Heuristics to steer by in study exploration

When I’m getting oriented in a domain, most of what I’m doing is figuring out where and how to invest my attention and effort. 

After a while, I’ll get the hang of it, such that I feel like I can reliably sit down and turn time and attention into progress towards my learning goal. But before I reach that point, I’m exploring (read: flailing around), trying to get a foothold. (This is very related to getting “hooked in.”)

The following are the heuristics that I’m currently using to steer that exploration process, in order of application. That is, the first one takes precedence over the second and so on.

Follow the hope

Often, when I’m trying to learn something new, it feels daunting. In fact, “daunting” doesn’t really cover it. I feel hopeless despair: the topic is huge, and there’s so much of it that I have to learn, and its going so slowly, and I don’t trust my futureself to do enough to get it to every pay off. 

When I feel like this, I want to follow the hope. That is, I’ll consider, and maybe try, several approaches, paying attention to if any arouse a slight glimmer of hope, a subverbal sense of “oh, I that might lead to progress”, that you can sort of sim following that path to your goal.

When you notice that flicker of hope, try the action that inspired it. Use your sense of hope as the heuristic function guiding your exploration.

Steer toward difficulty / intensity

But once you have a little bit of a foothold, you might still end up engaging in fluff, content that is easy to digest, but not the core hard part of what you are trying to learn. As an example, most versions of passively watching video, as opposed to actually trying to do the thing, are fluff.

Remember that learning = time * intensity. Once you have a foothold that has some hope about it, you want to dig into the hardest part of it. Look for something that would strain your effort some.


First look for hope, then move toward the hard part. (Point yourself in the right direction, then increase your magnitude.)

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