Stressed out? Empty your backpack

16 July 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s the middle of summer, so my schedule and appointments have been inconsistent and often interrupted by travel or distractions. My daily organizational systems can’t quite handle the spontaneity mixed with disjointed schoolwork brought on by summer vacation.

After completely forgetting about an important appointment a few days ago, I decided I needed to reëxamine my system.

My work schedule is particularly maddening: sometimes I work overnight shifts, sometimes I work all day, and sometimes I work late-night shifts four hours before working early-morning shifts. Trying to be alert enough to research doxastic justification for hours at a time is difficult. Add to this the fact that it’s summer (a time of incomparable seduction when it comes to idleness), and I end up frazzled.

Rather than try to force order on the world, then, I thought my way through the previous day and located a loophole in my daily habits: whenever I came home from work, meetings, or outings, I noticed that I would simply set my backpack down next to my apartment’s front door.

This caused problems.

1. On my way to work, I would look everywhere in my apartment for, say, my sunglasses. They were, of course, already in my backpack.

2. On my way to a meeting, I would leave the house confident that my notebook was already in my backpack. It was not.

3. After doing a day’s schoolwork at the library, I would leave my notes in my backpack. This included the notes in which I reminded myself what ancillary reading I had to do the following day. These notes were not heeded.

4. On a day trip to the Mississippi River, I brought in my backpack a large stack of padded envelopes for mailing some CDs. I did not intend to bring them, nor did I need them.

5. I lose approximately one pen every day—at the bottom of my backpack.

There was a simple solution.

I made myself the following promise: every time I get home, I will empty my backpack. This way, (1) I know where to find everything I want to take: in its dedicated location at home; (2) I won’t forget anything as a result of mistakenly thinking it’s already packed; (3) I can appropriately process any incoming information; (4) I use my backpack space efficiently; and (5) I don’t re-pack anything that is already packed.

The moral here, really, is that we should all periodically set aside some time to consider the systems we’re relying on and how they can be made simpler and more effective. While I do think many people could benefit from habitually emptying their backpacks, perhaps you can benefit from organizing your bookshelf by topic rather than by author, or by scheduling your workout before work instead of after. An inefficient system is certainly one of the worst consumers of one’s time.

Atoms in the Void (1 July 2011)

1 July 2011 § 2 Comments

Atoms in the Void is an occasional roundup of links and blurbs.

Pretend you’re on an airplane to get more done. If you use an iPhone or other smartphone, “Airplane Mode” is a great way to keep your phone from controlling your attention. This article from Marc Cortez discusses Airplane Mode and other tips.

Go from unnoticed to published in your field. Cal Newport’s brilliant article turns the vague and ominous world of research into a churning process that will help you achieve mastery.

The most popular philosophy blogs among readers of Leiter Reports. Winners include The Philosophy Smoker, which you should really check out.

I need to take the GRE right around the time it goes from an “old GRE” to a “new GRE.” Since one month isn’t enough time for me to study (the transition is at the beginning of August), I will have studied for the “old GRE,” will take the “new GRE,” and statistically won’t do very well.

Philosopher’s Carnival #127 was posted a while back. PC is a roundup of high-quality blog posts in philosophy, organized by topic.

The anatomy of intentional action. As an armchair philosopher, I don’t think “experimental philosophy” is philosophical. But it’s interesting.

The magic ingredient to a 4.0 GPA: The 50/10 Rule

20 June 2011 § Leave a comment

iPhone timer

There is one rule that I absolutely must follow in order to be productive on pretty much anything: work for fifty minutes; rest for ten minutes. I consider it the single most important tool for my academic success so far.

Never just work until you feel like taking a break.

No matter how enthusiastic you are about your organic chemistry textbook, working until you feel burnt out is like sprinting for the first five miles of a marathon: you won’t feel like doing the next 21.2 miles.

The harder you work (read: the more frantically you highlight your textbook), the more you’ll think you deserve a really big break once you get tired. Before you know it, it’s 2 AM and you’ve conked out on the futon, with the first thirty pages of your textbook painted bright yellow and the rest undisturbed.

The 50/10 Rule is the most effective way of combating this problem.

When you work according to The 50/10 Rule, there’s no grey area for getting your work done. Fifty minutes is a manageable amount of time for uninterrupted work, and a ten-minute break is enough to recharge your productivity muscle.

I have found five enormous benefits of using The 50/10 Rule.

1. Stamina/Naturalization: The thought of six straight hours of homework makes me want to vomit. Fifty minutes of work, on the other hand, is less than an episode of Top Gear (or Lost, or whatever hour-long television show you like). Similarly, I could devour six episodes of Top Gear, but what kind of psycho would sit through a single six-hour episode? Your anxiety about large tasks will subside. Plus, after you’ve used The 50/10 Rule for a few weeks, you’ll notice that you become really good at focussing for fifty minutes. You will also notice that many tasks, magically, start to take you exactly fifty minutes to complete.

2. Focus: If the clock is ticking during a fifty-minute work cycle, you can’t do anything else. Don’t text—in fact, make it so you can’t see or hear your cell phone. Don’t let anyone or anything disturb you. If you’re in a fifty-minute cycle, you are either working, making a note of something you’ll do or think about after you’re done, or using the restroom. Nothing else. This may sound constricting, but by taking The 50/10 Rule seriously, the benefits will amaze you.

3. Side-productivity: You’re welcome to do anything you want on your 10-minute break. Eat a block of cheese. Watch cute cat videos. Or you turn that time into an opportunity to do things you’ve always wanted to do but can never seem to get around to doing. Isn’t it impressive when someone is both a Professor of Law at Yale and a best-selling novelist? 10-minute breaks are the hidden time in your day to finally read War and Peace, work your way up to 100 push-ups, or practice your favorite musical instrument. If you do six 50/10 cycles, that’s an hour of side-productivity, with zero cost to the primary work you’re accomplishing.

4. Progress-tracking: When you follow The 50/10 Rule, you know exactly how many hours you spent on a given task. You don’t have to fool yourself by exaggerating to friends. I recommend that you keep a log of this in a dedicated notebook on your desk.

5. Mastery: I want to become masterful at philosophy. I want to be really, really good at it and know as much as I can about it. This should take me about 10,000 hours. Using The 50/10 Rule, I can look back on a given school semester and find out exactly how many hours I spent 100% focussed on philosophy. I’ve got a while to go.

My use and application of this rule is inspired by Cal Newport’s book as well as the idea behind the Pomodoro Technique.

Couch-Leisure and Fulfillment-Leisure

18 June 2011 § 1 Comment

The word ‘leisure’ should not make you think of a sedentary mush wasting her time. It should make you think of a happy and wise person using her time for something intrinsically worthwhile. The lazy person on a couch wasting time online or idly eating potato chips is not really at leisure.

Why does it matter what I do in my free time?

Take an example from the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. Phil, the main character played by Murray, wakes up every day to find that it’s the same day—Groundhog Day. He is “trapped” in Groundhog Day, experiencing the exact same thing every single day, until Rita (Andie MacDowell) convinces him to use the time to his advantage.

Phil is miserable before he starts using his time wisely. He tries to kill himself multiple times, he eats entire tables full of junk food, and he is tortured by his job. But when he begins learning Italian, playing the piano, and ice sculpting, he breaks free of the trap.

Phil starts doing real leisure activities. These activities are fulfilling, enjoyable, and intrinsically worthwhile, and they positively affect his character.

Time-wasting is an instrument

You will not be alive for very much longer. And while the next five years may seem like they’ll pass slowly, at the end of that five years, I am confident that they will seem to have passed in an instant.

So when they have passed, what do I want to have accomplished? Well, a bunch of leisure activities: writing, bicycling, playing the drums, and reading.

I’d be lying if I said I won’t waste time in the next five years. I’ll waste lots of time, because that’s human nature: we need distractions, breaks, and rest (read: we need to sit on the couch once in a while). But my goal is to treat couch-leisure as an instrument. I will use it so that I can do fulfilling leisure activities without burning out.

Identify what’s intrinsically worthwhile in your life

Fulfillment-leisure, on the other hand, is not a way of accomplishing anything else. It’s the stuff in life that makes you feel alive, connected with the world, with your own mind, and with other people. It is good all by itself. For that reason, to the greatest extent possible, identify the leisure activities you find fulfilling and start doing them.

Leisure is a time for life, not laziness.

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