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Education Productivity

Analyzing & Improving Systems

“If you are unhappy, your system is broken.”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

In my last post, I talked about Gall’s Law and the different components of systems. In this post, I’m going to discuss ideas surrounding analyzing and improving systems. There are going to be some terms I reference from my last post, so I highly recommend checking that out first.

Josh Kaufman beautifully and simply explains how to do this in his book, The Personal MBA, and I also highly recommend checking that out too. The ideas in this post are mostly from that book as well as my own personal insights.

How to Analyze Systems

When analyzing a system is difficult to know what to look for, especially when dealing with complex systems. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that we all have a bias which could get in the way of analyzing systems. Whenever possible, we need to take steps to mitigate our bias.

Here are some other things to look out for when analyzing systems:

Deconstruction

This is an excellent first move when it comes to analyzing systems. As discussed in Gall’s Law, all complex systems arise from simpler systems, therefore every complex system is capable of being deconstructed into simpler systems. Deconstruction is simply breaking up complex systems into their interdependent parts and understanding how each of those parts works. It’s also helpful to try to identify triggers (what kicks off another system) and endpoints (what makes a system stop). Diagrams and flowcharts are also lifesavers when it comes to deconstructing systems. Recognizing if-then and when-then relationships are also invaluable.

After breaking the complex system up into it’s smaller parts, we can then break down those simple systems even further into their components. Identify inflows and outflows, stocks, interdependencies, and so on. I talk about what those components are in my last post.

Deconstruction makes understanding systems possible. Without deconstruction, we are sure to experience confusion.

Measurement

How does the system collect data? What kind of data is it collecting? Measurement describes the process of data collection in a system. If we can understand the information related to the system, then we get an insight into the system itself.

Paying attention to the measurement is fantastic for dealing with absence blindness — the idea that we have a hard time seeing things that aren’t there.

Let me give an example, measuring someone’s blood glucose levels tells us if someone has too little or too much blood sugar. This number gives us tremendous insight into what is going on inside the body even though we wouldn’t be able to visibly see changes in someone’s blood sugar.

Measuring something is the first step in improvement. I wrote a post, Tracking vs. Loss Aversion, that talks about the importance of measuring ourselves and our progress.

Don’t sleep on measurements. Trust me.

KPI (Key Performance Indicator)

I know I just emphasized how important it is to measure things, but there is such a thing as too much data. If we measure too many things, we end up having a bunch of junk data that weighs us down and doesn’t show us anything. In order to prevent this, we try to keep our measurements to only KPIs or Key Performance Indicators.

KPIs are measurements of the essential parts of a system.

Identifying KPIs can be tricky, but try to limit them to only 3-5 KPIs per system otherwise, we risk measuring too many things.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

This is one of the more straightforward ideas – what we put in is what we get out. The quality of the output is only as good as the quality of the input. You get what you give. There are so many cliche phrases that express this idea.

I found this to be especially true when I started cooking. I used to watch Gordon Ramsey cooking videos to try to learn how to cook (I even watched his Masterclasses), but I could never make my food taste good until I spent the extra money on fantastic ingredients. Now, I try to only cook with fantastic ingredients. It really makes all the difference.

One of the best ways to improve the quality of a system is to pay attention to what we start with.

Tolerance

This can be thought of as the range in which the system is working normally. If the system is performing within that range, then it’s within tolerance.

Tolerance can either be loose or tight. A loose tolerance is when there is a considerable amount of leeway and small mistakes don’t make a huge difference while a tight tolerance is when there’s little room for error or change, this is usually the case for essential components of a system.

Analytical Honesty

In order to properly analyze a system, we must acknowledge our propensity to make things look better than they are. We have to be able to apply objective judgment to our data which means that the best analysis of a system will come from someone who isn’t personally invested in it.

As I mentioned in my post, Our Unconscious Filters, human beings view the world through their bias and it’s hard to shake them, even if we’re aware of them. Having an outsider provide analysis is the only way to completely prevent our bias from contaminating our observations.

Context

Most measurements are meaningless without context. Context is all of the information we use to understand if measurements are favorable or not. Setting goals for arbitrary numbers like a 20% increase or 3 new deals are meaningless if we don’t know the performance of the system in the past and it’s projected performance in the future.

Trying to oversimplify how a system operates by judging it off one measurement will blind us to other important changes as well. Context is crucial for an accurate understanding.

Sampling

Sampling is what we do when we try things. We’re simply taking a small part of the output and using it as an example for the entire system. Sampling is great for catching errors without needing to check the entire system.

Just like all other methods of analysis, we have to consider our bias, and sampling is prone to bias. A way to control for it is to make sure the sample is random.

Margin of Error

Of course, not all samples will be perfect representations of the entire system. The margin of error is how much the sample deviates from the whole. The higher the margin, the more inaccurate the sample. The more samples we have, the smaller our margin of error.

Ratio

Ratios are fractions. Somethings divided by something else. It’s a simple way of measuring multiple variables at once. Ratios are also great for letting us know how a particular measurement changes.

For example, ROI is a percentage ((Returns/Investment)*100%) or comparing MPG (miles/gallons) or unit price of groceries. You know a ratio is involved in you hear the words per.

Typicality

In order to analyze a system properly, we need to know how it would operate normally. Kaufman suggests that we can measure typicality through calculating mean, median, mode, and midrange or various measurements.

Correlation & Causation

Causation comes from the idea of cause and effect. One part of a system is causing another part of a system to act. Correlation, on the other hand, is not always causation. Sometimes variables may seem the act like one causes the other, but that won’t necessarily be the case. For example, 100% of people who drink water die. Does the water cause the death in this case? Probably not. Water and death are simply correlational.

So how can we determine is something is correlational or causational?

By adjusting for known variables. If we control for as many variables as possible, we can see the relationship between each more clearly. As systems grow more complex, this becomes more and more difficult. The more we can isolate a variable, the more confidence we have that the changes are causational.

Proxy

Proxies are measurements of something by measuring another thing. A proxy is useful when we cannot measure something directly. The closer the proxy is to the original, the more accurate the measurement. We have to be mindful about correlation and causation when measuring a proxy.

Segmentation

Segmentation is grouping data into separate subgroups to get a more comprehensive context. I do this with all of my blog posts! That’s why I have titles and headings and subheadings. It gives all the (seemingly) random information I’m spewing a more detailed context.

Segmentation plays a huge part in how we understand complex and large amounts of information.

Humanization

When looking at data is easy to see it as an inanimate object, but when analyzing systems we have to keep in mind that the data tell us information about human beings. They are insights into real people — their behaviors, experiences, and thoughts. It’s easy to disconnect from data about a system because it seems so abstract and inanimate, but it’s quite the opposite. If we pay enough attention, the data lets us understand people on a deeper level.

When I worked at Kohls, they always emphasized selling to “her.” Her being a personified collection of the average data on their customers. They used average household income, gender, family size, and other variables to create their typical customer and found ways to satisfy that person.

Our data tells us what’s up with other people if we look hard enough.

Other Things to Look Out For

“If something in your business is causing you stress, most likely, you either don’t have a system for that issue, or you are not following your system.”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

Pay attention to environmental changes and selection tests. I talk a little bit about these in my last post. These changes give smaller players a chance to outperform larger players. Identifying selection tests gives us a competitive edge.

Some questions to ask while looking out for these things could be: How is the environment changing? Who is unable to adapt to these changes? What can I do differently from those who cannot adapt? Who is taking advantage of these changes? What can I do similar to those who are doing well?

Always keep an eye out for the “black swan.” I first heard about this idea from Chris Voss, an ex-FBI terrorist negotiator. The “black swan” is any information that if discovered would change everything. Back in the day, people would say swans are white and if anyone said otherwise they would be crazy because swans are white. Eventually, someone discovered a black swan and everyone had to change how they saw the situation. Systems are the same way, try to keep an eye out for the information that would change everything. There’s always a piece of information that, if known, would change everything This is excellent for accurately identifying and balancing risk and uncertainty.

It’s also helpful to keep in mind that we process the unknown the same way that we process threats. We literally see and respond to what we don’t know as a threat. Expect to encounter threats, but instead of responding to it, we can respond with curiosity to learn more.

The last thing I want to mention about analyzing systems is to analyze close-calls when they happen to minimize accidents. Sometimes shit happens, but most of the time we can prevent it from happening. If we can notice when things almost go wrong, then we can take the steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again or prevent the conditions that allowed it to happen in the first place without having to deal with the fallout of the accident.

How to Improve Systems

“Anyone who understands systems will know immediately that optimizing parts is not a good route to system excellence. For example, let’s build the world’s greatest car by assembling the world’s greatest car parts. We connect the engine of a Ferrari, the brakes of a Porsche, the suspension of a BMW, the body of a Volvo. What we get, of course, is nothing close to a great car; we get a pile of very expensive junk.”

Donald Berwick (1946 – )

Now that we’ve discussed analyzing systems and have a base framework for understanding systems, let’s talk about some of the ideas useful for improving systems. Most of these ideas are also included in Kaufman’s The Personal MBA.

Intervention Bias

This is the idea that human beings tend to add changes to a system just to feel like we have more control. So when we set out to improve a system, we have to entertain the thought that we might be implementing a new change just to feel in control. If we don’t, we risk adding unnecessary complexity to the system.

The best way to account for intervention bias is to analyze through a null hypothesiswhat would happen if we did nothing? What if the situation was simply an error?

If the null hypothesis experiment determines that we’re better off doing something than nothing, then we will have minimized our chances for intervention bias to take hold. Examining the null hypothesis isn’t our natural reaction, especially since human beings have a proclivity to doing something rather than nothing, but it’s crucial for actually improving systems.

When improving systems, first think about what would happen if we did nothing.

Optimization

Optimization is what people usually think of when it comes to improving systems. This typically involves maximizing output or minimizing an input. Optimization is usually focused around the KPIs.

Kaufman suggests when optimizing a system to focus on one variable at a time. Optimizing a system across multiple variables will almost always lead to disaster. System interdependencies and second-order effects make it challenging to change more than one thing at any given time.

Refactoring

This refers to changing a system’s process so that it can perform the exact same result but in a more efficient way. This is most obvious in coding. Some programmers will pride themselves on performing the same actions in fewer lines of code.

To the average person, refactoring may seem insignificant, but more efficient systems run faster and require fewer resources which could be redirected elsewhere.

Some questions to ask when refactoring a system could be: What are the essential processes to achieve the desired objective? Do these processes have to be completed in a certain order? What are the constraints of the system?

Critical Few

If you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle (a.k.a. The 80/20 Rule), then you understand the concept of the critical few. Essentially, 19th-century economist and sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, discovered an interesting pattern when analyzing data regarding land ownership and wealth distribution.

He discovered that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto didn’t just find this pattern in wealth and land distribution, he also saw it in his garden. 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of the peas.

Today, we can see his 80/20 split in almost everything. In systems is useful to know that 80% of the output is from 20% of the input. In businesses, typically 80% of revenue usually comes from 20% of customers. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. 80% of our time communicating is with 20% of people we know.

Focus on the 20%. That is where the biggest changes will happen. Identify which parts are critical and give it attention or starve it of attention, whichever is required. The idea is to not try to focus on the whole thing, but the smaller parts that matter.

I do this with my students. 80% of my income comes from 20% of my clients and my attention and efforts are split accordingly. I give the clients who matter more attention and I starve the ones who don’t. After practicing these methods, I’ve eliminated a lot of headache clients and I’ve strengthened my relationships with the ones I do like. 80% of the problems came from 20% of the clients.

Focus on the critical few.

Diminishing Returns

This is the idea that after a certain point, adding more starts to cause more harm than good. This is common when optimizing high performing systems, people tend to try to push the system even more to the point where the system breaks.

“The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.”

Norman R. Augustine (Aerospace Executive & Former U.S. Under Secretary of the Army)

A way to control for diminishing returns is to apply Ramit Sethi’s infamous “85% Solution” from his fantastic book I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Simply get 85% of the problem right and move on. Yeah, we can really hone in on getting that extra 15%, but then we risk diminishing returns.

Is it worth doubling the effort just to squeeze out that extra 10-15%?

It might be, but not every time. It’s better to spend our energy getting the big wins, than trying to squeeze out every little bit.

Friction

Friction is something I pay a lot of attention to. I spend a lot of time dedicated to removing friction from my life because it stops me from doing so much. Friction is any force or process that removes energy from a system. Remove the friction, increase efficiency.

Amazon Prime is a perfect example of a company removing friction to make a system more efficient. If you have amazon prime, then you know how easy it is to purchase things. That’s intentional. The ease of use creates more cash flow for the business.

If a system has a lot of friction, it can still perform but it will require much more energy. If we don’t add more energy, then the system will eventually slow and stop.

For me personally, when I encounter friction while doing an activity that I don’t enjoy, then I won’t do it at all. So if I can help it, I try to remove as much friction as possible whenever I’m doing something difficult or something I don’t want to do.

Sometimes introducing friction is what’s needed to improve a system. When I want to prevent myself from performing certain actions, I introduce friction because I know it will stop me. Some business makes it cumbersome for a customer to return their product so they are less likely to return it.

Automation

The gold standard of no friction. Automated systems operate without human intervention. Automation is best for repetitive tasks.

Be mindful that automating a system tends to magnify the efficiencies and inefficiencies. If the system is already efficient, then automation will make it faster. If the system is not efficient, then automation will slow it down.

When it comes to understanding automation, we want to be familiar with the Paradox of Automation: the more efficient an automated system is, the more critical the human inputs are. While automate reduces the need for human intervention, the small amount of human intervention that occurs becomes increasingly significant.

Automation makes our actions count more, not less.

On that note, I also want to mention the Irony of Automation: the more reliable a system is, the less attention humans pay to it. Reliable systems train absentminded operators. This is dangerous because if something goes wrong, we aren’t likely to notice and the automation will propagate that error.

The best way to avoid automation errors is to perform consistent sampling and testing.

Standard Operating Procedure

SOPs are predetermined processes for completing certain tasks or solving common problems. We save cognitive load and cut down the number of decisions we have to make in a day if we have a preselected method that’s known to work.

Using SOP helps us spend our energy on improving a system, rather than solving repetitive problems over and over.

Kaufman recommends reviewing the SOPs every two to three months to keep it running effectively.

SOPs can look many different ways. For example, I have a set price for certain students, and certain times I will tutor. But it can go further than that, I have predetermined phrases that I say when talking to clients to make communication easier when it comes to scheduling or other common tasks. I also have predetermined methods for dealing with certain kinds of students so we have a simple system for us to start with and build upon.

Focus on creating go-to methods for things you encounter often. You’ll find that it can seem like a lot of work upfront, but it will streamline the process in the long run and it’s so worth it.

Checklists

I can’t talk about checklists without referencing Dr. Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. That book beautifully describes the power of checklists. Checklists have been a vital part of pilots take off routines and are the reason for their high success rate. Checklists have also played their role in minimizing infection rates in hospitals all over the world. The secret to repeatedly completing complex tasks perfectly is writing it down as a checklist.

Checklists are simplified SOPs for specific tasks. They’re fantastic because they create systems for processes that haven’t been articulated and minimize our chances of skipping critical steps.

I always make a checklist for my students who are struggling to “manage the chaos.” Transforming the glob of craziness that is school work into a list that can help us narrow our focus works for every single student I have ever worked with. Seriously, I haven’t come across any academic situation that a checklist could not solve.

Checklists are so critical for entropy management that I use them whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed. Whenever I’m feeling stressed and swamped with work, I ask myself “What’s the 80/20 I need to tackle here?” then I made a checklist to conquer the critical few.

I’ll probably write another post on checklists because they’re so damn powerful, important, and useful.

Checklists are also great because once we have a good one, we can delegate or automate it — which frees us up from doing the work! Checklists tend to be the first step to freedom.

Cessation

This refers to the idea of stopping something intentionally. Sometimes a system may be going haywire and the best thing to do is to stop a process. As I mentioned earlier, humans have a proclivity to do something to improve a system, but sometimes the best choice may be to not do anything or stop altogether.

Cessation is not our natural reaction when we want to improve systems and it’s usually an unpopular choice when dealing with a group, but keep in mind that it’s a valid option.

When analyzing and improving systems, I entertain the idea of cessation after I’ve tried the null hypothesis. If both of those options are determined to be ineffective, then I’ll start doing something to improve the system.

Resilience

The resilience of a system is determined by how much change it can withstand. The ability to weather change and adjust plans means the difference between disaster and survival.

Resilience usually comes at the price of optimal performance. A system can increase its resilience through leverage. For example, if a business needed some money to weather the storm it will be more resilient, but that money can’t be used more efficiently. Resilience comes at a cost.

Another way to boost resilience is to prepare for the unexpected. Having plans for different/unexpected scenarios or extra supplies on hand are great ways to make a system more resilient. Fail-safes and backups are great for that also. A fail-safe is a backup system designed to prevent or recover from the original system failure.

Stress Test

This is the process of identifying the boundaries of a system by changing the environment. Testing different extremes on a system can help determine which variables affect which processes.

When I stress test my systems, I try to break them. This is the part when we want to try and test out our “what-if” scenarios. Scenario planning is at the heart of any effective strategy. Rather than trying to predict the future, we can prepare for a handful of imagined scenarios and be ready for what comes next. A proper stress test can really help with a system’s resilience.

Sustainable Growth Cycle

This cycle is a pattern that systems follow when undergoing consistent growth without any major issues and it’s split up into three phases:

The Expansion Phase – this is when the system is focused on growing. This is a creation phase. New components and strategies are implemented and dedicated to growing the system and collecting data.

The Maintenance Phase – this is when the system focuses on executing the strategies and maintaining the functionality of the system. Pressing play on the system, so to speak.

The Consolidation Phase – this is when the system is focused on analysis. All the data that was collected is now put into context. Things that work are given more resources and attention while things that don’t are cut back or reworked.

The Middle Path

This idea comes from the fact that the balance between too much and too little are constantly changing. Balancing what systems need requires constant reevaluation. The best approach usually lies somewhere between too much and too little.

Experimentation

No one has everything figured out and determining the best choice when it comes to improving a system is a difficult task. This is when experimenting comes in handy. Frequent experimentation is the only way to accurately determine what improves and system and what doesn’t.

I like to treat experimenting is play. I love trying to new things, changing stuff up, and seeing what happens. The more we experiment, the more we learn about our systems.

More Methods of Improvement

“A man with a surplus can control circumstances, but a man without a surplus is controlled by them, and often has no opportunity to exercise judgment.”

Harvey S. Firestone (Founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company)

A personal note for improving systems – I like to have stock built up for projects with continuous deadlines like blog posts and beats. Having more stock makes me less anxious about meeting a deadline and I can focus on making good music or writing a good post. To increase stock, simply increase inflows and decrease the outflows. In this case, I increased how many beats I made in a week, but released only 1 (I usually release 2). After a while, I started to build a stock and the beats I made later were of higher quality. My end goal is to make high-quality music while enjoying the process, so I modified my system to make that happen.

In every system, there’s always a limiting reagent. Finding that constraint and removing it will improve a system’s efficiency. Israeli author, Eliyahu Goldratt, suggests using the “Five Focusing Steps” to identify and eliminate constraints:

  • Identification – examining the system to find the limiting factor
  • Exploitation – ensuring that the resources related to the constraint aren’t wasted
  • Subordination – redesigning the entire system to support the constraint
  • Elevation – permanently increasing the capacity of the constraint
  • Reevaluation -after making a change reevaluating the system to see where the constraint is located

When dealing with systems that involved other parties, we introduce counterparty risk. The best way to deal with counterparty risk is to have a plan of action in the event that the other party doesn’t deliver on their end of the deal.


These ideas are foundational for analyzing and improving systems but the methods are endless and I recommend that you go out and find concepts and methods to build upon your knowledge of systems. Remember Gall’s Law, all complex systems evolve from simple systems, and these ideas are the components of creating a simple system to analyze and improve other systems. How meta.

However, the most important concept for analyzing and improving systems is understanding that we can always learn more and education never stops. Systems can be complex and there is always something more to learn about a system or systems in general

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 Productivity

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 3)

“Premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

Donald Knuth (1938 – )

Check out the first and second parts! This is part 3 of my buffet of study techniques. Be sure to check out my post on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition to learn the main principles which efficient and effective studying is based. Applying methods without understanding the principles is a great way to waste time and energy, but once we understand the principles then we can mix and match the different strategies to develop our own personalized study system.

Scope the Subject

I first brought up the idea of Scoping the Subject in my post on Note-Taking. Scoping the subject is most effective when we do it at the beginning of a study session or when we are learning something new. It is simply asking yourself how much you already know about a subject before diving in.

Scoping the subject has many forms. One of them is through a mind map, which I also talk about in my Note-Taking post. Through creating a mind map, we can easily visualize the information we know and how they are related to each other.

Another way to scope the subject is to skim through the chapter of a textbook and noting any recurring words, phrases, or topics that you are not familiar with. These little holes of unknown are going to be landmarks, so to speak, that our minds will be on the lookout for when we actually learn the material. This is gives our minds an aim. Without an aim, it is extremely difficult to know what to pay attention to. The idea of people needing aims and direction can be taken much further than studying and I talk a lot about it here. People need purpose and purpose only exists in relation to something else. Scoping the subject gives us that reference point necessary to relate to something.

One more extremely helpful aspect of scoping the subject is having a ready made list of the concepts that we need to know. This list can be prioritized which is key to scheduling and timetables.

Build Knowledge Frames

I brought this up in my note-taking post a little while ago. Knowledge Frames work fantastic with mind maps. In a sense, mind maps are a type of knowledge frame. Knowledge Frames can be thought of as a generalized representation of a concept which smaller details can easily be attached.

I originally head of this idea from Dr. Andre Pinesett, a Stanford trained medical doctor who is an expert in student success. He says that students should build a simple understanding of a concept, then expand on that simple frame by adding details to it later on. In one of this long-form videos, he brings up learning the flow through the heart, a concept which most people find difficult to commit to memory.

The best part about knowledge frames is being able to learn these complicated ideas easily and simply. I used knowledge frames to help me memorize blood flow through the heart during EMT school. I’ll show you how I did it here –

One could simply memorize the flow of blood through the heart:

Vena cava → right atrium → tricuspid valve → right ventricle → pulmonic valve → pulmonary artery → lungs → pulmonary veins → left atrium → bicuspid valve → left ventricle → aorta → the rest of the body…

….but that’s not intuitive if you aren’t familiar with anatomy. The best way to memorize the flow isn’t through brute force memorization, but through knowledge frames.

First, we have to create a simple and generalized conceptualization of blood flow through the heart:

The Heart

This is the heart, or at least an extremely simplified version of it. This box will be our initial knowledge frame. As long as we think about the heart like this, it will be easier to learn the smaller details. Now that we’ve build the foundational structure, let’s hang some details on it.

Blood only comes into the heart through the atriums, from the top. It starts a the right atrium.

Entry into the Heart

There are 3 valves between each opening so the blood doesn’t flow backwards. The names are tricuspid, bicuspid, and pulmonic. The tricuspid and bicuspid valves are between the atrium and ventricles and the pulmonic valve is between the right ventricle and the lungs.

I remember this through the classic mnemonic “Try it before you buy it.” The pulmonic valve is named such because it leads to the lungs and things related to the lungs are known as pulmonary.

Veins carry blood towards the heart and arteries carry blood away from the heart so the blood leaves the right ventricle through the pulmonary artery and enters the heart through the pulmonary veins.

Veins, Arteries, and Lungs

The blood enters through the superior and inferior vena cava and exists through the aorta.

Further Specify Enter and Exit

And there you have it! The entire flow of the heart in 4 steps. We can always memorize complex systems and ideas, but chances are there’s a way to understand these things that are less burdensome. Now that we’ve created a knowledge frame, I recommend drawing out the frame in its entirety for active recall.

I’ve also used this idea (before I knew it had a name) in my chemistry classes to learn VSEPR theory in a simple and intuitive way. I’ve also used it to understand cellular respiration and all its’ little details. It’s difficult and time consuming to create knowledge frames but once they are made, they are invaluable, our understanding becomes solidified, and our retention skyrockets.

Find ways to simply concepts, then hang the smaller details on your frame.

Clearly Articulate Failure and Success

“When things cannot be defined, they are outside the sphere of wisdom; for wisdom knows the proper limits of things.”

Seneca (Letters from a Stoic XCIV – On the Value of Advice)

This is an applied idea from the lessons in my posts about drifters and definitive purpose, the reality-possibility exchange, tracking and loss aversion, and the power of failure. We are purpose driven creatures and we need to strive towards something. Having something to specific to strive for does us a lot ot good not just because we experience dopamine releases observing ourselves move towards goals, but because it can help us stay on track.

Always set an intention with every study session, set clear boundaries for failure and success. This is so we know when we’ve finished studying and when we’re behind. I don’t mean using time as a measurement. Have concrete goals that you can measure yourself up against.

This can look many different ways depending on the situation. When I’m working with my students, my goal is usually to do practice questions that cover the topics they will be tested on until they are able to complete the problems without mistakes. Sometimes, I’ll have less qualitative specifications for a study session. If time is short, I may say that the student has to do at least 20 practice problems.

My girlfriend is currently studying for the MCAT and she has the goal of finishing 1 chapter of new information per day. This way, she’ll know when she will actually be done studying. Rather than aimlessly trying to “study as much as we can,” we know exactly when we are done for the day.

As with most of the things I like to share, this lesson can be taken much further than simply studying. Articulation is the highest level of understanding and paying attention to how well articulated our goals and boundaries are will change our lives for the better.

Apply this to any endeavor you choose and watch your accomplishments slowly grow.

Past Papers, Exams, and Essay Plans are Crucial

I mean this with my heart and soul. Textbooks, the internet, fantastic tutors, friends are all great resources but nothing compares to old exams and thorough plans.

When we study for an exam, we want to be able to answer the questions that come up on the test and the best way to do that is to practice recalling the concepts that will be covered on that test. When many students, including myself, try to create active recall questions they inevitably wonder if the questions they’re using are sufficient for the exam.

How do we know we’re studying the right questions?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard and thought “I didn’t study any of the stuff that was actually on the test.” There are few things that suck more than preparing for the wrong situation, especially if the stakes are high. Studying the wrong material sucks so bad. We put in the work, only to discover that we’ve sacrificed the wrong thing.

Nothing is better than studying old exams or past papers, especially if those tests were administered by the same professor! This way we’ll already know what their tests are like. We will know what types of questions to expect, the wording of the questions, the length of the exam, and so many other things. By reviewing an old test, we remove a lot of the uncertainty surrounding it, which gives us more confidence and lowers our need for anxiety. Anxiety is our response to preparing for unknown variables and studying past exams takes out many unknowns.

If old exams aren’t accessible, practice tests are usually supplied at the end of a chapter which cover the 80/20 of the need-to-know for most STEM classes.

If you have to write an essay, examine the structures and characteristics of past essays can provide a stronger structure to work with especially in timed constraints. Read over an old essay and ask:

  • How did they structure this paper?
  • Why did they structure it that way?
  • What are weakness of this paper? Avoid those.
  • What are strengths of this paper? Mimic those.

Plagiarism is a terrible thing, but finding inspiration from others is totally fair game. In Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, he talks about the uniqueness of each individual how that affects our ability to imitate. Kleon suggests that if one were to try to make a copy of another’s work, individualism would influence the work enough to create something new. I believe this is so true! By allowing ourselves to be influenced by our surroundings, we are naturally influencing the world around us. When we look over old papers, I suggest mimicking as much as possible. Allow your own voice to shine through, but steal the concepts, plans, and ideas and make them your own.

Once the ideas for the essay are gathered, write out an outline over and over and over and over and over until you can write that essay in your sleep.

Be Mindful of Diminishing Returns

“The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.”

Norman R. Augustine (1935 – )

The idea of unproportional output to input is found in so many places and has been given many different names from many different people. The 80/20 rule is a fantastic example. I think everyone should spend a little time learning about these different observations and natural phenomena because the knowledge of these ideas changes how we would approach situations in a more powerful way. These ideas are powerful because they are based on the assumption that diminishing returns are something to pay attention to.

The Point of Diminishing Return is a phenomena of systems and it is the point when the ratio of output/input has decreased to a point where it’s no longer reasonable to continue. In terms of studying, this is the point when you would have to put in MORE effort to be able to learn LESS information. The point of diminishing returns eventually turns into Negative Returns, which should be avoided at all costs.

f(x) = x^(1/2) ish?

Derek Sivers has a fantastic story about him biking which illustrates this idea perfectly, I write about it in my post Another 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling. 45 instead of 43 is the preferred method of doing things.

Ramit Sethi also preaches his idea of “getting the big wins” and moving on with his life, which also is predicated on the idea of calling it quits at the point of diminishing return. Ramit calls it The 85% Solution – get 85% of it right and move on! I love this because it allows us the freedom to leave if something takes too much of our precious and nonrenewable attention. I do this all the time with my students, if we come across a problem that takes 20 minutes for us to complete I would either try to break down the concepts into smaller chunks or just leave it. I will literally say “don’t worry about this and plan to get it wrong on the test.” This idea shocks people, but it gives us the freedom to move on and cover other material. When it comes to studying rather than use the 85% solution, I say do the 90% solution – get 90% of it right and move on.

One thing to consider is where the point of diminishing returns actually is. One person’s point of diminishing return can look different from another’s. So the question is –

What determines our own point of diminishing returns?

I believe it’s a few different things, but the biggest factor lies in our trajectory. Our future plans decide where our point of diminishing returns are. This is another reason why Clearly Articulating Failure and Success is critical to being a better student. Where we are going decides what our present circumstances mean to us and through clearly defining where we are headed, we can more easily determine if our efforts are worth it.

We don’t have the energy to fight every battle. We must pick and choose. Know when it’s time to back away and know when it’s time to push.