Learning Strategy Experiment (or: can I cure my crippling work ethic?)

If there’s one thing in which I’m interested in, it’s self-improvement. I’m constantly working to identify my personal flaws, no matter how big or how small they are, wondering how I can get better. For instance, I spent three days figuring out the best way to train for a 10k run, thirty days researching face masks, and ended up deleting an app that gave productivity tips because I was using it to procrastinate on schoolwork.

So, when the opportunity came to research self-improvement techniques in classI was thrilled. I devoured each of the presentations with an unprecedented (and somewhat worrying) amount of interest. My mind began racing, wondering about how I could incorporate all of them into my life. When I realized I could only focus on two or three strategies, the problem wasn’t deciding which ones to employ. The problem was deciding which ones not to employ.

It began, as in many things, with a Google Doc. I created a 4×11 table to list out pros, cons, and relative need. Then, also as in many things, I scrapped it and replaced it with the much more logical choice of a spreadsheet. I was conscious of the fact that I had to see beyond my perception of myself. When I ranked techniques based on need, I had to ask myself: “Is this what I believe is real, or is this what I know is real? How accurate is my self-perception here? Which option does the data support?” When I finished the chart, my options became clear.

Learning Techniques Spreadsheet
Wow, I wonder which ones I’ll choose? Golly gee, what a difficult choice!

Throughout this exercise, I would benefit most from implementing the Pomodoro and Spaced Practice techniques. Whereas procrastination is an issue for me, when it happens I’m productively procrastinating half the time; the other half, I’m experiencing burnout. I hope that, by using the Pomodoro technique, I can prevent burnout. This will reduce my procrastination by 50%, effectively killing two birds with one stone – however awful an image that may be. Increasing productivity has always been a bit of an obsession of mine, so I may have been a bit biased in that regard, but I must admit the selling point of the Pomodoro technique was the burnout prevention. Burnout is, quite frankly, one of the scourges of my existence, something I despise with every fiber of my physical and metaphysical being. If the Pomodoro technique can rid me of my burnout, I will thereafter regard the technique with the sort of terrified awe typically reserved for a deity.

worship
Pictured: Me, the simple pilgrim and the Pomodoro technique, my light in the darkness

Spaced practice, meanwhile, was chosen primarily with exams and summer vacation in mind. Although the two seem completely different, when exams roll around, my memory of Unit 1 (and 2, 3, and 4) is positively pitiful. Similarly, when summer vacation ends, I’m hard-pressed to even remember the concept of a vector, let alone cross-product (much to my horror, I had this painful realization during my first AP Calculus class). Hopefully this technique will eradicate those times where I have to nod and smile on the outside despite the screaming of little Sophies in my brain.

panic
Genuine representation of my internal mechanisms during that first calculus class

The Pomodoro Technique: Details, details, and more details

Implementing the Pomodoro technique will, I hope, be simple. To begin, I’ll give myself 20 minutes after getting home to begin working. Because of meetings and group projects and the like, I’ll sometimes have to work in non-home areas. Nonetheless, the 20 minute limit will apply everywhere. Even if I’m meeting people at a library, I must begin working within 20 minutes of getting to the library. When I get home after the meeting, I will have 20 minutes to laze around on the couch first. I do this already – but with less discipline – so the change is minimal.

The critical move will be not using my bed to work. Although it’s the comfiest place to read and take my breaks, it’s also the comfiest place in general. Comfort and sleepiness seem to be positively correlated, so in order to avoid accidental four-hour naps, I’ll have to line my bedroom with metaphorical barbed wire. When I deposit my backpack at my study table, as I usually do, I need to make sure that I actually sit in the chair afterwards. Once I’m in the chair, it’s hard for me not to start working.

During my breaks, I’ll either do yoga or read. Both calm my mind, and yoga gives me a chance to stretch out my muscles and increase blood flow. Since my house affords me both a bedroom and a private study, I plan on furnishing my study with my yoga mat (already present) and perhaps a nest of blankets. The nest will be impossible to fall asleep on because of the hardwood floor underneath, so there will be no napping mishaps.

The Pomodoro app I downloaded, ClearFocus, is designed so that I can track how much time I’ve worked over the past month.

clearfocus
A depiction of what has the potential to be my most beloved app of all time

Thus, I will reach one part of my goal when I’ve worked at least 75 minutes every day for one month straight. Many specialists agree that it takes about one month to cement a habit. Since I’ll probably lapse for a few days at some point, by the time I reach that part of my goal I’ll have used ClearFocus for over a month. The other key to my success is the beginning-to-work-after-20-minutes aspect. Here, my planner comes into play. I open and revise it daily, so on each day I follow the 20 minute rule I’ll put a little mark next to that day. Again, I’ll reach my goal once I establish a one-month streak, for the same reasons listed above.

To make sure I remember, I’ve attached a sticky note to the wall in front of my table reminding me.

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I’ll know the strategy truly works when I see a decrease in my stress levels and burnout rates. Hopefully, stress will fall significantly, which I can measure in the number of mental breakdowns I have per week. At the moment, the average stands between one and three. Burnout, on the other hand, will hopefully be completely eradicated, which will also be very easy to measure.

 

Spaced Practice and Interleaving: A recipe for (possible) success

Since spaced practice is, essentially, reviewing old information along with the new, it’ll be fairly easy to implement. In the first Pomodoro cycle of every day, I plan on redoing my math tests and quizzes. This way, I can get it out of the way immediately, before moving on to a more enjoyable task, such as writing these blog posts. If I leave spaced practice until the end, I don’t trust myself not to just say, “I’ll do them tomorrow,” and go to sleep. In these circumstances, “tomorrow” might never come. It’ll also be easy to set up a routine, which is the goal.

In terms of what I’ll be reviewing, I plan on a very organized and methodical strategy. In math, I’ve only had two quizzes and one test so far, so on review day 1 I’ll redo quiz 1. On day 2 I’ll redo quiz 2, and days 3 and 4 are reserved for test 1. On days 5, 6, 7, and 8, I’ll redo the top ten practice questions from the unit. This process will repeat until I get more quizzes, tests, and practice questions, in which case they’ll be assigned to day 9 and onwards. Since my explanation may not be clear, I’ve made a spreadsheet of what it’ll look like:

Review outline

This semester, my subjects are only AP Calculus, English, and IDC. So, the only subject for which I need continuous review is calculus. To have easy access to my quizzes and tests, I’ll keep them in my binder instead of my file folder.

The critical move will probably be just remembering I need to review, since it’s a completely new practice. I don’t think there’s much I can do except write reminders in my planner (and on my hand) along with a matching sticky note on the wall. However, I hope that by incorporating it into the Pomodoro technique, success in one will translate into success in the other.

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To motivate myself, I need to ensure that I’m focused on the long-term impact. The benefits of spaced practice come with time, so when I leave reminders to follow it, I’ll add in notes like “Remember the exam!” and “A spaced practice a day keeps the exam fears away.” While catchy, they may not make complete grammatical sense, but that’s not the point. I want to see my effort in a more lighthearted manner, so it becomes less of a chore and more of a pre-emptive strike against bad grades.

To minimize the change to my everyday life, the first eight review days will occur once every other day. This will let me get accustomed to the review itself. Once those days are up, I’m going to continue with the plan outlined in the spreadsheet above so that review occurs every day instead of every other day. Like with the Pomodoro technique, I’ll know I’ve succeeded when I’ve gone a month reviewing every day. True success will come when exam season rolls around and I’ve already memorized all the equations – truly, a satisfying thought.

 

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