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I've an Engineering background I like to read technical literature (college level onwards) quite omnivorously - especially mathematics, computer science, engineering, and medicine. This is part of my larger goal to understand the world around us in more fundamental terms.

For the past few years I've read through some of the above mentioned stuff in my free time. The goal is not to memorize something for coursework, etc. but to reflect upon it and understand how they fit into the "real" world. I also like to fit each newly encountered fact into my existing store of knowledge and see whether I can create a coherent picture. Here are some productivity problems I've encountered for which I'd like your suggestions:

  • I've always had knowledgeable friends and colleagues who feel that people are born with a natural talent for one task (say programming) and this means that you can't or shouldn't master something else. This affects my perception of the world very profoundly despite knowing that it's specious reasoning, and has been a pervasive problem.
  • Many people with whom I try to discuss these things often tolerate only one viewpoint, to the exclusion of several, compatible ones gathered from across disciplines. This means that I can't jump around the way I'd like to and gives me a very big incentive to be a "one-trick pony". (I've partly addressed this problem by becoming an active member at 10+ SE sites!)
  • I've come to realize that it takes a huge amount of time to distill several pieces of data in your mind, and see the big picture in a very occasional flash. It's quite discouraging that I can't do this consistently, every day - expertise seems to be built incrementally and not in leaps. I keep wondering whether I should be "working smart" in some way.
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It is definitely not true that "people are born with a natural talent for one task (say programming) and this means that you can't or shouldn't master something else". Some things come easier and some things come harder for each of us, but many people are awesome in multiple areas. Your time is limited. You can't put 10.000 hours into too many things. But you can have a few hobbies with 1.000 hours per hobby. 1.000 hours of focused practice can make you rather good. – Viliam Búr May 14 '13 at 14:19
up vote 14 down vote accepted

Nutshell: if you don't use it, you lose it.

For long-lasting retention, spaced repetition wins.

To your points:

  • Trust your gut: some people are particularly adept at specific tasks. That doesn't mean (a) it's all they can be adept at, or (b) adeptness can't be learned. Ten thousand times, each kata.
  • Why does their intolerance preclude you from "jumping around"? (IMO it's not jumping around if you're relating the seemingly-disparate views. Seemingly-unrelated knowledge builds neural connections we cannot predict, but they become part of our thought process.)
  • Working incrementally towards an end is "working smart"–it's the only thing that does work.


Regarding connections between seemingly disparate material: we have fantastic tools available to us. Mind maps or Concept Maps (e. g. with VUE the visual understanding environment) that can link themselves up. Classification algorithms. Wikis. The web.

All of these tools can be leveraged to help build up a personal world view about any subject(s) we want. Garden your knowledge; tend your interests. That act alone provides insight, and it's "free" repetition. Repeated exposure to stimuli breeds retention and interplay.

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Frankly I found your advice incredibly precise and helpful. – MacTheMoose Nov 25 '11 at 21:22

Build notes on what you read, summaries. It's a slower process but it's more effective (it helps you visualize things in your mind, rather than a bunch of words made of letters and symbols).

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I got a Kindle DX about a year ago just for reading technical material. (I have a smaller one for reading fiction.) I found that the larger format of the DX is much better for textbooks and PDF's. Plus, it lets me separate my fiction from technical material.

I have never liked to mark up textbooks, other than maybe putting a Post-It flag on the edge of a page. So I like the ability to add bookmarks and notes electronically on Kindle documents. Also, the ability to search across multiple books for a phrase (this is where putting the fiction and non-fiction on separate devices helps.)

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Do you use digital pens to make notes? – MacTheMoose Dec 4 '11 at 6:20
No, I have never used a digital pen. The Kindle DX has a keyboard. Some of the very newest Kindles have touch displays, but I imagine they have virtual keyboards. – tcrosley Dec 4 '11 at 6:58
I too got a DX for the same i would recommend using the – Ali Mar 2 '13 at 12:59

Here are some productivity problems I've encountered for which I'd like your suggestions:

  • [Others' (mostly) wrong impression]
  • [Others' (mostly) wrong impression]
  • [Good realization]

I don't see what the problem is.

For the past few years I've read through some of the above mentioned stuff in my free time.

Seems like you're going about it the right way. You have a genuine interest, you spend time, you have a huge advantage and you'll go far (at least in an amateur sense). Best of luck!

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Sephra, thanks for the encouragement! – MacTheMoose May 9 '13 at 0:39

Always start with questions. Think of the things you want to know about a certain area and then write them in question form. Then search for the answers one by one, mark off the finished ones, until the end of the list.

The question-answer technique is effective in that if forces you to think of what's essential for you to understand in each area and prioritize/rank them.

The method also optimizes your studying/learning activities. Too often, because of serendipity and our thirst for knowledge, we try to consume as much as we can for each topic. Likewise, content is simply duplicated in the internet so that we are just essentially reading the same things from different websites. Keeping a checklist of question-answers tells you "hey you read about this already, skip it and go on to the next topic".

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