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Strategies for Better Studying (Part 2)

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Harrington Emerson (1854 – 1931)

Part 1 can be found here. This month I’m building an archive of study strategies that can be chopped for parts to build your own personal efficient and effective study system. I recommend checking out my post on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition to get your principles down before going through the buffet of methods.

The Leitner System

I mentioned this strategy in my post on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. The Leitner system is designed for reviewing flashcards or other types of active recall questions. I love this system because it integrates the principles of active recall and spaced repetition so it is efficient and effective!

The system is pretty simple. The student starts with all the flashcards in Box 1. If the student answers the question correctly when the question moves to the next box. Each box is reviewed in different time intervals. Box 1 is reviewed every day, Box 2 is reviewed every other day, Box 3 is reviewed every week, so on and so forth.

As usual, I like to modify established techniques so they can better fit my needs. With the Leitner System, I changed my review intervals based on when my exams came up. So rather than studying Box 3 every week, I would study Box 3 every 3 days if my exam date was close. Modifying the Leitner System requires careful planning in advanced and won’t work for short term deadlines. The key to this method is the spaced repetition and that is a function of time. I recommend using a study calendar to keep track of which box is reviewed on which day.

Here’s a visual example of one way to execute the Leitner System, when the questions are answered incorrectly they are sent back to Box 1.

Here’s a modification, it’s less effective but more forgiving, when the questions are answered incorrectly they are sent back to the previous box.

The app Anki is a fantastic study app that automates the Leitner system and it’s what I use whenever I study my flashcards. I recommend it for any student who’s trying to maximize their efficiency with as little effort as possible.

Do the “Deep Work”

Whenever I get stuck on a project it’s usually because I’m avoiding doing the deep work. In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, he explains the differences between deep work and shallow work, why deep work is more effective, and ways to implement deep work with more ease.

Deep work as defined by Newport is “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” I like to think of it as the challenging aspect to our assignment or project and that challenge is what specifically deters us.

Most of us opt for shallow work instead, which Newport defines as “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Things like emails, meetings, text messages and other mundane tasks fall in this category. Many people love to fill their schedules with shallow work because it feels good to accomplish so much, especially if the work is easy! The issue is that no real value comes of shallow work. Only performing shallow work is a promising way to live life like The Last Man. So this leaves us with the question –

How do we know what our deep work is?

“In sterquiliniis invenitur” (you will find it in a cesspool)

Latin Dictum

Jordan Peterson talks about many myths and stories and how they relate to the human unconscious, which is a telltale sign that he was influenced by Carl Jung. In those stories, and in “real” life too, the characters learn the most when they voluntarily come in contact with their own fears. This is the basis of most psychoanalytic theory. People make tremendous progress when they voluntarily confront that which disgusts or terrifies them. This is precisely how to determine what deep work needs to be done. Deep work lies in what frightens or disgusts us! It’s no wonder we have a proclivity to avoid it and prioritize shallow work.

“In filth it will be found.”

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)
What we truly want is least where we want to look.

This idea was also hinted at in the story of The Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is a sacred cup in many different pieces of literature. It was thought to provide riches, boundless happiness, eternal youth, and a bunch of other things that people would do anything for. Well in the story, the people searching for the Holy Grail are told that it is in a forest and in order to find it each adventurer must enter the part of the forest darkest to him. Sounds like voluntarily subjecting oneself to the disgusting and horrible. Sounds like deep work needs to be done.

This lesson can go beyond study skills. Searching for the deep work in any dimension of our lives can open doors to opportunities that can lead to a life better than we could imagine, and that’s not an exaggeration.

Once the deep work is identified, we have to be able to actually do it. Since deep work is inherently difficult and pushes us to our cognitive limit we have to dedicate as much cognitive resource as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to get into Flow State. It’s easiest to think about flow as being in “The Zone.” We know we’re in flow when we are completely immersed in the activity. Our focus is energizing, we enjoy the work, and we’re completely in the present moment. When you’re in flow, you’ll know. Pay attention to when your in flow state and be mindful of the things that made it possible.

The best ways to get into flow are to work on one thing at a time, minimize distractions, and work for extended periods of time. Whenever I’m in flow I do my best work be it music, tutoring, or writing. Flow is the key to getting deep work accomplished.

I rejected this idea a lot in college, but whenever I did the deep work I found that my test anxiety would go away. Identify what you really don’t want to do, develop a strategy to get that done, and enjoy the rewards of being the Hero that defeats the dragon and gets the treasure.

Note Distractions

So what happens if you’ve identified the dragon, set up a nice workplace with minimal distractions, told all your loved ones that you need time to work, and have all the things you need to get work done but your mind just won’t focus because you keep thinking of all the things you “should” be doing instead?

Whenever I found myself constantly distracting myself with other responsibilities, I write down what it is on a list and save it for later. So let’s say I have to write a blog post about study strategies, but I keep thinking about how I need to clean my bathroom, walk the dogs, and email my clients. I’ll write clean bathroom, walk the dogs, email clients on a list that I’ll attend to once my deep work session is completed. This way I don’t have to worry about forgetting to do it and I can maintain the work momentum I’ve already created.

In my notes app, I have a non-time sensitive to-do list and this is where I put most of the stuff that takes up unnecessary cognitive load. If you get distracted while work, just jot it down and get to it later. Focus on what’s in front of you now. Cal Newport has a bunch of other strategies to make deep work less of a hydra and more of a dragon and I recommend checking it out!

Avoid Pseudo Productive Habits

Pseudo productivity, or false progress, can do us and our endeavours a serious harm. We spend out limited attention and energy on something that leads us down the wrong path. Not only do we have to work harder to get back on track, but we won’t get as far as we would have if we stuck with truly productive methods. There are many pseudo productive habits that lead us astray. Rereading chapters, rewriting notes, listening to lectures in your sleep, and (like I mentioned in my Active Recall post) highlighting. Underlining also works to your disadvantage just as much.

When we highlight or underline phrases, we have to reread the highlights (instant double workload) and read for context (instant triple workload). Not to mention risking over highlighting, which just makes everything way more confusing when you go back to study the material later. Beware of staring at answer keys for long periods of time or making trivial aesthetic adjustments to your assignments as well. We all want to have nice notes, so they’re easy to look back on later, but if it takes us hours to clean them up, this process is doing more harm than good.

We love to do things that make us feel like we’re making progress. After all, happiness comes from us observing ourselves move towards a goal. The issue is that we may we heading in the wrong direction without knowing. A good marker for spotting pseudo productive habits is through an 80/20 pareto analysis of your productive habits. When I do this, I write down all of the “productive things” I do often and apply occam’s razor – entities should not be multiplied without necessity. I cut out all of the actions that do not absolutely need to be done. I stick to the 20 percent of actions that yield me 80% of my results.

Trim the fat. Be honest with yourself. Clearly define your goals. Pay attention to your progress.

Treat Studying as a Function of Topics

Mathanese

“I spent 6 hours in the library!” “I stayed up all night studying” “I need more time to study!”

All quotes from people who see studying as a function of time. Studying for longer periods of time DOES NOT yield better grades. It’s all about the quality of the time spent while studying. See studying as a function of topics, not time. Measure progress by which concepts you covered rather than how much time you spent learning it.

The projects and exams that people study for are testing how well you understand the material, not how long you’ve studied it. As long as you understand what you need to know, what difference does studying it for 10 minutes rather than 3 hours make?

Using Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, the time we spend studying can be much more effective. It’s possible to learn something quickly, remember the first time you touched a hot stove? Aim to learn things quickly and thoroughly, do not aim to spend more time. Our time is limited and precious. It is the only resource that cannot be replenished, why waste it on low yield studying?

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