How and Why to Granularize

Say you want to learn to play piano. What do you do? Do you grab some sheet music for ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ and start playing? No. First you learn how to read music, and where to put your fingers, and how to play chords, and how to use different rhythms, and how to evoke different textures. You master each of these skills in turn, one or two at a time, and it takes you weeks or months to master each little step on your way to playing Rimsky-Korsakov. And then you play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’

Building small skills in the right order is not just a way to do the impossible by breaking down the impossible into little bits of possible. It is also a way to maintain motivation.

Imagine that you didn’t feel a reward, a sense of accomplishment, until you had mastered ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’. You’d have to stay motivated for years without payoff. Luckily, your brain sends out reward signals when you learn how to read music, where to put your fingers, and how to play chords. You are rewarded every step of the way. Granularizing a project into tiny bits, each of which is its own (small) reward, helps maintain your motivation and overcome the challenges of hyperbolic discounting.

Granularizing is an important meta-skill. Want to play piano but don’t know how? Don’t feel overwhelmed watching someone play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’ Figure out how to granularize the skill of ‘playing Flight of the Bumblebee’ into lots of tiny sub-skills, and then master each one in turn.

Want to improve your sex life? Don’t feel overwhelmed watching the local Casanova or Cleopatra at work. Figure out how to granularize the skills of ‘creating attraction’ and ‘having good sex’ into lots of tiny sub-skills and master each one in turn.

Want to become economically independent? Don’t feel overwhelmed watching Tim Ferriss at work. Granularize that skill into tiny sub-skills and master each one in turn.

This doesn’t mean that anyone can learn anything just by granularizing and then mastering sub-skills one at a time. Nor does it mean that you should apportion your limited resources to mastering just about anything. But it does mean that mastering skills that are within your reach might be easier than you think.

Example: Social effectiveness

Take ‘social effectiveness’ as an example, and pretend you know almost nothing about it.

So you talk to people who are socially effective and observe them and read books on social skills and come to understand some of the sub-skills involved. There are verbal communication skills involved: how to open and close conversations, how to tell jokes, how to tell compelling stories. There are nonverbal communication skills involved: facial expressions, body language, eye contact, voice tone, fashion. There are receiving communication skills involved: listening, reading body language, modeling people. There are mental and emotional wellbeing skills involved: motivation, confidence, courage. There are also relationship management skills involved: business networking, how to apportion your time to friends and family, etc.

So you investigate each of those more closely. Let’s zoom in on nonverbal communication. From the Wikipedia article alone, we learn of several sub-skills: gestures, touch, body language (including posture, dance, and sex), facial expression, eye contact, fashion, hair style, symbols, and paralanguage (voice tone, pitch, rhythm, etc.). With a bit more thought we can realize that our hygiene certainly communicates facts to others, as does our physical fitness.

Each of these sub-skills can be granularized. There are many books on body language which teach you how to stand, how to sit, how to walk, and how to use your hands to achieve the social effects you want to achieve. There are books, videos, and classes on how to develop a long list of sexual skills. Many books and image consultants can teach you each of the specific skills involved in developing a sophisticated fashion sense.

But probably, you have a more specific goal than ‘social effectiveness.’ Maybe you want to become a powerful public speaker. Toastmasters can teach you the sub-skills needed for that, and train you on them one at a time. You can also do your own training. One sub-skill you’ll need is eye contact. Get a friend to do you a favor and let you stare into their eyes for 15 minutes in a row. Every time you glance away or get droopy-eyed, have them reset the stopwatch. Once you’ve stared into someone’s eyes for 15 minutes straight, you’ll probably find it easier to maintain eye contact with everyone else in life whenever you want to do so. Next, you’ll have to work on the skill of not creeping people out by staring into their eyes too much. After that, you can develop the other sub-skills required to be an effective public speaker.

Also, you can try starting with ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’. You’ll probably fail, but maybe you’ll surprise yourself. And if you fail, this might give you specific information about which sub-skills you have already, and which skills you lack. Maybe your fingers just aren’t fast enough yet. Likewise, you can start by trying to give a public speech, especially if you’re not easily humiliated. There’s a small chance you’ll succeed right away. And if you fail, you might get some immediate data on which sub-skills you’re lacking. Perhaps your verbal skills and body language are great, and you just need to work on your comedic timing and your voice tone.

The 5-Second Level

Granularize far enough, and some of these skills can operate at the 5-second level. Consider the skill of eye contact. Put a pleasant, interested expression on your face and hold steady eye contact with someone who is speaking with you, and they will feel very listened to. Use even stronger eye contact with someone of higher status than yourself to show them that you believe you have enough value to belong in the conversation. These example applications of eye contact skill use can be generalized into a series of 5-second mental procedures.

One might look like this:

  1. Notice someone is speaking to you.

  2. Put a pleasant, interested expression on your face.

  3. Lock eye contact with them.

And, as a follow-up:

  1. Notice you’re in eye contact with someone who is speaking to you.

  2. If it looks like your eye contact is strong enough to make them uncomfortable, look away for a second.

  3. Else, maintain eye contact.

Too much eye contact with somebody can sometimes be a ‘dominating’ move, as in a staring contest. So:

  1. Notice you’re in eye contact with someone of similar social status.

  2. If you have been in eye contact with them for more than 12 seconds straight, look away for a second.

  3. Else, maintain eye contact.

And finally:

  1. Notice you’re in eye contact with someone of much greater social status than yourself.

  2. If you have been in eye contact with them for more than 30 seconds straight, look away for a second.

  3. Else, maintain eye contact.

Granularity in action

If you’re hopelessly analytic like I am, it may help to granularize a desired skill into sub-skills by drawing up a big skills map in software like Freemind (multi-platform) or MindMeister (online). I’ve started to do this for social effectiveness. My map of all social skills (+ recommended reading) is in the very early stages, but I hope to eventually granularize all social skills down to the level of specific exercises that can be done to train each sub-sub-sub-skill of social effectiveness.

The challenges of life are not so daunting when they are broken into tiny bits. When “Become a charismatic speaker” is transformed into “Step One: maintain eye contact with somebody for 60 seconds in a row,” your response may be transformed from “Sounds hard!” into “Well, I can do that!”