Build Momentum

by James

in Organic Chem Study Tips

Even 10 minutes will do it.

If you’ve been putting off studying orgo for what seems like forever, 10 minutes of studying, right now,  will build the little bit of momentum you need to keep your feet moving in the course. 10 minutes will give you a little bit more confidence than you had before. 10 minutes will make your knowledge just a little bit more robust, and keep the weeds from growing in the tender little garden that is the summation of all your work in the course up to this point.

Every day you study – if even for a little bit – you are making a smart investment of your time that pays dividends in the form of compound interest.  If you leave it all until the last minute, it is like starting to plan for your retirement at 60 – you have to invest an enormous amount of time and effort to make up for all the lost hours.

Taking even 10 minutes to study when you really, really really don’t want to do it takes courage. Good decisions almost always do. Find somewhere quiet without any distractions. Note the time. If you keep a set of notes with you that summarize the course, you’re already way ahead: use that. If not – I’d suggest you start with what you know really well and go from there. Quiz yourself. Doing it out loud, if possible(muttering quietly is OK) – really helps retention, I find. I mutter quietly all the time to myself during class and whenever we hire a tour guide at a historical site – it drives my wife nuts, but it helps my retention a lot.

If you’ve been putting off studying for a while, even studying for 10 minutes will initially seem like unbearable agony. You might have “I can’t do this” thoughts or “I’m an idiot for not studying” thoughts – that’s OK. Acknowledge them, and let them pass. Bring your mind back to facts and specific details of the course. Write down unanswered questions, and keep track of them for later.

When your 10 minutes are up, reward yourself somehow.  You’ve just done something smart and courageous: something you really didn’t want to do but was a good decision.

After a break, plan a time for your next session. Another 10 minutes. It should be easier. Then, if that goes well, you can plan for longer times – half an hour, then an hour.  The resistance will be less. The goal is not so much to learn material as it is to build momentum. The enemy is not a lack of understanding or intelligence, but fear. When you’re past the 10 minute mark, you can actually start focusing on improving your understanding of specific parts of the course material. But in order to do that, you have to overcome your own inertia.

Cal Newport, who writes with far more authority than myself in these matters, has a strategy he calls the “ice bath method“. Starting a big chunk of work – e.g. a major project, or a long study session to compensate for several weeks of neglecting studying –  is daunting. So start extremely small. Do one or two short exercises, in a pleasant (but quiet) environment. And then stop for the day. Like cold water swimmers who have brace themselves for chilly waters by short immersions in ice water, attacking a daunting problem in chunks helps to break down the barrier of fear that leads to inaction. With some momentum established, you can set a second, slightly more intense study session, followed by a third, intense one.

I like to keep track of all the things I’ve done that were really unpleasant at the time but turned out to be good decisions.  It’s rewarding to read later, since in retrospect I’m always amazed that those things seemed hard to me at the time. They were hard because I was overcoming a fear – not because they were actually that technically difficult. I reward myself every time I push myself out of my comfort zone. Haggling, for instance: I hate it. It goes against my Canadian-ness to haggle. But it’s a way of life here, especially if you’re buying gifts for family from some shady merchant in the Old City  (Sure sign you got ripped off: “My friend! Don’t tell anyone I gave you this price!”). Every time I haggle, it gets a little bit easier. It’s unpleasant for me. But it’s smart. And I really like feeling that I’ve made a good decision. Deep down, you know that you do too.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }


so true!!!! what you said about acknowledging your mistakes and letting them pass. We get caught up in the whole guilt followed by fear, I need to work on it everyday. Thank you !!!


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