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Granularity for students

Granularity for students
Granularity

    People who think about hacking their lives and their work often speak of “granularity.” It’s a curious word. The online Oxford English Dictionary offers only “granular condition or quality” as a definition. A more helpful definition comes from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications: “The extent to which a larger entity is subdivided. For example, a yard broken into inches has finer granularity than a yard broken into feet.” To think of tasks and challenges in terms of granularity is to think in terms of breaking them down into smaller and more manageable parts.

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    Granularity is a tremendously useful strategy for students. The typical spiral-bound student-planner doesn’t seem to encourage it; that tool is often little more than a place to store due dates: “research paper due.” But no one can just write a research paper. That paper can only be the result of numerous small-scale tasks. It’s not surprising that students who think of “write research paper” as one monolithic task are likely to put it off far longer than they ought to. Instead of “write research paper,” one could think of these tasks: go to library to look up sources; organize them by call number; read first three sources and take notes; get article from JSTOR; read remaining three sources and take notes; organize notes on computer; check bibliography format; ask professor about endnote form; make rough outline; and so on. Each of these “granular” tasks is far more do-able than “write research paper.” Thinking of work in terms of granularity can be one way to overcome the overwhelming dread of getting started. And keeping track of such tasks on paper and crossing them off one by one gives the satisfaction making progress and getting closer to done.

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    A student might also apply the strategy of granularity to the work of writing itself. Instead of writing a draft and “looking it over,” it’s much smarter to break down the work of writing and editing by thinking about one thing at a time. Developing a strong thesis statement: that’s one task. Working out a sequence of paragraphs to develop that thesis: another task. Figuring out how to make a transition from one paragraph to another: another task. If you tend to have patterns of errors in your writing, look for each kind of error, one at a time. Noun-pronoun agreement? Read a draft once through looking only for that. Comma splices? Read once through with your eyes on the commas. It might seem that approaching the work of writing and editing in terms of smaller, separate tasks is unnecessarily cumbersome, but breaking things down will likely make it far easier to work more effectively and come out with a stronger piece of writing. No writer can think about everything at once.

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    Granularity is also a useful strategy for making even a daunting reading project do-able. If you have eighty pages to read, finish twenty and take a short break; then repeat. If you’re reading James Joyce or Marcel Proust, a handful of pages might be all that you can manage at one sitting, and sometimes you might need to chart your progress by the sentence. But those sentences and pages add up, and I should know. I just finished all seven volumes (3,102 pages) of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), averaging twenty pages a day over five months and two days of reading.

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    Try thinking of your next major (or even minor) assignment in terms of granularity. You might find that getting started and making progress come far more easily.

    Michael Leddy is an English professor whose recent writing includes an essay on Stanley Lombardo’s recordings of the Iliad and Odyssey in translation. Leddy blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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