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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