Nathaniel Knight

Reflections, diversions, and opinions from a progressive ex-physicist programmer dad with a sore back.

Optimize Your Learning According to What is Scarce

One of the nice things about being a professional software developer is that you're always learning things. On a given day, you might be learning about

There are many things to learn. Indeed, one of the problems you might have is finding all of the things that you want to learn about.

There are lots of ways to try to explore these topics: aggregators like Lobsters or the disappointingly neoliberal orange website; following the blogs or Twitter feeds of programmers you like; the many, many podcasts devoted to various facets of the profession. I partake in my fair share of these things, but I've come to see a lot of it as futile or counterproductive.

I collect things from these channels with the intention of coming back to them later when I have time and energy to invest in them "properly". This would be a very useful thing to do if I was about to enter a period of my life with a surplus of free-time and vigour, where I'd have time and energy for sitting down with a new tool to engage in deliberate, effortful practice so that I can develop and retain a mental model of how it works and gain some fluency in the skills I need to operate it.

Of course, I'm not about to enter a magical period of free-time and vigour. It feels like I might; it's human nature to underestimate how much effort things in the future will take. A more realistic assessment is that tomorrow will be just as difficult and today, and I won't miraculously have time for all these conference talk videos and neat looking blog posts. In the meantime, the aggregation sites and social media feeds will be happy to enable my browsing and collecting habit for as long as I care to click on the links they put in front of me.

I suspect that I'm not the only software developer who experiences this. I also suspect that, like me, other software developers also feel fear-of-missing-out and anxiety that they're being left behind. As you can probably guess, these feelings are entirely detrimental, with no discernible benefit to my professional effectiveness or personal well-being. I'm sure they're just as helpful to the industry at large.

Though I have expressed a desire to learn things, my behaviour reveals a desire to collect URLs and then never look at them again. There's a dangerous combination of hyperbolic discounting, FOMO, and operant conditioning by websites that want me to click on one more link standing between me and that sweet, sweet personal/professional development.

How to approach learning with an accurate view of what's scarce

Here are the things that help me overcome my shortage of time and energy and actually learn stuff. Naturally, these are all subjective and may not work for you, but hopefully they'll be a useful starting place.

Your time is valuable. Thanks for spending some of it with me. I hope something you've read will help you make good choices about learning.