Time and the Straight-A Student

The more I work to stay aware of what it is I am doing, the more I realize how important it is to keep track of how much time activities take, how long you allot for them (that is, you must limit the amount of time you will allow things to take – à la Parkinson’s law, and you must realize what the impact is of the time taken on other activities, specifically scarcity of future available resources – time  or willpower.

I recently finished How to Become a Straight-A Student, by Cal Newport, whose Study Hacks blog I’ve been a fan of for some time. Interesting read, but one thing that struck me was that this didn’t describe a actually significant decrease in the amount of time required for the learning process (studying, taking tests or notes, writing/presenting).

This is my observation rather than Cal’s statement, but it seems like the way it works is not that these processes actually take less time, but they are more efficient in the long-term because they are less likely to falter. That is to say, for project X, if it would take 2 hours to complete if all goes well, or 3 hours if you follow a rigorous linear process, the 2 hours is preferable. However, if all does not go well, and the project takes 4 hours, you would have been better off with the process-focused methodology. So it’s a bit of a gamble to just try without a system – though success can occur organically. On average, if you follow a system you come out at least the same (following the assumptions laid out above).

There are two things that can modify this to make systematization more efficient. One, practice – if you practice a system, you will become more efficient at its use and being able to flow through the stages of a system. So perhaps your system will take 2 hours instead of 3 hours and then the system wins hands-down. But, this requires time and consistency of action. Secondly, intuition – if you create a high enough level system, you will be able to intuit the system and it becomes again like the organic process.

True memorization is more like developing intuition. It’s less like you intellectually remember something, and more like you feel it.

So in Straight-A Student,  it struck me that this would not be a process to do more work in less time, it may actually be the same amount of work in more time and it absolutely relies on repetition and duration to make that worthwhile. However, past unscalable efficiency there are several improvements from this system other than speed: a) the information gathered may be able to be connected to emotionally though the additional passage of time and un-consolidation of the process and thus better learned (whihc again improves efficiency over a long-term scale (logarithmically?), and b) the process is overall less fraught, thus reducing overall stress induced by life and allowing, again, you to connect more openly and emotionally with the subject matter and other areas of your life with more subjectivity because you are not draining your willpower.

I didn’t used to really buy into the idea that willpower was a limited resource (apparently called “ego depletion,” but in this context, it’s started to make a lot more sense to me. It’s almost as if willpower isn’t itself substantive, but if it is absent (depleted), that absence is apparent. It’s more of a limiter than a condition. In a game or data sense this makes a lot of sense, but I think it’s not something that we consider regularly in everyday life.

Thus, if we can reduce the amount of ego depletion we incur while going about regular activities, it’s as if you’re playing a video game on “god mode” – it’s not a cheat in that you know what steps you need to beat the level, it’s just that you now have unlimited resources. Now, unlimited is a stretch for being in the process itself, but part of the Straight-A diction focuses on the fact that it’s not all about getting straight A’s – you want to/get to/should party and date and do “fun” stuff. Both parts are necessary to the system as a whole, so in any one part of the process (work/play) you are absent the other, but they are not binary as in good versus evil, it’s more of a black and white duality, rather like a yin yang. You engage in each part of the process, over time, and using time to balance – on both sides – is the winning strategy behind this solution.

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I am workiCalvin & Hobbes - When does bread become toast?ng on a project I’m calling “Alchemy.” I’m hoping, that with some diligence and some time, I will be able to develop and utilize this system for project completion for myself as sort of an alpha/beta test and then, eventually, as I develop my programming knowledge, I will be able to make an actual computer program for it. Nothing too fancy – very function over form, but I’m thinking something with a dashboard as well as a Mac-ish minimalist aesthetic rather than the old-school and too-many-things-to-screw-up DOS-look that a lot of functional programs (like Foobar 2000 or Notepad++ ) have.

Over the years, I have been intimate with a number of tools for goal-setting - 43 ThingsRemember the Milk , Backpack before Basecamp née 37 Signals put it out to pasture, HabitRPG, Trello (which I am still using, kind of), mind maps, written to-do lists, and any number of other sites, programs, and systems that didn’t stick. Everything is too complicated or too simple or not integrated enough or I need help with limits on when my to-do list is done and I can start doing. Because I can spend years polishing my to-do list and getting nowhere. I’m tired of starting over, so I’m taking a step back and trying to figure out a system that just works.

Now, creating this system itself is a meta-goal. I have to get my shit together and decide how to manifest what I envision this project as being. (Or, in keeping with the system at least figure out what it can best manifest as.) I think I do have a clear vision for it, so I am trying to clear the cobwebs and record how I did that as I go so Alchemy can become a repeatable process.

Part of this is denying all the objections in my brain for why I can’t, or shouldn’t, or can’t know that I should, do things. If I accept those three objections 1) I can’t, 2) I shouldn’t, and 3) I can’t know that I should – should I still know what I can’t do? I think yes and that is  part of Alchemy. Like I said, clearing the cobwebs – it’s obvious those aren’t part of the structure, part of the solution.

And the best things in life are obvious.

My brain also says that my projects might not be that great. Either just not impressive or not towards my high-level goals. Brain, I say, “WTF are your high level goals?” Brain says, “I dunno, like, doing stuff, getting stuff done.” “Cool,” I say. “This will allow us to do stuff. Let’s go.” “But,” Brain says. “It needs to be good stuff.” “Okay” I say. “Do you know what good stuff is?” “Well, no…” Brain replies. “I mean, generally, but I’m not sure what would definitely be good.” “Cool,” I say. “That sounds like perfectly sufficient criteria to me. Let’s go.”

Less selfishly, I hope that I can make this a system that other people might be able to adopt. I have some secret strategies to utilize that I think will improve the product quality and really open it up for functionality. I have no idea if other people will want to adopt it. If it works for me I guess that’s enough, but I think this will be really useful if my experience with similar visions in a business function are a good indication. The uses could be very broad, which is exactly how I’m hoping to use it. I’m tired of tweaking my systems and I just need something that will work whether I want to sew a quilt or start a business.

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I have some ideas for where this blog could go, but I’m torn between it being something personal, that is, purely for my benefit, more of a diary or something thematic. While I think many of the ideas I explore for my own benefit can be tied into a common theme, it’s not quite the same as an actually focused-topic blog.

That said, one of the skills I want to work on in my life is actually an issue of diffused attention so I think I would like to have this blog go in a certain direction. When I originally registered the domain many years ago, I was thinking that I would be able to do something about efficiency – this was back in the days when Gina still ran Lifehacker, Get Rich Slowly was new (and J.D. was not retired) and I’m sure all sorts of opportunities and connections I could have made had I tried to get involved while I saw my chance.

Anyway, my point specifically is that my hope is to make this blog about action, not rumination. It’s not at all about what I could have done before now. Or even what I could do now. I have a few projects I want to work on and want to develop systems to enact – and complete – them.

This isn’t a complete departure from my previous idea of a theme, but what I am hoping to do is enable the blog to be support for me learning new things – whether broad, like how to accomplish goals and appreciate my achievements (meta-goal), or specific, like learning coding or home remodeling or getting a new job. Teaching, or at the very least, summarizing, is one of the best ways to learn (à la the Feynman technique) so my hope is to be able to compile and distill insights that I gain about how to do specific things and what I learn about how to learn, and live, better.

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Lightning Tip: Kill your alarm

image courtesy of H is for Home

For years I battled with my alarm clock, hearing the grating beeping trying to drag me from the comfy darkness and have to do things like get dressed, eat something, go somewhere. Ugh.

Little did I know how simple the solution was.

I started using my cellphone as my alarm clock when we moved and for the first time could set the alarm to a different noise. I set it to a  mellow chime and, lo and behold, it wakes me up, but doesn’t shock me out of sleep.

Not having that adrenaline rush waking me up has made my mornings so much more pleasant and – as long as I’m not trying to push it with the hours of sleep I need – makes me want to get up instead of pressing snooze again and again.

Kind of a “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar situation”. Why we think we need to beat ourselves into submission with a violent, screeching alarm and taste of panic in our mouths in the morning just to drag ourselves out of bed, I’m not sure, but I can definitely say this has made my mornings much better and more efficient without the perpetu-snooze.

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Taking Stock in… Stock

We eat a lot of vegetables – and don’t have a compost bin – so that means we have a ton of vegetable “trash” (which I have paid however much per lb at the grocery for).

image courtesy of testpatern

For years, one thing that we have done is keep a “broth bag” in the freezer. Many or most vegetable scraps go in here: onion peels, parsley stems, carrot peelings, rosemary stems, fennel fronds, etc. and animal products such as eggshells, chicken/beef/lamb/ham bones can also be added. I currently use two 1-gallon zipper bags (freezer burn is not a concern) and when those get full, everything gets thrown in a large pot, water poured on top, a couple bay leaves and a shake of peppercorns added and it simmers for hours. I definitely recommend doing this on a chilly day because it definitely warms and steams up the house – although it is a delicious smell!

There are some veggies I don’t recommend – cabbage cores or leaves, broccoli, brussel sprouts, eggplant or herbs that might not fit with the other flavors you have included like cilantro.

After the stock has simmered enough, we let it cool a bit and strain it through our colander into a container. Usually I just put it in the fridge and we use it in all kinds of dishes for a little extra pizazz or for soups French Onion Soup is a personal favorite). You can, however, freeze it – either in a container (being sure to leave a little room for it to expand) or ice cube trays for easy measuring.

Summary of benefits:

  • Save money by maximizing use of your groceries
  • Save waste by using the scraps to the fullest before disposing (if you do all-veggie broth, you can definitely put the post-stock slurry in the compost heap if you have one!)
  • Bonus food by making broth from “trash”
  • If it’s cold, you can consider this some extra heating and humidity :)

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4 reasons to love the library

One thing that I think many people don’t take sufficient advantage of is their public library. When moving from San Francisco to Chicago I’ve had some bumps in the road with adapting to the local library, but I still love it. In both places, we’ve been about a 10 minute walk from a library – in SF, the Main Library and in Chicago a regional branch.

image courtesy of Enokson

  1. Placing holds online is awesome! Pretty much any public library these days has an online database where you can search all the materials in the library system. You can browse stuff you’d like to check out, enter your account info and set the item to be delivered to whichever library is most convenient to you and then pick them up at your convenience. Cost: $0. Extra work over buying books on Amazon: Marginal, and none if the delivery guy misses you and you have to go pick up your package.
  2. They have movies! I don’t think people realize, the library has TONS of DVDs (and VHSs if you’re old school) – and not just documentaries and PBS series – they have all the blockbusters, usually a great array of cool foreign films, hit TV series (we watched the entire Sopranos series from the library), classics (I’m a huge fan of the Critereon Collection). Combine this with and well… Cost: $0, Extra work over Netflix: Only pick-up from the library instead of delivery to your door.
  3. They have music! Again, it’s not just opera and classical, the library has all kinds of popular music. Not to promote anything illegal, but just sayin’ Exact Audio Copy is awesome and works great on CDs that might be scratched from a lot of handling.
  4. Books are awesome! Seriously. Reading is amazing. I can tear through fiction but I’m trying to teach myself to get better at reading non-fiction too. I’m not sure what my problem is because even the type of non-fiction that’s written to read like a novel doesn’t usually grab me (though I was enthralled by Mad in America and found it incredibly readable). – unless it’s a business book (a lot of which are awful – I thought Up the Organization was amazing and the concepts are timeless (even if the talk about the “girls in the steno pool” isn’t)). There are so many amazing books in the world – currently we have 12 items out – three novels for me, some amazing photo books, a couple books for A, some art books, and a movie.

And 4 surprise special bonus reasons!

The library in Chicago also has museum passes that you can check out for free admission to certain museums, which I find pretty amazing, especially given the quality of the museums here (the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago kind of blew my mind).

image courtesy of ConanTheLibrarian

Both Chicago and San Francisco libraries offer free WiFi which is nice – though I’ve gotta say that if you’re going to camp out and do work, I’d personally prefer home where I can be comfy or a cafe so I can sip some coffee while I go, whereas libraries don’t like food or drink in the building. I actually set up for a day at the Chicago library just after I moved and was trying to work but didn’t have internet yet – it didn’t work that great though because I needed to talk on the phone which is also not cool to do at the library, so I kept having to go down to the lobby and outside.

If you’re into eBooks (including for the Kindle) or audio books (total white noise for me), you can check these out from the library too – by downloading them online.

The long and the short of it is the library is an amazing resource that is available to you at no cost (or you’re paying for it through taxes anyway so it’s wasteful not to use it).

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In the Beginning…

I have had this idea for a blog for quite some time – at least before I registered the inateapot.com domain in January ’08. Now, nearly three six years later, I am finally breaking ground.

image courtesy of KayVee.INC

Something I have heard repeated again and again – both in my personal and business life – is the need to do more with less. This is something that I have found myself to be quite good at; putting the pieces together to maximize the space, finding most efficient way to get something done, fitting the Tempest in the Teapot.

Let me say, I do realize that this is not the traditional usage of the expression tempest in a teapot, but I think my concept is equally valid. We all seem to have “tempests” these days we need to contain – and only “teapots” to store them.

My goal with this blog is to help share what I have learned about how to do that in various parts of life (personal, social, mental, financial and professional) and hopefully, teach myself more and hone my skills in the process. I expect this to be somewhat similar to “lifehacks” but with less of the focus on gadgetry like Lifehacker has and a more general explanation of ways I personally see to make work and life more efficient.

Thank you for reading.

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