Time Out: Part 2
This is a continuation of my earlier article, which can be found here.
Ok, so let’s say I’ve sold you on the idea that knowing when you’ve hit a real limit is a key skill. What does that mean? Every time you are overloaded, does that mean you have to stop for the day, game over?
Definitely, definitely not. Sometimes when I’m on a run, I just don’t have the fortitude to make it up a tough hill. Or I feel a twinge in a muscle that just needs a stretch. All I need to do is take a break on the hill or step off the trail and stretch it out. It would be entirely needless to give up on the run entirely — even though I’d likely pay the price if I had failed to grant myself those smaller breaks.
Similarly, when you’re working through Launch School material, much of the time all you need to do is step away — especially when you’re working on a tricky program or bug, vs. grappling with a hefty brain-twisting concept. Often, just distancing yourself from the problem for a brief moment is all you need to gain some clarity. I wound up relying on an old study trick from law school to help achieve this goal: washing dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher. Washing a dish is a sufficiently quick and easy task — but one which also requires your attention in order to ensure you didn’t miss any spots. Washing a dish or two is often all I need to allow my brain to “switch gears” enough that I can re-examine the problem with a fresh perspective. And there are plenty of other tasks that can offer similar breaks — walking around the block, making a cup of coffee, etc. More often than not, taking a short break is all I need to get out of a misguided train of thought, so the sooner that I’m able to recognize my need for a break and act on it, the more time and anguish I save myself.
But of course there are also times when I’m on a run and stopping for a moment just isn’t enough; the pain has gotten worse, or starting to run again feels terrible. Similarly, there are times when a short break from studying just doesn’t provide the clarity I need with a problem or concept I’m stuck on. Sometimes it’s a matter of switching to another task entirely; sleeping on it, and trusting that the answer will come. And usually it does. But even then, sometimes I still just help —I need to look at the solution or ask a classmate. And there is no harm in doing this when I really need to. The world isn’t a closed system, you aren’t going to be working in isolation, and the whole point of learning is that you don’t know the answer yet. So looking at the answer, reaching for help, is one way to learn. But of course asking for help or looking at the solution every single time you are stuck is definitely not a viable approach to learning, so again, this is where honing your self awareness, and only resorting to these options when you actually do need them is key.
So, you’ve gotten this far, but you might still be wondering — what do I do about that nagging lazy voice in my head? That thing can be powerful…how do I handle that?
Of course, as with everything, the answer is going to be personal. But I’ve found that simply trying to ignore it is woefully inadequate when you’re literally working on a computer with internet and its seemingly infinite potential for distraction. Perhaps you’re able to avoid unrelated browsing tangents through the strength of sheer willpower alone, but I…am not.
Instead, I pull another trick from my running routine: deliberate, premeditated laziness. If I’m not training for a specific race, honestly, there’s no reason I can’t have a “lazy” run every now and then…some days I just don’t really want to run, or the weather is miserable — or so beautiful I don’t want to race through it; I’d rather take it all in slowly. So rather than trying to force it when my heart isn’t in it, I go all in on the laziness. I let myself have a rules-free run: stop when I want, take breaks when I want…just do whatever feels right without overthinking it and beating myself up. If I know I’m going to cave anyway, I’d rather just be honest about it, and do it right!
But once I adopted this approach, I quickly realized that if I have a “lazy run” on my actual training route, it can be extremely problematic. It gives the lazy voice even more ammunition. In future runs, every single time I run past a spot where I took a break, that voice says “this is the spot where you walk…you did it last time and it was fine; you should totally just stop again, what’s the big deal?” and if I stopped early on my lazy run, the voice says “that’s plenty; this is where you stop”…and for the whole rest of the run, that little voice is saying “you’ve already gone farther than you did that one time — you’re already ahead, so why not just turn around?” Doing a lazy run on my real route basically creates an entirely new psychological battle that I simply don’t need.
So I’ve learned to be very precious with my training routes. I’ve got separate routes for different distances, and a few spots where I only do lazy runs that I don’t particularly care about. If I know I’m going to be lazy, I don’t allow myself to ruin one of my “real” runs, but I also don’t fight with myself the whole time I’m running — do your thing, lazy voice! But if I’ve committed to doing a serious run, it means that I have to follow through. And I can tell my lazy voice “we’ll do a lazy run next time. NOW is the time to focus.” It might sound silly, but for me it really works.
Moreover, creating such a separate paradigm for my “lazy” runs makes it even more obvious how hard I’m really working. Without this deliberate distinction, it can be hard to evaluate whether I’m really doing my best. But with these very solid boundaries, I know, definitively, whether I’ve been pushing myself or just taking the easy route — literally.
When I first began my programming journey, it didn’t occur to me to delineate my time so clearly. I’m on the computer…I’m working…maybe I tab over every now and then, but…not too much, right? Probably?
Needless to say, that didn’t work out especially well. I quickly had the little voice saying “yesterday you checked social media and it was fine…you should totally just go look now — it won’t be that much of a disruption,” and so on. Every lazy move piled on, and it was feeling like I wasn’t winning the battle of focus and self control. So I decided to take a similar approach to my running: be precious about my study space. I have a study area, and while I’m in that study area, I study. Period. But when the temptation comes, rather than denying myself any laziness, I just have a rule — if I’m going to be lazy, I have to physically move and not do it in my study area.
Creating such a clear delineation of work vs. play makes it much less tempting to switch gears. It’s not just a matter of tabbing over — I have to physically move, and very overtly choose to not be working. And the vast majority of the time, if I’m honest with myself, that’s not what I want to do — I’d rather just get my work done.
You might think it’s just best never to be lazy — and that may be true if you are trying to finish Core with a rigorous time schedule. But I actually think one of the perks of Core is that it provides the opportunity to develop good habits. And the reality is, if you’re someone who’s used your computer primarily recreationally in the past, it takes some time to un-learn that association of your computer with “free time.” Shutting that habit down immediately might be possible for some, but for me, it wasn’t, and allowing myself intentional recreation time, without deluding myself into thinking I was working when I wasn’t, was a key stepping stone to developing good study/work habits. It also helped me realize that sometimes when I was feeling the urge to be lazy, I really did just need a quick break, so I’d prefer to take one as opposed to wasting time on the internet.
Separating your study space is also a good habit to develop for work — once you are on the job, it’s unlikely you’ll be allowed to use your work computer recreationally. So building a study routine that does not involve periodic meandering around the web is definitely going to set you up for more success, rather than having a stiff learning curve on the job.
Of course there are plenty of other tools that can help improve focus — this is just one that works for me. But I think the most critical point is that Core is a really great time to start developing a keen sense of self-awareness around your work and your work habits. Questions about these things seem pretty prolific amongst especially new students, so I hope this has been of some help! You are definitely not alone in struggling with these feelings!
I would also like to add that I am very aware running is a privilege, and not something that everyone can do. It is not something I take for granted, and I did not mean to alienate anyone through this analogy; it is simply something that’s been useful to me in my life.