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Education

Solo Studying vs. Group Studying

“Surround yourself with good people that compliment the areas where you are weak”

Jacko Willink (1971 – )

The professor just announced the exam is coming up. We’re a little stressed, but not too stressed. Luckily, we’ve read Chris’ blog posts and understand the fundamental principles of studying Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. We also read my posts of Strategies for Better Studying 1, 2, 3, & 4, so we know a thing or two about how to studying for this exam effectively.

On top of that, we read his posts on time management and scheduling Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 so we know exactly when and where we can start applying the study strategies. We even read his post on Conquering Test and Performance Anxiety, so we have some strategies to handle that too.

It’s safe to say that we know a little bit about kicking academic ass, but then our classmate turns to us and asks a question.

“Hey, do you want to join our study group?”

Suddenly, we’re present to the fact that we don’t know if we actually want a study group or not. We aren’t sure if the study group will help or harm the progress we already made.

Maybe there will be people in the group that know way more than us and this study group will be the difference between a pass and fail.

Or maybe they’ll constantly go off-topic and spend too much time on the concepts we already understand.

Study groups and solo studying each have their own benefits and drawbacks. What determines if a study group will be beneficial is based on a few variables. The best way to decide for ourselves is to be knowledgeable of the benefits and drawbacks of group vs. solo studying and weigh them according to our particular situation.

Benefits of Solo Studying

The first (and possibly most obvious) benefit of solo studying is fewer distractions. When we are left on our own, we have the minimum amount of distractions available to us. Fewer distractions mean a higher probability of accomplishing deep and substantial work. If we can minimize our distractions, we have a greater chance of reaching flow and making significant progress.

Fewer distractions also mean higher access to focus, which is a fundamental ingredient to deep work.

When we study on our own, we have complete control over the study environment and study schedule. This means we can study whenever and wherever we want. Want a midnight study session in the parking lot of McDonald’s? You got it.

Although I don’t recommend studying at midnight in a Micky D’s parking lot, it is nice to be able to choose when and where we study. This way we can minimize excuses. No waiting on other people. No scheduling conflicts. It’s just us and our material.

Studying solo gives us maximum flexibility. We can take breaks whenever we want and spend as much time as we need on whatever concepts we need to. When I was in O-chem, I spent an ungodly amount of time going over reaction mechanisms. I would come home at around 7 pm and review the mechanisms over and over until midnight or 1 in the morning. This was possible because I was studying alone. I didn’t need to wait for anyone or make sure that everyone was cool with the time. I was simply able to use the time I found and didn’t need to qualify it. Most of my classmates wanted to study when I had work, so I had to go about it on my own.

Another fantastic benefit of studying solo is not spending extra time on concepts that we already understand. For me personally, there are some topics that I get faster than others and some topics that take me longer to understand. When we study solo we don’t have to hold anyone back from their studying and no one has to hold us back from ours. We can spend our time focusing on the concepts we don’t really know, which is crucial for effective and efficient studying.

Drawbacks of Solo Studying

When we’re working on our own it’s easy to talk ourselves out of studying, especially when no one else is counting on us to study. It can be extremely motivating when we have people around us who are focused on the same goal as us. If sticking to commitments is challenging, I recommend checking out my posts The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 1) and Maintaining Purpose.

Another drawback of solo studying is increased potential inaccuracy with facts. It’s hard to make sure that we’re studying something correctly if no one is around to double check out work. Yes, we can refer to the textbook, lecture notes, or other resources, but it’s still possible to support evidence that supports our incorrect beliefs. When we are studying solo we have to be mindful of cognitive bias, particularly confirmation bias.

When it’s Best to Study Solo

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Self-Reliance)

There are a few indicators that let us know when it’s probably in our best interest to study on our own.

If the group is too talkative or off pace, then it’s probably time to switch gears and study solo. Now, this isn’t to say that study groups need to be quiet. After all, coming together and studying requires conversation but that conversation should be in service to the greater purpose of understanding and learning the information that we’re responsible for knowing.

Pay attention to where the group is headed. If you sense disaster, run immediately.

Another sign that it’s best to study on our own is if the sessions are rescheduled. In order to maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves, we need to maintain commitments to ourselves, no matter how small. If the group decides that 4-5 pm after class on Friday isn’t good enough, we can still study at that time. If the group bails, no worries we can still kick ass all on our own.

Although there are many indicators, the last sign I’m going to discuss is if the group has a different level of understanding that we do. It is a colossal waste of time to study in groups if the group is far ahead or far behind our own understanding. Trust me, I’ve tried it both ways. It’s best to study with people of similar or equal competency, too much time is wasted otherwise.

Benefits of Group Studying

While studying on our own is effective, studying in groups can provide many advantages. With groups comes an opportunity to discuss concepts with others which tests our comprehension as well as creates more intricate neural connections. The more connections we have to a particular piece of information, the easier it is for us to recall it.

The group setting can also be a place to get our questions answered. If someone in the group knows more about a concept, then they can explain it to us exactly how we need it. Our group members may have a fresh understanding of the subject, so they know precisely what we need to know to go from ignorant to expert. This is a fantastic place to break down complicated topics.

Additionally, being around other students can be motivating. I know I’m less likely to slack off if I’m in the library with a group of other academics trying to prepare for this test. Especially if the test is graded on a curve and I have to perform better than my classmates.

It’s been known that social interaction makes people feel safer and calm their nerves. Group studying can work the same way. Studying alone can be an anxiety-inducing activity, especially if we’re seriously behind, but studying with a group could help calm the nerves too. The sense of “all of us are suffering together” makes things a little less painful and nerve-racking. Working with a group to solve a bunch of problems is a lot less daunting than working along to solve a bunch of problems.

When we study in groups, we get to teach each other. The opportunity to teach others is one of the most powerful study methods at our disposal. Teaching to our group mates puts us in the role of “expert” and it is from that place where we confront the gaps in our knowledge.

This happens to me with tutoring all the time. There are two possible outcomes when I try to teach something – I either teach it flawlessly or I don’t and realize that I don’t understand something. The best part is that if I mess up teaching the concept, the less I mess it up in the future. Honestly, it’s embarrassing, stressful, and painful to teach something that we don’t understand and that negative emotion gives a strong enough jolt to make me remember all the things I didn’t know the next time I have to teach. It’s kind of like putting our hand on a hot stove, the pain helps us remember.

Drawbacks of Group Studying

Studying in groups can be extremely powerful, but that’s not at a price.

With groups comes a higher chance to get distracted. All it takes is 1 person to derail the whole group. The group is only as strong as it’s the weakest link. This isn’t to say that all groups are distracting, some groups could offer a perfect study environment but that has to be intentioally selected for.

Groups are also less flexible when it comes to studying schedules. We risk spending too much or too little time on concepts which is an inefficient use of our time. Additionally, we can only study when EVERYONE’S schedule allows for it, which drastically limits convenience. A certain time may be optimal for everyone’s schedules, but that time may not be optimal for studying. I recommend scheduling study sessions during the hours you feel the most alert, for me that’s around 11 am – 2 pm. Knowing thyself is key here, as with most things.

One last point, including more people tends to make systems run slower, be mindful of that when picking groups.

When it’s Best to Study in Groups

“In the crowd one feels no responsibility, but also no fear.”

Carl Jung (Archetypes & The Collective Unconscious)

Here are a few things to look out for when determining if we should study in a group:

If our classmates are high performers and highly motivated, a study group could be the difference between success and failure. I’ve had study groups with struggling students, average students, and high achieving students and I can say that without a shadow of a doubt that studying with the high performing students gave me better results than the other two groups. Be cautious of groups if other people tend to distract you more than motivate you. Know thyself is the most useful piece of advice here. If other people motivate you more than distract you, then go for it. Sometimes our classmates can help keep us focused when we get distracted.

Additionally, it has been proven that it is easier to recall information through discussions because the conversations allow us to make multiple connections to the information. The multiple connections we create make the recall easier. Study groups are great for having a discussion about a concept or idea.

I recommend group studying when we are comfortable with a subject. If there isn’t much deep work to be done, groups are a fantastic way of studying more efficiently, However, if there’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done I suggest studying solo or with one other person.

What to Look for in Study Partner (or group)

There are a few things I like to keep in mind when looking for people to study with —

  1. Make sure that they are looking for the same type of study partner. They have to be able to match our needs as we can match theirs. Some questions to ask can be: How often will we be studying? What kind of studying will be do – more learning or more reviewing? Will it be online or in-person? Are they someone we can easily communicate with? Are they someone who is mindful and respectful of our time as well as their own?
  2. Make sure that they have a similar study plan and test date. This is easy if someone is in the same class as us, but not so easy for standardized tests where people have different dates and times. If they have a different test date than us, then they will inevitably have a different study plan and our time together may not be as constructive as it would be if we had to same test dates. A test coming up in 2 days requires a different strategy than a test coming up in 2 months.
  3. Make sure they have complementary or similar struggles. This is the best way to utilize group studying. Refer to the first quote I put at the beginning of this post. We get an opportunity to learn from our classmates when we surround ourselves with people who understand the concepts that we don’t. In my experience, if a student understands a concept proficiently, they can explain it to a fellow student better than a professor. Additionally, if they have similar struggles, then we can spend most of our time tackling the things we don’t know together.
  4. Make sure they have similar study habits. Maybe they like silence and we like some chill lo-fi in the background. Maybe they like larger groups and we like smaller ones. Maybe they prefer to study in the afternoon and we prefer to study at night. Paying attention to our own habits allows us to understand what we need to create our own optimal study environment.
  5. Make sure they are someone that you can share resources with. They should be knowledgeable in efficient and effective study techniques, (and if they aren’t then share my content with them so they can be) so they can teach us new methods or whatever else they learn. I showed my girlfriend Anki when she was studying for her MCAT and she showed me Anki plug-ins, which brings active recall to a whole new level.
  6. Make sure they can motivate you and keep on on track. It’s easier to hold ourselves accountable when we have partners. They can lift us up when we’re feeling down and keep us on the straight and narrow.
  7. Make sure that they are comfortable to be around. This helps us with actually asking for help when we’re stuck. When I’m tutoring my students, I try to make the environment as comfortable as possible because I know that we’re spending most of our time together working on something that makes them feel inadequate or is at least proof of their incompetence. These things are impossible to work on if we aren’t comfortable.

Bottom Line

I’ve had study groups save me, like my first exam for O-chem 2. I wouldn’t have studied anything that my group was studying, but thank God I did because all of that stuff was on the test. But I’ve also had study groups sink me, like in P-chem. I studied for my 2nd P-chem exam with a group of peers that I share multiple classes with. We studied for hours and hours but when it came to testing day, we all got D’s.

Group studying and solo studying — one isn’t inherently better than the other. Their benefits only shine through once we know what we want.

Determining the superior method depends on what we want to accomplish.

If there is a lot of work to catch up on I recommend studying solo or with 1 other person. If we’re more comfortable with the material and just have to focus on review, then groups are a fantastic option.

I’m a little bias because most of the powerful study techniques I talk about don’t require groups, but circumstances change and it’s better to be educated about the options so we can pivot rather than just picking one side and brute-forcing it.

Know what works best for you in terms of study techniques and do that. If you prefer flashcarding alone, do it. If you prefer discussion groups, do it.

The bottom line — get those neurons firing.

Categories
Education Productivity

Phasing

“Excellence is the next five minutes, improvement is the next five minutes, happiness is the next five minutes.”

Tim Ferriss (1977 – )

In light of the new semester, I want to go over a method that can help in the majority of classes. I consider this to be a more advanced technique and if you’re new to learning about study methods, I recommend checking out my Strategies for Better Studying posts: 1, 2, 3, & 4.

This technique is called phasing and it’s designed to maximize results with minimal effort. Something to keep in mind about phasing is that it does require stellar academic skills upfront. The better the student one is, the less they have to work, so long as they know the right techniques.

During my last few years in college, I started to try this phasing technique. It took me a while to get down, but once I got it I was rarely ever stressed about my classes or exams and I was getting higher grades than ever before! Once I got my phasing system down, exam season and finals week were the most stress-free times of the semester.

Honestly, finals week should be the easiest week of the semester.

I remember one night my friends wanted to go out and celebrate someone’s birthday the night before I had my electricity and magnetism physics final.

Do you know what I did?

I partied my face off with them and still dominated that test. I got an A in the class and I wasn’t nervous about it one bit. This is all thanks to phasing. (Trust me, physics E&M was not a class that came easy to me at all)

Before we really dive in, I want to get two things out of the way early on. First, there is no substitute for hard work. For every class, there is a minimal amount of work necessary to receive a certain grade and there’s no way around it. If we want an A in a class, then we’ll have to do A level work. We can’t get As with D effort, but we don’t have to totally kill ourselves over the As either. Phasing helps with keeping the work limited to only what we absolutely HAVE to do.

Leave the busy work for those who pretend to make progress.

Second is sacrificing the present for the future is worthwhile. In order for phasing to be effective, we have to be able to keep our future selves in mind. Taping into the part of us that is capable of sacrifice is crucial for phasing to work its magic.

What is phasing?

Phasing involves breaking up the semester into 3 fundamental phases: Frontload, Review, and Relax. I love phasing because (if executed properly) it maximizes performance and requires far less effort than just “trying to get through the semester.”

I also love phasing because it follows the “natural curve of motivation” throughout the term. In the beginning, most students are highly motivated and well-rested but as the semester goes on students tend to get lazier and lazier. I know that’s true for me. I felt that way every semester without fail.

Frontloading

Frontloading is taking the entire load of the semester and moving it to the front, typically the first 1/3. For example, let’s say we wanted to frontload a class that was 3 months long, then we would plan to go over all of the class material in the first month. Now, this isn’t easy and it’s why I brought up the two points I did earlier. Frontloading is difficult, but at least this way we put the toughest part of the semester on the time when we are the most resilient. Remember, we can’t get As with D level work, but the sacrifice is worthwhile. Frontloading is a serious undertaking, but when the end of the semester comes and we’re not feeling as motivated we’ll be so happy you did it.

Honestly, frontloading was something that took me a few semesters to get down properly. It was easy to fall into the fallacy that it’s much easier to just learn and perfect the concepts throughout the semester rather than bust it frontloading. Until one semester, I finally stayed on top of the frontloading and I was getting the grades without any of the stress.

It’s critical to keep in mind that the goal of frontloading is not to take the whole class in a third of the time but to be familiar with all the topics covered. This is the difference between frontloading working properly and being more trouble than it’s worth.

When we’re frontloading, we do not need to be proficient in each topic, we just need to be familiar. The first 1/3 of the semester is for building the neural pathways necessary to kick ass. The rest of the time is dedicated to strengthening them. I talk about building neural pathways in my posts The Brain and The Mind (Part 1) & Neural Pruning vs. Long-Term Potentiation and strengthening them in my post, Active Recall & Spaced Repetition.

Earlier I said that this technique takes less effort than just taking the semester as it comes. So why am I suggesting to put in extreme levels of effort into the first 1/3 of the term if it’s already difficult to just keep up? Because in the long run, it will require less effort.

We are simply paying out dues upfront. There’s no substitute for hard work.

Frontloading Techniques

Frontloading is hard and can seem impossible if it’s not approached systematically. Do not just wing it and try to learn everything 3 times faster. That’s a guaranteed way to crash and burn out. Instead, take the time to plan it out. Take time. Don’t worry if it takes a few days to plan it out. Clearly articulate checkpoints and goals. Define a successful day and define failure.

When I took my second semester of o-chem, I couldn’t afford the textbook so I had to pay careful attention to what concepts I was responsible for learning and how long I had to learn them. I’ll go into how I handled this class into more detail later, but for my frontloading phase, I took the time to write down which mechanisms I needed to learn each day. When I was making the schedule I had no idea what an aldol condensation or a Diels–Alder reaction was, but I knew that next Thursday I’m going to figure them out. I also tried my best to not put too much pressure on myself to learn these reactions perfectly, I just simply wrote down the questions I had when I couldn’t figure things out (which was pretty often). When making these schedules, keep in mind the days and times which you will have access to someone who could easily explain the information to you. I try to get all the front loading in before the last review session with a tutor or teacher so any knowledge holes can be filled.

Also, keep this in mind when you start creating your frontloading schedule — trying to learn something proficiently every month is much more difficult than learning a bunch of things and spending 3 months trying to improve. Learning and proficiency take time.

When frontloading be sure to create a running list of questions. This is going to be invaluable later. Write all the questions you get while you’re frontloading. Write down everything that is confusing to you. This will capture your own unique understanding of the concept. If you can find the answers, write them down too.

Frontloading is by far the most cumbersome phase.

Review

Once we’ve reached the review phase, it’s all downhill. Reviewing can be challenging, but it is much less taxing than creating new neural pathways. Especially when study techniques are modified with the principles in mind to fit each unique situation. I highly recommend checking out my post, Active Recall & Spaced Repetition, that goes over the fundamental principles of learning more and studying less. The goal of this phase is to strengthen the neural connections created from the frontloading phase. This is when we become concerned with proficiency and excellence.

So how do we know when it is time to review?

There are two different situations when I could stop the frontloading phase and move onto the review. The first is when I finish going over all of the scheduled concepts. Maybe going over the concepts was challenging, but I was able to develop a basic understanding of the idea.

The second is when I get stuck on understanding a new concept and I will need support from a tutor or a professor. Maybe the concepts were too complicated for me to grasp on my own and I’ll need outside support.

What do we actually review when the time comes?

Remember that list of questions I said to make earlier? This is when creating those questions from the frontloading phase comes in handy. That list of questions contains all of the potholes of our specific understanding and it is a great place to start reviewing.

Studying the homework assignments and practice questions assigned by the teacher are also other great ways to strengthen these newly formed neural pathways. If you don’t have access to those, or if your class doesn’t operate that way, there are tons of practice questions online from other educational resources. All you need to know is the name of the topic or concept that you’re trying to practice and the rest is cake.

Final Thoughts on the Review Phase

Similar to frontloading, I recommend the review phase be scheduled out. Clearly articulate checkpoints and goals. Define a successful day and define failure. Take the time to create this plan, it will keep chaos at bay.

On that note, it’s worthwhile to know when the 2nd to last day that you will have access to outside help is and plan accordingly. I brought up this idea in the frontloading phase, but it’s critical to get it right in the review phase. We should make sure that our schedule (this includes spill days) can handle reviewing all of the material before the 2nd to last day of the lecture or 2nd to last office hours. Yes, this means we have to be extremely responsible with your time. I don’t recommend saving the unanswerable questions for the last office hours, everyone else is trying to get their questions in too and there’s a chance of not being able to ask a question at all. Everyone always tries to cram before an exam. Crowds ruin everything and we don’t want to be screwed out of information simply because there were too many people. Do the opposite of what the crowd does and find much less resistance.

I also recommend checking out my posts on schedules and Time Management: 5 Tips of Better Scheduling, 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling, and Another 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling.

Remember that reviewing takes less energy than learning something completely new. As the academic term moves forward the semester will get easier and easier and easier. Stick with the system and you’ll see the payoff slowly emerge. Eventually, recalling this information will be a cakewalk and all we’ll have to do is just show up.

When all the questions and concepts start to bore us (because they’re too easy, not because they’re uninteresting), that is how we know we can enter the last phase.

Relax

This is my favorite part of phasing and (to be honest) the whole reason why this method is worth it. While everyone is else is cramming and stressing, we can focus on relaxation and living our best lives. Maybe we might want to have a few active recall sessions just to keep our minds sharp, but most of our time will be spent decompressing. This is exactly how I was able to party it up with my friends on finals week and still kick ass on my exams. If we’ve executed the last two phases as designed, then active recall would work it’s magic and any gaps in knowledge would have been filled at office hours or in class.

By this point, we know everything we need to know for the class, and maintaining knowledge is so much easier than learning. Enjoy it. Getting to this point is not easy at all and the rewards ought to be reaped. Now, the focus can be shifted to other things like proper sleep and diet.

I love to play huge amounts of video games, make music, and watch tv before exams.

What do you like to do?

When is it applicable?

Phasing is a fantastic method for getting fantastic results with less effort than usual, but it’s not suitable for all class types. The types of classes we’ll encounter in our academic carrers are as follows:

Lectures – these are usually large scale classes held in giant rooms. The average class size for a lecture is anywhere from 100-500 students. Usually, the professor talks the entire time, while students take notes. These are most common in first-year college courses. Typically, students who attend a lecture also have to attend a discussion class.

Sometimes I had professors use the lecture before an exam as a review session, which can play a key role in the review or frontloading phase.

Discussion – discussions are smaller classes and are usually led by a graduate student studying the same subject as the course. This is where students receive additional instruction as well as extra practice problems. Typically, this is where most students get their questions answered.

If the schedule permits, I use discussions as an opportunity to fill knowledge gaps during the review phase. Discussion classes are invaluable if used right. I literally would not have passed Calc III if it wasn’t for the grad student who led my discussion that year.

Use office hours in place of a discussion for the same purpose. Some students feel awkward going into office hours, but that time is literally set aside so students can have in-person access to their professors.

Laboratories – oh labs. Usually, they come with science classes and last a few hours. In these classes, students will perform some kind of experiment, record data, and interpret the results. Phasing doesn’t really apply to lab classes, but usually, the person who leads the lab is another graduate student so you can use that time to ask them questions if needed.

I remember in my O-Chem II class, my discussion grad student was terrible and couldn’t answer my questions. But the grad student who helped me in my lab section was awesome! Dave if you ever see this, thank you! I managed to get all my questions answered during the lab section while I waited for my solutions to heat up. Phasing doesn’t typically apply to lab classes, but there is another opportunity to have access to someone who knows the material proficiently.

Studio – similar to labs, studios are a hand-on place for students to learn by doing. I wouldn’t recommend phasing for a studio class, but just like labs, these classes are a great opportunity to have access to someone who knows their stuff.

Independent study – these classes are designed to be separate from a regular course. These are great classes to use phasing on because the class is just you! You can schedule the material however you please and phasing is an excellent frame to base that schedule on.

Content-Based – these are classes that require us to understand facts and concepts then prove our knowledge. All STEM classes are this way. Phasing works best for content-based classes. Honestly, it was created in order to specifically get through content-based classes relatively stress-free.

Synthesis – these are classes that require us to take input from many sources and synthesize them to extract a greater understanding or to prove a point. Most language and humanities courses are this way. Phasing can work for synthesis classes, but some details would have to be changed. Synthesis work encodes information differently than active recall and the modifications to phasing should reflect that. Maybe instead of a review phase, switch the phase to rewriting or a drafting phase.

Phasing works best with lectures, discussions, seminars, content-based, and independent study type classes. It can be applied to the other classes as well, but the logistics would work a little differently.

Accommodations/Modifications

If you’ve read my other posts about studying, then you’ll know that I’m all about learning the principles of a system then modifying it to better fit the situation at hand. In other words, phasing is a great method to approach the academic term, but tweaking it to fit exactly what we need is even better!

Some classes may be too difficult to split into 3 equal parts. In order to accommodate this, I recommend keeping the phases in the same order, but repeat them as many times as needed. The full semester model is powerful, but sometimes we need to pivot.

For example, in my o-chem class, I had to split the term into 9 phases instead of 3. I had a set of “frontload, review, & relax” for each of the 3 exams. For each exam, I got a list of the concepts I was responsible for learning and scheduled which day I was learning each topic. I made sure I covered all the topics at least once before the 2nd to last office hours to ensure I get my questions answered. This meant I was studying for the exam as if it was the night before, a week or two in advance.


Phasing works because we only spend about 1/3 of the time heavy on the gas pedal as opposed to always being on every other week or so. At least with phasing, we know that 2/3 of our time will be spent efficiently or relaxing. It’s possible to get it all, it just takes a little foresight, discipline, and effort.

Phasing is not a catch-all method, but an ideal to shoot for. It is simply a framework to operate inside. I say this because the frontloading phase can take most people down and it’s easy to feel like there isn’t enough time to get through it all or that it’s impossible. If the schedule doesn’t totally fit, just make a few tweaks and account for spill days!

This is one of the more advanced techniques I talk about simply because it requires so much at the starting line, but the rewards are sweet.

Challenge yourself. Give it a try. Win. Take it all.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives

“Most habits take on one of four common forms: things you want to start doing, things you want to stop doing, things you want to do more, and things you want to do less.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)
My habits in their natural habitat

Before I dive into this post, I have to make a few honorable necessary mentions. Most of this information is from James Clear’s amazing book Atomic Habits, which I highly recommend. He explains the importance of developing systems and focusing our attention at the level of the habit in a seemingly effortless and powerful way. I also have to mention Josh Kaufman’s The Personal MBA, a must read book for entrepreneurs looking for well packaged high quality information. I think my must read book list needs some updating. Kaufman goes over more than just business, he also lays out a wealth of knowledge regarding habit formation and lifestyle design.

Intentionally creating our own lives starts with understanding our every day actions and how they develop into habits. I like to think of habits as belonging to the four categories mentioned above – Things We Should Start Doing, Things We Should Stop Doing, Things We Should Do Less, and Things We Should Do More. Meditating on these categories and articulating which habits fall into each category is a fantastic exercise in identifying key habits. Identifying which habits we want to start, stop, or change is the first step in creating our lives by design. Another way I like to identify habits is to categorize them as Old Habits – things I want to do less or stop all together – or as New Habits – things I want to do more or start doing.

The Habit Cycle

Understanding the Habit Cycle is like learning the anatomy and physiology of habits. The Habit Cycle explains how habits come to be and what we can do to make that process easier or harder.

According to Clear, habits have 4 stages that they follow. Cue. Craving. Response. Reward. Understanding each stage will help us intentionally create habits that we want in our lives and destroy the habits we don’t.

The Cue is the external stimuli that triggers the brain to start the behavior. When we see a cue, we get a Craving, which is the motivational force behind the habit. The Response is action or set of actions we take to potentially satisfy the craving. The Reward is what makes it all worth it and the last stage, the satisfaction of the craving.

The Habit Cycle – James Clear

Let me give an example to ground this in real life.

Let’s say I’m working on a blog post and I reach an issue in articulating what I want to say. Cue – I encounter a difficult situation. I start feeling stuck and my motivations change. I just want to be relieved of my frustration. Craving – yearning for relief. Despite my best intentions, I reason with myself that I am going to die sooner than I’d like and my experience of life is all that truly matters so I should stop blogging and play video games. I save my blog post, turn on my PS4 and have a good ol’ time. Reponse – leaving the challenging situation to play games. I feel delighted that I get to play my video games and my relief has come. Reward – obtained relief from tension caused from blogging. In this case, I layed out my provility to play video games when I’m confronted with difficult situations. Identifying the steps in this habit cycle helps me take the steps I need to ramp this up or turn it down depending on what I want for my life. For me, I love developing myself to overcome challenges in anyway possible so I’m going to try to break that habit and replace it with a new and more positive one.

If we pay enough attention to what causes our cravings, then we can take premeditated steps to intentionally create our ideal lives. We do not have to let the habit cycle run over and over, we can stop it at any point. We just need to know how.

Breaking Old Habits

Breaking old habits is a skill worth practicing. On our journey, we pick up ways of being or thinking that may have been useful in the past, but no longer serve a purpose to us in the present. I know I have more than a few habits holding me back from bringing about my Jungian Self.

The first thing we need to do when we’re breaking habits, is identifying the things we do that are not bringing us closer to where we want to go. Once those habits are identified, we can practice a few things to make those habits more difficult for us to live out.

Harness Friction

One of my favorite ways to break bad habits is to add friction to the mix. Friction can be thought of as obstacles preventing us from completing an action.

I’ll give an example to bring this down to Earth.

Let’s say we have a habit of spending too much time on our phone in the morning. The first thing we do when we wake up is check out phone and we end up losing track of time and it throws off our whole day.

Analyzing this situation in terms of friction, we can see that we are only partaking in the “bad” habit because there’s nothing stopping us from doing it! If we were to set our phone on the other side of the room before we go to bed, then there will be a lot of friction between us and checking our phone in the morning.

Those small, yet big, steps of getting out of bed and walking over to your phone gives you enough time to develop the willpower necessary to not act out the habit. Friction is what makes or breaks my habit formation 90% of the time. I’m so sensitive to friction, but I choose to use my susceptibility to measure the effectiveness of my environment.

I love using friction to my advantage. I can increase the friction to prevent actions that I don’t want, or I can decrease it and it’ll be easier for me to build the habits I desire.

Invert the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to break old habits is to invert each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. If we can cut out the cue completely, or at least make it invisible, then we have a fighting chance to break that specific habit loop. Let me give an example, if I see my PlayStation controller in my room I’ll get an urge to play and I’ll have to use willpower to fight off the craving. Instead of using willpower to break the habit cycle, I put my PlayStation controller in a place that makes it difficult for me to see it and the craving never exists in the first place.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, I still may get cravings to play video games, but this way I can control for at least 1 variable. To break the habit cycle at the cue stage, we can make our cues invisible.

The second step is Craving. To stop a craving we can use willpower to resist it (but that takes too much energy), we can make the cue invisible, or we can make the craving seem unattractive.

Let me put it this way, let’s say I have a craving to eat a snack at midnight. I can think about how good it will feel to satisfy my midnight craving and how happy I will be enjoying my little snack – thinking like this will just make me want to eat more.

Or I can think about how I’m developing a habit that could lead to an unhealthy lifestyle which consequently leads to a shorter and lesser quality functional lifespan. I can imagine my body failing me in ways that I take for granted now and the frustration I will feel confronting my true powerlessness.

Once the snack is framed like that, it’s much easier to say “How about a hell no.” Making things unattractive can stop a craving dead in its tracks.

The third step is Response. To stop the habit in the response stage, Clear recommends to make the response difficult. This goes hand-in-hand with my “add-friction” tip from earlier. If we add friction between us and our response, then we are much less likely to act out the response. This makes sense when we think about what the purpose of habits are.

We have habits to save cognitive load, and overcoming friction would add cognitive load, which works counter to habits. We have habits to make things easier, so making a response more difficult will cut off the habit before we get our highly sought after reward.

The fourth and final step is Reward. We love the reward because of one simple reason. It is satisfying. If we make the reward unsatisfying, there goes all the power!

Imagine, sacrificing what mean most to you only to receive a lackluster reward. The visceral and lingering feelings of disappointment will power through any urge to perform those sets of actions again. If we feel like what we doing isn’t worth it, then we aren’t going to do it again. Simple as that. Find what makes the reward sweet and ruin it.

Be weary that there aren’t just clever mind tricks that play into our breaking and forming of habits, but our emotional states as well. We tend to break the “good” habits and start the “bad” habits when we’re feeling H.A.L.T. – hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. When we identify with one of these 4 emotional states, we are way more susceptible to aiming down and following through with it. We are pretty tough people, but we only have so much willpower. Save your willpower for when we’re feeling one of the four detrimental emotional states. We should invert the habit cycle whenever we can so we can have the energy to fight when we need to.

Creating New Habits

Once we set ourselves free from our old bad habits, we can finally create new habits! But that poses the question:

How do we create new habits that last?

We can approach this a few different ways. If you’ve read my other blog posts, specifically about studying, then you know I’m all about finding a bunch of ways to do things and modifying them to create my own personalized system.

Optimize to Win

In his fantastic success manual, Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss talks about the importance of meditating every day. While I do recommended practicing meditation, that isn’t what I want to focus on. People tend to have a difficult time creating a habit from meditation, after all most of the benefits only occur when meditation is being practiced as a habit.

Tim says when you start a new habit, you want to rig the game to win. It takes 5 sessions to make something a habit, and it doesn’t matter how long the sessions are. Keep it simple and make the first 5 sessions short. The first few times stepping up to the figurative plate will take significant willpower, but once we developed a little habit it gets easier over time. Optimize to win. Eventually our actions will eventually become what we are, I talk a little bit about this in my post Hypnotic Rhythm.

We don’t have to stop at making it short, we can make it easy too! When I first started working out consistently, I made my first 5 sessions short and easy and now it feels a little weird if I don’t get at least a little exercise.

Another thing we want to keep in mind when we are trying to create new habits is knowing that we only want to do things when we believe it will pay off for us. If we believe it won’t pay off or it’ll actually harm us, then we won’t do it. To take advantage of this bit of knowledge, we should presence ourselves to why starting this new habit is worthwhile. Be advised, this is different for everyone and requires rigorous self reflection.

Encourage the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to create new habits is to encourage each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. The cue usually kicks off the habit, but if we’re making new habits we might need a little extra help with this step. Make the cue obvious. I lay out my yoga mat and have my kettlebell out in the open so I don’t have to spend any time setting up. Working out consistently has always been difficult for me, but when I set out my equipment in a place that’s easy to see it’s much easier to just start working out. Making cues obvious can also be thought of as a method of removing friction.

The second step is Craving. This comes after the cue and gives us that feeling that we should be doing something. Craving a good habit is an interesting feeling, but one that we should try to encourage. Encourage the craving by making it attractive. Imagine, actually craving to workout or study. It’s not that hard when you think about how good you will feel once you finish or how much longer you’ll live if you’re healthy. Find reasons to pick the good choice.

The third step is Response. Once we have the craving to do something, our next move is to act. If we want the habit, to stick then we need to make it easy. I’ll use the example of my yoga mat and kettlebell again. Since the mat and kettlebell are already set up in the center of my room, it’s easy to just start working out. It’s actually easier to workout than it is to ignore the equipment! That’s why I put it in the middle of my room. I’m making it harder to ignore working out (stopping the old habit) and easier to start working out (creating the new habit).

The fourth and final step is Reward. This is what makes it all worthwhile. If we want to keep a habit going, we have to make the reward satisfying. Since I absolutely adore my video games, that’s usually the go-to treat for me after doing something difficult. Creating new habits is not easy and responding to those changes takes a lot out of us. I also love watching carefully written television like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones(Seasons 1-4), and Westworld. When I have the time I also love to cook. Sometimes I’ll make a really nice meal to reward myself for creating new habits. Find what makes you happy and indulge once everything is said and done.

Developing New Traits

The best part about knowing all is this is discovering that traits and skills can be developed through simple habit formation. This means we can create habits of traits that we admire in our role models within ourselves!

There was a study at Harvard which suggested that the most productive people don’t wait to be told what to do. Successful people take initiative and we can use the knowledge of breaking and creating habits to create the habit of taking initiative within ourselves!

The best best part – this doesn’t have to stop at initiative!

We can create a habit of being honest, courageous, hard working, dedicated, reliable, or any other trait that we would like. It’s not an easy task by any means, but it is possible with serious attention, dedication, and time.

The Issue of Willpower

Creating habits takes willpower. Sometimes it requires a lot and sometimes it requires a little. If we are trying to create new habits, we. need to find ways to minimize how much willpower we’ll need or designing our lives will be too difficult. We can minimize will power through optimizing our environment. I talk a little bit about that in Strategies for Better Studying Part 4.

If we set up our space to encourage the new habits and add friction to discourage the old habits, then willpower won’t be necessary!

James Clear talks about different ways to minimize required willpower by adjusting our actions to the habit cycle. At first, the changes will requires a huge amount of willpower, but every time we run through the loop we strengthen the neural pathways and the required willpower becomes less and less.

Josh Kaufman also talks about habit cues in his fantastic book, The Personal MBA.

“Habits are easier to install if you look for triggers that signal when it’s time to act. For example, if you want to take vitamins, it’s easier to remember to take them if you use another habitual action as a trigger for the action. Instead of relying on your mind to remember to take your vitamins in the middle of the day, you can use brushing your teeth in the morning or evening as a reminder.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

In addition to building a guiding environment, we can reduce willpower by focusing our attention on one habit at a time. Kaufman also mentions this in The Personal MBA.

“For best results, focus on installing one Habit at a time. Remember, you only have so much Willpower to use each day, and overriding your default mode of action depletes it quickly. If you try to install too many Habits at the same time, you probably won’t succeed at adopting any of them for long. Focus on installing one Habit until taking action feels automatic, then move on to the next.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Creating and destroying habits takes a bit of practice, patience, and discipline. If these methods don’t work, try longer. We are surprisingly malleable creatures despite our proclivity towards habits and routine. Getting better: at first it’s uncomfortable, but later will be worth it. Perhaps the real lesson is to learn how to internalize discomfort and push forward, for once we do this we can do anything. Feel free to pick and choose which parts of this post you like and go forth to design your dream life!

Start by winning the moment right in front of you.

Categories
Education Productivity

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 4)

“Hard work is not always something you can see. It is not always physical effort.

In fact, the most powerful form of hard work is thinking clearly. Designing a winning strategy may not look very active, but make no mistake: it is very hard work.

Strategy often beats sweat.”

James Clear

This is the final part of my Strategies for Better Studying series. I recommend taking the parts which work best from each of these strategies and use them to create your own personalized study strategy. As long as we understand the principles behind the messages, we can create our own systems that provide support where we need it most.

I go over the principles of learning and studying in my post about Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. I recommend checking out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for more strategies to scrap for parts. Treat this as a buffet, take what you like and leave what you don’t.

Stop Multitasking

⬅ who remembers this?

So the truth about multitasking is that it doesn’t exist! Human beings are not capable of multitasking, what we actually do better thought of as task switching, or context switching. (Thanks APA!) We are never truly doing more than one thing at once. We may be switching contexts so quickly that it could appear as multitasking, but don’t be fooled by illusions.

Let’s say I were working on this blog post at the same time I was producing a song, I would have a difficult time of it because my brain is constantly switching back and forth between the two tasks.

My brain would be working on this blog post, creating new connections between ideas, and figuring out how to lay out my thoughts in a linear language until I decide to switch to music production. Once I switch over, my brain is now focused on sound selection, volume levels, and motion of the music. These two tasks require the brain to do different things and by constantly switching between them, our brain loses the ability to do any deep work. I mention the idea of deep work in Part 2.

Not doing deep work keeps the projects at a mediocre level. The highest quality products, ideas, book, songs, work is creating from long stretches of uninterrupted time. Let me bring this back to my example of blogging and producing. Let’s say I’m blogging and producing for 3 hours straight, ideally I should be getting a fantastic blog post and a fantastic mix, but the reality is the “uninterrupted” time gets “interrupted” every time I change from blogging or producing. So if I switch my task every 15 minutes, it doesn’t matter how long I sit at that desk, I’m only working on the blog post or the mix for 15 minutes. I’m no expert, but in my experience nothing amazing is created in either of these art forms in 15 minutes.

If we want to produce quality work, or study efficiently, we need to aim for working on 1 task for a long period of time. Lumping up a bunch of different responsibilities and working on all of them for 6 hours straight is a losing strategy. We would be much better of spending an hour or two on just one task than straining our brains trying to do everything all at once. The goal is to get into flow. Which also I talk about Part 2.

Context switching is much easier than we’d like to believe. Even something as small as a notification coming up can rip us right out of flow. This is why I recommend to work with notifications off. I talk more about that in the first part of my scheduling tips series.

Listening to certain music while working can also take us out of flow. When we listen to music, our brain has more input to process which adds extraneous cognitive load to our plate. I get a lot of pleasure from work with music, so I figured that little hit in productivity is worth it as long as I enjoy working. However, I don’t listen to music with lyrics. Lyrics rip us out of flow much faster than instrumental music because our brains will want to process the words and extract the message subconsciously. This is a task in itself, so a context switch would apply here and our productivity would take serious hits.

Focus on one thing at a time. Work with notifications off. Keep in mind that it takes 25-30 minutes of uninterrupted time to get into Flow. We all are incapable of multitasking and resisting that idea results in having a harder time completing lower quality work. Attempting to multitask is rarely worth it, especially if we are creating or working on something that we really care about.

Maintenance Rehearsal vs. Elaborative Rehearsal

Have you ever had to memorize a phone number? Whenever I have to, I say it to myself a few times and once I type it out, I instantly forget it! This type of thing happens whenever I know I have to memorize something quick that I know I don’t need later down the line. I still do this with vital signs when I’m with patients. I’ll take their vitals, say them to myself over and over, write them down, then forget them. (I’ll know what their signs roughly are, but not exactly. It may be a bad habit, but I’m human and my brain is just trying to survive.) This little trick is known as Maintenance Rehearsal. It keeps information in our short-term, or working, memory which is dependent upon our cognitive load. Maintenance Rehearsal is fantastic for memorizing information quickly that doesn’t need to be deeply thought about. It requires relatively little attention. I do not recommend using maintenance rehearsal for studying, but it’s a neat little trick our minds can do.

Much more suitable for studying is Elaborative Rehearsal. This type of memory rehearsal is more useful for transferring information from our working memory to our long-term memory (LTM), which is the goal for most learning. It involves thinking and internalizing the meaning of the information at hand, which is an attention expensive processes. Elaborative rehearsal is effective because of the depth required, the same reasons why Active Recall works. Using our brain to think about the meanings, accommodating new information, and connecting it to what we already know is an incredibly effective tool for moving information into our LTM. We do this when we think about a good novel or when we learn something that reminds us of something in our personal lives.

Maintenance Rehearsal is fantastic for phone numbers and other small tidbit that don’t need to move to our LTM, but Elaborative Rehearsal is what we want to focus on as students. Find the meaning in things, connect them to your life, and learn deeply.

Account for Spill Days

Spill Days are something that I started doing a few years into my scheduling game, but I didn’t have a name for them. Shout out to Dr. Ali Abdaal for giving me a catchy name for this extremely useful tool.

Scheduling is imperative for productivity, but more often than we’d like shit hits the fan and we get thrown off course. Back in college, I used to line my students up back to back so I can maximize the number of students I can help in a day. However, a huge problem came up. If I was late to one session, or if one session went over, then every single student after that would have to be pushed back and that was NOT a sustainable system.

The same thing can happen with planned days. If I’m planning to work on a blog post, film a YouTube video, produce a beat, and prepare for a birthday extravaganza (like I am today), but something happens that gets in the way of that, do I just put all of that off until tomorrow? No, can’t do it! Because I have other things planned that day too!

Should I just push off my entire life a day later because one day didn’t go as planned?

Hell no! I just put off the non-time sensitive stuff onto my next Spill Day! Spill Days are days specifically designed for catching up on all the things that don’t get done when life happens. I like making my spill days the day after I go out with family or friends since usually I get those days to myself. Spill Days can be thrown into our schedules as often or as scarce as we’d like. One thing I have to mention about Spill Days is that they are absolutely crucial. No one’s life goes as planned all the time, and we all need a little time to catch up. Knowing I have a Spill Day coming up reduces my stress when things don’t go according to plan because I know that my responsibilities will still be accomplished.

Something unexpected came up? Assign the displaced tasks to a Spill Day. The work you’ve been doing took waaaay longer than expected? Assign the displaced tasks to a Spill Day.

But what about time sensitive tasks?

Unfortunately, spill days aren’t useful for tasks that need to be done in the here and now. The best bet is reschedule any non-time sensitive tasks that day to a Spill Day and do the time-sensitive task instead of the non-time sensitive tasks.

Once I saw a job posting for a job that I really wanted, and I knew that it would close pretty quickly, so applying to this job was something I needed to do here and now. However, I did plan on producing a beat that day and I needed to maintain that schedule because my YouTube Channel has specified drop dates. Since I had more time to produce the song than I did with this job application, I decided to schedule my producing to the nearest Spill Day (which happened to be before the drop date) and did the application in place of producing that day. By the end of that week, I had an interview from that application AND I was able to get the song done. Unfortunately I didn’t get the job, but I was able to fulfill my responsibilities and maintain the view I have of myself as someone who gets their shit done.

Schedule Around Your Body’s Natural Rhythms

We all have a heart and it’s always beating in a special rhythm. Some call it normal sinus rhythm and it’s a sign that everything is working the way it should. I’ve always seen it as proof that humans are rhythmic creatures. Our hearts move to a beat, our bodies work through a cascade of reactions, everything doing their own thing but working together to make something much more spectacular, the human body. This is part of the reason why I love music so much. Each instrument, each track does it’s own thing, but in the context of everything else, the entire composition working together to create a beautiful song.

We have so many rhythms in us because they are part of nature. We have rhythms that govern sleeping, eating, and other habits. My dogs even have rhythms! They know what it is time to eat, walk, or sleep.

The main idea here is to learn and understand our own personal rhythms so we can effectively produce and perform with as little resistance as possible. Have you ever worked on a paper when you’re sleepy? Doing the work is difficult enough, but add that to the effort you need to muster up in order to just stay awake and you have yourself a miserable time. When we’re miserable, we’re less likely to repeat the actions that made us upset in the first place, so getting ourselves to work on that paper again will be even more difficult.

If we understand our rhythms, then we don’t have to worry about doubling up on the extraneous load. I pay attention to the times of the day when I’m more alert and schedule more cognitively demanding activities during these times. Knowing our rhythms reduces resistance to completing tasks and willpower necessary to work.

There are 4 main types of rhythms in the body:

  • Circadian Rhythms: a 24-hour cycle that includes physiological and behavioral rhythms like sleeping. I try to make sure that all of the work I care about most gets taken care of around the hours of 10am to 2pm because that’s when I’m most alert. I save low demanding tasks for the evening when I have less gas in the take, so to speak.
  • Diurnal Rhythms: the circadian rhythm synced with day and night. I notice the times when I sleep and wake and try to schedule my life around those times rather than force myself to get up strictly at 5 am every day. Sometimes my schedule can’t be helped and I have to do that, but when I can I make sure I schedule around my own sleep/wake cycle. This changes over time, but nowadays I’m up around 8 and I’m in bed by 11 or 12. Since I know this, I keep my schedule within these hours. The idea is to work with the rhythms I already have, not exercise more willpower to force productivity.
  • Ultradian Rhythms: biological rhythms with a shorter period and higher frequency than circadian rhythms. The time I eat is a good example of this. I pay attention to the times I’m hungry, and unless I’m fasting, then I try to eat at times so I’m not taken away from my work while I’m in a flow. I try to keep my breakfasts light and high protein so I don’t crash or get hungry during my peak hours from 10-2 and I try my dearest not to eat late because it slows me down in the mornings.
  • Infradian Rhythms: biological rhythms that last more than 24 hours, such as a menstrual cycle. For ladies, the menstrual cycle is something to consider when planning out what kind of work you will be doing. Scheduling physically difficult work while dealing with period cramps or other symptoms could add extra unnecessary stress. Scheduling around our rhythms helps us be mindful of how we are going to feel in the future. In my experience women tend to be better at this than men, but it is something that everyone can practice.

While everyone may not be in a position to control their schedule to perfectly fit their rhythms, but trying to plan the day to day activities with these things in mind will reduce much of the unnecessary stress that comes with living.

Create a Guiding Environment to Minimize Willpower

“Your environment will eat your goals and plans for breakfast.”

Steve Pavlina (1971 – )

I don’t know about you, but I’m terrible at telling myself what to do. Whenever I do something, I always find myself trying to look for ways out. The moment I hit a bit of friction, I usually decide what I’m doing isn’t worth the energy and just stop. This was a huge problem for me when I was younger. At first, I thought I had to just ignore the friction and brute force overcome it but I wasn’t able to do that 100% of the time and that was extremely difficult. I needed something that helped me get things easily and that worked every time I tried it. Then it hit me!

What if I create a place that made my work as easy as possible?

A place where I didn’t have to overcome any friction! A place where my work was something that I wanted to do and was easy to do. As a high school senior, I knew that I needed to get serious about getting my work done, especially if I wanted to become a doctor. So I payed attention to what pulled me away from my work. I determined I was too easily distracted and I needed a place to go with little to no distractions. My solution – reverse all-nighters. I would sleep as soon as I got home from school at 3:00 pm, wake up after 8 hours at 11, then work all night into the next school day. I learned a lot of these crazy experiments. This was terrible for my retention and the next day at school I was mentally useless, but I was able to focus on my work like I never had before. The late night atmosphere was conducive to my productivity because whenever I was looking for a distraction or a reason to not work, there was none in sight. It was brutal, but my environment kept me on the path.

Today, I’ve had a few changes to fine tune this method and now I create guiding environments that aren’t detrimental to my health. My home office is set up so I can do all the work I need to do with as little friction as possible. Create the spaces so they are conducive to the function of what we use them for.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

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?