In last week’s essay, I wrote about the problem of being overly patient in learning.
In particular, I singled out learning projects based on simple, minimal habits—say, learning a language by spending five minutes a day on Duolingo, or writing one page of a novel every week.
- While popular, this approach limits the types of activities you can do, often eliminating the most efficient kinds of practice.
- The long time frame makes it hard to tell if you are making progress and hard to adjust your approach accordingly.
- Finally, while setting up easy habits can be a good stepping stone into a difficult behavior, for many, the five-minute-per-day routine becomes a destination rather than a warm-up.
While the minimal-habit approach has problems, I should note that there are problems with intensive projects too! Intensive projects are hard to schedule, challenging to execute and may lack sufficient spacing for long-term retention.
The best approach isn’t to steadfastly stick to a particular format for working on a goal but to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each. So, today I’d like to explore what sorts of learning minimal habits are actually useful for.
What are Minimal Habits Good For?
The minimal-habit approach to learning, provided you can sustain it over long periods, has two key advantages: spacing and convenience.
Spacing refers to the spacing effect, a well-studied phenomenon. We retain information better when there are longer intervals between when we are exposed to it than when the same amount of exposure happens over a shorter amount of time. Thus, seeing a vocabulary item ten times over ten days will result in more durable memory than seeing it ten times in one hour. By drawing out learning over very long timeframes, minimal habits can potentially take advantage of the spacing effect and, thus, result in more durable memories than crammed schedules.
The second advantage of minimal habits is that they’re convenient. As I mentioned in the previous essay, it feels mean to discourage people from cultivating minimal habits since the alternative is often to do nothing. Life is busy, learning is hard, and sometimes you only have ten minutes to spare.1
Given these two advantages, I think it’s worth examining what types of learning aims might be appropriate for a simple, minimal habit spread over a very long time.
When Should Minimal Habits Work?
Based on my mental model of minimal habits, I would expect them to work when the practice activity has low cognitive load and can be fit into a small space of time.
The basic idea behind cognitive load theory is that information must make its way through a narrow bottleneck of conscious experience for learning to occur. Complex subjects and skills, those with many pieces of information that must all be put together before you can understand them, create a high cognitive load. This is one reason why learning mathematics and physics is difficult.
However, cognitive load isn’t constant for a subject! As you learn, your brain uses mechanisms, such as chunking or retrieval cues, to minimize the burden on your working memory. For example, when you first learn to read, it has a very high cognitive load because you must work to recognize each letter. But eventually, the cognitive load of reading becomes low as you automatically recognize words and sentences.
New learning varies in its demands on working memory. Some skills and concepts are intrinsically higher in cognitive load since they have many new, interacting parts. In contrast, other ideas are essentially isolated from each other and can be learned one at a time.
Consider learning to calculate quantum-mechanical orbitals in chemistry versus memorizing masses on the periodic table. The former has a lot of pieces of information that all need to be used simultaneously to perform the calculation. In contrast, the memorization task involves (mostly) unrelated facts.
In light of this, flashcards might help you memorize the periodic masses, but they wouldn’t work well for learning to solve the differential equations to find electron orbitals. The kinds of problems in the calculation task require that you “load” a lot of information into short-term memory so that, for all but the most seasoned chemists, the effective practice activity would look more like a problem set that you must focus on for some time.
Minimal habits are probably better for maintaining knowledge and fluency than moving to a new skill frontier. Continued, repetitive practice spaced over time is ideal for boosting fluency, but it’s less effective for making deliberate adjustments in the presence of corrective feedback.
Thus, a low-key daily writing habit will probably make writing easier, but it may not help you reach a substantially higher level of proficiency. The latter would presumably require deliberate practice constraints that force you to use styles or structures that don’t come automatically and require a certain amount of focus and effort (and likely some outside feedback). This is difficult, or impossible, to sustain as a minimal habit.
The other constraint on minimal habits is that the practice activity needs to fit—and be effective—in a sliver of time each day. Thus downhill skiing, for instance, probably can’t be made into a minimal habit by most people since it requires a lengthy trip up a snowy mountain before you can get some runs in. Many skills are difficult to practice minimally because no relevant kind of practice will fit into that timeframe.
Some Examples of Where Minimal Habits Might Work
I’ve used minimal habits in the past—both effectively and ineffectively. The theory articulated above spells out where I think they work (and where they fail). In particular, I think minimal habits might work well for:
- Broad subject knowledge. Daily blog reading, educational YouTube videos or skimming a relevant subreddit will not produce expertise. Still, it can give you good coverage of the main ideas, even if you’d need serious practice to become proficient in using them.
- Flashcards and memorizing isolated facts. Things that can be made into atomic, independent pieces of quickly-testable knowledge are also good candidates. I’ve successfully used fragments of time to learn a lot of vocabulary, and it can be good for maintaining knowledge, too.
- Fluency and maintaining established skills. Keeping effort minimal can help build fluency with material, a non-trivial part of eventual mastery.
In contrast, I expect minimal habits to be poorly suited to situations requiring deliberate practice; learning new, complex skills; or when effective practice is not possible within the time/effort constraints demanded by the minimal habit.
It’s important to note that the patient/impatient distinction is often dwarfed by the larger consideration of time actually spent learning. According to some reasonable estimates, mastery of a language can take 500-2000 hours of classroom time. If you were to follow the five-minutes-per-day approach with a “hard” language, like Mandarin, that would mean almost seventy years before you hit that threshold! If you don’t actually practice enough, even the most efficient learning strategy won’t get you there.