Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 60

The Study Habit, Part 2 (Behavioral)

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Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems.

Last episode, I discussed the value of reframing study from a kind of cramming to clear a one-time intellectual obstacle course to a lifelong habit akin to diet or exercise or meditation. I talked about three ways to look at this habit: continuous study, improving study, and contemplative study: establishing the right frame or mindset, the cognitive part of a kind of CBT. Hopefully you were intrigued if not convinced. If you’re still listening, I’ll assume so.

So what do you actually do to make the study habit a behavioral reality? What are your concrete practices? That’s what I’m going to talk about today: what tools and techniques to use and, maybe even more important, how to make the time to use them.

Because as with physical exercise or meditation, much of the problem of making study a habit is carving out the time. And we can use some of the same approaches. Longtime listeners will notice some previously discussed everyday systems making cameo appearances here.  

There are three kinds of active time relevant to the study habit: dedicated blocks of time, opportunistic scraps of time, and shareable time. Then there’s a fourth kind of time, something I call “eureka time,” which isn’t something you actively engage in, but happens as a by-product of good active study time.

Dedicated blocks of time are what we are most familiar with when we think of study. We may not have figured out how to actually carve out this time, or how to utilize it well, but it’s the image we have in our heads, “hitting the books,”  and maybe this is why study in general seems so daunting. Because who has time for anything? Dedicated time is when you give total focus to your study, doing nothing else. Si it’s a precious commodity. Dedicated time for study means less dedicated time for other things. So you have to ration it very carefully, and be very strategic in how you use it. It’s the hardest time to carve out and you feel the worst when you squander it.

So how do you do this? How do you carve out this most precious time?

  1. Timebox Lord (i.e., setting a timer for a daily relatively small, pre-determined regular length of time to force focus and to keep from panicking about the “opportunity cost” of how much time you’re taking from other tasks). You may have heard of the Pomodoro technique, it’s a similar idea except I’d say keep the timeboxes very small, much smaller than the pomodoro time, especially to begin with. The important thing is to make it a regular daily or weekday habit (N and S days can be a useful structure here as well). Track the days you have done this, on a personal punch card, and/or on your Life Log spreadsheet, or on a physical paper calendar -- however you like to track things. Regular application builds habit. Habit makes regular application easier, with study, just as with diet and exercise. And even a small amount of regular, active, dedicated study time primes the mind for eureka time, which I’ll discuss in a bit. In fact, even a laughably short amount of active time gets you that bonus eureka time. It’s like those matching donations that charities sometimes do.
  2. Second way to help carve out this dedicated time: Find a way to love or at least like the subject or material. The easiest way to do this is to study something you already love or are interested in. And by all means, do this if you can. But sometimes this isn’t possible. Sometimes we have to study unlovable or at least (for the present) unloved subjects. If you can’t love the subject right off the bat, or ever, start by loving the process, or deciding to be open to the possibility of loving the process. I’ll talk about a particular lovable process in a moment, but if you find you don’t love that one, keep experimenting until you find one you do.
  3. Third way to carve out the dedicated study time: Be conscious of how you relate your dedicated study time relates to the other kinds of study time, how you tie them all together. I mentioned the eureka time already, but there’s a with a tool called anki, a flash card app, which I’ll describe in a moment, that let’s you connect opportunistic and sharable time as well, making all three more valuable, and boosting your motivation to follow through with making this most expensive dedicated time.

Opportunistic scraps of time, the second kind of active study time,  these are times when you’re waiting in line for something, when you’re between activities that require sustained attention and would normally likely just be killing time on your phone. It’s about reclaiming all those little few minutes. Fortunately/unfortunately, most of us kill a lot of time on our phones so there is a lot of opportunity for reclamation. The key for me for reclaiming these opportunistic scraps of time is that flash card app I mentioned, anki. I’ll talk more about the specifics of anki and my particular approach to it shortly, which is a bit different than most other approaches floating around on the web  -- but for now I’ll just note one beautiful thing about the anki in the scraps of time habit: when you use it, you not only introduce a good habit, you displace a bad habit. Instead of compulsively scrolling through envy inspiring social media or sensationalist news or playing addictive games, activities that stress or harm us or at least make us feel gross, we learn something, we feed our minds and -- if our anki cards are really good -- maybe even our souls. And no one around us has to be the wiser for it. It looks like we’re killing time just like everyone else. No grandstanding required.

There’s an Emerson quote I love: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

With a habit of reviewing anki flash cards, you jujitsu your compulsion to diddle with your phone at every interval into something positive. It’s like phone methadone. Except even better, because your displacement activity is actually of value.

Shareable time, the third and last kind of active study time, is time when you’re primarily focused on another activity but it doesn’t engage all of your senses or attention. For example, some manual task that leaves your mind (and ears) free, like doing the dishes or vacuuming. Or perhaps even also your eyes free, like shovelglove or some other form of exercise. It’s not multitasking, which is almost a pejorative term these days, and probably rightly so. Multi tasking is the hubristic attempt to give conscious attention to more than one thing at once, usually resulting in insufficient attention being given to any of them. Exploiting sharable time, by contrast, is when you really have multiple modes of  attention to give, that don’t compete with each other, that might even complement each other.

Case in point: I do the dishes better when I’m listening to an audiobook because I’m not bored and impatient and I listen to the audiobook more attentively because I don’t feel anxious about not being productive. My hands are doing something indisputably useful and that leaves my mind free to pay better attention to the book. Audiodidact -- systematically listening to somehow edifying audiobooks or courses -- is my tool of choice for most sharable time. Housework, driving, walking, even waiting if I’m through with my daily anki card review.

And I expand audiodicat to what I guess I could call A/V Didact for when I’m doing shovelglove, because then I have my eyes free as well. Instead of watching some goofy exercise video, I infotain myself, or aestethercise,  usually by watching German movies or news or netflix series or youtube. It’s win-win-win. I get my exercise, I get entertainment or intellectual or aesthetic stimulation of a sort, and I practice my German all at the same time.

Practical, how-to videos are great to throw into the mix for foreign language learning, if this is something you’re interested in. Whenever I have to figure out something, like how to explain parallel parking to my teenage daughter, or how to clean an electric razor, or eat a pomegranate, or cook goulash, or be less terrible at chess, I’ll look on youtube for German “how-to” videos to watch while I exercise. My curiosity or need makes me pay more careful attention, so I learn better German while I’m learning the solution to my problem -- while exercising.

You see, most other self-help gurus content themselves with win-win solutions. I’m giving you win-win-win.

Eureka time is bonus. It’s when your mind, primed by good active study, all of its own, when you’re engaged in some unrelated task, returns to the subject you're studying, and without your having to force anything, you see relationships you hadn’t before, insights and connections just flash into your head. This most reliably happens for me in the shower, so I sometimes think of it as “shower time,” which is highly appropriate given the origin of the word “eureka” -- or at least, the origin of us knowing about this word,  Archimedes’ shout in the bathtub as the theory of displacement came to him.

Eureka time isn’t something you can schedule directly, it’s something you get as a by-product or aftereffect of the other active study times. But you can make room for it (beyond showering a lot) by other intentional activities. Walking aka urban ranger, for example, is also a good setting for eureka time, and something you can try to engineer more of into your life (with other benefits as well). So you can’t force eureka time, but you can prep for it, and you can make room for it.

I keep mentioning the flashcard system, anki, as a key element in tying all these kinds of study time together. There are other ways you could do this without this particular app, but anki has a lot of really nice qualities, and because it’s what I actually do, and we want to get beyond the theoretical in this episode, I’m going to describe it, and my approach to it, specifically. If another app or mechanism, maybe an analog index card based flashcard system vs. a digital system, appeals to you more, you can probably translate or “port” the anki-based approach I describe here, but I’m not going to get into that now.

Anki, which comes from the Japanese word for “memorization” (I think), is a flash card program you can run on your desktop computer -- mac, windows, linux, chromebook and also on your phone, iphone or android, or ipad. The base anki system is open source, meaning developers from around the world volunteer to write and maintain its source code. There’s no evil spying corporation behind it. And it’s free except on ios devices, where it costs a one-time $25 , which seems hefty, but given its life altering potential, is really dirt cheap. And I’m glad to support the work of the volunteers on this great community project that I benefit so much from. But then again you can trial it on your computer for free, before you splurge to get it on your iphone.

The key concept behind anki is its spaced repetition algorithm. This means it keeps track of how often you mark that you got a card right or wrong and will adjust how frequently it shows you that card again based on research into the optimal amount of “forgetting” time is helpful for long term retention. In other words, you don’t waste your time reviewing cards you already clearly know. The system will wait to show you those cards again until it thinks you’re about to forget them, or maybe have just barely forgotten. And apparently that timing, that waiting till you’ve just about forgotten something, makes it sink into your brain more deeply. It’s not perfect, but it’s way more efficient than just stupidly reviewing everything, hard and easy, at the same level all the time.

It also means you can build gigantic decks of flash cards over time without worrying about manually culling all those easy cards once you’ve mastered them because the spaced repetition algorithm automatically cuts through the clutter, only showing you the few cards even in a gigantic deck built up over years, that will be helpful for you to review right now. And those longer spaced reviews ensure that you really, deeply learn your cards. After you’ve gotten a card right enough times anki will literally wait years to show it to you again -- at which point, maybe it’s time.

One of the brilliant things about any flash cards, anki or even paper flash cards,  is that they tap into something called active recall. The idea is, when you take a test, it’s not just about measuring or assessing what you know, like some mind reader, by prompting you to remember the process actually helps you learn. When you read, or listen to a lecture, it’s passive. But the act of reaching into your brain to fish out a fact or a formula to solve a problem strengthens your learning in a powerful way.

What’s more, we think we hate tests, but that’s because of the pressure and judgement around them. The activity itself we kind of love, right? Think quiz shows and trivia night. We love that stuff. It’s a game. You don’t have to “gamify” learning like this becaus iit’s already a game. It’s fun. Remember how I said one of the keys to motivating yourself to do dedicated study time is loving the process?

Now you might think, aren’t flash cards just for cramming? Right? The opposite of The Study Habit. They certainly can be. And Anki is a tool of choice among med school students and jeopardy contestants and others who need to regurgitate vast amounts of information for various intellectual obstacle courses. But because of its spaced repetition algorithm anki really shines when you’re trying to absorb knowledge long-term. Of course you have to combine that capability with being  careful about what you’re absorbing to begin with, what you’re putting in your cards. Is it trivia, or is it something really useful or important or delightful to you?

So card creation is key. You can download community made decks (and contribute your own) but to really get the most out of anki, making your own, personalized cards is key. Because you’re going to spend way more time reviewing each card than making it, so it’s worth investing some thoughtfulness in card creation. You don’t want to be reviewing mediocre cards over and over again for years, even if only rarely because of the algorithm. It’s a long term relationship you’re getting into with each card. Yes, you can manually cull cards, and I sometimes do. But again, even so, you’re likely to review them many, many times before that happens, before you make that painful decision.

Thoughtfulness in card creation doesn’t mean a vast amount of time or effort. Anki supports images, sounds, reversible two way cards -- you can make crazy sophisticated cards. But one of my favorite anki features is something called cloze deletion cards. C-L-O-Z-E. This lets you input a bunch of text and then blank out certain words or sections as prompts. This let’s you take a text you are studying, say foreign language material or a poem or technical documentation and quickly make high-quality cards from this material. You can add multiple cloze deletions per card, anki will prompt you separately for each one, effectively creating multiple cards from one, one out of each blanked out section (in anki terminology, multiple notes per card). So you can make a lot of notes very quickly without much work.

This technique is great for foreign languages because it lets you stay in the target language which helps the brain switch over and think in that language and learn more deeply. You have to guess the blanked out word or section from context rather than translate from English. It’s also great for focusing in on just the tricky bits in a poem or technical document. It’s also great for taking a block of text that you don’t necessarily want to memorize verbatim, and giving you a way to review it periodically. Having to guess that one missing bit makes you re-engage with the entire larger passage a little more actively than just re-reading it would. It gives you an active hook into the larger context or concept. I’ve been very surprised at how good my memory is in filling in these gaps and then dragging along the larger context. I do this for larger passages that have impressed me in one way or another, that I want to recall to mind periodically. By blanking out a few words in anki, I give myself a time-efficient mechanism to periodically, actively re-engage with large, sophisticated ideas and keep them fresh.

The new Dune movie is out now, and though I haven’t seen it, I am a big fan of the book, and I imagine these cloze deletions as being like the hooks that the Fremen dig into the giant sand worms to control and ride them.

Sometimes I do memorize larger passages verbatim. Poems, for example. Or passages from Shakespeare or Goethe or the Bible. Not for any useful instrumental purpose, but because I love them. Contemplative study. One of the reasons I’ve gotten into this, is that I’ve been impressed, really moved to see, how over these last few hard years with my declining parents, some of the last happy things my parents could remember were the long passages of Schiller that were drummed into them during their youth, and to see how moved they were by these recollections.

When memorizing something longer like this, I’ll start by making a card for the whole passage. That card will take a while to master. So in parallel, as I’m wrestling with it, usually a week or two into this wrestling, I’ll make cloze deletion cards for the bits I find are giving me particular trouble. 90-95% of a poem or passage usually come pretty easily. It’s those few tricky parts that need to be honed in on to make the whole thing come. You can edit anki cards on your phone as you’re reviewing them, it’s a bit awkward though, so I keep my phone edits minimal. So what I’ll do here is, on my phone, as I’m struggling with a larger poem or passage to memorize, I’ll bold then also italicise then also underline the bits I keep getting wrong. So if I get something wrong a lot it’s bolded and italicized and underlined. Later, during dedicated study time on my computer when I can edit and create cards more efficiently, I’ll turn those marked up tricky spots into proper, separate cloze deletion cards, prioritizing the trickiest, multiply marked up ones.

So that’s one thing I do with my dedicated blocks of time: make new anki cards. I review during scraps, but I create them during dedicated time. Another thing I’ll do during dedicated time is read, usually with a timer set (“Timebox lord”) and a pen in hand to mark up passages to potential ankification.

When I read a book properly it’s a four stage process. First, I listen to the audiobook version during sharable time. If the book really resonates, I might select it for re-reading on paper during dedicated blocks of time, marking up sections for ankification. Then I’ll do a third pass to turn some of those marked up passages into anki cards for review during scraps of time. Finally, I review those anki cards during scraps of time.

Because dedicated time is such a rare commodity, very few books, get this full 4 stage treatment (listen, read, ankify, review). If I’m listening to an audiobook I love, but despair of finding the time to process fully like this, I’ll do my best to note selected passages as I’m listening for ankification later. Even if I can only manage to get a handful of choice passages into anki as cloze deletions, those few, little hooks, like the Fremen’s hooks into the sandworms, are quite effective at bringing back something of the larger work when I review them, so the book doesn’t just vanish from my mind the way it might have otherwise.

I do a similar thing with the videos I watch during my shovelglove “AV didact.” If I catch a phrase that intrigues me  -- say, a mindblowing Schopenhauer quote in the Netflix series Dark, or the surprising term for what bishops are called in German in a youtube “how to” chess video  -- I’ll pause and jot it down for ankification later.

It’s important that you love your cards. Or at least that you think you might come to love them. They should be funny, or provocative, or moving, or inspiring, or beautiful. Not every card, but enough of them, so that when you’re reviewing them you are putting yourself in contact with something intrinsically good, something worth spending time with even apart from any instrumental goal. Not “killing time” but the opposite. Even if you’re studying something mundane like German grammar, take a passage that has literary or at least comic merit and add cloze deletions for the grammatically tricky bits. Learn German noun declensions with Goethe and Kafka. There’s no killing time with those guys, even if all you’re blanking out is “der, die, das.”

All of these study activities I’ve discussed so far are solo study. But there’s another mode of study that’s also quite important: study with friends or comrades in learning, social study. This is dedicated study time, already a rare commodity, made even rarer and more difficult to engineer by the difficulty of coordinating with other human beings and their dedicated time. But it’s abundantly worth it to make sure it happens at least sometimes. It’s often said that you don’t really know something unless you can explain it, and that’s tough to do without someone to listen. Any kind of discussion, back and forth, will reveal and shake up misunderstandings, and jostle you into deeper understanding. It’s an even richer form of “active recall” than flash cards.

Courses, physical or online, with discussion groups can be a useful social study context for many people. But what I love best is the good old fashioned book club. It’s more intimate, more equal, there’s no boss professor lording it over the rest of the class, and besides the learning aspect, there’s the friendship aspect. You’re furthering both your study and your human relationships. Book clubs don’t have to be big. My two most durable book club type arrangements have been with one other person, and the other with two other people. They’re more like book partnerships. In fact I think it’s better when they’re really small. Then it’s more intimate, you can speak your mind more freely, you also have fewer people to negotiate with about what to read or study.

A Study club or partnership can be useful for any of the three kinds of Study Habit study, but it is particularly good when it comes to contemplative or improving study. It helps with the study, it adds accountability to help motivate you, and deepens your understanding and retention of the subject because you form more and different connections talking through the material with another human being. And like contemplative study, it is a good in itself; it strengthens and deepens the friendship. And you can extend the book club idea to any kind of study club. Say, take an online course together, form a course club.

Especially if your comrades in learning are real friends. It can sustain or even deepen a friendship, to have a common project like this, and wrestle with an engaging, challenging topic. And the intimate size of the group means that you are less likely to get distracted by posturing and trying to impress people and feeling insecure about what you don’t know.

Very little of your study habit time will likely be this most precious dedicated social study time. But I do think it is important to squeeze in what little you can. It’s like some rare but vital nutrient for our intellectual digestive system.

There’s a beautiful C.S. Lewis quote that comes to mind:

¨Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.¨

So when you combine contemplative study with friendship you get something doubly unnecessary, in this good, C.S. Lewis way, each reinforcing the other.

Another multi-level win for Study.

The last study habit related issue, which I’m not really going to have time to get into today, I think this may already be the longest episode I’ve ever done, but want to at least briefly mention now, because it is important, maybe the most important, in fact it’s the question of importance itself, the question of what to study, how do you decide that. Because no matter how many scraps of time we reclaim and timeboxes and multitaskings we engineer, life is only so long. There is a finite amount of time to box and reclaim.

I’ve talked before about the problem of infinite work, well there is also the problem of infinite study, we could work forever and still not get all our work done, and we could study forever and still not learn everything worth learning. On one level, that’s a problem, and it’s a problem very much related to infinite work, as I hope to examine in a future episode. But on another level, if you look at it in the right way, it’s kind of wonderful and inspiring.

I mentioned last episode that rabbinical saying, “the study of Torah is equal to them all.” Well I’ll close out with another beautiful rabbinical image, not unrelated:

In some conceptions of the afterlife, “the world to come,” the blessed souls are seen as studying Torah forever. That’s their reward. They get to eternally study this infinitely rich and deep and beautiful thing. There’s no rush, there’s no goal beyond it, as you remember, “the study of Torah is equal to them all.” I love this image. And I love that you can get started with it right now.

I could probably go on for quite a bit more about The Study Habit. And I imagine my approaches will change over time as keep wrestling with it, especially if I get to do it for eternity. But the main thing is that I do continue to wrestle with it, and at this point, I feel pretty confident that I will.

That’s all for now. I hope this was helpful or at least thought provoking. Thanks for listening.  

By Reinhard Engels

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