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Should I practice an activity, say drawing, programming, or even sport, in short day-sessions of one hour for example, or do it all at once in a week?

If I choose to do one hour a day, I might waste the concentration I just gained and I have to "boot", init, ... the activity everyday. Also, I may not be able to "surpass" myself, if such a thing exists, by spending a lot of time on the "problem" and eventually earning a revelation.

On the other hand, doing too much of the same activity may bore, tire me and I might be doing nothing after the first two hours.

Maybe neither of these two solutions are good, and both of them, or doing the second one with regular breaks to get the advantages of the first if there are advantages, ...

Maybe, the answer might be different whether I'm learning theory or applying it.

Ah, I'm so lost! What do you suggest?

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Things that involve physical conditioning are better done for shorter periods but more frequently. If you go out and lift weights once a week for 4 hours, not only will you not build more muscle than if you split the lifting up over several days, you will be extremely sore the next day and may not even be able to finish the marathon session due to muscle exhaustion. Plus you are far more likely to get hurt.

Things that involve a lot of set-up and take_down, might be better done in fewer longer sessions. So if you don't have an art studio, it might be simpler to paint only once a week. If you are remodelling your kitchen, you would want to get it done as fast as you can rather than in small daily spurts because you want to be able to use your kitchen again.

Other things can be scheduled as you find the time. It might work out better for you to work on your personal projects every night for a small period of time or it might work out better to schedule yourself for a Saturday morning. Or do both, small sessions during the week and then a marathon sesion on the weekend to do the complex stuff that takes a lot of concentration.

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A problem with small time intervals is that it can be less effective. It can take time to really mentally focus on the task you started. Some researchers have even found that it takes about 23 minutes to regain focus after a distraction. However, I've also heard that after 40 minutes focus tends to drop, so there probably is an optimum length somewhere in between. – THelper Dec 10 '14 at 15:05

I always vote for spaced short regular sessions. Here are the reasons.

  1. Higher motivation. If you don't like the activity, you are more likely to keep motivation for 1 hour than for 4 hours. If you enjoy it, then after 1 hour you are looking forward to proceed, and these positive expectations will add a lot of happiness to your life.
  2. Lower risks. If you have a bad day, feel exhausted, bored, sad, you just miss 1 hour, not the full 4.
  3. Better results. I find that if you make breaks (for minutes, hours or days) you tend to think about the activity and what to do next in these breaks. It means that you will actually work not 4 hours a week, but maybe 6 or 8 hours, which leads to better results. And if you work 4 times a week, then this process of thinking about it is more likely to be activated more often.

The setup/teardown issue can be a downside, but I suspect that if you're doing the activity as often as 4 times a week, you get used to it and eventually it will not be a problem to "boot" into it.

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The activities you mention all need inspiration, which is hard to schedule. On the other hand, as Dave mentions, consistency is important to get better. So you probably need to decide which of the alternatives makes you more consistent.

If you prefer scheduling, try different approaches every other week: say, this week I am having a long session of drawing, next week I will have four short sessions. In this case you proably will take advantage of the breaks in between, which probably could prevent you running out of inspiration quickly.

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Spaced repetition builds stronger foundations.

It depends on the activity, but IMO it can take both to truly excel--as you say, without an occasional sustained squawk, the subconscious might not get overloaded enough to produce sudden, or prolonged, insights.

At the same time, without consistent application, you're no longer building on the "mini-peak" created by the last study session--instead it dissipates more thoroughly, forcing a longer ramp-up each time.

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There's a lot of support for using spaced repetition to aid memorization, but is there any for using it to develop procedural memory? – Belisama Jun 12 '12 at 22:50
@Belisama At the cognitive level, what's the difference? Procedural memory is essentially subconscious--unless something is consistently accessed/performed, there's no hope of it becoming so. Same reason there are kata in the martial arts, musicians practice scales, and so on--to move the conscious to the "un". – Dave Newton Jun 12 '12 at 22:53
Okay, this may be a definition mismatch. "Spaced repetition" is often used to refer to a very specific memorization strategy, where the time interval between practices is increased according to an algorithm. If you were using it more generally, to simply mean "practice regularly", then we have no disagreement. – Belisama Jun 12 '12 at 23:13
@Belisama But the same algorithms are applicable to procedural practice, for the same reasons. As [whatever] becomes ingrained, the need to explicitly practice it is reduced. Whether the periodic table or a front tuck, as the skill or knowledge is internalized, the focus of practice changes. It may be more difficult to ingrain something physical, or (say) muscular degradation may occur at a different rate than neural, but the underlying processes are the same. Knowledge and procedures are still just neural connections--some just include more than the head. – Dave Newton Jun 12 '12 at 23:19
Spaced repetition might be associated commonly to the flashcards technique, but the Spacing effect is a pervasive property of our memory that far transcends activities such as learning vocabulary. – Vic Goldfeld Nov 5 '12 at 5:54

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