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Self-Education Strategy

July 21st, 2011

My goal for August is to stick to a schedule, as I indicated in my last post.  I got started early, although I’m easing into it, allowing myself to wake up late and fulfilling prior commitments (I’m scheduled to work on one of my “study days.”)  When I first started designing a study plan back in December, I was trying things out, keeping note of my default habits and trying to see which strategies were forming organically and which needed to be pushed. Discipline and determination only go so far if they are not accompanied by a realistic plan that you can stick to.  For instance, I could tell myself that I’m going to get up at 5 a.m. everyday and read for 5 hours straight, but that would be setting myself up for a failure. Conversely, my strategy could be just to wing it, and read what I want, when I want. But then I find myself watching every single consecutive episode of the first season of Meerkat Manor or reading the entire list of fake employees on the Car Talk website, and I realize that’s not going to work either.

I’m finding that instead of having a “plan” and then relying on your will power and determination to carry out the plan, it’s more reasonable to have a strategy that’s integrated into your life so you don’t have to think about it all the time.  This is a key point from The Power of Less on building habits. My strategy now is that instead of a plan, I have a number of “tools,” and instead of raw determination, I can make the use of those tools habitual.

That’s what I’ve arrived at through the last eight months of trial and error. My last post listed the schedule I’m committing to. That’s the habit part. Listed below are the tools that I’m using.

  • Reading journal - I keep a small notebook, no bigger than a standard paperback, with me every time I’m reading. If I’m transporting any book anywhere, it comes with me. The reading journal is a chronological record of what I’m reading. Each time I sit down with a book, I open it to the next blank page and write the title of the book down, usually abbreviated. Below that I write down notes with page numbers next to them. The inside cover has a list of all the books that are connected to that journal. This is basically the same thing as underlining and writing in the margins, except you can do it with books that you don’t own, such as library books.
  • Notes document - I keep a typewritten document on my laptop called “Awkward Writings on Finished Books,” which started as an attempt to snapshot books I checked out from the library. Sometimes I summarize books, write opinions or just type out interesting excerpts. It’s all pretty rough, but it’s only for my reference. I don’t document every book I check out. If I skip one and regret it, I can always check it out again, reference my reading journal and throw an entry together.
  • Thesis Workbooks - This is a new idea I’m giving a try. I used to design “courses” to study, like Economics or Comparative Religion. Now I just zero in on about four books at a time out of the mess of books I have laying around either from the library or my bookshelf. I have a hard time deciding what to read, and so I try to just let that decision make itself. I find there is usually some logic to what I’m reading at any given time — some way that books tie together. With the Thesis Workbook idea, I start with recent line of thought, an idea or a question. Ideally it would be something that spans multiple things I’m reading or have read, or something that keeps popping into my brain. I’ll create a document with that as a springboard and gradually write and see what I come up with. It doesn’t have to be a polished essay. It’s more about the writing practice. I don’t want to just study books — I need to do something with ideas that books (or DVDs, podcasts, radio shows, video clips, anything) get me thinking about. Also, practicing my writing is important to me, even if it doesn’t lead to a finished product.
  • Personal Journal - I also keep a personal journal on my laptop, and I try to write something in it every day. This is where all my confusion goes. By looking back I can see if something is or isn’t working, what I’m getting upset about or what I think is a waste of time and why. I can also work out thoughts to rediscover later, and I often make footnotes commenting on old posts. I’ve had some very productive journal sessions, and not just when I’m writing in it. I keep a physical notebook as well in case I don’t have my laptop with me, but I consider them part of the same thing.
  • Goodreads Website - Goodreads is both a huge, user-managed book database (to rival library websites and commercial dealers like Amazon) and a social networking site. You can post books you’ve read, are going to read, and are currently reading. You can update your reading progress, see your friends’ book shelves, create custom categories and post book reviews. I use it mostly to plan my future reading and to publish updates. I have a considerations shelf, and anytime I hear about a book and look it up, if don’t decide flat out to not read it, I’ll add it to considerations. It helps me not forget about books. There’s also a bookswap service where you can trade books with other members for almost-free.