Managing your time spent learning

By Jonah Sinick

Cross-posted from Less Wrong and Quora. Related to the information wiki page managing your time.

This article is written for people who are looking for advice on prioritizing activities, in particular, what to spend time learning.

In thinking about how to budget your time, it’s helpful to explicitly prioritize the activities that you engage in in terms of their relative importance, and distinguish between what’s important and what you find interesting. Sometimes we exaggerate the usefulness of interesting but only slightly useful activities in their minds, on account of wanting to believe that time spent on them is productive. If you think about how useful an activity is and, how interesting the activity is separately, you’re less likely to do this. It’s helpful to consider the following four categories of activities:

  • Important and interesting: Do, and take your time. Get it right!
  • Important and not interesting: Do as much as necessary, and maybe a bit more; look into ways of overcoming procrastination. Also consider ways to make them more interesting.
  • Not important and interesting: Do only if you feel like it, don’t try to press yourself, and consider substituting with activities that are interesting and important.
  • Not important and not interesting: Avoid.

More below

Interesting and important

When you find an academic subject interesting, and when it’s important (e.g. for your future job, as a prerequisite to courses that you’ll take in the future or otherwise related to your future goals), you should delve deeply into it. Gaining deep understanding takes time, and you shouldn’t feel as though you’re working inefficiently if you find yourself spending a disproportionate amount of time on it.

Interesting but not important

Intellectually curious people often have intellectual interests that don’t advance their career goals. Such interests can absorb a lot of time and hinder one’s professional success.

The question of how to balance these interests with one’s career goals is a very personal one.

In general, if there are two activities that are of comparable interest to you, but of unequal importance, you should choose the more important one.

If you find that your time is uncomfortably crowded with things that are interesting but not important, you should look for instances where you’re exerting willpower on them, and cut back on those, reserving the time that you spend doing things that you find interesting to activities that require relatively little energy, to conserve energy for doing things that it’s more difficult to get yourself to do.

Important but not interesting

Sometimes you have to do things that are uninteresting to achieve your goals. If you have trouble motivating yourself to do these things, you might benefit from our recommendations for overcoming procrastination (forthcoming). Also, consider ways that you might find these specific activities more interesting, by checking out targeted learning recommendations for those activities.

Not important and not interesting

These activities should be avoided. This point might seem obvious, but despite this, people often do engage in activities that are neither important nor interesting. This most often happens when:

  • One hasn’t carefully considered the question of whether the activity is important. For example, one might uncritically internalize the view that it’s important to learn a language because learning a language said to keep the mind sharp, without considering that there might be other more interesting or important activities that keep the mind sharp to an equal or greater extent, and therefore try to learn a language, even if one doesn’t find it interesting. There are benefits to learning a language that one can’t get from other activities: the point here is just that keeping one’s mind sharp specifically isn’t a good reason to learn a language rather than do other things.
  • The activity seems interesting at first, and one sets a goal connected with it, but then the activity turns out not to be interesting, and one feels an obligation to continue on account of having already set the goal. For example, one might hear good things about a long novel and set a goal of reading it, find that one doesn’t enjoy it, and feel pressure to plow through to the end.

On the first point, it’s important to critically reflect on whether the activities that one is involved in are important. On the second point, all else being equal, fulfilling commitments is good, because it’s good for one’s self-esteem, but one should still consider whether the cost of fulfilling the commitment is worth it, and also try not to set ambitious goals when the value of fulfilling them is questionable.

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