Jack Cheng  /  Essays

Thirty Minutes a Day

September 2009  ·  5 minutes

If you’re like me, there are times when you get so excited about learning something new that you spend a day or two on it non-stop, only to get tired of it and move on to something else. When mastery is the goal, spending an exorbitant number of hours in one sitting will likely lead to burnout. We don’t go to the gym expecting to put on 20 pounds of muscle in a single, day-long workout. Instead, we do several short workouts a week, spread out over months. Our bodies need time to heal; our muscles time to grow. And the same goes for that muscle inside your skull. When trying to develop a new skill, the important thing isn’t how much you do; it’s how often you do it.

Say you’re trying to memorize a list of new words. You’d probably go with one of two familiar strategies. The fancy term for the first approach is spaced presentation and it just means spreading out the studying over time. On the other hand, massed presentation (ie. cramming), helps keeps the words in your short-term memory, and is actually more effective if you have an exam the next day—just as working out right before you hit the beach makes a noticeable, albeit temporary, difference. In psych-speak, this is known as the spacing effect, and it explains why you can’t seem to remember anything you learned in college. Although, alcohol probably had something to do with this too.

An interesting third approach is one developed by a man named Paul Pimsleur. Pimsleur dedicated his life to understanding and improving language learning process. He observed that the first time you learned a new word, you’d forget it almost immediately. But if you reviewed it again as you were about to forget it, each subsequent review would exponentially increase the staying power of the word. To put it another way, if you could only remember the word for 5 seconds at first, reviewing it after those five seconds would boost your retention time to 25 seconds, then 2 minutes, 10 minutes, and so on. At this rate, the tenth review wouldn’t have to take place until about four months after the first.1

graphic of spaced vs massed presentation

Of course, these schedules depend on different factors like the difficulty of the word and the background of the speaker, but even a rough timetable would be invaluable for teachers as it’d let them know when they needed to review old material — to get maximum retention with minimum repetition. Make no mistake, the goal isn’t to do avoid having to practice every day; it’s to make the repetition manageable so you can introduce new material every day. It’s about staying interested and excited about what you’re learning.

Pimsleur shows us that memory isn’t linear; that even if you spend the same total amount of time studying, the time you spend in between significantly affects what your brain does with the information. Learning is the space between the doing.

Building a Daily Practice

When software developer Brad Isaac asked Jerry Seinfeld, who in those days was still a touring comic, what his secret was, he advised Isaac to pick up one of those wall calendars that had the entire year on a single page. To Seinfeld, becoming a better comedian meant writing every day, so each day Jerry worked on his writing, he would put a big red X in the box for that day. Pretty soon, there’d be a chain of red Xs and not breaking the chain became its own motivation.

There are moments when, caught up in the mental resistance that keeps us from getting started, we forget just how enjoyable the act of doing really is. When you’ve finally started and you’re engaged in the work, you think “hey, I kind of like this.” What I love about the Seinfeld calendar is that it lets you channel your stubbornness and redirect it from not starting into not missing your reps.

I want you to pick one longish-term goal and commit to it right now. Make a conscious decision to actively pursue what used to be an “I want…” or “I should…” like improving your writing, speaking a new language or finally learning CSS (you know who you are).

You’re going to accomplish this goal by limiting the time you spend on it to no more than 30 minutes a day. You’re going to learn more by working with your long-term memory rather than against it. If you can’t carve out a half hour each day, cut it to 15 minutes. Find a time span that makes it insanely hard for you to not do it every day. Keep doing it and over time, you’ll be surprised at how much you’re able to accomplish.

Further Reading

1A Memory Schedule [PDF] Pimsleur’s article in the Modern Language Journal (1967).

These Days

My debut novel, about the human side of technology. Available now. Details.

About Me

Jack Cheng is a Shanghai-born, Michigan-bred, Brooklyn-based writer. Full Bio.