Two weeks ago, I asked the audience to send me their questions. The response was great, so I decided to split my responses over two posts. You can see last week’s answers here, where I talked about Range, learning styles, nootropics and the value of learning things you’re doomed to forget.
Some questions have been lightly edited, and questions that multiple people asked have been merged into single questions.
Listen to this article
Q: How can I overcome procrastination?
The research on procrastination indicates that we mainly fail to buckle down and get to work (or our studies) because we find the task unpleasant, and putting it off is more immediately rewarding than getting to work.
This seems a pretty banal observation, but it’s important to note what it excludes. The research does not, for instance, find that perfectionism is strongly associated with procrastination (something widely believed). Nor is anxiety clearly associated with more procrastination (if you’re anxious, you might even work harder!).
In terms of overcoming procrastination, I think this is why developing a productivity system—some kind of guiding framework that tells you what to work on and when—is so valuable. Over time, if you stick to the system, the decision of what to work on gets delegated to that system, and you learn to abide by it. That alone eliminates a lot of excessive procrastination.
However, I think it’s also important to point out that procrastination is often useful! Our motivational hardware is designed to balance many competing interests and needs. A person pathologically incapable of procrastinating would also likely be willing to stick out working on a lot of tedious, low-value tasks.
While we want to keep our procrastination to an adaptive (rather than maladaptive) level, you should also embrace some of it as your motivational system functioning properly.
Q: What do you think of Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis?
Krashen’s Input Hypothesis is an influential (and controversial) language learning theory arguing that exposure to lots of language you can understand is both necessary and sufficient to achieve completely fluency in a language.
Additionally, Krashen has argued for a distinction between learning a language and acquiring a language, arguing that languages cannot be practiced (thus, there’s no value in encouraging people to speak a language), nor can they be taught (thus, there’s no value in explaining grammar or correcting people’s mistakes).
Judging from the sidelines, I’m somewhat baffled by the theory’s popularity. Consider:
- For most skills, instruction tends to outperform unguided learning. The literature reviews for language learning show… the same thing? Yet this evidence is dismissed by proponents of Krashen’s view as evidencing “learning” and not “acquisition.”
- People in input-only learning environments tend not to acquire native-level productive fluency in a language. This suggests that the speaking part of immersive learning isn’t superfluous.
- Adults and adolescents over the age of 10-14 rarely achieve completely native proficiency in a language, despite decades of full-time exposure. Krashen’s theory attributes this to an “affective filter” that prevents pure input from working its magic. It seems implausible to me that this can explain the near-universal success of six-year-olds in acquiring their native language but exceedingly rare odds of twenty-six-year-olds in achieving native-level pronunciation and grammar.
- We already have a good idea of how we acquire implicit, fluent knowledge in other skills. Why would those same laws of skill acquisition not also apply to language learning? Even if there are language-specific mechanisms, it seems likely that adult language learners can also benefit from skill-learning systems.
Outside of academic circles, Krashen’s theory mainly influences language learners who prefer to read and listen as their primary method for learning instead of practicing conversation.
Despite my preferred approach, I’m not against such approaches. Given that opportunities to speak a foreign language can be limited, you probably can go quite far just by reading and listening a lot. Even so, I think some speaking practice and formal instruction are also helpful for most learners.
Q: I find myself struggling with anxiety/depression, and it makes it harder to work on my key goals. What should I do?
My first suggestion in all these situations is that if you’re struggling with obsessive, negative thoughts, seek therapy if you can, particularly therapists that work with cognitive-behavioral therapy, as it tends to have the greatest empirical support.
CBT tends to perform similarly to pharmaceutical treatments (which also seem to work well, so many people benefit from both). The basic idea behind CBT is that we can get into recurring patterns of thinking, feeling and action that mutually reinforce.
For instance, a person with social anxiety might have unpleasant feelings about going to a party. This triggers vivid imaginings about what might go wrong (maybe they say the wrong thing and embarrass themselves). The anxiety builds until they cancel the invitation and stay home. That causes some momentary relief, but it reinforces the thought and behavior patterns that led to that avoidance and entrenches the anxiety further.
Learning to notice and disable those patterns can be a major step to reducing their grip on you. If you cannot access therapy, I recommend reading more about cognitive-behavioral approaches so you can get the gist of what the work might look like.
Still, I’m not a clinical psychologist, so what I say is not medical advice and ought to be taken with a grain of salt.
Q: What do you think is a more effective approach: managing your day by tasks or managing your day by time/schedule?
I used to be a wholehearted advocate of the task-based approach: Make a daily to-do list and work on it until it’s finished.
The benefit of the task-based method is that it focuses on getting work done. I find it works well when you have a bunch of predictable tasks that need doing, there’s no pressing need to “do more” toward your projects, and you may have a strong urge to procrastinate. Ending when your tasks are done creates an incentive to get everything done so you can enjoy the rest of your day.
However, this approach can struggle when the projects you’re working on are open-ended, or the tasks you’re trying to work on are hard to predict in advance. In those cases, I rely on a fixed-schedule approach to productivity.
I think the issue of productivity systems is that there probably isn’t a good universal system. Instead, different approaches work better or worse, given your typical tasks and goals. As a college student, I found the task-based system worked well. But I find it breaks down in other environments. Similarly, Cal Newport’s time-blocking system works well when you’re intensely busy and have many appointments on your calendar, but it may feel like overkill if you can get your work done without it.
Q: I am curious to learn more about how blocking eyes might affect motor skill learning. A piano player or tennis player that do drills blindfolded or with one eye covered.
I’m not sure! My understanding of the motor skills literature is somewhat weaker than other aspects of educational psychology.
I know that when I was learning to touch type, we taped a sheet of paper at the top of the keyboard and typed underneath to prevent us from looking at the keys. That encourages you to look at the document you’re transcribing and memorize the key positions directly. However, many other skills seem innately coupled to a visual/kinesthetic feedback loop, so doing it blindfolded would likely cause performance to deteriorate for an unclear purpose (I wouldn’t ski down a mountain blindfolded, for instance).
I can say that introducing novel constraints is often a good way to “shift” a motor pattern into a new equilibrium that would be hard to achieve through conscious effort alone. There’s interesting research showing that people tend to acquire movement skills better when they focus their attention on the goal of a movement rather than the movement itself. This suggests clever constraints may be beneficial to shift you out of a bad habit.
_ _ _
Thanks to everyone who submitted a question to the reader mailbag. I had lots of fun discussing everything with readers. Hopefully, we can do it again soon!