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Accelerating the Slow Path to Mastery

Part 2 — The Sequel to Coping with the Slow Path to Mastery

Photo by paolo candelo on Unsplash

In part one of this series, I discussed some of my thoughts on how to work slowly and patiently on the slow path to mastery. In that article I also promised that I’d write this article about how to speed things up. Both articles are primarily catered to software engineering students at Launch School, although the former article might appeal to a larger audience, while this article deals with navigating the Launch School curriculum more specifically. Much of the discussion is relevant to students of any subject, although I have written this article specifically with success at Launch School in mind.

Learning is a highly personal endeavor, and what works for me may not work for you. We all have unique minds, personalities, and circumstances, and we must discover what works best for each of us. In this article, I will lay out what I have discovered works for me, and I hope that you will discover something which also works for you.

Consistency

Consistency over a long period of time is the most important element in attaining mastery. When I began studying at Launch School, my approach was all-or-nothing. As a part-time student, I’d study for the whole weekend, but minimally during the week, or I’d study hard everyday for a month or two and then take some weeks off. I soon discovered that studying this way felt as though I was moving 2 steps forward and 1 step back. Progressing that way is very slow, even though it feels like a lot of work. The amount of time that I made no progress or negative progress was crippling my studies. The better way is to consistently take one step forward, and then another step forward, and so on, and so forth.

The first move toward developing a consistent study habit is negotiating time to study. We all have different circumstances, so this could mean many different things. I made the switch to full time study and it has made everything much smoother, but it’s not the only solution. Asking for fewer hours at work, trimming an exercise regimen from two hours to one, temporarily sacrificing some hobbies, meal-prepping, paying for certain conveniences, cancelling certain subscriptions, waking up earlier, eating nothing but carrots… You get the picture. With a little creativity and a bit of sacrifice, there should be plenty of time to study.

We should consider that homeostasis might be sabotaging our pursuit of change. If you’re a Launch School student and don’t know what I’m talking about, shame on you! Go back and read Mastery by George Leonard and you’ll know what I mean. As a brief review, homeostasis is the principle that systems in nature tend to maintain the present conditions and resist change. This is true as much in the populations of lions and wildebeests as it is in human social structures. When we seek change, we may find more roadblocks than we expect. Unconsciously, our bosses may assign us more work to keep us busy or less work to keep us around, or our friends and family may be less supportive of our goals than we expected. Understanding this principle empowers us to remain a little more steadfast in our efforts to create the change we seek.

A consistent study habit is useless unless the study is of good quality. To succeed at Launch School, it is suggested to study a minimum of 15 hours per week. In my experience, this is a very good suggestion, and speaks to the importance of a consistent study habit, but I would emphasize that each of those hours must be intentional and focused. Without proper focus, that number should be adjusted to 20 or 30.

Focus

Gone are the days of cramming material 3 hours before an exam and ‘succeeding’. ‘C’s get degrees is not the Launch School motto. What this means is that procrastination is not an option, and consistent focused study is imperative. This was a big wake up call and I was forced to adapt. Here is what I have learned.

The absolute game-changer was the (re)discovery of the Pomodoro Technique. This technique is presented to every Launch School student in the preparation course, and I would just like to say that you should not be like me, and instead give it a try as soon as possible. What I mean specifically by the Pomodoro Technique is structuring study as four 25-minute deeply focused work sessions, separated by 5-minute breaks, and a longer break between each group of four. I don’t get into all of the planning and analysis that is suggested by the true Pomodoro Technique. I also don’t use this technique for every aspect of study, but do use the technique when I need to get through a large amount of dry, semi-painful, procrastination-inducing work.

The main things that I have noticed about the Pomodoro Technique that work wonders are:

  • It gets the ball rolling and builds momentum. Once I begin a cycle, there is no turning back. I am dedicated for the next 2 hours at least.
  • Short breaks are energizing and ease the pain that causes procrastination. Diving deep into complex topics for hours on end can be exhausting. Those short breaks help with diffuse learning, consolidating memory, rejuvenating the mind, and making it easier to push hard during the next work session. I take these breaks quite seriously. No infinite scrolling is allowed. I sit, close my eyes, breathe deeply, and relax as well I can for the full 5 minutes. When the break is over, I’m energized and excited to get back to work.
  • It limits distractions and facilitates deep productive work. When I am in the middle of a session, I simply do not stray off topic. I don’t allow myself to check my phone, or research some random unrelated topic that popped into my head. If I need to respond to a message or phone call, I wait until the session is over, pause the timer and do so.
  • It gamifies the process and serves as a good measure of productivity. It feels like a big win if I can accomplish 12 or more deeply focused sessions in a day. Comparing this with my previous method of setting aside a number of hours and getting as much done as possible, where those hours might have been focused, or might have been full of distractions, I consider the Pomodoro Technique the clear winner.

I have also found that a good Pomodoro app helps with the process. When I tried to do it manually by setting timers on my phone for each session and break, the process didn’t work nearly as well and fell to pieces in a short time. The app that I like best so far is the Focus Keeper app, but I’m sure there are others which work just as well. The Forest app is another option which blocks other apps on your phone and lets you grow a virtual tree for each session. Some people also swear by a physical timer, such as the official Pomodoro tomato timer.

Study spaces must be conducive to focused studying. This tip may seem obvious, but it’s easy to make the mistake of studying in spaces which are highly distracting and steal our energy and focus. The biggest mistake that I made in this regard was to try to study in the staff room at the school where I was teaching. I thought that if I just put on some headphones and tuned everyone out that I would be fine. But people would constantly enter and exit the room. And my friends were often in the room. And they had fascinating conversations. And I could see them laughing and smiling. And I could not resist joining in the fun.

In short, it was almost impossible to do any deep and meaningful study in that room. It was also difficult to work there, but that’s beside the point. Again, learning is personal and plenty of people argue that a cafe is an energizing place to get things done. However, I do wonder, when that cutie enters the room, how deeply can anyone really think about prototypal inheritance?

Routine

A finely tuned study system can make the process much more efficient. When I started at Launch School, I had been out of an academic setting for many years and the struggle was real. My system was definitely not finely tuned and consequently I did way more work than I needed to. The biggest time saver was cutting my passes through the material from about three to about two. As mentioned before, learning is highly personal, and we each need to figure out what works for us. Even so, I will outline below the approach that I have slowly developed and which I believe has been highly effective.

The first pass of the material is about quick exposure. The goal is to move through all of the material quickly, absorb as much as possible, and to avoid getting hung up on things which are confusing. Often, by just moving forward, some of the difficult concepts are revisited and begin to make sense. This is not the time to go down rabbit holes. The process is as follows:

Read each assignment and highlight any information which seems worthy of dedicating to memory. For this step I use a google chrome highlighter extension which can be found here.

After reading an assignment all the way through, review all of the highlights and convert the most important ones into Anki flash cards. David, a fellow Launch School student wrote a fantastic article about how to use Anki more effectively and I use a lot of his tips (read it here). One of the game-changers was using cloze-deletion to create as well as review flash cards efficiently.

Before each study session, open up Anki and review some flashcards to solidify knowledge, get the wheels spinning, and enhance circular learning.

The second pass of the material is about solidifying knowledge. Since the first pass moves forward so quickly, it’s natural that the most critical information is retained, but some of the more subtle, secondary, or confusing topics tend to be glossed over. This pass is about getting detailed, diving deep, and working out the kinks in our mental models. Rabbit holes are encouraged. The process is as follows:

Copy and paste each topic from the study guide into a Notion document as toggle headers.

Then, begin crafting a highly detailed set of notes for each topic. Using toggles to create question-and-answer type notes is excellent for forcing recall and also forces you to rephrase the material in your own words, which is ideal.

Bonus for Notion users! Some useful shortcuts that I love are Ctrl+Shift+(5, 6, 7, or 8). 5 turns the item into a bullet point. 6 Turns the item into a numbered list. 7 turns the item into a toggle. And 8 turns the item into a code block. Ctrl+Enter is also handy to open and close toggles.

Use the Pomodoro Technique to make the process more efficient and more fun. Going through the material the first time is exciting and interesting, but the second time can sometimes feel monotonous. This step is mostly about getting the work done, and the Pomodoro Technique can be your best friend for such work. I have also found that the Pomodoro Technique is great during this phase as it helps to maintain the energy and critical thinking that is needed to grapple with confusing or difficult topics.

The final step is to systematically find any remaining blind spots and build ‘muscle memory’. The best way to do this is through group study. Each course is packed with information, and it’s almost impossible to retain everything. However, we all focus on different things and understand things in different ways. Therefore, we can use the two-heads-are-better-than-one approach to discover the things that others have focused on that have somehow passed us by, as well as to correct faulty mental models. The other critical component of this phase is to redo all of the quizzes and as many exercises as possible. There is often subtle but critical information contained here which should be added to our notes. This step also builds up our muscle memory to the point where things should feel easy.

Confidence

One of the unique aspects of mastery based learning at Launch School is that there is no schedule. We have to determine for ourselves when are ready to take the assessment and prove ourselves. This is where confidence comes into play and can either slow things down or speed things up significantly.

Having courage and taking assessments sooner can save a lot of time. I’m sure that I’ve spent many weeks over-preparing for exams. I know this for a couple reasons. The first is that I’ve done well on each one. The second is that I tried to set personal deadlines in the past that I’ve pushed off week after week by telling myself that I wasn’t quite ready. I probably could have studied a bit less, taken the assessment sooner, and either received a conditional pass or a not-yet and some feedback about where I needed to improve. If that happened once, I’d take that as a sign for future exams that I’d need to prepare more. I also might have passed anyway. Instead, doing well on assessments has encouraged me to take subsequent assessments sooner, and that has saved a lot of time.

Circular learning should be emphasized to keep things moving. There is such a thing as too much mastery, and that happens when we find ourselves getting stuck in the same place for too long. Worrying too much about mastery at each step of the way can be a hindrance to actual mastery, because the skills learned at each step are useful throughout the entire journey and become more and more solid as we continually return to them. As an example, spending a lot of time in the beginning memorizing every single Ruby or JavaScript method may not be the best use of time, since those methods will eventually reappear later in the journey and become more deeply entrenched with each reappearance. Launch School does a very good job of informing us of what me must know, as well as what we don’t need to know just yet. Trust the process. Attaining an appropriate level of proficiency, and then having the confidence to move on can get you farther faster.

Conclusion

I have learned a lot during my journey at Launch School, but possibly the most important thing I’ve learned is how to learn. The Learning How to Learn course that every Launch School student takes is a great starting point, but it also takes a fair amount of practice, experimentation, and experience to really dial in the skill of learning. Although I have presented a lot in this article, I am not yet finished with developing my skill at learning and will continue to seek ways to improve. In fact, if you have any thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear them!

This article has grown much larger than I anticipated, and if you have made it here to the end of my ramblings, I salute you! This article has also consumed a lot more time than I expected, and that fact has inspired my final piece of advice…

If you want to move faster at Launch School, don’t spend all of your time writing long-winded articles!

Thanks for reading!

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Ian Austin

Ian Austin

Aspiring Software Engineer, currently studying at Launch School. “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make”