Applications and Tools I’ve Found Useful

Having just completed the back-end portion of the Launch School curriculum, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the last 4–5 months of working mostly full-time at my studies.

I know I’ve benefitted at various time from the generosity and advice and perspective of other students in the Launch School program, and I’ll feel fortunate if I can do the same for others.

I’ve done some natural trial-and-error with different tools to facilitate my studying, here are a few that I’ve found stuck for me. These are all for OS X, but I’m sure there are some Windows or Linux equivalents for some of these:

  1. Quiver— Here I give credit to a couple of other students who recommended this note-taking app in the forums. I started out the first few months filling up page after page with colorful and detailed notes on the material. The obvious advantage of physical note taking is the freedom and flexibility of the formatting it offers you. There are also some studies on the kinetic benefits of committing something to memory via writing. At some point I was getting frustrated with the inability to go back and revise definitions or re-organize my thoughts on a concept without writing everything out again. I tried out a few markdown note taking apps before finding Quiver, and for me it could not be better suited to my note taking style with this curriculum. It enables you to mix regular text with code blocks and markdown blocks in one document. You’ll pick up the keyboard shortcuts pretty quickly that make switching between the different formats efficient. I use it to create language cheat sheets, definitions and then examples of code, screen shots with notes from some of the videos, etc. You can organize your notes into notebooks for each course, and having everything indexed and searchable is incredibly useful when you just need to review your notes on a particular topic. You can even customize the layout and color schemes to fit your OCD visual quirks. Great value for $10 — unfortunately it’s only on Mac for now.
  2. RescueTime— Many people may have heard of this tool. There’s a free version and a premium version, personally I find the free version sufficient for my needs. It runs in the background constantly and tracks your active time for every app you use and website you go to. It allows you to tag certain apps and websites on a scale from ‘Very Unproductive’ to ‘Very Productive’, and then automatically produces visual reports and provides a productivity score for your day/week/month. You can also set goals (i.e. 5+ hours of productive time per day) and it has a history displaying what days you met your goals. It helps keep me somewhat accountable for my time, and in the long-run helps me see patterns in my study habits. It’s often reaffirming to get an objective (if somewhat shallow) sense of your time and productivity looking back over a day or week after it’s done. Like any qualified tracking tool, it’s probably best not to feel enslaved to it, but more to use it as a fairly objective source of information about your habits.
  3. Spectacles — I find myself very, very frequently needing to split windows on my display with a LS curriculum page on one side — book, lesson content, video, questions, basically everything — and to type code into my code editor, enter code into an IRB or PostgreSQL session, take notes alongside in Quiver, etc. on another side. Spectacles allows you to automatically and perfectly resize windows to half screen or a third of the screen either vertically or horizontally with a quick keyboard shortcut. I find myself using this constantly and always being thankful for it.
  4. Focus— This is a simple Pomodoro app that sits in your bar and allows you to select an amount of time to focus for. It blocks ‘unproductive’ websites for that time and the timer will countdown where you can see it as a reminder. I know there are lots of Pomodoro apps out there, this is just the one I happened to settle on and it works for me. If I’m having a tough time getting started or engaged with some content, I’ll just set it for 25 minutes and give myself at least that much time committed to the material. If at the end of that time I’m feeling good, I’ll do another 25 minutes, and if not, I’ll take a break and come back to it later. Consistently makes me realize that while 25 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, you can often get more work than you think done in that timeframe.
  5. Anki — I think I also discovered this thanks to some recommendations from the LS community. It’s a little hard to explain how spaced repetition works without being longwinded. I recommend reading this for a more comprehensive overview of that topic. Essentially this application enables you to create flash cards for quick, simple questions. It then will give you a random assortment of however many cards you set it up to see each session (I do 20 or so). If you are consistently entering little syntax tricks or useful methods or language concepts into it, you build up quite a bank of cards. From then on you can take 10–15 minutes a day to review some cards and hopefully prevent you from forgetting older content as you progress through the course. I try to create a batch of cards after I finish a course when I’m reviewing and studying for the assessment. This forces me to break down the content into smaller, manageable chunks for flash cards, which I find helps me highlight what is worth remembering and noting from the whole course. I recommend using screen shots of code here to save time.
  6. FitBit — Okay, so this one isn’t a desktop tool technically, but I got one recently and I find it really helpful to keep me accountable for staying active and moving throughout the day. Sitting around and staring at a computer all day can lead to quite a bit of lethargy. It’ll buzz me to give me reminders if I haven’t moved for an hour, and it helps motivate me to get at least 10,000 steps in a day. Useful to encourage breaks and exercise, as unfortunately solo-online studying does not easily facilitate either of those habits.

What applications and tools you use are not going to make or break your success at Launch School. Habits, mindset, and discipline are far, far more important. It’s very easy to get caught up in a Tim Ferriss-like obsession with productivity-hacking and time-managment-hacking trends as the most ironic form of procrastination known to mankind, often at the expense of actual work. But helpful tools can make learning a whole lot more efficient and frictionless.