Managing your time spent learning

by JonahS2 min read19th Feb 20146 comments


Personal Blog

This article is written for people who are looking for advice on prioritizing activities, in particular, what to spend time learning.

In thinking about how to budget your time, it's helpful to explicitly prioritize the activities that you engage in in terms of their relative importance, and distinguish between what's important and what you find interesting. Sometimes we exaggerate the usefulness of interesting but only slightly useful activities in their minds, on account of wanting to believe that time spent on them is productive. If you think about how useful an activity is and, how interesting the activity is separately, you're less likely to do this. It's helpful to consider the following four categories of activities:

  • Important and interesting: Do, and take your time. Get it right!
  • Important and not interesting: Do as much as necessary, and maybe a bit more; look into ways of overcoming procrastination. Also consider ways to make them more interesting.
  • Not important and interesting: Do only if you feel like it, don't try to press yourself, and consider substituting with activities that are interesting and important.
  • Not important and not interesting: Avoid.

More below

Interesting and important

When you find an academic subject interesting, and when it's important (e.g. for your future job, as a prerequisite to courses that you'll take in the future or otherwise related to your future goals), you should delve deeply into it. Gaining deep understanding takes time, and you shouldn't feel as though you're working inefficiently if you find yourself spending a disproportionate amount of time on it.

Interesting but not important

Intellectually curious people often have intellectual interests that don't advance their career goals. Such interests can absorb a lot of time and hinder one's professional success.

The question of how to balance these interests with one's career goals is a very personal one.

In general, if there are two activities that are of comparable interest to you, but of unequal importance, you should choose the more important one.

If you find that your time is uncomfortably crowded with things that are interesting but not important, you should look for instances where you're exerting willpower on them, and cut back on those, reserving the time that you spend doing things that you find interesting to activities that require relatively little energy, to conserve energy for doing things that it's more difficult to get yourself to do.

Important but not interesting

Sometimes you have to do things that are uninteresting to achieve your goals. If you have trouble motivating yourself to do these things, you might benefit from our recommendations for overcoming procrastination (forthcoming). Also, consider ways that you might find these specific activities more interesting, by checking out targeted learning recommendations for those activities.

Not important and not interesting

These activities should be avoided. This point might seem obvious, but despite this, people often do engage in activities that are neither important nor interesting. This most often happens when:

  • One hasn't carefully considered the question of whether the activity is important. For example, one might uncritically internalize the view that it's important to learn a language because learning a language said to keep the mind sharp, without considering that there might be other more interesting or important activities that keep the mind sharp to an equal or greater extent, and therefore try to learn a language, even if one doesn't find it interesting. There are benefits to learning a language that one can't get from other activities: the point here is just that keeping one's mind sharp specifically isn't a good reason to learn a language rather than do other things. 
  • The activity seems interesting at first, and one sets a goal connected with it, but then the activity turns out not to be interesting, and one feels an obligation to continue on account of having already set the goal. For example, one might hear good things about a long novel and set a goal of reading it, find that one doesn't enjoy it, and feel pressure to plow through to the end. 

On the first point, it's important to critically reflect on whether the activities that one is involved in are important. On the second point, all else being equal, fulfilling commitments is good, because it's good for one's self-esteem, but one should still consider whether the cost of fulfilling the commitment is worth it, and also try not to set ambitious goals when the value of fulfilling them is questionable.

Cross-posted from Cognito Mentoring's Quora blog


6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:37 AM
New Comment

Feedback: I expected the article to be organized in the same order as the bulleted list, and found it somewhat disconcerting when it was not.

Thanks for the feedback! That was an oversight.

For the record, what are some skills we should consider as important, regardless of who in particular currently considers them interesting, insofar as they're useful for a wide variety of careers. Here is a general list I have so far:

  • writing skills

  • public speaking skills

  • coding

  • ability to usefully analyze data. (I'm not studying a quantitative field, so I lack the experience to know what these abilities might be specifically other than 'statistical analysis skills'.)

  • web design

What am I missing? When are the skills I mentioned above not actually important?

I think you are missing emotional management.

If you want something very evidence based you might take the feeling good handbook and do CBT written exercises 15 minutes per day. Doing meditation is another way.

Nassim Taleb who's one of the people who aren't ex-politicians who can charge very high speaking fees made the point of not doing any public speaking training to the point of changing his publisher when the first publisher suggest he take a training.

I did spent 4 years at toastmasters and don't consider that time to have been worthless but having control of your emotional state and being able to go into emotions that deeply move you turned out to be more important for me than trying to reduce the amount of ah's, consciously trying to look at the audience and consciously making controlled body movement.

Those tactics have effects but if you are in the right emotional state you automatically look at your audience and you automatically use your body to illustrate what you are saying.

The professor most popular among the students in the department of computer science of my university did a lot of personal development and dealing with his own deep issues. That makes him better a better speaker at lectures than his colleagues and it also makes him a person who finishes papers for conferences weeks before the deadline with most of his colleagues don't do according to him.

Don't spent all your time on learning tactics but engage yourself at a deep level.

Decent list here.

Why do you think that coding, web design and data analysis are useful skills (for a non-programmer in a non-quantitative field)?

Well, I'm currently an undergraduate, so I haven't started a career yet. For myself, personally, I would like to create a website in the future. Also, web design is useful in a wide variety of contexts. For coding, I'm not set on a career trajectory yet, but I may want to transition into one which would require a heavier use of information technology.

I've read on Less Wrong that learning how to code, or program, is a worthwhile skill to learn, even if one is not going on to become a computer programmer.

I don't know statistics very well, but I would like to participate, or follow, scientific, and technical, discourse in the world more thoroughly, so learning statistics might be for my overall efficacy as a person, rather than just what I do at the workplace.