The Philosophical Apprentice

“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” Albert Einstein

Help Overcome Procrastination by Using the Zeigarnik Effect

If you are like me you struggle with procrastination. If you need to regrout the tub or rake the front yard, the only time it ever gets done is when you have a looming deadline for a big project or, if you are in school, you have a big paper due. Everybody it seems has this problem though academics seem to be the worst procrastinators. One philosopher has even written a book on the subject.

Since procrastination effects so many of us, everybody and their brother has come up with a theory and a solution to solve this plague.  One of the simplest, and hence one of the best, techniques for overcoming procrastination is the Zeigarnik Effect.  Jeremy Dean at PsyBlog has a good run down on the Zeigarnik Effect and how you can use it to your advantage. Dean writes

One of the simplest methods for beating procrastination in almost any task was inspired by busy waiters.

It’s called the Zeigarnik effect after a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik (above left), who noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna. The waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Zeigarnik went back to the lab to test out a theory about what was going on. She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads (Zeigarnik, 1927). Except some of the time they were interrupted half way through the task. Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing. People were about twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed.

What does this have to do with procrastination you may ask?   To explain why Dean points to an old TV trick – the Cliffhanger.

Here’s another clue: one of the oldest tricks in the TV business for keeping viewers tuned in to a serial week after week is the cliffhanger. The hero seems to have fallen off a mountain but the shot cuts away before you can be sure. And then those fateful words: “TO BE CONTINUED…” Literally a cliffhanger.

You tune in next week for the resolution because the mystery is ticking away in the back of your mind.

The great English novelist Charles Dickens used exactly the same technique. Many of his works, like Oliver Twist, although later published as complete novels, were originally serialised.

His cliffhangers created such anticipation in people’s minds that his American readership would wait at New York docks for the latest instalment to arrive by ship from Britain. They were that desperate to find out what happened next.

The real truth behind the Zeigarnik Effect is that once we start something we are inclined to finish it. it is as simple as that. If you have a big project or a paper due the best thing you can do is to do something, anything. Once you get going you will probably begin to enjoy it. As Dean writes

What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.

Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first. If you can just get under way with any part of a project, then the rest will tend to follow. Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, there’s something drawing you on to the end. It will niggle away in the back of your mind like a Lost cliffhanger.

Although the technique is simple, we often forget it because we get so wrapped up in thinking about the most difficult parts of our projects. The sense of foreboding can be a big contributor to procrastination.

Hopefully you will be able to use  the Zeigarnik Effect your advantage. if you would like to read a little more about the Zeigarnik Effect you can find some more information here and here.

On Reading Philosophy for Pleasure

I have noticed myself procrastinating lately when the time comes to sit down and study philosophy. This is strange since there is nothing I enjoy so much as philosophy. So why then? One of the answers I think is that I have managed to turn studying philosophy into a chore. My recent obsession with developing a note taking system is a reflection of that tendency. Note taking is important but I shouldn’t read philosophy to take notes but rather read philosophy because i enjoy reading philosophy. In this vein I found this quote helpful:

No one should go unwillingly to the study of philosophy, surrendering reluctantly to its imperious claims and taking up the work as a dull and heavy duty. For philosophy is not only inescapably important for the person who seeks education and culture; it is also one of the most attractive and absorbing studies that can engage the attention of any mind.


I ran across the London Philosophy Study Guide awhile back and I thought I would pass it along. This latest iteration is about 10 years old but regardless, there are some fantastic resources here. I was going to pdf it for everybody’s convenience until I realized it was copyrighted. You can never be too careful.

Taking Notes on Taking Notes, Part 2

I’ve written about making a big change in my note taking strategy – going from taking my reading notes by hand to writing them on the computer. This has the advantage of my being able to actually read them. Plus, the actual notetaking is quicker and, to me, more enjoyable.

However to get the full benefit of taking notes on the computer you need the typing skills to make it efficient and worth your while. For me I type very fast though that doesn’t mean that I type well. if I had to describe myself typing the image of a crack monkey comes to mind – frenetic bursts of energy followed by long series of corrections. I also call it the Soviet style of typing, two steps forward one step back.

The point is clear. I need to invest some time in improving my typing skills so that i don’t have to look at the page every half second so as to not lose track of where I am in the book. In other words I need to learn how to touch type.

Fortunately, there are several free programs for just that purpose. Since I hardly ever use windows and I don’t use a Mac I don’t have any recommendations for them. If you happen to use Linux though, I would sugggest you take a look at Klavaro. It’s simple, easy to use, does a good job, and best of all, it is free of charge. You can read about it here, here and here.

I hope this post will help convince you to boost your typing chops if needed. Typing better means faster notetaking with less mistakes which can only help you when you sit down to do your research.

So far I have covered why I chose to take reading notes on the computer and the need to improve my tying skills to make the process efficient. In future blogposts I am going to cover what I do with those notes plus how I am dealing with computer distractions once i sit down to work. Stay tuned.

Taking Notes on Taking Notes

Lately I have been doing a lot of experimenting in how I take notes. The impetus behind this came when I went back to review some old notes and I realized that I could not read them without putting in a ton of effort to decipher them – they might as well have been the Rosetta Stone. All flippancy aside, my previous note taking efforts have been a colossal waste of time. And make no mistake, the further I progress in my philosophy studies the more important a workable stem for taking notes becomes.

Obviously, if I cannot read my hand writing then typing them out on a computer is in order. However, I have been resisting this idea for a long time since I believe I spend way too much time in front of a computer as it is. Besides I enjoy writing by hand. I had hoped that I would be able to put all my material on index cards much like Ryan Holiday has recommended. Alas, it was not be. I got bogged down on a philosophy paper, taking notes by hand, and fell way behind. So I broke down and started taking notes on the computer.

The results surprised me. First of all, I found that I enjoyed the process. Even though I enjoy writing by hand, copying passages by hand can be very tedious and I discovered myself procrastinating when it came to sit down and work which is one of the reasons I fell behind in the first place. Since I can type fairly fast processing the material went by quicker and it often generated a flow state and a feeling of satisfaction which is critical if you are trying to inculcate a new habit. Secondly, it solved the problem of how to render passages that are italicized or bolded which I think is important if you are going to transcribe accurate quotes.

Overall, I’ve been satisfied with the changes though my decision was bolstered by some note taking recommendations I’ve run across since going over to the dark..I mean digital side. Here are two good pieces worth reading in this regard.

I will offer one caveat. I only use the computer to take reading notes. In the classroom hand-written notes are still superior as many recent studies have shown.

Read More by Reading Less

When it comes to books I have a lot of good intentions. I am forever buying books and if that wasn’t enough I cruise the libraries for interesting material. The intention is to read this ever growing pile but I never seem to get around to adding books to the  books read list. It is not that I don;t read. I read all the time. But one thing I have noticed – I am always reading or seven books and I never finish them. Luckily I came across some god advice this weekend that I wanted to share.

My latest obsession in organizing is the Personal Kanban. A Kanban is a Japanese management technique pioneered at Toyota that allows companies and teams to visualize work-flows and maximize efficiency. It has been adapted for personal use as an organizational tool. The secret of the Kanban is to visualize your work and then to limit your in progress so that you increase your work flow. Correctly executed the system ruthlessly squelches multi-tasking, fosters prioritization of tasks and encourages a laser-like focus that allows you to actually get things done. In other words you get more done by doing less.

In its simplest form, all you need for a Kanban is a poster board, a magic marker, a pen and sticky notes. However, there are now software programs on the market that will digitize the whole process. One of the better known programs for this is Trello.

The beauty of the Personal Kanban and its electronic extensions like Trello is that you can apply the concept to any number of areas and subjects. One enterprising philosophy student by the name of Dan Shipper was organizing his reading around it.  Shipper visualizes all the books he wants to read by keeping a running backlog of everything he wants to read and then culls the herd into a manageable to read list and then – here is the secret ingredient – he takes one book at a time and reads it until he is done with it. As Shipper puts it

I have a rule for myself: I never read more than one book at a time, and I always finish every book I start.

I started doing this because I had a tendency to read five books at once. When you get into the habit of doing that, you end up never actually finishing anything. You’ll read a book for a few chapters, and then put it down for another one. This is annoying and doesn’t get you the satisfaction of reading a book from start to finish. By limiting myself to one book at a time and committing to finish it, I actually end up reading more books than if I read a bunch of them in parallel.

The more I think about this the more brilliant it becomes. Right now I’ve got about ten books that I have started but haven’t managed to finish. I started applying the “Shipper Principle” this morning and I quickly knocked out a book that I’ve noodling around with for over a month. Later in the morning I tackled a book on Personal Kanban that I managed to get through in one afternoon. And with notes no less. !

I am going to continue on with the Shipper technique and seems if I can’t get more reading done. I invite you to try it as well.

Socrates, Philosophy, and the Military Virtues

One of the facets of history that i find most amusing is to reflect on the differences between the Greeks and the Romans. I think it is safe to say the Romans when they were virtuous were hardworking, sober, pragmatic, disciplined and devoted to their state and to their duty. And as a whole the Romans were not very interested in abstract matters; philosophy was not their forte. The Greeks on the other hand were almost polar opposites. While they were brave and disciplined in battle, the Greeks in general were fractious and argumentative. While such characteristics may make for good philosophers, the Greeks, good philosophers though they were, nonetheless were a challenging people to govern. And for this reason several Roman Emperors at times resorted to banning Greek philosophers from Rome.

I can sympathize. Having been affiliated with the military for as long as i can remember, I recognize that the philosophical spirit presents a challenge to the military virtues. It is not that the military is inimical to the life of the mind. Indeed, the military for it to be effective requires that its members be crafty and resourceful, to be able to make good decisions on the fly. In fact the best Generals in history such as Caesar and Macarthur have been avid students of history. That being said one thing is certain what a military requires above all is respect for authority and for the institution itself. Without that authority a military will lose it cohesion and its effectiveness as a fighting force. It can even become a threat to the state itself.

This is evident in the case of Socrates. the rise of philosophy in Greece had undermined traditional mores. And much like our experience in Vietnam free thought in Athens was associated with military defeat, in this case the victory of Sparta over Athens in the Peloponnesian War. As Anthony D’Amato, a law professor at Northwestern University puts it:

The Athenian establishment recognized certain gods, certain duties, and a certain lifestyle; these institutions served as a cement keeping the society together and making it strong in battle. Socrates’ disinterested pursuit of truth chipped away at this cement and therefore at the foundations of Athenian society. In this basic sense, Socrates’ very life, devoted to teaching philosophy, was perceived as a threat to the state. Therefore, it was not by random accident that
Socrates was prosecuted. Although the immediate cause of his prosecution may have been a petty vindictiveness on the part of certain poets, orators, and politicians, the basis for their trial of Socrates was nothing less than this perceived threat contained in Socrates’ own teachings. This situation is analogous to a modern dictatorship or totalitarian government silencing an individual for having addressed fellow citizens about the true nature of their political system.  (1)

I find much to agree with in D’Amato’s passage above but leads me with a nagging question-is philosophy and the disinterested search for truth inimical to loyalty to our own country or good social order?

The answer I think is no. Philosophy and the search for truth is never harmful to the individual or to the city, What is harmful is sophistry. Sophistry is like the evil doppelganger of philosophy. It arises whenever Philosophy appears on the scene. It needs the fertile soil of freedom of thought but where philosophy seeks the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, Sophistry seeks power by subverting traditional moral restraints and like a philosophical parasite it attacks and weakens its host. We must remember that one of the reasons Plato began writing his dialogues was to exonerate Socrates from being a Sophist.

And it is easy to see Socrates as a sophist. For many years Socrates, from what little I had read of Plato, always struck me as a bit of a jerk quite frankly, forever walking around making people look foolish. But the more I read the dialogues and learn about the historical context context in which the dialogues were written a different Socrates emerges. Far from being innocent victims most of the people Socrates interviewed were the sort of shysters, self-help gurus and flim-flam men that parade through our own democracy. Who can forget Euthyphro who is on his way to prosecute his own father when Socrates interviews him, or Thrasymachus, St John the Baptist to Machiavelli’s Prince. No what Socrates wanted was for people to practice philosophy so that they would become ore virtuous.So that they wouldn’t pursue foolish adventures that brought them to ruin like the Peloponnesian War.

Socrates’s very life proves that philosophy does not preclude the practice of the military virtues or weaken the moral fabric of society. Unlike many of the sophists who were itinerant foreigners, Socrates had served as a soldier to defend the Athenian state and while he was a philosopher he also accepted the authority of those military leaders who commanded him in battle. Likewise Socrates accepted the authority of the States laws and the decision of the jury who convicted him even the outcome was clearly unjust.

(1) D’Amato, Anthony. “Obligation to Obey the Law: A Study of the Death of Socrates.” 2010. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.

If Socrates Claimed He Had No Teaching Was He Really a Philosopher

I think that Socrates certainly was a philosopher, particularly in the sense that he was lover of wisdom. One of the reasons I think that he had no teachings was that Athens in the midst and wake of the Peloponnesian War had been overrun with Sophists (the political consultants of the day) who all had ‘teaching’ they would sell to the whoever paid them. Since the Sophists viewed knowledge merely in instrumental terms for the wealth and power they could generate they and their students were not in a position to love truth and beauty, that is to be true philosophers. As Reeve and Miller remind us the Sophists and their ilk were arrogant because they though they had all the answers (Reeve Miller, pg 45). Socrates, however, as a true philosopher believed that philosophy, especially through the use of the Elenchus, had a moral aim which was to get people to realize that they really didn’t know what they thought they knew and a result they would be open to truth and beauty which would help them lead happy and virtuous lives. (Reeve & Miller, 45-46)


Reeve, C.D.C., and Patrick Lee Miller, eds. Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 2006.

Living without the Internet- Does it Make You Happier or Not?

Research Methods and Writing Metaphors

I’ve been casting about for a while now for a method or a metaphor that would help me with my research and my writing. I’ve managed to cut out a lot of the distractions at home and i want to fill that time productively. To be more precise, I want to better combine my research and writing. On the research side I’ve been wanting to implement the 4×6 notecard research system that Robert Green has developed over the years to write and publish several best-selling non-fiction works. I’ve been intrigued by the concept ever since I came across it. I believe it must work since several other well known writers such as David Fryxell, Kenneth Atchity, and Ryan Halliday have used essentially the same system to guide their writing and their research.

So far so good. I can see the value of the notecard research system. The biggest problem I am having is with the writing part particularly when it comes to my academic writing. I do not normally have a problem with writing since I enjoy it tremendously. However, I have been suffering from terrible procrastination the last couple of semesters and I’ve been looking for ways to get around it. Cutting down on the internet has been very helpful on freeing up more time but I want to find a way to make research and writing more enjoyable since I will probably be in school for the next several years.

Part of my problem is that I hate doing schoolwork. There is something in me that rebels when I have to read a book or I have to write a paper. A lot of this is sheer inertia since I have noticed that when I manage to get focused on a project I begin to learn more about the subject matter at hand and then I start to enjoy doing the research and writing. So too with my work related writing. Having to research and write daily products about damn near everything under the Sun I have managed to hone my skills so that I can be very productive while enjoying it at the same time. I have acquired a lot of the background knowledge that allows me to analyze a subject quickly and ferret out the implications so that I can write about it with ease.

The challenge as I see it is to develop a similar system that I can use at home that would allow me complete my schoolwork with a minimum of effort and angst. The problem is is that philosophy is hard. I am having a hard time writing about philosophy because I have not completely grasped the subject, internalized it and made it my own so that I can easily put it into my own words.

I would love to develop a system where I could, in due time, attain the background knowledge that would make my philosophical writing easier. I recall reading that Abraham Maslow developed a system where when he wanted to learn about something he would take notes and write them into a rough paper that would serve as his mental scaffolding for the new subject matter. Here’s where a metaphor might be helpful. Since philosophy is a systematic subject (at least in the academic sense), i thought to myself why not create your own encyclopedia to the subject? Why not create a list or outline of the major thinkers and trends in the field and then do some research on each of them, taking notes according to the Robert Green system and then write them up? And since the very act of writing about something would help to cement the material in my mind it would give me a framework to easily incorporate new material later on.

Having written this I recognize that it would be a lot of work on the front end but the efforts would pay immense dividends later on.

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