Category Archives: learning

On this page:
  • Learning from the Alternative Uses Task
  • Learning with the end in mind
  • Routines
  • Tweaking the way I write
  • Drawing update
  • Teaching myself to prefer what’s good for me

Learning from the Alternative Uses Task

There’s a creativity test called the Alternative Uses Task, where you’re asked to come up with as many different uses as you can for an everyday object (for example, a paperclip or a brick). I was thinking about it recently because I was curious about programming and creativity, and how my clients sometimes tell me, “I had no idea XYZ could be used for that!” (Javascript, AutoHotkey, etc.). I like coming up with alternative uses when programming, and for things in general. I was wondering how I could get even better at divergent thinking based on what I can learn from the research into it.

From “Evaluating the Alternative Uses Test of Creativity” (Caitlin Dippo, National Conference on Undegraduate Research, 2013), I learned that while the first few responses tend to be pretty common, the more responses you make, the more you tend to come up with original ones. “Divergent thinking: strategies for generating alternative uses for familiar objects” (Gilhooly et. al, 2007) identified a number of strategies that people used when coming up with ideas: memory, property use (breaking it down into properties), broad use (looking at broad categories), and disassembly use (considering its parts). I also remembered the forced association tips from various creativity games – when you try to relate two different ideas together, your brain’s pretty good at filling in the gaps.

2014-09-10 Alternative Uses Task test

2014-09-10 Alternative Uses Task test

How can I use that to be more creative? Well, coming up with more answers helps – especially more different ones, not just variations on a theme. Elaborating on ideas and smooshing them together is fun, so I wonder how I can incorporate that kind of play into my learning – maybe through drawing, or brainstorming alternative uses for the tools and tech I have?

2014-09-10 Applying insights from the Alternative Uses Task Test and brainstorming research

2014-09-10 Applying insights from the Alternative Uses Task Test and brainstorming research

Hmm…

Learning with the end in mind

I like thinking about what I want to learn and how well I want to learn it. This helps me accept my limits and prioritize my time. I’m not going to master everything. I want to learn just as much as I need. Maybe a little more, so I can do other interesting things. There’s this idea of a minimum effective dose (recently-ish popularized by Tim Ferriss). It makes sense to me because I like paying attention to diminishing returns, when more effort on something doesn’t pay off as well (and could probably be diverted to more effort on a different thing which would).

So, what are some of the things I’d like to learn more about? To what end do I want to learn them–what are my higher goals? Thinking about secondary goals helps me see if I’m wandering off-track or if there are more effective ways to reach those higher goals. To what extent do I want to learn? What’s too little, what’s too much, and what would be just right?

2014-08-29 Ends and extents - #my-learning

2014-08-29 Ends and extents – #my-learning

Design is one of the things on my to-learn list. I want to learn more about design because that will help me with development. Programming helps people save time, but you save the most time and create the most value when people keep using your tool because it’s useful and understandable. You can’t just pick up good design off a book or in a course, unfortunately. Well, you can get the basics of design, but I’m not sure if there’s any way around sheer exposure and experience. I don’t just want to know the theories and the rules – that would be too little. I don’t need to win any awards, though. I would like to be able to build decent-looking prototypes that are pleasant to use, and to be able to quickly shape the prototypes based on user feedback. That should help me get around the challenges of building for people who are not me, since I’m happy with admittedly arcane interfaces.

Development is another useful set of skills to focus on because it helps me make stuff. I can add more tools to my toolkit, and I can go deeper. I don’t want to learn tutorial-level skills for a dozen languages just to be able to say that I know them – that would be too little. But I don’t need to do deep wizardly things, either. If I can build little tools and prototypes, gradually applying more of the accepted practices like testing, I should be okay.

I lump writing and drawing together. For me, they’re about thinking through, capturing, and sharing ideas. I want to be able to think clearly and take good notes so that I can live better and make better decisions. Just knowing the mechanics of grammar or layout is too little. But I don’t need to write award-winning prose or draw realistic art, either. I want to be able to write notes that I can make sense of years later and that other people might find useful, and I want to be able to quickly draw recognizable things that unlock memories for me and make ideas approachable for other people.

What are the things you’re focusing on learning? To what ends, and to what extents?

Routines

Routines are like solidified learning, the habits shaped by little pay-offs. You make all these decisions one at a time, and as you find things that work, they get absorbed into your routines.

I love having fairly stable routines. They minimize thinking and allow me to estimate time well. For example, my regular breakfast is rice and one fried egg, so it’s easy to make sure I’ve got both in stock. My morning routine takes me about an hour from the time I wake up to the time I head out on my bicycle or go to the subway station, although I can compress it by skipping blogs and having cereal instead of rice and egg. It takes me about fifty minutes to get downtown. My evening routine involves an early dinner (heating up stuff from the fridge), some exercise, cleaning up, and some writing or drawing. My weekends are a little more flexible. As long as groceries, cooking, laundry, and tidying up happen, we’ll be set for the next week.

2014-08-20 Routines

2014-08-20 Routines

I have a lot of routines, but I don’t want them to ossify. I like turning my attention on one routine at a time, being mindful during it, looking for little ways to tweak it. For example, there are lots of ways I could tweak my evening routine, especially during jogging days. If I make the sequence dinner-tidy-read-jog-exercise-litterbox-shower-snack-draw, I think that would work out better in terms of winding down – less waiting for my hair to dry. I If I can juggle the timing so that the jog happens before the library closes, bonus!

2014-08-20 Evening routines

2014-08-20 Evening routines

I’m tweaking my thinking/drawing/writing routines too, so I expect some growing pains – things might get a little weirder before they become smoother. It’s good to anticipate this, because otherwise you get stuck at a local maximum instead of being able to explore. In particular, I’m experimenting with drawing more reflections during the week, and then using them as springboards for writing during the weekend. This should spread out my computer use a little bit, encourage me to practise drawing, and possibly lead to interesting places.

It’s fun to be deliberate about your habits. You get to ask yourself, “Why do I do things that way, and in that sequence? How can I experiment with this?”

Tweaking the way I write

Through writing, I want to:

  • Learn more effectively and efficiently by taking notes and chunking my thoughts
  • Understand and be able to articulate what I’m thinking
  • Keep notes for future reflection and time travel
  • Connect with people who have similar interests
  • Help other people save time

I’m pretty happy with how I’m doing this so far, although it would be even better if I could write more efficiently and effectively. What would that look like, and how could I move towards that?

I pick up a lot of information from reading and from trying things out. If I spend more time reviewing notes and experimenting with concepts, that will help me get more out of the time that I spend reading. Wouldn’t be neat if my personal stash of quotes (my digital commonplace books) linked each note with a blog post reflecting on what I found interesting about it, how I’ve applied it, and what it’s related to? I think that would be handy.

Sometimes I find myself particularly interested in an idea, and writing is easy. Other times, the spark isn’t quite there, or the kindling is scattered. I have a massive outline/list of things to write about. Sometimes it seems a little odd writing about stuff, though. Lackluster? But maybe giving myself different recipes for blog posts can help (a personal story, a book quote, etc.). I can also look at it as practice. I have years and years to write, and I can learn a lot when I practise deliberately and dispassionately.

For reflection and review, I can write regular snapshots of what’s going on in my life and what I’m trying to figure out. These usually give me enough anchors to remember more.

To make it easier to connect with other people, I can ask people if they blog, and I can post more of my personal stories on my blog.

I’ve been writing more selfishly rather than focusing on saving people time, but I’m sure that balance will shift at some point too. I tend to find it easy to blog helpful things when I’m immersed in projects or in answering people’s questions, so it’s probably just a matter of focusing on open source again.

As I write more, I’ll get faster, and I might even get clearer. :) I can build on what I’ve previously written. I’ll get a better sense of what I like and don’t like in writing, and I’ll experiment with the influences of other writers.

So let’s say that it takes me about an hour or two to follow a thought and write it down. I’m not really looking for speed here. I don’t need to be able to crank one out in fifteen minutes. It might be good to be able to work in small chunks (headline, outline, snippets) to take advantage of the moments that come up during a day. It would also be good to be able to work coherently – to build up to more complex thoughts, to untangle harder questions. That’s probably what better writing looks like for me. As for beauty form and flow, I can probably pick that up through analysis and practice, but it’s somewhat reassuring to know that people can think (and share) complex thoughts despite being inelegant writers. (Almost impenetrable, even!)

How do I want to change how I write? Well, I can use my phone more, writing instead of reading when I have a free moment on the go. If I feel a little blah when writing at my computer, I can open my book notes and expound on a passage. I can also pick something from my outline and sketch out the next level, tell a story, or look for ways to test it in life (and add a reminder to come back and write about the results). I can embrace the way that many of my blog posts are more like “here’s where I am, there’s where I’d like to go, here’s what I’m going to try” rather than fonts of wisdom. Hey, maybe it will be amusing (or even useful) looking back, forty years from now. We’ll see!

Drawing update

It’s funny how I drop interests and pick them up again. Based on my sketchbook, there was a roughly two-month period when I did hardly any drawing. Then I had some planning to do that lent itself naturally to being mapped out, and then I ended up drawing a whole bunch, and now I’m reeled back in and looking forward to playing around with this more.

2014-08-13 Learning more about drawing - #drawing

2014-08-13 Learning more about drawing – #drawing

Like so! I took a picture of Leia (who has grown out most of the lion cut we subjected her to), traced an outline in pencil, and experimented with inking and shading it in on my computer. I still have a long way to go before I can do this easily, but I like the way that tracing helps me deliberately practise seeing simple shapes. Likewise, penciling on paper or on my computer (without tracing an image) lets me play with the shape of something until it feels right. As I trace and draw, I’ll get a better sense of how things really look–and the forms beneath those lines.

2014-08-15 Luke, also traced from a picture

2014-08-15 Luke, also traced from a picture

2014-08-13 Leia traced from picture

2014-08-13 Leia traced from picture

2014-08-17 Neko, from picture

2014-08-17 Neko, from picture

Teaching myself to prefer what’s good for me

One of the ideas I’m mulling over from this study of ancient Greek philosophy is this: Instead of using willpower to get through things you don’t like, you can learn to appreciate the things that are good for you or gradually move up through activities that you enjoy and that are a little better for you than what you were doing before.

I’ve been trying this idea in terms of exercise. Having decided that I would be the type of person who exercises, I’ve been keeping up this habit for a little over a month. I usually run with W-. He treats those sessions as recovery runs (he’s much fitter than I am and can run circles around me), and I treat them as “extra time with W- and an occasion for smugness.” I’m not yet at the point of experiencing the runner’s high, but I do feel somewhat pleased by this ability to keep up with the heart rate thresholds that should help me build up endurance. I’ve even gone for runs on my own, propelled by growing custom and the knowledge that I’m going to be able to celebrate whatever progress I’m making. Gradual progress through the Hacker’s Diet exercise ladder is fun, too.

In terms of food, I’m finally beginning to appreciate the sourness of yogurt, the peppery taste of radishes, and other things I’m still not particularly fond of but can deal with.

As for substitution, keeping a range of nonfiction books in the house means I’m less inclined to spend time playing video games. Latin and Japanese flashcards on my phone mean less time reading fiction. A file full of writing ideas means less time spent browsing the Web.

We change a little at a time. It’s good to pay attention to your changing tastes, and to influence them towards what’s good for you. Sometimes you can kick it off with a little bribery or willpower, if you use that temporary space to look for more things to appreciate. Sometimes you can encourage yourself by making better activities more convenient. Good to keep growing!