If you want to be fit…

Don’t buy new running shoes. Instead, go out and run.

In a post that I found really interesting/useful, Scott Young cautions against doing activities that seem productive, like buying new running shoes or telling people about your goals. Instead, he says, we should focus on activities that actually are productive. Hence the difference between buying running shoes (feeling like you are making progress on goals) and running (actually making progress). His take-home lesson is that you should always do the big things first (i.e. start running before buying better shoes or finding a workout plan or similar optimizing activities).

I find that his ideas readily apply to my experience learning. There are many of these pseudo-productive activities in my life, some personal and some institutional.

First, some of the personal ones (with the actually productive corresponding activities in parentheses):

  1. Telling someone that I have a lot of work (vs doing my work). One thing that I sometimes notice about myself is that I’ll tell someone with a lot of conviction that I have a ton of work to do that day and then proceed to work very inefficiently. If I actually have a lot of work, I would feel motivated to stay on task and work quickly (as I am doing right now).
  2. Rushing through homework (vs learning the material that my homework covers). In school, learning the material is what matters. Rushing is mentally much easier and much quicker, but it does not have nearly the same benefits. I would be better off to learn everything I needed to right then and not need to do comprehensive study sessions later.
  3. Finding lots of academic papers to read (vs. finding and reading a paper or two). I am doing research, and one serious waste of time is to find a bunch of relevant papers and never read them. I feel productive because I am searching through Google Scholar, but I get nothing out of it. The important task is to read and understand papers.

There are certainly many others, and I’ll be putting in extra thought over the next few weeks to identify them.

Now, for some institutional examples:

  1. Assigning homework that requires rote memory or simple application (vs. homework that develops deeper understanding). I’m thinking here of high school where math homework just requires repeating the in-class examples. It feels productive for both teacher and student, but it does not actually help the student learn.
  2. Requiring students to pass a number of classes before graduation (vs. requiring that students know what they need to know). Often, you can pass a class and even get an A without understanding everything that was presented. I do understand that it would be a serious challenge to ensure that everyone understood all of the material, so it may be more practical to do it the current way.

Can you think of any examples in your life? I’m pretty sure most of us do some of these pseudo-productive activities.


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