Skills Development: Foundations

I watched this video a few months ago, but thought it worth returning to since it covers a lot of really useful ground for anyone who has to learn new skills / develop etc. Which is to say, it's relevant to everyone on planet Earth.

Or just read these notes to get an overview of some useful things she talks about. (If you want to read a transcript, go here.)

“Allison Kaptur: Effective Learning for Programmers” — Notes from YouTube

We learn early on that Kaptur’s job at the Recurse Center was to help and support students grow and learn amidst the freedom that the programme there afforded them. This kind of unstructured environment can come as a shock if you’ve only been able to work in structured settings in the past (schools, universities, big companies etc). The unstructured freedom to which Kaptur refers around the 1:30 mark also happens to be a hallmark that defines self-study work.

“Growth Mindset”

  • Kaptur introduces the work of sociologist Carol Dweck and the distinction she’s drawn between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.
    • A fixed mindset “holds that intelligence is a trait that some people have in some fixed amount, and they can’t really affect how much of it they have.”
    • A growth mindset “says that intelligence is something that you can work on and something you can develop with effort.”
  • Whether someone adopts a fixed or a growth mindset then can determine how they view various other aspects of work. With regards to ‘effort’, people who believe in fixed mindsets hold that “if you are good at something, then it should be easy”. (And, conversely, if you’re bad at something, then it should be hard.) People with a growth mindset believe that you need to work hard at something to become better at it.
  • Kaptur mentions how Dweck’s work has also shown that people who are praised for their effort in the task being performed tend to get better results [slight simplification of what she said] than those who are praised for what they achieved. This is a fairly well-known and well-publicised aspect of Dweck’s work.
  • Kaptur notes that having a fixed vs growth mindset is something which (it seems) can be changed. And the switch from fixed to growth mindset can sometimes happen with deceptively easy tactics.
    • Sometimes it’s as simple as being aware of the things you’re saying (e.g. “Oh, I could never learn physics”). Kaptur suggests when you say “I am…” or “Some people are just…”, these might be times to examine whether you’re stuck in a fixed mindset pattern.
  • Four strategies to change a fixed mindset:
    • 1) “Reframe praise and success” — if someone praises you for something you said by saying “you’re so smart”, you can mentally (most of the time you will say this to yourself internally) reframe this as “yes, I did a great job on that project. I worked very hard and I used an effective strategy.”
    • 2) “Reframe failure” — this is basically the opposite of the first strategy. Listen to your self-talk when you fail at something. If you’re saying “I failed because I’m bad” or “maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of work”, then try reframing it by asking yourself what you learnt from this attempt and what strategies you could change or use next time you try something similar.
    • 3) “Celebrate challenges” — if you can find ways to frame places where you struggle as a victory or an accomplishment in and of itself, this will really help drive you into that growth mindset. Accordingly, when the going gets tough, celebrate the difficult as an opportunity for growth, development and learning.
    • 4) “Ask about processes” — asking “how did you do that” can often be really illuminating, and is better (when viewing someone else’s work, for example) than saying “of course they did x or y; they are a genius/wizard”.
  • On Confidence & Imposter Syndrome
    • Dweck’s research shows that confidence doesn’t help you respond to challenges. A lot of advice counsels feeling more confident in response to difficulties in work etc, but the angle Dweck is explores is the idea that “if you’re doing something new, confidence about something old doesn’t help you with that.”
    • If you hold a fixed-mindset, any moment is basically a chance to prove whether or not you are a failure. “So running into challenges is particularly stressful in that context.”
    • The trick to getting past all of this (of course) is to adopt a growth mindset. (20:10)


Dweck’s research also shows that those who really embody a ‘growth mindset’ are also focused on strategies (and not just outcomes).

  • “Make It Stick” — Kaptur offers some useful tips that she gathered from this great book. You can read my review here, in which I also extract some of my favourite actionable points.
    • “Learning is an acquired skill” — the premise of the book
    • 1) “Effortful retrieval > rereading” — this can be something like self-tests administered through Anki, or it can just be writing a review of a book after you’ve read it. Or it could be trying to summarise a recently-mastered topic by teaching it to someone else.
    • 2) “Spaced practice > massed practice” — Kaptur references three main ways to space out practice — spaced / varied / and interleaved.
      • Spaced = spacing practice sessions out over time rather than bunching it all together in a single mega-session
      • Varied = find a way to vary the kinds of practice you’re getting so that you’re not getting falsely sure of your command of the topic.
      • Interleaved = shuffling the kinds of exercise / practice you’re doing so that it’s somewhat random is better than always sticking to the same order (or a predictable order).
    • 3) “Difficulty is (usually) desirable” — (with the related point that making errors is usually desirable). One difficulty that isn’t desirable, however, is anxiety around performance. This comes out of Dweck’s research.

This is all difficult — a consequence of the fact that all of these strategies are difficult is that people don’t do it. They don’t challenge their recall, they don’t push into the areas they don’t know and so on, even after they’ve been specifically instructed in the ways that these strategies are more effective.

Kaptur encourages us to find ways to make effortful retrieval part of our everyday lives and work. This may mean you have to:

  1. use a flashcard programme to test you
  2. take guesses
  3. be systematic about how you attack your problems. She is speaking in the context of programming, so she talks about debugging but it works for most problems. Have a hypothesis about what’s going wrong, and then tackle each part systematically.

She also suggests we find ways to implement spaced practice. The harder you work to retrieve a fact from your memory, the better this is for your grasp of that fact, so in the end while it feels horrible to test yourself on recall of materials you don’t know so well, it’s actually better for you.

With a growth mindset, errors are something to be welcomed (because they imply that there’s some sort of a feedback loop going on, from which you can, in turn, learn). Thus finding ways to get more feedback (about your writing, your code, etc) is to be encouraged.

PhD Tools: Tea

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

I got a bit carried away with my tea experiments...

I got a bit carried away with my tea experiments...

This will be the last post in my PhD Tools series. I thought I'd end with something a little less serious, though still potentially of use.

Around the time I started working intensely on my PhD, I became a little obsessed with tea. Looking back, I can see the traces of procrastination around this 'learn-about-tea' project. I put together a Trello board to track the different types of leaves I was trying. I read books about the cultivation of tea. I corresponded with various companies about how they source their products. (Sidenote, I settled on Rishi Tea as the best company selling tea online. Hopefully I'll be able to get them to record a podcast on Sources & Methods soon).

My Perfect Four Hours, for the record, were fuelled by two cups of Oolong tea. I've discovered over the years that I'm particularly sensitive to green tea, (which gives you a dose of theine rather than the better-known caffeine), such that one too many cups will have my hands shaking and my body unable to think or work in any useful way.

You'll need to figure out your maximum sensitivity point, but for most people I'd suggest it probably is one cup less than whatever you're currently drinking. There's a tendency (especially with coffee drinkers) to think that more is better. More coffee = better focus, more awake, etc. In reality, as I think many would admit, you reach a point of diminishing returns. I don't drink coffee, though I did in the past and I remember that feeling.

That said, some kind of stimulation in the form of green tea or coffee can be really useful when starting your core work sessions. It takes 20-30 minutes for the chemical components of tea or coffee to have their effect on your brain, so it can even make sense to have your first cup before you leave your house. That way you're hitting your first session at your peak.

I hope that this series has been useful for some of you. If there's a particular topic or problem that you feel it would be useful for me to write more about (or cover afresh), let me know over on twitter. I also offer (paid) consultancy on these productivity issues, so if you feel you'd like to discuss your particular situation in more detail, drop me a line.

PhD Tools: Sleep and Movement to Nourish the Body

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

Intense focus on a particular mental challenge, problem or project has the tendency -- at least in my experience -- to become an all-or-nothing proposition. Any non-PhD-related activities are considered unimportant or irrelevant, and you end up sitting in front of your chair for hours on end.

I've already written about the importance of periodic breaks in your work routine. These breaks were short breaks that I was referring to, but you also need to find a way to include -- your own situation permitting, of course -- ample opportunity for recharging your physical body and needs.

This is common sense. We all know that we should probably sleep more and move more. Most of us aren't getting enough of either, and we feel its effects on our concentration or we feel the physical aches and pains in your body that come after a few hours sitting hunched over in a chair in front of a laptop.

If you're doing intense work thinking about particular problems, getting more sleep and movement will really invigorate your ability to keep doing that. Your body will thank you and you will feel the difference in your work and attention.

Movement doesn't need to be something as structured as going to work out, or a specific activity, even. The mental and physical benefits of long walks (or multiple shorter walks over a single day) are pretty well established in the scientific record, I think, and I know that when I make sure to include lots of walking in my day I generally feel better. (I actually have a bunch of quantitative data to back that up from various tracking projects that I maintain, but that's a topic for another day).

All of this is not about being prescriptive, but I think you'll find that if you can find a way to sleep a little more and move a little more each day, your body and mind (and your PhD) will thank you. This is all about realigning your own sense of what you want for yourself with the reality of how you go about your day.

PhD Tools: Goodreads for Cross-Pollination

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

During the period I was working most intensely on my PhD writeup, I read over 100 books. I put that number out there not as a confrontation, but as an illustration that reading is important to ensure you don't get lost in a small box of your own creation. Judging purely from my own experience and from sporadic conversations with a loose handful of fellow PhD candidates, this can be a real problem.

Reading widely and about issues and problems wholly unrelated to your field of study is, I believe, the hallmark of a curious mind. If I meet someone for the first time and I'm assessing their work, I'm far more likely to be interested in the last ten books they've read than many other data points. Even the fact that someone is taking time to read, and to read diversely, is an important indicator for me.

I think I can date my adoption of this books-and-ideas-for-cross-fertilisation to when I read Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From. He makes a strong case for a more deliberate approach to how you develop and cultivate ideas in your thinking life. (The book is short and highly suggestive of specific approaches to work. I'd recommend it if this kind of thing interests you).

I've found that things that I don't track and monitor tend to fall beside the wayside. Hence Goodreads and Beeminder and a number of other tracking tools. Goodreads allows you to set how many books you want to read each year and then keeps a convenient little widget reminding your how far ahead or behind you are of your goal. If you want a bit more of a 'sting' for non-compliance, you can hook up Beeminder and you'll be kept honest that way.

Reading books on unrelated topics was something I would do in the afternoons or evenings after my Four Perfect Hours. The time would be mine and I could read without any sense of guilt or that I wasn't making progress on my PhD writeup. No, I'd done my work in the morning, so now I could read to my heart's content.

Encounters with books are encounters with other ideas, other minds. It refreshes your approach and your sense of perspective -- both so important for your PhD. Give it a try! See how you can add in some reading time to your daily routine. Even 30 minutes before bed each evening adds up in the end.

PhD Tools: "Always return to your primary sources"

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

This phrase became a kind of mantra for me during the final write-up of my PhD. Friends and colleagues have since become accustomed to my frequent invocation of this phrase. I wrote up a longish blogpost which stemmed from my frustration at the takeup of primary sources and their use by fellow researchers and analysts in the Afghan context.

With regards to my PhD, I often felt that when I reached a point where I was stuck, the thing that would unstick me was a return to the primary sources. For my specific project, I was lucky to have a rich variety of sources on which to rely. Some may not have this luxury, but for all but the most stalwart of abstract theorists, there is going to be some kind of primary data on which you are basing your research work and writeup.

Thus, whenever you get stuck or you feel your writing starts becoming too self-referential and circular in its logic, go back to the primary sources. I think you'll find this helpful, and you'll return to your writing reinvigorated with new ideas and approaches.

PhD Tools: Freewriting and Journalling to Think Through your Work

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

A few years back, I read a book with the (intentionally) provocative title, Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes A Day. I was travelling back to Afghanistan from a short stay in Europe, and I was sat in Istanbul airport, waiting for my connecting flight. I remember the moment quite clearly, because a long wait time plus a delay didn't phase me. I was sucked into the book and the idea that the author presented. (There's also another good one along a similar theme: How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul Silvia.

Basically, she explained how writing for a very short amount of time each day, taking the time to think through whatever was going on with your research, but on paper instead of your head -- was a trick that would really help your work. It's not a new idea, this technique of freewriting. When you take this time, these 15 or 20 minutes, you aren't writing a section of your thesis itself, you're writing almost a note to yourself about how it is going, what you think are important things you  need to consider, whether this is a useful line of inquiry and so on.

Since that day, I've incorporated this kind of writing much more often as a general practice. There's a great service run by all-round make-useful-things-for-everyone-to-benefit-from person Buster Benson called 750Words. It sends you a friendly reminder every day to write 750 words on its site. There's all sorts of gamification and encouragement of writing streaks etc, and while writing the middle sections of my PhD, I would check in to every day at the start of the morning to journal out my current research position and think through whatever problems I was about to face in my work that coming day.

It may feel a bit redundant at times, but I've found the practice really useful. Give it a try. You might find that it works for you.

PhD Tools: Pen and Paper

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

It's worth also talking in general terms about pen and paper. Readers of this blog would be right in considering me as someone who uses many different digital tools. Yet I am also a firm advocate for the use of paper and pen.

I've written before about my use of a four-color pen. This was one of the more useful discoveries of 2015.

Using pen and paper offers the opportunity for slowing down and thinking in different ways about particular problems. Needless to say, pen and paper as a tool is firmly 'distraction-free', perhaps unless you're someone who likes to doodle.

I like working on problems from different perspectives throughout my attempts to tackle whatever complexities arise. For this reason, I'll spend some time outlining, some time free-writing, some time structuring and restructuring things I've already written, some time talking things through with a third-party, and some time making mindmaps or lists of ideas with pen and paper.

The full handwritten overview of all my PhD chapters, glued to a large white sheet of paper

The full handwritten overview of all my PhD chapters, glued to a large white sheet of paper

This cycling through different ways of composition / thinking on paper is something I developed over time, and it was in part a product of my time in Kandahar. Electricity was in limited supply, as was the internet, and some days there would simply be no way to write on a laptop. Sometimes even the laptop wouldn't start because the temperature in our little room on the roof was too hot. So I developed things to do during those downtimes, so that I wasn't completely hampered from working. The interruptions and lack of power was such a prominent feature of life that to allow yourself to be dictated by that would be to never complete anything.

So I would read books or articles on my Kindle. I would make lists in my notebooks. I would make lists of things to look up when the internet or electricity came back. I would make lists of tasks. I would outline sections of whatever I was writing. I would have focused discussions with Felix about a particular section or issue. Pen and Paper was at the centre of all of this, and I took that on to my life when I returned to places with constant streams of electricity and internet connectivity.

I've actually found that I'm the most useful and productive (in a holistic sense) when I'm in that disconnected mode, without the reliance on the internet to look everything up, and forced to just forge ahead with the hard work of thinking.

A particular model for this was the work of Erich Auerbach and his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which he wrote from Istanbul during the Second World War without access to many sources. As Edward Said explains in his Introduction:

"He explains in the concluding chapter of Mimesis that, even had he wanted to, he could not have made use of the available scholarly resources, first of all because he was in wartime Istanbul when the book was written and no Western research libraries were accessible for him to consult, second because had he been able to use references from the extremely voluminous secondary literature, the material would have swamped him and he would never have written the book. Thus along with the primary texts that he had with him, Auerbach relied mainly on memory and what seems like an infallible interpretive skill for elucidating relationships between books and the world they belonged to."

My hunch is that the limitations on his work process, and access to sources, was one of the things that made that book so great.

Pen and paper don't need batteries. So give it a try. Go somewhere new, or somewhere you feel like your energy gets recharged, take a notebook with you and make notes. You can always type them up later on, but for now, just write and think.

PhD Tools: Vitamin-R and the Pomodoro Technique for Getting Going

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

In my last post I mentioned the way I divide my work into timed segments. The ideal timing for me, I felt, was 45 mins on : 15 minutes off. The canonical division, however, is 25 minutes on : 5 minutes off. This is a technique commonly referred to as the Pomodoro Technique (named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, I think). You might find that starting off at 45:15 is too much at the beginning, particularly if you're not used to focused stretches of work, and that you have to slowly work your way up to that ratio, increasing the minutes incrementally.

I like the idea of splitting work into timed units as an alternative to the usual task-based approach. This way, you make sure to take regular breaks, and you develop a healthy appreciation for the fact that some tasks take longer than you were expecting. I used to be someone who would claim to work from 8am-6pm on a particular project. I now realise that that is an illusion. Nobody can concentrate for that long, and the work you'll be producing by the end of that session will most likely be worthless. Far better to have focused core sessions and then be honest about where you're spending your time. Working 8am-6pm day-in-day-out is also a surefire way to burn out from what you're doing.

Another advantage to pomodoros is that they are small enough to appear unthreatening to your emotional lizard brain. Confronted with two options (either working for 25 minutes on a particular problem, or an unboxed task instruction to 'complete this particular task') I know I feel far more comfortable taking a bash at starting to work if I just have to get through 25 minutes. If I place the entire responsibility and expectation of completing a section or a problem from the outset, I'm far more likely to find ways to avoid starting, to procrastinate (even if everything is switched off and I have no access to the internet; it's amazing how creative the mind can be at avoiding hunkering down and tackling a difficult task).

There are many (many) pomodoro timers available online. FWIW, the ones that I've used and found work well for me are: FocusTime, PomoDone (which hooks into Trello boards).

Around the time when I started my routine of 'Four Perfect Hours' each day, I discovered something called Vitamin-R. This is probably overkill for many of you, but if you're inclined to monitor your data and your stats and your progress, then it might be worth exploring.

The programme works on your laptop and your phone (though I almost exclusively used the Mac app) and you set up your time ratios (i.e. my 45 mins on, 15 minutes rest routine). You specify what you'll be doing during the coming 45 minutes. This is useful in forcing you to clarify what you will be doing, since being specific about this makes it likely that you'll make progress instead of just browsing about a bit in your sources and so on. It gives you alerts and alarms at the start and end of your pomodoros, as well as periodic 'tick-tock' noises at random moments to just remind you that this is a period of focused. Some people might find this annoying; I found it useful to occasionally break me out of a daydream or from going down some not-particularly-useful line of approach.

At the end of each session, it asks you how focused you felt while working. This is really useful for building up (over time) a picture of which times of the day are more useful than others in terms of your focus.

One of the charts that Vitamin-R generates

One of the charts that Vitamin-R generates

You can see that my early mornings were generally my core work time. You will usually have an instinctual understanding of this truth, but Vitamin-R allows you to confirm it and to keep track of just how many hours you're spending in 'Deep Work'.

I happened to have a Beeminder goal for 'Deep Work' at the time, and I filled it with data from Vitamin-R. At the end of every day, I'd update it with however many minutes Vitamin-R said I'd tracked as having been devoted to that deep work. That kept me honest, and it was also nice to see the cumulative core hours add up over time.

Here you can see the 187 or so hours I tracked in the first half of 2016

Here you can see the 187 or so hours I tracked in the first half of 2016

Most won't need or want this level of specificity or tracking. Any phone (even a dumb phone') comes with a countdown timer, and that's enough to get started with the pomodoro technique. I recommend it because it encourages regular breaks. If you find this useful, please do let me know. It's always good to hear from others in the 'trenches' of knowledge work.