This is a card in Dave's Virtual Box of Cards.

Simultaneous Learning vs Simultaneous Doing

Page created: 2022-09-09 , updated: 2023-05-10

Related (and shorter) cards: Personal Projects vs. Time, applied-learning.

And more recently: project-vs-practice.

I feel like I have two types of projects. There is a lot of overlap, but most of them lean towards being "learning projects" or "doing projects".

1. Learning projects

Even though he only uses the word "learning" once in the whole post, by Caleb Shoepp really hit home for me. I’ve often lamented how much time I used to spend learning things but not applying them.

While it was probably a lot better for my brain than, say, watching TV, a lot of that learning was pretty wasteful because I didn’t do anything with it.

(Even worse, I would often spend huge amounts of time just finding the "best resource" for learning a thing…​and then not even using it! That’s more like what Caleb is specifically addressing in the post linked above.)

Anyway, without application, the learning doesn’t stick around for long and I don’t end up with much to show for it.

(Troublingly, there are some subjects I would like to learn, such as a couple specific branches of mathematics where the application only comes after a certain amount of theory has been learned. So I’ve had trouble sticking with them long enough to even figure out how to apply them.)

I’ve been having a pretty great experience over the last year in really stretching projects (mostly programming) out over the long term. The huge advantage is that being able to sleep on every single roadblock and new concept has made progress almost trivial. The only hard part is keeping up the discipline of coming back to it day after day.

(Relevant: My assembly nights have been an awesome success.)

Because if you think about it, most problems are pretty easily solved after a night’s sleep.

Harder problems might take a couple nights.

Some take a week and then an afternoon with a pad of paper and a pencil in a quiet space. But they all give in eventually with time and pressure.

At that pace (one new tricky concept per week), I can easily "load up" a couple different subjects for the subconscious to work on. In fact, I’m not really sure there’s any limit to how many subjects the subconscious is good at processing at one time. Perhaps the more the merrier?

2. Doing projects

On the other hand, having too many "doing" projects (where I’m actually building something) at one time is overwhelming and demoralizing. I always end up feeling like I’m not spending my time on the "right" project. Sometimes (and I know how dumb this sounds), I end up in such a quandary about which project to work on that I end up working on none of them.

I’ve had several "project bankruptcy" events in the past where I managed to get myself into such a bind that I just abandoned all of them and cleared the slate so I could have fun again!

But I can’t decide if it’s because I really can’t handle multiple hobby projects, or if it’s because I feel a pressure to finish those projects. Maybe I’ll figure that one out some day.

Either way, I think I do better when I focus on just a handful of projects. I’m not sure what the ideal number is, but I have a feeling it might be 2.

Mind you, I think it also makes a difference if the projects are of the same type or different.

Burnout city: two very similar simultaneous programming projects.

Just fine: a programming project, a woodworking project, and a watercolor painting.

The right mix

So for now, I’m experimenting with the idea that I can have maybe 5 "learning" projects and just 2 "doing" projects.

(And it should be said that a "learning" project will probably have some doing, but it’s mostly about learning new stuff. And a "doing" project will absolutely have some learning, but it’s mostly about making something.)

In other words: Keep that subconscious loaded up with good stuff to chew on, but don’t freak out my inner project manager.

And importantly: eventually transition every learning project into a doing project. Well, for every learning subject that I enjoyed and want to pursue and/or retain, that is!

The great thing about delaying the "doing" from the "learning" is that I often change my mind about what I should "do" a couple times while learning! So the delay helps me avoid wasted effort (switching what I’m "doing" mid-stream) or regret (finishing what I’m "doing" but wishing I was doing a different thing)! I used to read a chapter of a book and immediately have gradiose ideas…​and immeditely start acting on them. By the next chapter, I would have a better idea and switch to that and so forth. Sad but true.

Occasional projects and shelving stuff

Where things get really muddled are long-term projects that I might dip into occasionally. I’ve got one like that right now: my OpenBSD blog where I’m reading a bit from a book and adding blog entries only whenever I feel like it.

I feel like an occasional project like that is okay so long as I remind myself that there is absolutely no deadline and OpenBSD isn’t going away any time soon.

For everything else, I think the right answer is to go ahead and start it: I’ve completely scratched the itch for some projects just by playing with them for a day and realizing it’s not for me. If I do want to pursue it, then I make a note of where I left off and I shelve it. Maybe I come back to it and maybe I don’t, but at least I don’t feel like I never gave it a shot at all. Semi-shelved projects are not satisfying in the slightest, but they are useful if they help me get the urge out of my system so I can concentrate on my main "doing" projects!

None of this is perfect. But it’s the best I’ve come up with so far to combat my desire to learn and do all the cool things!