The Greek Alphabet

One of my favorite books is called The Last Samurai (nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie!), about a child prodigy who goes on a quest to find his father. His mother has some unconventional approaches to education, and the boy learns Latin, Arabic, Greek, Japanese, and a handful of other languages, along with astronomy, calculus, aerodynamics…all before the age of 10. This book was the source of a lot of motivation for me, and through it I learned how to read Greek. I even made a little song…

The method she used in the book worked really well for me, so here it is (because I know you’ve always wanted to be able to read Greek!).

In the book, the boy’s mother started out by writing out the alphabet, like above. Oddly enough, this didn’t result in education! So, she next showed him all the letters that looked like English letters:

βατ = bat
εατ = eat
αβουτ = about

Then, she introduced some letters which looked a little different: γ = g, δ = d, λ = l, μ = m, ν = n, π = p, ρ = r, σ = s.

γρατε = grate
δατε = date
σπελλ = spell
μεν = men

After that, some more complicated letters: ξ = x and ζ = z. Also, h, which works differently in Greek. It doesn’t have a letter, but instead a ‘ symbol gets placed over the letter. If the h is silent, a ’ gets used. So you get:

μιξ = mix
ζιπ = zip
ìτ = hit
íτ = it

Then there are letters that stand for sounds that, in English, are written with two letters. θ is th, but separated, like when you say “spit hard”. φ sounds like the ph in “slap hard”. χ sounds like kh as in “walk home”. And, ψ sounds like ps in “naps”.

παθιμ = pat him
βλαΧεαρτεδ = blackhearted
ὲλφερ = help her
ριψ = rips

Finally, there are the long vowels and diphthongs. Long e has the letter η, like the e of bed stretched out. Long o has the letter ω, like the o of hot stretched out. And the diphthongs:

παι = pie
παυ = pow
δει = day
βοι = boy
μου = moo

As it turns out, because of this and growing up Jewish (reading Hebrew from prayer books), I can read more languages than I can actually understand. It’s not as much fun as being able to actually understand the language, but I really like learning new alphabets. This is probably why I liked the Artemis Fowl series so much: the fairies in that book had their own alphabet, and there were secret messages along the bottom of the pages for me to decode! By the end of the book I could read that script fluently too…

Cheers,

-H

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Thinking in a New Language

The mighty thesaurus! Not actually relevant, but too cute to pass up.

The mighty thesaurus! Not actually relevant, but too cute to pass up.

 

One especially hard part of learning a new language is thinking in that language: that is, if I need to say say the word for the piece of furniture I put my plate on, I think “der Tisch” and I don’t first think “the table” and then translate it. Thinking in your target language (TL) can dramatically improve your skills, because you can understand what you hear or read more quickly, without having to translate to your primary language to reach understanding. The key moment for me with Spanish was when I had a conversation on the phone with someone and we talked at a normal pace, exchanged all the information we needed, and agreed on a time to meet – all in Spanish! I was a bit giddy afterward. It was such a fantastic feeling, having worked so hard to get to this point and realizing I’d actually made it.

 

Thinking in your TL has a lot of benefits, but the biggest one to me is the conversion of passive vocabulary to active. Passive vocabulary is the words you understand when you’re listening or reading, but you don’t actively use them in speaking and writing. For me, the word for “farmer” in German is passive vocabulary: when I see or hear it, I know what it means, but I don’t have it available when I’m speaking or writing. By thinking in your TL, you force those passive words to become active, so that your inner monologue doesn’t run out of words.

One key point to make: thinking in your TL is not the same as being fluent! Fluency involves grammatical correctness, or native speech. In this case, we are talking about being able to produce something that makes sense and allows you to communicate (to yourself and others), automatically and without translation. Think of how children can communicate before they are fluent: what they say isn’t grammatically correct, but it is still communication.

 

So, how do you actually go about thinking in a new language? As always, repetition is key, as well as immersion. Practice a lot in your TL, and surround yourself with the language. Switch the language in your your browser and phone (you may have to keep Google Translate handy for a while, until you learn the new vocabulary!). Browser extensions like Mind the Word! for Chrome can switch a percentage of words on a web page to your TL.

Set aside time (short sessions at first) each day to practice thinking only in your TL. Tell a story, or describe how you are feeling, what you’re doing, what’s around you, or what you did today. Daily practice is important: this way, you make a habit of it and make it normal. Try having a free writing session: get a notebook and set a timer. Until the timer runs out, keep writing, as quickly as you can think. Don’t fix mistakes, and don’t go back, just as if you were doing this exercise in English! The goal here isn’t to write or talk fluently, but to get practice in increasing the pace of your words and to make it more natural to use the language regularly.

With any of these exercises, make a list each day of words that are missing from your vocabulary. Then, learn those words! This way you focus on the words you’ll actually use (unlike, say, some of the helpful words that come up in courses designed by other people – I knew the words for king/queen/prince/princess in Spanish before I knew “pencil”). Over time, you’ll notice your list getting shorter, as you learn more and more of the words you use every day. Focus on the words that are most relevant to you, and you’ll be able to communicate smoothly much sooner.

 

For multilingual learners, try switching from one language to another without stopping in your primary language! I’m working on translating between Spanish and German (“mesa” gets translated directly to “Tisch” without my having to think through “table”), to encourage flexibility in all directions.

 

A warning: you may confuse people around you if they talk to you when you’re practicing in your TL, and you answer them in the wrong language. That’s a good sign! Embrace the confusion, and laugh at it! Your transitions will get smoother, in time, and you’ll be able to switch languages as needed.

So, what techniques do you use for thinking in your target language?

¡Hasta pronto!

-H

 

Sources:
http://www.howtolanguages.com/uncategorized/how-to-think-in-your-target-language-part-1/
http://www.howtolanguages.com/uncategorized/how-to-think-in-your-target-language-part-2/
http://www.fluentin3months.com/thinking/

Skills for Language Learning

We take for granted that public speaking is its own skill, separate from reading, debating, writing, or listening. We understand that these skills need to be practiced separately: being a good writer is no guarantee that you’ll be a good speaker. The same philosophy applies to learning a new language. To be fluent in the language, you need to practice your skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Looking at your skill level in these separate areas can give you areas to focus on: for example, I’m fluent in Spanish. However, my skill in speaking it is not as great as my skill in listening, writing, or reading. It’s something I have to practice more, so I can speak smoothly and confidently, without tripping over my tongue.

 

There are lots of ways to practice the various skills. The language app Duolingo makes sure to test these skills separately: translating from written phrases, transcribing spoken phrases, and speaking into the microphone. For practicing listening, try finding podcasts, tv shows, or news broadcasts in your target language. This can also help with gaining familiarity in different accents. Most of my experience with Spanish came from Latin American accents, and it took a while to get used to the accents in Spain (with their odd habit of dropping consonants all over the place!). Taking the time before the trip to find some examples of Spaniards speaking would have smoothed my transition.

Some resources for practicing the listening skill, here: SBS On Demand offers free movies in lots of languages; Librivox has audiobooks; here’s a list of Latin American movies to watch; and this is a tool to control playback speed in files, to catch parts you missed the first time through.

 

Practicing speaking could involve: finding someone on Skype or Italki to chat with (this also improves your listening skill!); reading aloud from a book or article in your target language; or narrating your activities and life (describe the people and things you see around you: what they’re doing, what they look like, etc.). Make it a habit: the more time you spend in your target language, the more confident you’ll be speaking it. Don’t wait until you know “enough” of the language to start doing this! You will never know enough; there will always be more words to learn. Instead, slip in whatever words you do know. If you come across a word that’s missing from your vocabulary, go look it up.

 

To practice reading: switch your phone/browser/computer to your target language; go to a used book store and pick up books to read (to start, try ones that you already know, comic books, or kids’ books. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to read at the same level as in your first language!); try any of these sources for reading material; try a bilingual puzzle; read comic books; or play 20 questions.

 

Don’t waste time trying to find the best or the perfect resource for language learning. It’s much better to find a decent source, and then just start using it. There will always be something better! If you find it, then switch, but don’t stop learning.

What are your favorite resources for learning the different language skills? For me, the real test for Spanish was when I went to Spain and discovered that I can indeed hold a phone conversation without stumbling! That was a great accomplishment. Even after that, though, I was still looking out for ways to improve my skills. This is an ongoing journey!

 

Cheers,

-H

Productivity Tools

Productivity and time management are essential skills to learn, but everyone finds their own best practice for managing their time. The method that works for one person most likely won’t work for someone else. Here are some tools that have worked for me lately:

 

I’m not overly fond of keeping a time sheet, but I have found that tracking the time I spend on projects helps me stay focused and not waste the day browsing the internet. I use Toggl to track my time: I can split it up by client and project, and all I have to do is mark when I start and stop working on a task. At the end of the week if I want to look at how I did, the site has reports available to show how much time was spent on each project/client, and how much time was logged overall.

The reports have a twofold benefit for me. First, they provide me with data: am I spending enough time doing actual client work, as opposed to internal projects? Am I getting a reasonable amount of work done each day? I can compare the time spent on a project to the time I estimated it would take, and see how accurate my predictions are. This helps make me better at scheduling my week without being under- or over-busy. Second, it (oddly enough) helps with my perfectionism. It’s easy for me to get into the mindset of thinking that I should get 8 hours of productive work out of an 8 hour day, but that’s just not reasonable. Distractions come up, there are bathroom and lunch breaks, switching tasks takes time, sometimes you just need to take a minute and not do anything…all these little breaks add up and getting 6-7 hours of work done is much more reasonable. Seeing the numbers reflect that has helped break me of the feeling of never working hard enough.

 

The second tool I use is Asana, for task management. I’ve tried various to-do lists, and so far this one’s sticking much better than the others. What works really well for me is that it’s browser (or app!) based, so I can access my list anywhere. Also, I can split tasks up by project, task, and sub-task, set due dates and priorities, add comments, and add followers (if someone else is involved with the task too). The task list is split into Today, Upcoming, and Later: by default, Today is ranked highest in the list, followed by Upcoming, and then Later is on the bottom, and usually hidden. When I set up a new task, it goes into Upcoming. The Later category is for tasks that are low priority that I can work on when I have free time. They’re things that it would be nice to get done, but they’re not needed.

At the beginning of the week, I set a few weekly goals: larger projects that will take several days to complete. I also go through my projects and list the smaller daily tasks that are due to be completed this week. Then at the beginning of each day, I review my list and see what needs to be done today, and move it up on my list. Then I get to work!

Having the tool open every day and taking a few minutes each morning to set my priorities and goals for the day has really helped my productivity. I get to see each day that I set goals, and then I accomplish them, which is a great feeling. In addition, having a Today section gets rid of the urge to keep pushing tasks off if I don’t feel like doing them. I want to check them off, not just move them down the list.

 

I keep this matrix up next to my desk to remind myself of what actually needs to be done. Source: http://examinedexistence.com/three-popular-ways-to-prioritize-a-hectic-schedule/

 

Finally, I keep in mind the Important/Urgent matrix (shown above). It’s fairly self-explanatory: important tasks are the big things, the ones that will have major impact and really need to be completed. Urgent tasks are like a phone ringing: they create the impression that they must be taken care of now, whether or not that’s actually true. Sometimes, it is true, as with an emergency or a project on a deadline. Often, though, it’s just a phone ringing, or an email popping up: it feels important because it’s at the top of your mind, but there are little to no consequences for not taking care of it immediately. It’s easy to get caught taking care of the Urgent-Not Important tasks, and forget to work on the Important-Not Urgent ones instead. When setting priorities for my day, I keep in mind this list and try not to focus too much on the Urgent tasks, to the detriment of the Important ones.

 

Do any of these tools work for you? What’s your favorite method for productivity or time management?

Cheers!

-H

Language Learning Tools

A small selection of all the languages I’d like to learn… Source: http://www.aflclc.com/

 

One of my goals (ignoring the obvious impracticality of doing so) is to learn ALL THE LANGUAGES. Right now I’m learning German and improving my Spanish. Also on my list is Thai, Russian, Portuguese, Swahili, Mandarin, Hindi, Scottish Gaelic, Arabic…the list goes on. If I want to learn all these, I’ll need to be very motivated and find the best tools that fit my learning style.

Two of those tools are Duolingo and Memrise. They’re great (free!) language learning sites that I’ve been using for the last year and a half to bring my Spanish skills from rudimentary to full fluency, and to begin learning German.

 

Duolingo has many languages available, and more in development: currently they have Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese, and are developing Dutch, Irish, Danish, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Russian, Polish, and Romanian. As you make your way through a course, you learn individual lessons which introduce a number of new words. You get three “hearts” to spend on wrong answers in a lesson: if you run out of hearts, you have to start the lesson over. Sometimes it can be tedious – like when you’re on the last question and you lose your last heart – but it does drive home the lesson. People learn better when they fail, and even if it’s frustrating, it helps the words stick.

The course works well on its own, but it’s when I noticed it also tracked how many days in a row I’d practiced that I really started to commit. I wanted to see how long I could keep a streak going (59 days so far!), and that made it much harder to let excuses get in the way of practicing the language. Even if I only made a little progress each day, it was still progress, and better than nothing.

Recently I’ve been getting the people around me into the site too. You earn points by completing lessons, and this has spawned a small race each week to see who can get the most points. Yes, in the end they’re meaningless numbers, but if it works to inspire you to learn, that’s a good reason to me.

 

Memrise is a site I discovered a little later in my language learning process, when I decided I wanted to start really expanding my Spanish vocabulary. The idea of the site is to use spaced-repetition (reintroducing a new concept frequently at first, then at longer intervals as it becomes fixed in long-term memory) to help you learn. The courses are user-created and span a huge variety of topics: tons of languages (including less common ones like Cherokee, Slovak, and Klingon), standardized tests, astronomy, psychology, history…obviously, quality isn’t as consistent so you have to do a bit more work to find a good course, but there are lots to choose from. I’ve been learning the military spelling alphabet and Morse code in my spare time…

 

What are your favorite language learning tools? And what languages do you want to learn when using them?

Cheers,

  • H

Cooking Adventures: Sauerkraut

Happy Monday, and happy Autumn Equinox! As the weather changes, it gets harder to remember to eat fresh vegetables. Remember to listen to your body: it knows what you need to eat more than you do. As an example, I was making mulled cider this weekend and using citrus fruits. When I licked the lemon juice off my fingers and immediately thought “yeah, I could go for a lemon right about now…” that was a good sign I was missing Vitamin C!

One tasty way to get Vitamin C during the winter is with lacto-fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut. It’s ridiculously easy to make and I guarantee you’ll make a tastier version than the ones you buy in the store.

 

Sauerkraut

This hardly counts as a recipe at all, honestly. Make it the way sounds good to you: add other vegetables, use different herbs and flavors, ferment it for a longer or shorter time…you’ll be the one eating it, follow your taste buds!

Start with a cabbage, chopped into small pieces. Add other vegetables if you like: onions, carrots, garlic, or radishes, for instance. Chop everything up, put it into a bowl, and add sea salt. You’ll want a fair bit: the salt acts to draw moisture out of the vegetables, so they effectively sit in their own juice. Mix the veggies and salt with your hands, then let it sit for a while, until moisture starts to collect in the bottom of the bowl. At this point you can add other seasonings, such as caraway, thyme, oregano, or red pepper flakes (my personal favorite!)

Get a mason jar (or a pickling jar if you’re feeling fancy!), preferably with a wide mouth. Start adding the mixture to the jar in layers, pushing down the vegetables each time so they pack densely. As you pack, you’ll notice the liquid starts coming up to cover the vegetables. If you get to the top of the jar and the veggies are not submerged, add some water to cover them. This is key for lactic acid fermentation: the bacteria involved like an anaerobic environment, without any oxygen, so it’s important for the vegetables to remain under the water. Otherwise, mold can grow (note if you do get mold, it’s not a disaster: just skim it off the top and make sure everything else is submerged).

Get a rock, glass plate, or container of water to push down on the top of the vegetables to keep them submerged. Then, put your jar on the counter and wait! You might see bubbles forming in the jar: that’s a sign that fermentation is going on and the bacteria are producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Taste the sauerkraut every few days until it tastes good to you. Then, you can stop the fermentation by putting the jar in the fridge.

 

And that’s it! Feel free to experiment with other vegetables and seasonings. Fermentation is one of the easiest kitchen experiments to do: it takes very little set up and the results are delicious. Enjoy your sauerkraut this winter!

Cheers,

  • H

Adventures Abroad: Travel Hacking

I went to Spain in June!

 

If you reacted to that statement with the thought, “I wish I could do that…” you really can do that. I promise. What’s stopping you from traveling? The usual culprits are money and time. Time…well, that’s in short supply for everyone, but having money to travel doesn’t mean you need to be rich. Ever heard of travel hacking?

The idea is this: credit card companies are willing to give out a lot of rewards for the honor of having you as a customer. They bank (ha!) on you running up a balance and not paying it off each month, so they can charge you boatloads of interest. Pay the balance on time, however, and instead it can be a nifty way to get some really good perks. For example, Chase has a credit card which earns you one United Airlines mile for every dollar you spend. This is a good start, but buying a plane ticket can easily cost upwards of 50,000 miles, and that will take you quite a while. So, people look for shortcuts, known as travel hacking: the fine art of maximizing your rewards in order to earn free flights as quickly as possible.

For example, that same Chase card gives a 50,000 mile sign-up bonus if you hit the spending goal within the first few months of having the card. That’s enough for a flight right there! This is the card I’ve been using lately, and I’ve earned over 100,000 miles since I opened the card late last year.

With a few credit cards like this opened, the sign-up bonuses add up quickly. A good breakdown of the available travel credit cards and how to choose the best one for you can be found at http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-tips/picking-a-travel-credit-card/. Things to look out for when picking a card include: a large sign-up bonus with a low spending minimum, how many points you earn per dollar spent (usually 1:1, though some cards give you more), low annual fees (it’s easy to spend more on annual fees than you would save, if you don’t fly often!), and no foreign transaction fees. Also, make sure the card you get allows you to transfer points into the miles you need: no use getting the United card if you only fly American Airlines!

If you’re really bored, you can sign up to take surveys for miles: it’s tedious, but does add up over time. United Airlines has programs with http://www.e-miles.com/ and http://www.e-rewards.com/. The sooner you start with these programs, the sooner you can be pleasantly surprised by the amount you’ve earned! In addition, airlines have shopping programs, where you go through their website when making purchases online and earn several miles per dollar you spend (for United, the site is https://www.mileageplusshopping.com/). Finally, you can earn bonus miles by eating at restaurants who have partnered with the airlines, found at http://mpdining.rewardsnetwork.com/.

There are lots of other tips: people who make travel hacking an art try to avoid spending money if it doesn’t help them earn miles in some way. A quick search online will reveal myriad websites dedicated to finding the best and easiest ways to get free flights. My favorite resources are: Nomadic Matt (www.nomadicmatt.com), a travel blogger; and The Points Guy (thepointsguy.com), a very thorough site with credit card reviews and a ton of other information for maximizing your rewards, gaining elite status, and getting the most out of your miles. Here is an excellent guide to getting started: http://thepointsguy.com/beginners-guide/.

The idea behind travel hacking is that travel should not be unobtainable, and that you can in fact get a plane ticket without it costing you a limb or two. So, next time you hear about someone’s travel plans and think “I wish I could do that…” take some steps to do it for real. The only issue at that point is finding the time to travel, and unfortunately no one’s covered “time hacking” yet…

 

Cheers,

  • H

Idea Generation Techniques

I’m working for an innovation consulting group now, so the question of where ideas come from has been on my mind lately. I’ve had some opportunities to see these methods formalized before, both in a conference I attended during college, and in a Design for Six Sigma course I took last year. In both these areas, it was emphasized that brainstorming is a really inefficient method for idea generation, once the process is actually quantified (usually in terms of ideas per minute). The human mind works best when it can generate connections between different concepts, and use those connections to make new ideas. So, these formalized methods try to help people generate new ideas by giving them a framework they can use to make those connections. Here are the methods:

 

Brutethink: forces you to see relationships between dissimilar things. This technique will encourage you to see ideas where none existed before.

1) Select a random word (nouns are best). Random words from unrelated contexts are a rich source of connection-making material. The best words are simple and familiar so you can easily visualize the objects they represent.

2) Identify things that are associated with your chosen word. What are its characteristics? What does it do? What does it contain? What words or actions come to mind?

3) Draw connections between your chosen word and its characteristics, and your challenge. Generate ideas from these connections. Develop concepts from your ideas.

For example: select a random word, like “tree”. Things associated with the word (and this is a partial list, of course): trunk, branches, roots, leaves, shade, rake leaves, grow, grain, vertical, needles, swing, prevents erosion, forest, fertilize, water, color, shape, height, colorful, pine cones, seeds, harvest, mill, etc. Then,  you can grab a word from that list and see how it inspires you in the problem you’re trying to solve.

 

Check Listing: starts with an existing situation and asks, through the use of action words, how you might modify the situation to make it different and better. Or, it can be used as a follow-up to brainstorming, to improve new ideas. Action words to try:

Adapt: What else is this like? What can be copied from something else? What other uses could it be adapted to?
Magnify: Add to it. More time, strength, height, width, duplicate, and exaggerate.
Modify: Change the color, shape, size, weight, texture, or energy source, etc.
Minimize: Subtract, split, condense, reduce, remove, lower, lighten, shrink.
Substitute: What or who else? A different part, ingredient, approach, or process
Rearrange: Interchange components, other patterns, layouts, sequences, direction, speed.
Reverse: Use opposites, transpose, reverse roles and actions.
Combine: Units, purposes, elements, components, ingredients.
Remove: Parts, processes, functions, elements, components.
Other Uses: Are there other functions or purposes to which this can be applied?

 

Double Reverse / Pain Storming: This creativity technique has us initially reverse our typical thinking, and identify ways to make the situation / challenge worse. Then, it asks us to reverse these ideas, to make things better. Hence, the name Double Reverse. So, if your process is running too slowly, think of ways it could be made to run even more slowly, then reverse those changes to speed it up again. Can any of those changes be applied to the current situation?

 

TRIZ: Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. A man named Genrich Altshuller, while studying Russian patents, noticed the same principles were used over and over again to solve similar problems. TRIZ is a compilation of the most effective solutions to technical problems, independent of industry.

This is a huge topic and I’ve only seen a small part of it. The tools available are Contradiction Table, Inventive Principles, Separation Principles, Problem Formulation, Ideality / Resources, Function Analysis, and Technology Evolution. Information on all these is available online.

Technical and Physical Contradictions: at the heart of many problems is a contradiction between two requirements. These contradictions can be either: technical, where alternative solutions improve one aspect of the design at the expense of another, or; physical, where the physical state of the object must be in two states at once. An example of a technical contradiction would be power vs. fuel consumption: when one goes up, the other must go down. An example of a physical contradiction would be car suspension: it should be hard, for good handling and control, but also soft, for a comfortable ride. Within each technical contradiction, there is at least one physical contradiction. The idea of using the TRIZ techniques is to avoid having to make these trade-offs by breaking the contradictions. Here is a website to use the technique: you select the type of technical contradiction you’re running into, and it returns principles or techniques to solve the issue.

In addition, to help solve physical contradictions, you can try using the Separation Principles, which are as follows:

1) Separation in Time: a parameter or element of a system is present or absent at different times.
2) Separation in Space: a parameter or element of a system is present or absent in different “spaces” or spatial orientation.
3) Separation in Scale: a parameter or element of a system is present or absent depending on the scale you view it at. Also, between parts of a system and the whole.

Again, TRIZ is a huge topic and could merit a post on its own. From what I’ve seen, it’s a tremendously powerful tool for idea generation and problem solving.

 

The key thing about idea generation is that creativity is a skill that can be developed with practice. Brainstorming is not the best technique to use, especially if you haven’t had much practice at it (want to get better? Pick a common object and spend five minutes thinking of as many common or off-the-wall uses for it as you can), so these techniques are a great way to jump-start the process and get you and your group thinking in new directions.

In addition, using these techniques forces you to spend a solid amount of time thinking about the problem, instead of spending two minutes on it and declaring it impossible. It does a lot to encourage you to really stretch your brain: have you really thought this through? Is that really the only way to solve the problem?

Have you used any of these techniques? Want to give them a try? Talk about a problem you’re trying to solve!

Cheers,

  • H

The Pomodoro Technique

Time management is an ongoing struggle. When I was homeschooled for a couple years in middle school, I had a really hard time sitting down and getting work done without getting distracted, and as a result I finished my year several weeks after my brother finished his in public school. Since then I’ve gotten a little better at self-starting, especially once I got to college and realized that I’d actually have to start studying to keep my grades up…

I’ve tried a number of methods to help keep myself motivated and working productively. Undoubtedly the best route would be to disable the Internet until I’ve worked through my to-do list, but in many cases I need Internet access to get my work done. So instead, I need to manage my distractions in a different way. One tool that’s been really useful has been the Pomodoro Technique.

The idea with Pomodoro is to set aside smaller chunks of time during which you need to be working and not allow yourself to get distracted. Then, split up the work sessions with regular breaks so you don’t get burned out, and can work steadily through the day. The technique also has an element of time tracking and data-gathering that’s very appealing to me.

 

Step 1: Pick a task you’d like to get done, and resolve to give it your full, undivided attention for a while.

Step 2: Set a timer for 25 minutes (what the inventor of the method called a “Pomodoro”, after the little tomato-shaped timer he used)

Step 3: Work on that task, with no interruptions or distractions, until the timer rings. If you think of something else you also need to do, write it down for later, but don’t switch tasks in the middle of your 25 minutes.

Step 4: When the timer rings, make a checkmark on a paper. This tracks how many Pomodoros you have completed.

Step 5: Take a 5 minute break. Don’t do any work during this time! You need the break to process information and let yourself relax for a bit.

Step 6: Every 4 Pomodoros, take a 20-30 minute break. Again, don’t cheat and do more work! You’re getting enough done during the Pomodoro sessions. Make your rest time count.

 

So, that’s it. Work for 25-minute intervals, take breaks in between work sessions, don’t let distractions or interruptions stop you from finishing your Pomodoro. It’s not often that something comes up that is so urgent it can’t wait 25 minutes. Just write it down (or if the interruption is a person, tell them you’ll get back to them momentarily) and get back to your work. Let people around you know what you’re doing so they will understand you’re not blowing them off if they interrupt you.

Over time, you can keep track of how many Pomodoros you complete during a day or week, and what you work on. This  can make you better at estimating the time it will take to complete a task, because it’s broken up into short chunks that you’ve been tracking.

If you’re working on a longer task that will take several Pomodoros to complete, it might be a good idea to use the first few minutes to review the work you did during the previous Pomodoro.

 

For me, there are two main benefits about the method that really help. First, I can manage my interruptions so I don’t get distracted by every new link I want to click on, or every person who wants to talk to me. If I’m in a Pomodoro, I’m working on one thing only, and everything else can wait. Secondly, it gets rid of the guilt during breaks. There’s always more work to be done, so it can feel like any time you’re spending not working is being wasted. Here, that break time is essential to processing information and avoiding burnout, so you’re not wasting time, you’re using it more efficiently. And overall, having a clock tick is a great motivator. I told myself I’m doing work, so I’d better be doing it!

In fact, I used the Pomodoro method to write this blog post. I’m at the 20 minute mark right now, so I’ll use the rest of the time to go back and polish what I’ve written.

What methods do you use for time management? Have you ever tried Pomodoro?

Cheers,

  • H

Engineering topics: Position, Velocity, Acceleration

I got my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and graduated in 2011. Since then, I haven’t had the chance to do much actual engineering (an odd side effect of having “engineering” positions is that they don’t involve using any of the technical knowledge I gained in school!), but I still enjoy learning and talking about the topic. One of my favorite classes in engineering was phyics – specifically, calculus-based physics of mechanics and motion. It always made a lot of sense to me, intuitively, and I had fun tutoring my classmates in these topics as well. I rather miss the teaching part of being in school, actually: I found it helped me learn the subjects a lot more thoroughly as well.

One of the first concepts we learn about in physics is the idea of position, velocity, and acceleration. Here are the basics:

 

Position – where an object is with respect to time: x(t). “t” is time, “x” is position. When using this notation, you need to set a point in space as position “0”, your start point. It doesn’t actually matter where you set this point, as long as you stay consistent throughout the calculation. For example, here’s a graph of the position of an object thrown straight up in the air. It goes up, achieves a maximum height, then falls back down. In this case it’s only traveling vertically, so we can use one graph for position since its horizontal position doesn’t change.

position

Velocity – not quite an object’s speed! Speed and velocity are two different terms, scientifically speaking. Speed denotes how quickly an object’s position is changing with respect to time, while velocity denotes both the object’s speed and its direction. So, velocity can be negative. As with position, denoting velocity as v(t) requires you to set one direction as positive and the other direction as negative. We’re assuming the object is traveling in one dimension here – in this case, the object is going either straight up or straight down. So, we can set “up” as positive velocity, and “down” as negative velocity. Here’s the graph of the thrown object’s velocity as it is thrown. Notice that while the graph of position formed a curved line heading up and down, this graph forms two straight lines.

velocity

This is because velocity is the derivative, or slope, of position. Looking at the graph of position, one can see that the slope of the curve starts out high, then decreases to zero as the object hits its maximum height, then starts increasing again as the object falls, but now it’s a negative number. It’s a straight line from a positive number to the equivalent negative number. Velocity can be found directly from position.

Acceleration – how quickly an object’s velocity is changing over time: a(t). It’s the force that pushes you back in your seat in a fast car: the faster a car accelerates, the more quickly its speed can go from 0 to 60 mph. Positive acceleration means an object’s velocity is increasing, while negative acceleration means its velocity is decreasing. Notice that velocity can decrease and go negative! In the case of the object thrown straight up, this means the object is heading downward and speeding up. Here’s the graph of the object’s acceleration with respect to time:

acceleration

Here’s something interesting. Again, acceleration is found as the slope of velocity. Since the graph of velocity was a straight line, its slope is actually constant: -9.8 m/s², the acceleration due to gravity. When the object is thrown, gravity is the only force acting on it, constantly pulling it back to earth. So as it travels upward, it slows down, stops briefly at the top of its arc, and then speeds up as it heads back down again.

 

These are the basics of motion in physics. The topic can be made more complicated: continuing to take the slope of acceleration can give a term known as jerk, which is how quickly acceleration is changing. In the case of the thrown object, acceleration isn’t changing, so jerk would be 0. The term can be used in other situations, such as when measuring discomfort to passengers in a vehicle. High jerk causes discomfort, so this measurement can be tracked and limited.

After that it gets a bit weird. Proposed measurements for measuring subsequent slopes have been called snap (rate of change of jerk), crackle (rate of change of snap), and pop (rate of change of crackle)! These aren’t widely accepted measurements, however, and examples like this show that every once in a while scientists do actually exhibit a sense of humor…

So, am I alone in having a favorite physics topic? Feel free to send suggestions on what to talk about!

Cheers!

  • H

 

Sources:
http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-analyze-position-velocity-and-acceleration-.html

http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/jerk.html

http://www.ugrad.math.ubc.ca/coursedoc/math101/notes/applications/velocity.html