Learning Something Every Day of 2016: January Report

For the past month I’ve had a mission: to learn something new every day. And I’m pleased to declare this mission a resounding success. There was that one day where I just played games all evening, but I’m not looking for perfection, only progress.

spreadsheet screenshot, things learned by date

The things I learned in January.

Some of these things were completely new to me, some of them were review, some of them were known but not well understood, or just forgotten.

Why

Last year I read an article which described a technical topic relevant to my job. It presented the information clearly, and when I finished I had a much better understanding of the subject. Hooray! And then I realised I had already bookmarked it, maybe a year earlier. At that time I was dealing with the issues described in the article, I found and skimmed the article, decided I didn’t have time to spend reading it, and kept bumbling along with an incomplete understanding of the problem I was trying to solve.

This really bothered me. Why didn’t past-me read the article when it would have been most helpful? It wasn’t long, and it was clearly written. It probably would have immediately saved at least double the amount of time I spend reading it. Even if I hadn’t read it immediately, I obviously felt it was valuable enough to bookmark for later, but I didn’t follow through in a useful amount of time.

Procrastination

Procrastination is a problem for me, and has been pretty much for as long as I can remember having to do things that weren’t fun (eg. homework). On any given night there’s a pretty good chance that I will spend most or all of it either playing games or watching a movie/show, or both at the same time. Watching a movie while playing a game is an attempt to make more units of entertainment fit into fewer units of time. This is only possible when both are mindless enough I don’t need to pay much attention to either. This also leaves me with just enough left-over mental energy to dwell on how I’m not engaging in a more rewarding activity. Time well spent!

I’m not opposed to spending leisure time on TV and games, but there are plenty of more rewarding things I’d like to do as well.

That Damned Monkey

If you procrastinate, you probably understand how I come to be in the situation where I’m not spending my time doing the things I want to be doing. If you don’t struggle with procrastination, be grateful! I could describe what it’s like, but that’s been done before:

Don't Hit Save comic

It basically works like this.

One of the things you can do to procrastinate is to google for solutions to procrastination. In doing so a year or two ago I came across the procrastination articles on Wait But Why. They are entertaining and propose a model of procrastination involving an evil monkey that lives in your mind. I read the series of posts, I laughed, I cried, I nodded in agreement and understanding. I had a new and entertaining model for my situation.

Except… nothing changed. I didn’t come away with any more effective tools for dealing with procrastination than I had before.

Another year passes.

The Now Habit

The stress of the Christmas holidays, combined with a solid month of dark December rain clouds, combined with procrastination driven self-doubt, all leads back to sitting around googling for self-help blogs about beating procrastination. After churning through the usual cruft, like this post you’re reading right now, I came across a recommendation for The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play. Through the magic of Kindle, I purchased and began reading the book that evening. At the risk of sounding like a shill, I am going to say some positive things about this product that provided me with some value. It changed my January. We’ll have to wait a bit longer to see if it changed my life.

I took two main things away from the book:

  1. Procrastination is not the root problem inflicted on you by an external force, or unstoppable evil mind monkey. It’s actually a solution that we employ against other problems such as fear of failure, doubting that we can or should perform a task, or as a way to protest resentment at not living the life of leisure we so surely deserve. Unfortunately, the cost is high in using procrastination as a general tool against all of life’s obstacles.
  2. “Keep on starting, and finishing will take care of itself.” To simplify one of the presented tools: take something you should do (something you see as a chore), and do it for just 30 minutes at the earliest possible opportunity. Then take something you want to do, and do that for 30 minutes. Holy shit, you just did two things in one hour. It’s a miracle.

I really like the 30 minutes system, because it sounds so short. That is of course the point. 30 minutes is barely any time at all. Let’s say I have 3 hours of time to spend in the evening between finishing dinner and starting to get ready for bed. That’s enough time for six things! Six! That’s an infinity of things more than I normally do.

The author has other more in-depth and detailed systems, schedules, charts and practices. Most of them sounded boring, let’s do the 30 minutes thing.

Learning Every Day

Going back to where I started, the thing that was really bugging me, was that I hadn’t taken just half an hour to read about a topic I had already decided I was interested in reading about. So I did that right away. I stopped reading the self-help book and I read about the most recent thing I could think of that was on my mental to learn list: Elliptic Curve encryption.

Ok, check one off the list. Already a success, if a minor one. But that’s always the way of things in procrastination land. Occasional flurries of activity with long soul crushing droughts in between. But it did prove a point. I had only spent about 30 minutes on it. At this point I’ve still got 2-3 more things left I could do this evening. So I watched some TV. And then I read some more. I just did like… 3 things.

Mental math time, if I have a potential 6 things I could do per evening, I could easily reserve just one of them for learning. I could learn a thing every day, and still be able to do 5 other things. This could work.

Is 30 Minutes Enough?

Yes. Yes it is. I was actually a bit surprised by this, because it doesn’t sound like a lot of time. A big project will take many days to complete. But that big project already was going to take many days. Potentially infinite days, because you weren’t actually working on it at all.

30 minutes can actually feel like a lot of time. If you’re learning something new, it’s hard work, you’ll get tired, but it’ll be fine because hey there’s only like 7 minutes left, that’s nothing to worry about.

Isn’t Every Day Too Much?

So far it appears not to be the case. I slipped one day early on, but since then I have learned (or done) some new thing every day for the entire month. And beside it’s only 1 out of the 6 potential things I do might do every day, those 5 others are going to include things like playing The Witness or watching Elementary. Maybe both, and there’s still room for working on some other project I’ve been meaning to do. This is not a grind, and the whole point is to ensure that you stop and enjoy life along the way.

It’s been a month, and it has been tiring at times, but I’m not exhausted. I’m optimistic.

My System

I’ve reserved 1 Unit Of Doing Things (30 minutes) every day for learning. What about the rest of my time? Well, I’m basically winging it, but I have some basic guidelines I follow.

Guidelines

These are not rules, or even advice, it’s how I think about it for myself. Maybe you can try it too, change it up to suit your situation. Ok that part was advice, I’m sorry.

  1. The 30 minutes is a hard minimum. Spend the time continuously if at all possible, any small potential interruption that can wait 30 minutes should wait. Do not reply to that email, do not look at Twitter, do not make tea. By this time there’s probably only 14 minutes left, and it can definitely wait that long.
  2. 30 minutes isn’t a hard maximum, but only keep going if it really makes sense. If your TV show is an hour long, just finish watching it, but don’t start another episode. Try to wrap up whatever you’re doing as soon as the 30 minutes is over.
  3. Don’t do all work or all play things in one day, that’s what got you into this mess. Some things are obviously just more urgent than others, so do no more than one of those things first. Then do something more fun.
  4. Consider how you feel each day.
    • If you’re telling yourself that you haven’t had enough leisure time, fine. Start with no more than one chore, it’s only 30 minutes. Go with the flow after that, but change it up every 30 minutes if it makes sense to.
    • Haven’t been productive enough lately? Start with one productive thing. Then do one leisure thing. Alternate, or go with the flow after that.
  5. If you’re not sure something is worth doing, then do it. After 30 minutes if it turns out you were wrong, don’t do it again, and you don’t have to think about it any more.
  6. If you’re on a roll, keep doing what you’re doing for as long as you want. But make sure to start with something different tomorrow.
  7. But get to bed on time. You don’t need to finish everything today, you can pick up what you were doing first thing tomorrow.

Here’s my rough pool of tasks for January:

I will continue with this basic plan for February, and tweak it if needed. I’m a bit on the fence about whether I should encourage a specific amount of variety in what I learn, a couple of my “things to learn” ended up consuming the learn slots for an entire week or more. But there were also plenty of one-offs. So far I think this balance has worked, and I’ll change it if it feels warranted.

I started using Toggl to track some of my activities on Jan 10th. Since then I’ve spent 17 hours learning, and 20 hours working on my hobby project. This blog post took me about 5.5 hours, and I still have time for 4 more things today!

TL;DR

Choose one of the things you want to do, and do it for 30 minutes. Repeat.

It worked for me.