Reflections and Advice I’ve Found Useful

I first wrote about which practical applications helped me the most over my first 4–5 months studying full-time at Launch School. It’s much simpler to reflect on what tangible tools I used in my learning than it is to reflect on which intangibles helped or hindered me along the way. This is obviously because managing motivations, work-life balance, and self-imposed scheduling is far more complex. At the same time, those factors are also far more important to the learning process.

As with my previous post, I’ve read posts by other Launch School students who have generously shared their insightful thoughts on this exact topic. I found myself agreeing with much of the advice offered in this forum thread on working at Launch School full-time:

Computer science and programming can be an intimidating subject for some people. One of the many things I appreciate about the Launch School approach is how thoroughly they emphasize that your mindset and attitude are far more important than comprehending the content.

Without a doubt my biggest obstacle has been the challenges involved in staying productive and motivated as an independent, remote student. I hope other students may find these reflections helpful or relatable in some way. When you are working inside your own bubble and stuck with yourself and your thoughts most days, it can be comforting to read someone else express similar thoughts to your own that reassure you that, no, you’re not certifiably insane just yet. Or at the very least, reassure you that there are other, similarly unhinged people out there too.

On The Learning Process

To be sure, working independently, over the internet, largely in isolation every day, is not an ideal learning environment for most humans. It is a dramatically different format of learning that most people have very little experience with, and it requires a different set of skills and habits to be successful when compared to a traditional, more structured, educational environment. Personally, I found I could really only be productive and focused on reading, taking notes, and coding about 5–6 hours a day. This is reinforced by some research studies which found the same thing:

While researching his recent book, Peak: How All of Us Can Achieve Extraordinary, Ericsson studied how Nobel Prize-winning authors organize their schedules. “We found that they spend roughly around four hours a day writing, and the rest of the day recuperating and preparing for their next writing session the following day,” he tells me.
This pattern, Ericsson says, is also reflected in the schedules of successful musicians and athletes. “These individuals are highly motivated to reach their highest level of performance and realize that they can only concentrate maximally for around four hours a day, often broken down to hour-long sessions with 15- to 20-minute breaks.”
A huge collection of research by other scholars backs Ericsson’s conclusions. A five-day workweek packed with extended working hours is, few experts dispute, suboptimal. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that those who worked 55 hours a week performed more poorly on some mental tasks than those who worked just 40 hours. A Harvard Business Review article touted the idea that, like middle-distance runners, people work best in 90-minute bursts, followed by periods of recovery. This allows our work schedule to synch with our bodies’ ultradian rhythms, the 90- to 120-minute cycles during which our bodies slowly move from a high-energy state of alertness into a physiological trough.

As far as my idiosyncratic learning process has gone in Launch School, I have nothing groundbreaking to offer. I take lots and lots of notes (I find it impossible to stay engaged in the material if I am just passively reading or watching). I take breaks from the material when my mind starts to wander too frequently. I go over all the material at least twice. I do extra practice problems in areas I feel I don’t have a good understanding of (for students starting to learn Ruby in 101 and 120, I highly recommend Codewars as a resource for extra practice). Fluency requires repetition. I make extensive study guides for the assessments. I keep all the documentation pages saved to my bookmarks and refer to them constantly. Diligence and patience alone will take you a long way.

I know for myself that preaching diligence and patience is much easier said than done. There were times when I wished I were moving through the material faster, or that the material weren’t so comprehensive and time-intensive. There were times when the tedium of carefully reading through documentation made me impatient. I would imagine most students at Launch School have felt similarly at one point or another. The majority of students enrolled do have a goal, a vision, of where they want to be upon completion, and it is difficult not to reflexively spend time fixated on that end-goal, and measure your progress in relation to it. After all, it is why you started on this path.

While that initial, long-term vision may be useful for motivating you to find such a program, and enroll in such a program, unfortunately, its usefulness is remarkably limited when faced with comprehending a specific paragraph in a specific lesson on a new web framework language. For me, I find this Marcus Aurelius passage sums up that problem (and a potential solution) nicely:

Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: ‘What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?’ You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own.

Fostering a state of serenity and focus on process, not product, is something I continue to work on most days, and I often have to remind myself not to get overwhelmed by the big picture. A Tim Urban quote also speaks to this paradox:

A remarkable, glorious achievement is just what a long series of unremarkable, unglorious tasks looks like from far away.

I did run through a Coursera course called ‘Learning How To Learn’ that I found helpful, which reviews some of the most current findings in neuroscience on learning and how the brain retains information. This reinforced the importance of getting plenty of sleep and exercise for neurological hygiene, as well as some practical learning strategies like the Pomodoro Method and Spaced Repetition.

Preparing for and taking the assessments was hugely beneficial for me, and one of my favorite components of Launch School. I tried to be thorough in preparing for them, which could sometimes feel tedious after several days of revision. However, taking the assessment and intensely synthesizing and applying the knowledge over a 2–3 hour period really consolidated so much of the material for me. I can’t tell you how many times a concept really clicked for me when I was forced to explain it in my own words or demonstrate it in a novel context. I found the extra time I invested to prepare for them absolutely worth it. And I appreciated having that objective evaluation of your progress and a little external push towards mastery — it’s hard to know where you’re at without some feedback.

On Structure and Scheduling

As any other student who does Launch School full-time probably knows, to paraphrase the Notorious B.I.G, “Mo Time, Mo Problems”. Creating your own work schedule and being accountable to yourself can sometimes feel like the onset of a slow, painfully developing case of Multiple Personality Disorder, as you try your best to empower the productive, better angels of your nature and disempower your lazy, unproductive demons. There have been times when this battle has worn me down. I’ll have weeks with great output and productivity, followed by weeks in which every practice problem feels like a tortured and ignorant attempt to solve String Theory.

In most cases, I have found it helpful to try to be both forgiving with myself for my bad days, and yet stay persistent. I keep a regular schedule, and give myself a few hours in both the morning and the afternoon to do as much work as I can that day. I finish at 4 pm everyday so I can go workout, eat dinner, spend time with my girlfriend or my friends, read a book — do something completely different with my brain. Perhaps there are those ultra-disciplined students out there who can stick to a rigid, productive schedule day after day and don’t occasionally struggle with an inability to focus, frustrations, guilt, work-life balance, etc. I, unfortunately, am not one of them.

As I said above, if I can do between 5–6 hours of pure, productive studying in a day, I am happy. If I can do more, I’m really on a roll and sometimes I’ll go with it. However, I often find if I do more than 7–8 hours a day, I’m burned out the next day. Sometimes I need those days where I only get a couple of hours of work done to have bounce-back days where I get twice as much work done. That’s just how I operate.

Developing that realism, self-awareness, and perspective has been important for me. In the tech corners of the internet, there can be an unquestioned reverence of productivity and work ethic above all else. Talking about how many hours a day you work can be seen as a status symbol, a perhaps misguided measure of your personal value. It’s easy to buy into those values in a myopic way, and hold yourself up to an impossible, productive ideal, causing you to feel as though any time you fall short is a failing on your part — you just need to work harder, work smarter, want it more. Especially when there’s the myth that the only thing holding you back is your willpower. (If you’re interested in reading more about the pitfalls of the productivity narrative, I recommend this Guardian piece)

But what that productivity-obsessed mindset misses is all the other parts of your life that enable you to be healthy, happy, and engaged. To prioritize work-life balance above productive work, because you can’t have the latter without the former. Just because I theoretically can work for 9–10 hours a day, it doesn’t mean that I should, and it definitely doesn’t mean I have the capacity to truly focus and sustain my motivation over such extended periods of time day after day without experiencing burnout. I find it important to remind myself of that in moments where I feel as though I’m not doing enough.

I feel as though this dilemma, for me, is partially brought on by Launch School being a largely self-paced program. This open-ended time frame, on one hand, is a blessing, as it allows you to truly spend as much time as you need learning new concepts deeply without feeling rushed or cramming.

On the other hand, it’s a curse. No one is going to provide you with a calendar and due dates. Some students may see this time-frame vacuum as a reason to accelerate through the program as quickly as possible, and to underestimate the amount of time it will take you to work through a course. This leads to frustration and impatience, neither of which cultivate a productive and sustainable mindset for deep learning day after day.

For other students, perhaps with a tendency towards procrastination, deadlines and temporal constraints can aid in producing motivation out of necessity. Without them, the adage of Parkinson’s law can prove excruciatingly true, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. For a highly amusing yet insightful reflection on the nature of procrastination, I recommend reading Tim Urban’s two part series on the topic: part 1, Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, and part 2, How To Beat Procrastination.

The challenge here is to set a pace for yourself that is realistic and manageable for you, and that you can feel at peace with. This takes some trial and plenty of error — at least, it did for me. Everyone at Launch School does a great job of encouraging students to focus on the process of learning, not the timeline. Keeping that philosophy at the forefront of your mind is the goal.

All this is a long winded way of saying: balance and structure is hard, and contextual. It will no doubt be different for every student. Chances are, every one has to discover their own limits, and just reading about potential obstacles pales in comparison to experiencing them yourself. At the very least, this may guide your thinking and awareness in these directions, and you may feel less surprised upon encountering similar issues and working to resolve them as they happen to you. Maybe you never even encounter them.

As far as more practical tips go: RescueTime helps give me data and feedback on my days. I try to set realistic goals. As I said in the beginning of this, I try to be forgiving yet persistent. I try to accept my natural limitations for the amount of time I can spend alone sitting in front of screen trying to take in and learn new information, and remember that as much as I would like it to be, it isn’t infinite. After a tough day, I find this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote grounding:

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

Odds and Ends:

I’m sure I’ve repeated myself ad nauseam throughout, so I won’t add too much more. All of this may just just be very specific to me and my experience. I know plenty of Launch School students aren’t as fortunate as I am to be able to take some time off from working and commit full-time to re-training. I have all the admiration in the world for people who are able to fit in their learning into a busy schedule while balancing numerous other commitments. I’m only half way through, and I’m excited to continue on the front-end portion of the program. I feel fortunate to have discovered an affordable program that works for me, and I’m incredibly grateful for all the thought and effort that the Launch School team has put into the curriculum. The fact that it can be so challenging and rewarding to get through is a compliment to them.

I’ll end with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, as he reflects far more eloquently than I ever could on the struggle to learn something new:

To “have it,” I must manage my emotional health. Part of that long-term management…is giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things. There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so. I don’t know what comes after this. I have said this before, and will say it again: Studying [something new] is like setting in a canoe from California to China. You arrive on the coast of Hawaii and think, “Wow that was really far.” And then you realize that China is still so very far away. “Feelings” come and go. Likely, [I will encounter something] — in the next hour or so — which I do not understand and I will feel a little hopeless again. But right now, I feel high. And one must savor those moments of feeling high, because they are not the norm. The lows are the norm. The Struggle is the norm. May it ever be thus.