I wouldn't say that my younger cousin and I are competitive, but let's just say that when she got good at crossword puzzles, I felt that I had little choice but to also get good at crossword puzzles. So for the past few months I've averaged probably 2-4 crossword puzzles per day.
Crossword puzzles, to me, are the ideal diversion. They're fun enough to kill time in line or on an airplane, but difficult enough that you're not going to spend all day doing them. They obviously aren't useful like doing actual work, but I like how they make me think about words.
New York Times crossword puzzles are the gold standard of puzzles. Mondays are so easy that just about anyone can do them, while Saturdays are very difficult. Sundays are mixed difficulty and are always very big.
For a while I could do Tuesdays and Wednesdays consistently but could never do Thursdays. Thursdays have much more abstract and tricky questions than Wednesdays. For example, "Hebrew leader?" is "ALEPH", as that's the first letter in Hebrew. It took me a while to get a handle on those.
As you move to Friday and Saturday, there are more and more clues that don't have definite answers, so they rely on the surrounding context. For example, "Tree line?" was "ANTS", because ants form a line when they climb a tree. There's no way to definitively know that's correct until you have several of the letters filled in due to the perpendicular clues.
So there's a lot going on in crosswords. You need some cultural knowledge, some creativity, some strategy, and some lexical depth.
The most interesting discovery I've made is how wildly my crossword performance varies. I would have thought that my skill level would be consistent, but that's not true at all. Sometimes I'll have a puzzle that I'm so stuck on that I think it's way above my ability, and then later I'll solve it with no hesitation.
The biggest determinant in my performance is how rested I am. I typically do a crossword or two before I sleep and then another one at lunch. A very common pattern is that I'll get stuck on a Saturday at night, and then the next day at lunch will quickly figure out the clues I was stuck on.
The opposite rarely happens. If I don't finish at lunch and try to pick it up when I'm tired, I usually give up and do an easier one. Once in a while I'll make some progress, but it's not like the other way around.
Yesterday I was tired. I had to wake up early and had enough going on in the morning that I couldn't sneak in a short nap to make up for missed sleep. I was also driving around all day in the heat, which makes me more tired.
On my todo list for the day was adding a couple new cruise lines to CruiseSheet, which should be a pretty straightforward task as I've obviously done that before. But it didn't work immediately. It showed no errors, but the cruises weren't there. I tried a few things, got frustrated, and cleaned up my house instead (my go-to task when I know I can't perform complex mental tasks).
Today I woke up after a good amount of sleep, drank some tea, and immediately fixed the CruiseSheet problem. It was an obvious bug that I just wasn't able to see the following day. It felt a lot like seeing a crossword puzzle with fresh, rested, eyes.
Getting more sleep is the least sexy productivity hack ever. It seems (and sometimes feels) lazy. It's simple. The results aren't obvious unless you're looking for them. But it's also extremely important if you do work that relies on your brain. I suppose there are probably some people that can function at a high level on 5-6 hours of sleep, but they're rare. Try getting an extra hour of sleep every day for a week and see how you do on work. Or crossword puzzles.
Photo is a sunset on Lake Champlain in Vermont.
I'm annoyed with myself that I let my posting schedule slip to the weekend, so I'm rewinding it back this week. I actually wrote this post a week ago and already have another one ready for next week. Proactivity!
One of the most popular courses on Coursera is called Learning how to Learn, and it one of the first topics it covers is the distinction between focussed and diffuse modes of thinking.
In short, to do a complex mental task (learn new material, solve a challenging problem that you've never done before, etc.), it is not enough to divert full focus to it and keep banging against the wall. You have to take a step back, and let the other part of the brain form the necessary neural connections. Coming back to the same task later with a refreshed mind very often feels like the solution comes to you on its own.
And yeah, right amount of sleep is one of the most important things.
I highly recommend the course to anyone (it can be done for free), it taught me a lot about productivity.
I found the course interesting but I didn't feel I took a huge amount away. What do you feel you learned about productivity through it?
Obviously, it is more of a compilation of good practices than some unique approach, but there's gotta be the first time you hear about at least some of them, right?
Personally, I found the idea of focussed/diffuse modes very interesting. Previously, my solution to getting stuck was to drink some coffee and keep pushing. As a web developer, I would eventually find some sort of ugly solution to whatever I was working on. But more often than not after going away from it, a new, better, a lot more elegant one would come to me almost on its own. I would just think: Wow, how could I miss that, this is so obvious!
Now, it doesn't mean I don't push for solution anymore. I push a little, but then try to do something totally unrelated. There are always some more routine tasks in web development I can do, and that's what I am switching to. Then go for a walk outside, or call my wife. After I really stop thinking about the problem I was working on, the solution really forms on its own.
Other things in the course, for example techniques like Pomodoro and spaced repetition are also great, especially when I am learning some new framework or programming paradigm. I've known about Pomodoro for years, but in combination with the rest of the material it makes so more sense.
Oh, and it was cool when I sent an email to Barbara Oakley asking a couple of course-related questions, and she replied the same day.
What are your thoughts? Did you feel like there should have been more material in the course, or the things Terry and Barbara talked about did not really work for you?
Real Escape is a Japanese phenomenon, which is generally enough to get me in the door. Through my Japanese teacher I met one of the creators a few months back, and he described a real life puzzle game that sounded like a ton of fun. I was invited to go to their Doctor Mad event a couple weeks ago.
Going in, I had no idea to expect. I knew that there would be some sort of brain teaser and logic puzzle element to it, but that was all I knew. I want to give away as little as possible, so that you'll get the most out of it if you go, but it's essentially a real life computer game. There are no fancy graphics-- you're basically in a minimally decorated room with some stuff stuck to the walls, but the skills needed and the procedures of the game reminded me of and old-school adventure game like Monkey Island.
Suffice to say, I had a ton of fun. I've always wished that there were more non-drinking based social nighttime activities, and Real Escape definitely fits the bill. It's very entertaining, if you go solo you'll be put into a group that you'll get to know a little bit, and it's good for your brain.
It's also hard. Very hard. I sort of think that I'm a genius of logic puzzles and the like, but my team failed (unless you count me cracking the lock that the answer was in before the game started). In fact, only one of the ten or so teams actually completed the puzzle. And while I'd like to blame my team for our failure, the most interesting part of the experience was being faced with my own deficiencies.
Recently I've somehow developed into this fitness junkie. Well not junkie-junkie, but it's a pretty major part of my life! It all started when one day I decided to run. I have run every week since and now run around 5 times a week for a total of around 25 - 30 miles per week. It's definitely not the farthest I can run, but it's hard because I'm doing my Mon - Thurs runs before 6 AM because of work.
In addition to running, I have decided to work out and swim for a more balanced exercise schedule. Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursdays are my workout days. My workouts on these days are not from professional advice, so I should probably change that. I started swimming a few weeks ago and do it twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays. I am still a TERRIBLE swimmer, but definitely improving which is a plus!