Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 59

The Study Habit

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The Study Habit

When you hear the word “study” or “studying,” what image comes to mind? Is it something like this?

A cramming, red-bull guzzling college student pulls an all-nighter before a big exam. Then, when the exam is over, he gleefully forgets everything he learned (preferably in a fog of beer) clearing the slate of his brain for the next subject.

Perhaps you were or even still are such a student.

If so, what do you remember about it? Probably not the subject matter!

What you learned was likely temporary. It wasn’t important in itself. It was a means to an end (passing a test, getting a good grade), a set of clues to clear an intellectual obstacle course. Once the obstacle course was cleared, you could safely forget what you learned. You may have even been better off forgetting what you learned, so it wouldn’t distract you from the next challenge.

This kind of “studying=cramming” does have its uses. I don’t mean to disparage it. The world we live in, like it or not, really is full of all kinds of intellectual obstacle courses that we need to clear in order to prove to others and ourselves that we are competent human beings.

But cramming has problems. At least three big ones.

1) these days college and final exams are rarely the end of us having to learn new things. It was fine to exhaust ourselves sprinting for a few years when we were young students, but, in our future-shocked world, we have to keep doing it, again and again, throughout our careers just to keep up with our changing fields. Or, as more and more of us do, we completely change fields and have to retrain -- maybe more than once over the course of our lives. How do we sustainably pace ourselves to keep learning? College-style cramming will burn us out.

2) How do we learn things to really retain and deeply assimilate them, for use in real life, not just to pass a test or gain a credential? If I’m studying French, I don’t want to just get a good grade, I don’t even just want to know French in some abstract quizzable way, I want to be able to use French, to speak and understand the language and use it in real world situations. The same holds for a new technology or technique. How do you transform knowledge into skill or something even deeper than a skill? From something you regurgitate consciously for quizzes into something that’s part of you, an automatic reflex? Maybe even part of your character?

3) Finally, is it possible to look at study not as a means to an end, but as an intrinsic good in itself? Something to be valued and enjoyed apart from any practical value? Some of us had the opportunity to study completely useless subjects in college like art history and philosophy. The liberal arts. Beautiful and useless. Is it possible to do that again without the pressure of exams, and despite the pressure of the rat race of “real life?”

Over the years, I’ve come up with a set of practices and mindsets for myself to address these three deficiencies of study=cramming. I call it The Study Habit. You’ve probably heard the term “study habits” (plural), applied to lists of techniques on how to study more efficiently in an academic setting. Well, those can be useful, but The Study Habit, singular and title case, is singularly focused on how to make study a habit at all when you’re not in an academic setting. A lifelong habit. It’s about treating study as something like diet or exercise, where the main problem is not finding some trick to do it more effectively but how to trick yourself into doing it at all, regularly, and sustainably, without and despite external pressure.

Step one is simply seeing study in this way, reframing what study is in your mind. It’s a little like CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy. The cognitive part is simply telling yourself a different mental story about what study is. The behavior part is the practices themselves, what you do. These two components, the cognitive, mental story on the one hand, and the concrete behaviors on the other support each other in a virtuous circle.

The cognitive part can be hard to do, since we’re so accustomed to studying=cramming. I mentioned the three problems with this view, but it can help to reframe them by flipping the problem statements into positive expressions, three good kinds of study to strive for. I call these three positive expressions: 1. Continuous study 2. Improving study and 3. contemplative study.

I’ll talk about each of them in turn. Then I’ll talk about the common techniques (the behaviors)I use to approach them all.

Continuous study. This is basically the same kind of cramming you used to do in college BUT with the crucial recognition that you’re going to have to keep doing it throughout your life to keep up with the cruel taskmaster known as progress. It doesn’t have to be about work related subjects, but for many of us, work makes something like this non-optional. I work in technology, and tech knowledge has a disturbingly short half life. Frankly, it’s exhausting sometimes trying to keep up. But I have to, because it’s my job, and that means I need to carve out time for professional learning, at the cost of pushing aside other more immediately pressing tasks. That’s not easy to do. Because though it’s long term critical that I keep up, no one is ever short term breathing down my neck to do it, as they are with other things. So I need a system to help me do this, or it won’t get done, and I’ll be in slowly mounting trouble. Or at least, slowly mounting panic. Technology may be extreme, but many fields are like this today. You have to keep learning just to tread water, never mind get ahead. The challenge here, with this kind of study, is not necessarily to elevate the quality of your study, but how to pace yourself so you can do it for decades vs. just a few years in your youth. One tends to hear this challenge framed in a positive way, “lifelong learning,” like what a wonderful thing we get to do, but if we’re honest with ourselves it can be terrifying and exhausting just to think about. The mental rat race. The study habit can help with that terror by showing you a sustainable path forward. It can even ease you into enjoying it as you’ll see when we start talking about behavioral techniques [. gamification, quiz show, quiz game, trivia game ]

Improving study. This is study where you want to learn something to make yourself actually better somehow. It’s qualitatively different from what we talked about with continuous study. It’s not just to pass a test, or get a credential, but to actually get better at something or become a better person in some way. It could be a skill, professional or personal, say a language you really want to speak, or technical skill you want to be able to apply to do or make something, or it could be deeper, some social skill, a better way to interact with your fellow human beings, or even a moral improvement, some wisdom you are trying to force yourself to internalize to become a better person in some way. With improving study there’s something you want to deeply assimilate, knowledge or even character, to change yourself long term. It’s beyond just accumulating facts. It’s allowing yourself to be changed by those facts in some way.

Contemplative study. There is an old Rabbinical saying, which first lists all kinds of important moral goods: “honoring parents, loving deeds of kindness,” “making peace between people,” essentially a comprehensive list of virtues, and then concludes “but the study of the Torah is equal to them all.”

There are a lot of striking things about that statement. We tend to think of study as a means to an end, but the Rabbis are saying, no, study, or at least a certain kind of study, is an end in itself, and not just that, the most important end in itself, as important as all the other most important ends put together.

Now I don’t want to get into whether it is literally true that reading a book is more important than not beating up your mother, but what I find personally valuable about this statement is that it jolts me into realizing that study can be an important and meaningful virtue or experience in itself, apart from any goal beyond it.

And apparently, according to some interpretations at least, the word “torah” in this sense has both a narrow meaning -- the actual books of the torah, the five books of Moses, and a wider meaning: anything that is approached with a certain seriousness. Like “the book of nature,” as the theologians used to refer to the natural world, that “other book” that God had written. Really anything. Any subject. It’s the attitude and approach that is decisive, not the particular subject matter. Any subject can be approached in this “study of Torah” way.

I find this idea very attractive. Not because I want to diminish the idea that there is great wisdom in particular texts, but because I find the idea that wisdom is also hidden in plain sight all around us if only we look in the right way very appealing.

Everyone today is familiar with the benefits of meditation. In a way, this kind of study is next door to it. You can think of it as meditative study. Contemplation of a text. In the bible you’ll actually see the word meditate used in this sense: “In his law doth he meditate day and night.”

And though like meditation, contemplative study has a religious pedigree -- I mentioned the Jewish tradition, but many religious traditions have their version of it -- the Roman Catholic Lectio Divina is kind of a mix of prayer and reading -- contemplative study doesn’t have to be an explicitly religious practice. It’s the attitude and approach.

You can see this easily with literature and the arts, aesthetic contemplation. People in the 19th century almost explicitly made a religion of art. Art pour l’art. Wagnerians reverentially contemplating the Gesamtkunstwerk in a trance-like state.

And this isn’t limited to the humanities. For example, although on the surface it seems completely different, think of what they call “Blue Sky” scientific research, and the impulse behind it, where scientists pursue basic scientific questions with no obvious applied or practical value, simply out of curiosity and wonder and awe at the universe. There’s no point beyond the science; the science itself is enough.

OK, so, we’ve got it, the three non-cramming, Study Habit studies: 1. continuous study, 2. improving study, and 3. contemplative study.

There can be and often is overlap between these three, and to such a degree that they are even hard to distinguish. This is good thing!

Because there is also a kind of qualitative gradation from one to the other: contemplative study is deeper and more satisfying than improving study and both are qualitatively better than mere continuous study. Now that doesn’t mean that the “lower” kinds of study are not useful and necessary in themselves, but to the degree that you can elevate what starts out as one to a deeper kind, it’s something you should strive for, or at least, embrace. Because it will help on all levels. It will help on the level of mere facts, quizable fact retention, if you use those facts to improve yourself, and help on the level of improvement if you can set aside ulterior ambitions and contemplate and delight in those facts, to bring it full circle. It will even help on the level of contemplative bliss if you never would have gotten started without the initial impetus of “shit, I’ve got that certification coming up.” Hitching contemplative study to externally motivated continuous study by, say, signing up for a course or credentialing exam is a great way to make something important also seem urgent and force yourself to get started with it.

One thing the three studies always have in common is that they require steady, regular, habitual application. And because of that a single habit-structure or set of behaviors can help you with any or all three of them.

Because I’ve already been talking for a good long time and I have a fair amount to say about these behaviors. I’m going to save that for the next episode, which, I promise, I won’t take too long to get out. That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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