Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A long banter about learning and getting tired

Everybody wants to be effective nowadays. That means: do the most in the least availble time. So many things to do, so little time for this. Unfortunately, the capacities of humans are very limited. From time to time, we need rest. If we are tired or if there are too many distracting things, our attention gets lost. As a result, nothing really gets done.

I am an easy victim of all that, which tries to do her best and become effective. Recently I have learned about the technique of self-micromanagement called Pomodoro, which, to put it roughly, means you plan your day ahead, prioritize what are you going to do, split all these things into ~25-minute chunks and see how many such chunks (they called "pomodoros" because that was how the kitchen timer of the author had looked) you can do in a day. At the end of a day, you do a retrospective and give a thought what could have been done better.

In essense, it is an agile methodology of sorts, but applied on individual basis and not necessarily for the activities related to software development... although, I have to say, while software development is quite suitable to "pomodorize" or to make it agile in any other way, other activities might be more stubborn to handle like this. The key in such techniques is your ability to estimate beforehand how much efforts you (or your team) will spend on a given task / on a "standartized unit" of efforts. Of course, you are supposed to develop better estimating skills with time. In addition, it is expected that you will get some demonstratable result at the end of every chunk of activity. Otherwise it's all nonsense.

For now, I am convinced that while it is feasible to do this in the fields where your activity is predictable (more or less), the more place is left to to creativity in your work, the more difficult it becomes to estimate when you will be finished. Can you plan creativity? It comes unexpected. The workaround is not to include creativity into the estimations, I am afraid. If it comes and makes things easier for you, OK; if not, there should be a plan B to finish the job, may be in less elegant way. But when you are writing a poem or a musical piece, you can't stop after 25 minutes are gone, otherwise you'll lose it forever. So in these cases the structure does not apply.

But I am distracted already :) What I have noticed is what happens when you are more or less tired (it becomes more visible then). Not sure if it is a common phenomenon, but in short words, I see the following: the more tired I am, the less "quanta of new information" I can get from one activity without a tendency to switch. When I am very tired while trying to do something (e.g. reading an article which I know I have to read, but it does not go easily), then I tend to switch off _after very first piece of new info which I have processed_. If I am less tired, the amount of "new info quanta" will be more but the "moment of saturation" is always very distinct.

How to mitigate that? One technique I have found useful is to make side notes. This way, the brain does not have to keep the new data in the short-term memory (probably) and you can keep on reading for longer; besides, making notes and reformulating the information in your own way is a very helpful exercise when you are learning new stuff. And it is great for retrospectives, if you will be in state to make them afterwards :)

Therefore, it makes sense to estimate the difficulty of the text when planning to read it. For one type of information, it might be 1-2 pages, for the other type of information (e.g. which is not entirely new or which is not perceived as very important, so that the strain to remember everything as exactly as possible is less) it might be 10-15 pages or more in 25 minutes. I guess for the same book it will be more or less constant or the difficulty might be increasing as you go (for example, the excellent textbooks for theoretical physics written in Soviet Union by Landau and Lifshitz were notoriously known for a high gradient of difficulty - the influence of a genius Landau of course - which made quite some of my fellow students - who were tired all the time almost by definition - to use Feinman course instead, which had a smoother gradient).

The most difficult of learning activities, it seems to me, is learning language; in this case, you _are_ supposed to put all this stuff into your own head and nowhere else; that makes even the drills a hard effort when you are tired. I have found that if I did not have enough sleep, I would be OK with reading email, twittering or discussing life with friends or kids, but concentrating on the forementioned Rosetta made me half-slumbering in 10 minutes or so. The brain was sending frantic signals that it was overheated. In such situation, I think only two outcomes are possible: either to stop all activity and go to sleep or, if for some reason you can't, to do it in very small chunks: 10 minutes or so - so that you get 3-4 such "quanta" and no more.

I wonder if it would ever be possible to measure the "informativeness" of a given text relative to a given person. Even to measure an "absolute informativeness" could be interesting. Suppose some time in the future every book or article will have an "information value" printed on the cover or below the title? Or a matrix of values relative to some areas of knowledge? Might be considered as an insult by some authors probably...

Well, that's all for now, thanks for the reading, and I hope the information value of this piece of text is positive :)