Dec 2019

For the most part of 2019, I felt very confused and disoriented. I came across a self-help book entitled ‘The Power of Agency’ that turned out to be helpful. The book can be boiled down to simple principles, which are summarized by the authors in an article. It helped me by letting me realize that there was still some wiggle room for me to exercise my ‘agency’ in the face of overwhelming uncertainties. And indeed, I began to follow the advice given in the book to shut out the noise from social media. With my mind calm now, I could focus on things at hand again.

The book itself is full of stories to support the seven principles. But some of the stories seem, well, unrelated at least to my situation. For example, a good-looking, atheletic high school student complained he’d been so bothered by the attention that he became anxious and self-conscious. He had to hide himself in a bathroom cubicle and distract himself by scrolling down his Instagram feed. (The authors advised him to stop checking social media.) I laughed out loud and stopped reading. Although I need to point out, the advice really worked for me. So at least read the summary.

Naval Ravikant’s tweetstorm ‘How to get rich without getting lucky’ and Sam Altman’s two blog posts ‘How to be successful’ and ‘Productivity’ reshaped my thinking about a lot of things.

But the most immediate effect was I began making to-do-lists on a notebook. I was obsessed with GTD software for the past few years and I certainly was not as productive as Sam Altman, who just listed things on paper. So I followed suit and found it surprisingly calming. The panicky scream ‘how the hell do I do this?’ stops when you write down the steps.

I’ve been using Anki to memorize vocabulary and facts for quite a few years, what Michael Nielsen calls ‘augmented long-term memory’. Until recently I didn’t realize this is only half of the equation. Michael’s approach seems to say, with all important facts etched in your mind, connections between them will arise subconsciously. But this is not necessarily true. The ability to connect dots and find logic links between ideas needs deliberate practice. And ‘Zettelkasten’ method explained in the book ‘How to Take Smart Notes’ helps, even forces, you to do this.

One of the striking points made in this book is: Writing should be the purpose of learning, reading and thinking. With this purpose in mind, when you summarize what you read using your own words, that is a test of your real understanding. By trying to find connections between notes, you are also practicing how to think. And by writing down what you think, you are confronting yourself. This way, you have to think things through, because you can’t hide your lousy thinking from yourself.

I’m using Bear for note-taking. I’ve rearranged my tagging system to try this method in 2020. I hope I can get myself to read more papers and technical books – and actually understand more – in the coming year.

Wish you a productive year in 2020.

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