Tag Archives: Study Habits

Conservation and Concentration of Energy

I got to thinking about the conservation of one’s personal energy because of a story told by the British historian, Paul Johnson, about his boyhood encounter with the great man, Sir Winston Churchill. The story goes that the precocious young Johnson, in his youthful wisdom, asked Churchill for a piece of advice for life. This in itself shows that Proverbs is right about the fact that wisdom is not an achievement, but an attitude. The boy could hardly be adept in worldly matters, but displayed the right desire—the desire to know, to learn, to be taught. This desire in itself, so it seems, constitutes wisdom. The path to knowledge is wisdom.

A Legend
So much for my panegyrics! On to the story: Apparently Churchill replied to Johnson that “economy of effort” was his most important life principle. Johnson himself recited the 1946 story to the Wall Street Journal a few years ago:

He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, “Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” and he said without hesitating: “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” And he then got into his limo.[1]

The story might be apocryphal, or at least colored by the passage of time, but it has stuck with me. Two details stand out to me. First, Churchill’s stated idea is in one way confirmed and in another way belied by his own life story. That is, it is said that he used a standing desk[2]—so he didn’t sit whenever he had the opportunity—which seems to fly in the face of his own example of never standing when you can sit down. But lest we think the great Prime Minister a hypocrite, he is also reputed to have taken regular daily naps.[3] Second, Churchill punctuates his dictum with such a hilariously apt embodiment of his stated principle: getting into a limo, the most effortless way to get around.

Conservation of Energy
“Economy of effort” could also be labeled “conservation of energy,” which is how my memory has preserved Churchill’s idea. I suppose it stuck with me that way because of the First Law of Thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy, which I must have memorized at some point in my schooling. Obviously, there are no physics at work here in Churchill’s idea, only commonsense. That is, a person only has so much energy in a given day, a given workweek, a given lifespan. That energy must be conserved and then deployed at the right time. If you tire yourself out doing the wrong things—say wasting thousands of hours on Facebook—then you have substantially less energy to engage in the right things, like writing the next great American novel or building a treehouse.

Economy of Force
Churchill himself might have borrowed the idea of “economy of effort” from the military strategy idea of “economy of force” proposed by the 19th century Prussian strategist, Carl con Clausewitz.[4] This strategic concept is actually part of U.S. Army doctrine:

Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts.
A-10. Economy of force is the reciprocal of mass. Commanders allocate only the minimum combat power necessary to shaping and sustaining operations so they can mass combat power for the decisive operation. This requires accepting prudent risk. Taking calculated risks is inherent in conflict. Commanders never leave any unit without a purpose. When the time comes to execute, all units should have tasks to perform.[5]

When thinking in military terms, this makes perfect sense. In war, there’s nothing worse than wasting effort and resources on the wrong objectives. If you leave 1000 troops on guard duty and only take 100 into battle, you might be overwhelmed by superior forces. It’s better to spend little and economize in the areas where you can in order to spend the most resources on the most essential task.

Now to my mind one of the greatest evils of our age is dissolution, the opposite of economy of force. You could call it “dithering” or “procrastinating” or something else, but the point is that so many us of us so much of the time simply waste our time. While it is easy to regard one’s own era as worse than previous ones—and most such regarding is off-base—I do believe that we have seen an uptick in dithering for one simple reason: there are so many new ways to waste time! If you wanted to waste time 100 years ago, you might have to read a long novel or write a silly letter in longhand to an old friend, activities which we would consider highly productive. But now, to waste time, all you have to do is reach in your pocket, pull out the smartphone and wile away the hours on Candy Crush or YouTube or Twitter or texting. A new study from dscout just showed that on average, we are touching our phones 2,617 times per day.[6] While it’s true that some useful, efficient business is conducted via smartphone, the largest share of activity in the study was given over to Facebook.

Concentration of Forces
So what should we do to combat our own dissolution and dithering? Well, I think it goes back to another related military doctrine: concentration of forces. You economize your use of forces in order to concentrate them. The Army also adheres to this doctrine:

Concentrate the effects of combat power at the decisive place and time.[7]

This is what I think most of us struggle with a lot of the time. We have a lot of effort, time and attention to give, but it can easily be squandered on ephemeral pixels rather than on what really matters. If you don’t believe me, have you ever found yourself repeatedly clicking the send/receive button in your inbox? There’s something about digital information that makes us twitchy. It is very easy to fall into a pattern of seeking quick hits of information, looking for some sort of stimulus that will prompt us to act—a new email, a new task, a new article—rather than planning out our strategy from the beginning and concentrating our forces on what we are actually trying to accomplish. Why do you think so many people read internet articles under 1000 words and so few people read long books?

Concentration of Energy
While the Army tries to concentrate military assets “at the decisive place and time,” each of us individually must do the same thing in order to be remotely effective in our own lives. Advertisements, for example, are the precision-strike enemy of our ability to concentrate. They deliberately distract us from our purposes and show us information we didn’t need to know or want to know, about products, prices, services and the like, most of which we don’t need, all of which we don’t need now. That’s why people hate watching TV with commercials and instead binge on Netflix. They’d rather concentrate on what they want rather than on what other people want them to concentrate on. But Netflix brings us back to the dissolution problem.
In order to meet our goals, launch our projects, achieve our personal objectives, we need to concentrate our own energies in the right direction. Allowing our attention span, our physical energy or our motivation to be sapped by the forces of distraction, whether they be low-priority, easy tasks like email or time-sucks like Netflix or Facebook, brings us down into a vortex of useless behavior, wasted time, unproductive days. Instead, we could and probably should limit the distracting inputs and focus on concentrating our time and energy in order to bring it to good effect “at the decisive place and time.”

I’m still trying to figure out how to do this in my own life and work, but I don’t think I’ll easily forget Paul Johnson’s encounter with Winston Churchill. If Churchill attributes his success to such a simple principle of “economy of effort,” then there must be ways to implement it now in the digital age. A kind of digital austerity might be a solution—deliberately avoiding unnecessary media stimulation. Some people have tried, in fact, by turning their smartphones to black-and-white,[8] implementing screen color changing software,[9] or adopting typewriter-like digital composition tools.[10] I don’t think any one of these tweaks is a total solution, but perhaps they point in the right direction. They represent efforts to concentrate one’s forces and act according to the economy of effort principle. Only time will tells, perhaps, whether we become incapacitated phone zombies[11] or effective, creative humans.


[1] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703558004574583820996589810

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24532996

[3] http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/03/14/the-napping-habits-of-8-famous-men/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_force

[5] https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-0.pdf

[6] http://blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches

[7] https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-0.pdf

[8] http://pocketnow.com/2016/06/07/pocketnow-challenge-one-week-with-a-black-and-white-smartphone-screen

[9] https://justgetflux.com/

[10] https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adamleeb/hemingwrite-a-distraction-free-digital-typewriter

[11] http://www.salon.com/2014/08/08/rise_of_the_smartphone_zombies_what_we_lose_when_technology_gives_us_everything/


St. Augustine and the Memory Palace

I have talked about memory and memorization before, but not about the Memory Palace. What brought it to mind was this passage from Book X of St. Augustine’s Confessions:Illuminated_Manuscripts_(Middleton)_figure00

And I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses.

While St. Augustine is waxing eloquent about the beauty and power of memory, he drops this line which contains a relatively inconspicuous idea that is incredibly profound: the Memory Palace.

Several writers have explored the concept of the Memory Palace, how and why to build one, but let me simply just get at what it is: A Memory Palace is an imaginary building you can make in order to store information. Think of it as a mental hard drive from the Middle Ages. Hard drives have sectors where information is stored in chunks, all the way down to bits and bytes. Similarly, human beings can only store information by breaking it down into pieces and filing it away in our minds.

Unfortunately, most of us were never taught how to memorize, we were just given a pile of information and told to memorize it. Memorizing without any technique is what we call “rote” memorization, where a person simply repeats and repeats the information until it sticks. Because rote memorization is so difficult and seemingly fruitless—most of us lose whatever we had memorized in a couple days—a lot of schools have simply given up on memorization altogether. But this is a mistake.

The ancients and medievals had to memorize loads of information because few knew how to read and write proficiently and of those who did, writing utensils and parchment were expensive and hard to come by (kind of like how a pack of sticky notes will cost you ten bucks now, only worse!). So, these people had to compensate with the only computer on hand: the brain. But they weren’t lazy about it. They didn’t just throw their heads at information and hope that the two would stick together. No. They developed battle-hardened techniques over a long period of time. The essential technique is the Memory Palace.

It starts with associating an idea with a physical object like a door, or a chair. One then can “walk” through say, your own house or apartment and stow pieces of information “in” different objects. There are two themes to the technique. One is the word-object association, the other is proceeding through the palace in a certain order.


For example, imagine you had been asked to give a speech on the classification of living creatures. If your house has five rooms, you could put each the five kingdoms in a separate room (Bacteria, Protozoa, Plants, Fungi, Animals) and then each piece of furniture in the room could represent the phyla within that kingdom. As you proceed through this Memory Palace, you could recall each of the phyla of all five kingdoms as you give your speech. In fact, the Memory Palace was the origin of speakers saying “in the first place…” and “in the second place…” The “places” they refer to are the rooms within their memory palace.

I have found it to be a very helpful memorization technique, especially when paired with the link system and other memorization aids (e.g., making exaggerated and silly word-pictures). As our generation copes with information overload (deluge, tidal wave), we have to find ways to remember the information that is important to us, the information we need to use, connect and synthesize, not the trivia we can look up. If we want to avoid becoming Google Glass fixated cell phone addicts who can’t hold a coherent conversation because we’re so distracted with looking things up online, we might need to recover the Memory Palace that St. Augustine stood in awe of and thanked God for saying, “Great is the power of memory; very wonderful is it, O my God.”


St. Thomas Aquinas Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge

About six years ago, I did a post on St. Thomas Aquinas’ “16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge.”  The precepts are from a letter that Aquinas wrote to a certain “John.” Now, some scholars doubt the authenticity of the precepts and I’m no Medievalist to argue over such things, so I’ll leave that up to you. I first became interested in the precepts upon reading A. G. Sertillanges’ book, The Intellectual Life, which is loosely based on the precepts. Last year, I used the precepts in an introductory course that I co-taught and for lack of a standard translation out there, I did my own. I’ll provide the Latin alongside my translation here so you can judge whether it’s a good one or whether there are errors. I hope you all find it useful. And this is the only place you’ll find it on the whole internet.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge (De modo studendi)

Because it was asked of me, John, my beloved in Christ, how you ought to study in the in acquiring of a treasury of knowledge, such counsel is delivered to you by me:

  1. That by rivulets, and not immediately into the sea, we choose to enter, because by the easier we must come at the more difficult. This is my warning then and your instruction:
  2. I bid you to be slow to speak
  3. and slow in coming to the place of talking.
  4. Embrace purity of conscience.
  5. Do not cease to pray.
  6. Love to keep to your cell on a regular basis if you wish to be admitted to the wine cellar.
  7. Show yourself amiable to all.
  8. Pay no heed to others’ affairs.
  9. Do not be overly familiar with anyone, because excessive familiarity breeds contempt and yields subtraction from the ability to study.
  10. In no way enter into the sayings and doings of secular persons.
  11. Above all, flee conversation; do not omit to imitate the footsteps of the saints and the good.
  12. Do not consider from whom you learn,
  13. but commit to memory whatever good is said.
  14. It is the same with what you read and hear, work so that you may understand; resolve each of your doubts.
  15. And busy yourself to store whatever you are able in the closet of your mind, as desiring to fill a vessel.
  16. do not seek what is too high for you.


Following these footsteps, you will put forth and bear branches and fruit in the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts as long as you have life. If you pursue this, you will be able to obtain that which you desire.

Quia quaesisti a me, in Christo mihi carissime Ioannes, qualiter te studere oporteat in thesauro scientiae acquirendo, tale a me tibi traditur consilium:

  1. ut per rivulos, non statim in mare, eligas introire, quia per faciliora ad difficiliora oportet devenire. Haec est ergo monitio mea et instructio tua.
  2. Tardi loquum te esse iubeo
  3. et tarde ad locutorium accedentem;
  4. conscientiae puritatem amplectere.
  5. Orationi vacare non desinas;
  6. cellam frequenter diligas si vis in cellam vinariam introduci.
  7. Omnibus te amabilem exhibe;
  8. nihil quaere penitus de factis aliorum;
  9. nemini te multum familiarem ostendas, quia nimia familiaritas parit contemptum et subtractionis a studio materiam subministrat;
  10. de verbis et factis saecularium nullatenus te intromittas;
  11. discursus super omnia fugias; sanctorum et bonorum imitari vestigia non omittas;
  12. non respicias a quo audias,
  13. sed quidquid boni dicatur, memoriae recommenda;
  14. ea quae legis et audis, fac ut intelligas; de dubiis te certifica;
  15. et quidquid poteris in armariolo mentis reponere satage, sicut cupiens vas implere;
  16. altiora te ne quaesieris.




Illa sequens vestigia, frondes et fructus in vinea domini Sabaoth utiles, quandiu vitam habueris, proferes et produces. Haec si sectatus fueris, ad id attingere poteris, quod affectas.

Latin text: Thomas Aquinas, De modo studendi (Textum Taurini, 1954), Corpus Thomisticum, http://www.josephkenny.joyeurs.com/CDtexts/Latin/ModoStud%28false%29.htm (accessed June 29, 2011). Translation is mine. Copyright 2011 CatholicBibleStudent.com.

I should note that the “wine cellar” (cellam vinarium) in Precept #6 is a quotation from the Vulgate rendering of Song of Songs 2:4, “introduxit me in cellam vinariam ordinavit in me caritatem” (He brought me into the wine cellar, he ordered charity in me). This little idea, which in the Hebrew is closer to “house of wine” and dynamically, “banquet hall,” becomes important in Medieval spiritual reading of the Song.


Stand up at Your Desk

So, I decided to go for it and get a standing desk. Yep. It’s a bit of a craze right now and I got inspired. For some background, there’s a NY Times article on standing desks, a few blog posts (LifeHacker, Wired, ProfHacker) and a great info graphic on how “Sitting is Killing You.” [Edit 5/23/13: Link removed by request.]

I found myself often slouching in my chair and getting that yucky tired feeling toward the end of the day. My desk is L-shaped and was relatively easy to adjust, so half of the “L” is now at my elbow height and half is at sitting height. I put my computer keyboard and monitors at standing height. So far, I love it! It’s only been a few days, but I feel less drowsy at the end of the day; I feel more alert at my desk. I don’t slouch. My legs are doing fine–it feels like I just took a walk when I leave work. I’ve been sitting down sometimes, but only after standing for 2-3 hours. Yesterday I stood for 4 hours straight. I’m hoping that I’ll shed some pounds, gain some muscle and become more productive. We’ll see!


How to Read (A lot of) Books

I found a helpful blog post by Matthew Cornell on how to read a lot of books in a short period of time. Students and scholars alike always need to be reading a lot of books. A book that has been helpful to me is How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. It’s a classic, but it is more about reading in general than it is about reading fast. It will help you read faster, but more importantly, it will help you read better. Adler understands and explains the purpose of reading and how to go about it in the most productive way. As far as quick reading, I have looked through The Complete Idiots’ Guide to Speed Reading by Abby Marks Beale and Pam Mullen. This book pulls together a lot of advice from   many different speed reading approaches and techniques. It’s kind of a buffet of techniques rather than a particular approach.

The principles that have been helpful to me are:

  • Set apart a large block of time for reading.
  • Avoid all distractions. (Usually this means going to a place for reading, like a coffee shop or library, where you are less likely to be distracted than in whatever normal place you have like your living room or office.)
  • Stop sub-vocalizing! (Most people sub-vocalize words as they read them, because they learned to read by speaking. Once you overcome this problem–by humming, breathing, or just not doing it–your reading speed will increase.)
  • Use a card to guide your eye. (This technique involves using an index card to lead your eye down the page more quickly than it would go by itself. I don’t do this all the time, but sometimes.)
  • Don’t read every word and skip some stuff.
  • Read in a brightly lit environment, the brighter the better.
  • Interest yourself in your author’s ideas. (That means you have to “get” what the author is talking about so that your mind can ride on the track which he has laid down. If you don’t get the story he’s trying to tell you’ll find yourself lost and hopelessly uninterested.)

Speed reading is kind of like swinging a golf club. There’s a whole lot of techniques and things to remember and you can only utilize so much them at any given time. But with some effort, anyone one who can read can read faster.


St. Augustine on Bible Students

St. Augustine in De Doctrina teaches:

  • Students of the Holy Scriptures are not only to be admonished that they know the kinds of expression that are used there, and that they observe vigilantly and hold by memory the manner in which things are customarily said there, but also, and this is most important, that they pray for understanding. For in these books concerning which they are studious they read that “the Lord giveth wisdom: and out of his mouth cometh prudence and knowledge” (Prov 2:6). They have also received from Him their desire for study, if it is upheld by piety.

–St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, III, 37.56, translated by D. W. Robertson, Jr., The Library of the Liberal Arts. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 117.


Dissertation Writing

Dissertation writing is its own world of joy and hurt. It involves incredible effort, research, creativity and tenacity. In the process, I have found that sometimes thinking and reading about the process itself helps. Now reading about the process of dissertation writing may become an exercise in omphaloskepsis. One might end up spinning wheels and dithering. But for me, reading about the process makes the whole thing make more sense. So…what books have I found particularly helpful?

First, I picked up Professors as Writers by Robert Boice. Boice is a psychologist so he thinks about writing from the psychological perspective. But he doesn’t let you get bogged down in statistics and psychological surveys. No, he wants to get down to brass tacks and help you write. He hosts writing seminars regularly where he helps wayward academics get on the writing bandwagon. Three of his techniques are worth mentioning. Firstly, he encourages free-writing in short periods of 10-15 minutes to get the writing juices flowing. This seems to be a common theme among writing experts. Secondly, he advocates what he calls “generative writing” in which you maintain the same flow and speed of free-writing, but focus your writing on the topic your are wanting to actually write about at the end of the day. Thirdly, he proposes what he calls “contingency management” or what most people would call negative reinforcement. That is, if you don’t meet your writing goal for the day, he wants you to punish yourself in some way–by not taking a shower or by sending a check to organization you despise. This “contingency management” technique has led to the highest success rate among his clients, he claims. He gives a ton of other fruitful advice. I have found the book super helpful for establishing a daily writing habit. If you only get one book, this is the one to get. (I have to say that I have not experimented heavily with “contingency management”, but maybe…)

Second, I bought an older book called How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation by David Sternberg. This book, also written by a psychologist, walks you through the various stages in the dissertation process and offers advice at every turn. The author has directed many dissertation students and they have found his advice helpful. The book is okay, but founders in being too discipline-specific. If I were a psychology student, I would find it more helpful. But I have learned a few things from it.

Third, I checked out Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. She’s a psychologist (Are you noticing a pattern here?) and a writing guide at Harvard. This book is much less formal than the other two and it has a distinct casual flavor to it. What I like about Bolker’s approach is that it aims to make writing fun, almost a game. Writing is a creative process and is meant to be a wonderful, even pleasurable experience. Bolker brings that idea to life and offers tons of great maxims like “Write first!” that remind a writer what being a writer is all about. Her anecdotes are amusing and offer various approaches to the task of getting the writing done.

I suppose if I devoted as much attention to actual dissertation writing as I do to thinking about the process I may be further down the road. But then again, I may have mired myself in a mudhole back up the road. If you happen to be writing a dissertation, thesis or book, you may find these resources useful to you on your writing journey. Writing is often a lonely activity and it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew. So break it up into bite size pieces, write every day and keep the creative juices flowing!


Conflating Realities with “-ologies”

So often, too often, scholars are seduced by the similarity between the studied and the student, the researched and the researcher that they make the unforgivable mistake of combining, conflating and confusing the reality of the thing studied with the discipline that studies it. Thus, certain problems between people become “sociological” rather than “societal” or people engage in building “high ethnological walls” rather than high “ethnic” walls.

This phenomenon is an abuse of language. So next time you encounter conflicting neighborhoods or some addiction that afflicts human society, refer to the “social” or “societal” problem you are observing. In this manner, you will be engaging in an act of “sociological” study. Likewise, if you see someone building high walls between ethnic groups, remember that they are “ethnic” walls and that you have just made an “ethnological” observation.

All you Greek scholars out there (and anyone who has ever taken a biology class) know that the “-ology” at the end of a word comes from the Greek word logos, “word, knowledge.” So “biology” is “the study of bios” or “the study of life.”