. can raise the average productivity of tens of thousands of people, maybe by orders of magnitude in extreme cases. I’m not positive that makes their net positive impact bigger than Ramanujan’s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.
Any group of thinkers that important should have a name, and here’s my proposal: The Ultrapraxists. ‘Praxis’ comes from Latin and refers to ‘action’ or ‘practice’ (think: orthopraxy). I kicked around a few different ideas for this title, but since Sebastian Marshall calls his technique ‘ultraworking’ and Scott Young just published a book on ‘ultralearning’ I settled on ‘ultrapraxist’.
Read ultrapraxy and learn from it; 2017 could be the most productive year of your life!