It would be pretty awesome if we all had plenty of mental energy to stay motivated and disciplined all day long, to be highly productive and highly creative whenever we needed, and to always feel vibrant and optimistic about the future.
However, the more you try to control elements of your life – whether it is to improve your health, wealth, social life or whatever – the more apparent it is how finite and scarce this “mental energy” can be.
In particular, it seems that whenever we use willpower – in any form and for any reason – we are using up resources from this pool of mental energy, much faster than the pool is replenished.
Psychologists have carried out plenty of experiments that strongly appear to confirm this model of willpower – Jason Shen and Sebastian recently put together a great post about it here: http://sebastianmarshall.com/developing-willpower-by-jason-shen which is very much worth reading if you haven't already!
Psychologists have also shown that decisions on matters that affect us can deplete the same mental resource as willpower. In some sense, these decisions and willpower are the same:
This September I was a competitor in the Mental Calculation World Cup, and much of what I learnt there about the mind and skills may be interesting for a wide audience, including readers of Sebastian's blog.
To set the scene, it’s the world’s toughest arithmetic competition, held every 2 years. Around 30-40 people from all around the world qualify to compete, some of whom dedicate much of their lives to arithmetic, while others – such as myself – have careers in other fields, such as software or education.
Usually when people hear about mental gymnastics, such as arithmetic or memory, the story is about some particular savant with a single-minded obsession for numbers. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the entrants were exactly the opposite, with many interests, almost treating life like one giant party.
About a year ago, I stumbled upon this competition – and some past scoreboards – after an idle Google search, and wondered whether I could train myself up to a similar standard. At first, it seemed unlikely – I was making too many mistakes. One of the tasks is to solve multiplications of the form: 84505395 x29817723, without writing down anything except for the answer. If you make an error in any of the one hundred and twenty-seven steps, then your answer will be wrong. Perhaps I needed to concentrate better?
Sometimes learning happens more easily than other times, and it's useful to understand why. There are many factors involved, and one is the regularity with which you think about the topic that you're learning.
Learning is essentially the process of forming sufficient links in the brain between related ideas, and so while learning anything complex it's important to be able to hold a large amount of information in memory ready for processing.
Our short-term memory is limited, so for complex tasks it's essential to use medium and longer-term memory to assist with the learning process. Think how an expert in anything improves - whether it's a professional tennis player, a musician or a businessman: each refinement in their skill is based on lots of previous experience, mostly held in longer-term memory.
Information gets placed into medium/longer-term memory when there are enough neural connections that involve it. This sometimes happens by random chance, but usually it requires deliberate repetition. It also fades from there quite quickly without rehearsal (which would link it to other information).
The implication of this is that if you are trying to learn a skill by occasional practice (rather than frequent practice) then rather than slow progress, you may find that you make almost no progress at all. You never have enough information stored in medium-term memory to make meaningful progress, because much of it evaporates between successive practices. You need to keep up the momentum when learning in order to make meaningful progress.
I've been tracking my time daily since October 2011, having seen a few articles that Sebastian had written about the idea. Here is a recent one that Sebastian wrote.
Time tracking has been immensely helpful in general, and like Sebastian's time tracking, mine has gone through many changes since I started while looking for whatever is going to be the most useful stuff to track for my life at that moment. Another nice benefit is that it serves as a memento for nostalgia purposes - I quite like looking back and seeing what I was doing 2 years ago.
You don't need any fancy tools to do this effectively - I've exclusively used a plain text file on my laptop, which I can edit with (for example) Notepad++.
(1) The basic format is always a diary where I list everything important that I did that day, and for my first month that's /all/ I included. Starting off simple is important to ensure that you can get into the habit of actually filling it out. Here is a sample from October 2011:
Mon 17 Oct