Given the chance to observe our behaviors, computers can run simulations, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we’ve read, help us track whom we’ve met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak’s scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.

The reason the inventor of SuperMemo pursues extreme anonymity, asking me to conceal his exact location and shunning even casual recognition by users of his software, is not because he’s paranoid or a misanthrope but because he wants to avoid random interruptions to a long-running experiment he’s conducting on himself. Wozniak is a kind of algorithmic man. He’s exploring what it’s like to live in strict obedience to reason. On first encounter, he appears to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

Extreme knowledge is not something for which he programs a computer but for which his computer is programming him.

Philosopher William James once wrote that mental life is controlled by noticing. Climbing out of the sea and onto the windy beach, my skin purple and my mind in a reverie provoked by shock, I find myself thinking of a checklist Wozniak wrote a few years ago describing how to become a genius. His advice was straightforward yet strangely terrible: You must clarify your goals, gain knowledge through spaced repetitions, preserve health, work steadily, minimize stress, refuse interruption, and never resist sleep when tired. This should lead to radically improved intelligence and creativity. The only cost: turning your back on every convention of social life. It is a severe prescription. And yet now, as I grin broadly and wave to the gawkers, it occurs to me that the cold rationality of his approach may be only a surface feature and that, when linked to genuine rewards, even the chilliest of systems can have a certain visceral appeal. By projecting the achievement of extreme memory back along the forgetting curve, by provably linking the distant future — when we will know so much — to the few minutes we devote to studying today, Wozniak has found a way to condition his temperament along with his memory. He is making the future noticeable. He is trying not just to learn many things but to warm the process of learning itself with a draft of utopian ecstasy.

– From The Memory Master, Wired Magazine

This quotation brings up two points that warrant future contemplation: (1) the use of gods, systems, and computers in granting humans peace of mind, and (2) the unpalatability of ‘genius’ when we really think about it.

I’ll add those two things to my system for future contemplation. :P

Tackle School Like a Pro

February 27, 2008

So, you may or may not know this, but I’m a bit of a ‘self-help’ junky. It’s not a healthy habit, and certainly not an flattering one, but I guess it’s better than an addiction to, say, crack or food. At least, that’s what I tell myself (don’t all addicts?).

Anyway, every once in a while, I come across a site that actually brings some of the airy-fairy principles of ‘human development’ down into the realm of pragmatism. I found one of those sites the other day. And it’s really really good!

The site is called Study Hacks. I don’t know most of the background about it, and I’m sure if you’d like to know it, you could check that out. What I’m most interested is the ideas at the site. I feel like the author, Cal Newport, has basically taken all of the half-baked ideas I’ve ever had about how to study, plan out my school day, etc, and put them in the oven until they come out as delicious, delicious cake! Smart cake!

The idea behind the site can be summed up in one statement: work smart, not hard. Which has basically been my school philosophy since my freshman year of high school. It always confused me when people would say they ‘studied all day’ for a test. What does that even mean? And why were those people also always the ones that ended up doing poorly on the test.

At this point it was obvious that what they were doing wasn’t ‘studying’ how I define it. They didn’t spend a given amount of time with a large amount of concentrated focus on the topic at hand. They might have ‘studied’ while talking on AIM, or watching TV, or chatting on the phone. Yeah, no wonder it took so long!

Anyway, enough about me. I wanted to share some of the articles from this site that I’ve found most thought-provoking / useful. So here we go!

Start from the main index of skills of ‘Straight-A’ students. From there, you can learn how to block out your time, or perhaps learn the benefits of a fixed schedule and how to plan your day optimally. If that’s not enough OCD for you, consider setting up a task tracking system a la GTD. Then find out how to efficiently tackle any problem set or write any paper. Then, if that’s not enough, learn the art of ‘studying without studying.’

Even if you think that your study skills have gotten you pretty far as is, I advise checking out this site / these articles. I’ve already mined a bunch of ideas that have eliminated a lot of stress from my life. Maybe you can find something useful for yourself.

Happy schooling!

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to develop ways to “get motivated.” Admittedly, this should be a pretty simple process: the thought ‘You need to do this’ should immediately trigger the response ‘Let’s do it!’ and then the action should get done.

Yeah, right. If we were computers, maybe. But if we were computers, we wouldn’t have intuition, creativity, or any of the other lovely qualities that make us, well, human. And besides, what challenge would there be in that? And therefore, what reward?

So, what have I been doing to “hack” this human error? Well, I’ve tried tons of things. Let me give you the short version of some:

(1) The simplest one involves just making a list of things “to do” and then kicking through it. This one works surprisingly well. It’s elegant, all you need is a piece of paper, and the energy you free up just by making the list gives you the momentum to get started. I highly advise.

(2) Just doing what I feel like doing. This is pretty much the antithesis of number one. When you feel like doing homework, do some homework. When you feel like writing a blog post, write a blog post. And when you feel like just chilling out listening to music, then chill! Also a simple model. It allows you to do what you “want” to do, so you get a boost when you decide you “want” to get important things, like homework or a blog post, done. I also advise this system, but not every day. Maybe once a week, like on Sunday’s, when you feel like taking a break from the over-scheduled world.

(3) Make a schedule. This one seems the most likely to work, but I’ve found it the least effective. Basically, you make a list of all the things you want to do, and then you fill them into a blank day-schedule. So, at 9 you do your chemistry homework, at 10 you go for a run, and at 11 you eat lunch. It’s all there, down on the page. Plus you PUT it all on the page at some point, so you know you must want to do it. For some reason, this method just makes me freeze up. I feel like my day has turned from a flow of energy to a giant monolithic mountain that I have to dig a tunnel through. I don’t advise this one, but if you figure out a way to make it work, give me a heads up. :)

Those are simplifications of the systems I’ve been trying out since I got to college and decided I wanted a better method for motivation than, “Oh, shit! This paper’s due in a day!” I like all of them, to an extent. But they all have their weaknesses, so me being the optimizer that I am, decided to come up with yet another system.

I’ve been reading a lot by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yeah, that’s a tongue twister of a last name, but it’s pronounced easily: “chic sent me high” [nice!]). He’s a psychologist that studies a phenomena known as “flow.” I wrote about flow on my old blog here, when I profiled a game based on the theory. I won’t reiterate it here, because to be honest it’s not that important. Let me just summarize flow: it’s a great feeling you have when life’s a game. Pretty simple. Rules, goals, easy feedback, all these things lead to flow. All these things are in games. Basically because games are “autotelic” (which means, literally, “a means unto itself”) by there very nature. Something that’s autotelic makes should be done for its own good. IE you don’t need to get anything from it, it’s just enjoyable to do. Think of reading, going for a fun bike ride (if you’re not pumping your heart for cardio reasons), a nice talk with a friend. Now, none of these activities are purely autotelic, just like no job is purely exotolic (a means outside itself).

If you want to experience flow, make things more autotelic, ie more game like. And thus comes in my latest idea for motivation: The Action Hero Card Game© (okay, I didn’t really copyright it, but if you steal my idea and market it, that’s bad Karma on you!). Here’s a picture of it below:
Action Hero Card Game
Nice, huh? Now let me explain. As you can see, each card has a box in the upper left and upper right corner, as well as one in the bottom third. The top left box has the time that I’m going to do the activity, the top right box has the amount of time I’m to spend on the activity, and the bottom box has any notes on the activity (take the write blog post one for example: the time is 8 (when I started writing thing post!), the amount of time is 30 minutes (the amount of time it took me to write this!), and the note says to write about making card games to increase motivation (you get the idea!).

Basically, I have a stack of such cards, and I go through them one at a time throughout the game. When I finish a card, I turn it over, place it in a separate (done) pile, read the next card, and either act on it if the time’s come, or move on to whatever I feel like doing at the moment. I can do that because I know I’ve planned out the day to the point that I’ll get everything done. No guilt in randomly surfing the interweb or randomly writing some stuff. It’s a nice feeling. :)

There’s a little more to this system than I’ve explained (like, how do I decide what to do in a day? and when to do it? and how long to do it?), but I’ll leave those items for a later blog post.

I hope you found this post informational. And maybe now you’re motivated to make you’re very own Action Hero Card Game© set! ;)

Namaste.

So, I’ve been trying to get a better handle on my time (as I’m sure you’ve all been able to extrapolate from all the posts on time and such). I just came out of a phase where I tried to schedule my day down to the t, with a little reminder of every time 30 minutes passed. Long story short, it didn’t really work out that well. It felt great at first, but very quickly it all fell apart and pretty soon I felt more like shit than not when using that system.

So now I’ve done the complete opposite. I’ve lived without any sort of system for the past few days (since about mid-Saturday), and the effect has been nice. Well, it was nice on the weekends when I didn’t have any scheduled obligations. With classes starting, I’ve felt that same nagging feeling that I had with the super-schedule, though a little less intense. I definitely like the “no time” method more, but I think I need to add some additional boundaries for it to really work.

But first, I made up a theoretical schema of how I spend my time, on average, every week. I’ll post it here just for you!

my-time.jpg

Aren’t pie charts just too freaking gorgeous? But I digress…

As you can see, I have a pretty action packed day (that is, if you consider meditation, blog writing, and journalling to be action packed…). Though that action packed-ness still leaves me with about 6 hours of unplanned time on average every day (assuming only 7 hours of sleep, which I should really work on) that just kind of sits there. Not doing much. Like money not put into a bank.

Well, I have to go get some laundry. But I’ll be sure to update this later as my plan for time management continues to unfold. Until then, make sure your fly is up!

Namaste.