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Productivity Tips for Working at Home

I started doing some in-depth research about the difference between unstructured and structured learning for this blog post, but then I decided to focus on something more relevant to the current situation. Most people have to either work from home or study from home, so I decided to write a blog post about how to stay productive at home. The following post will outline a few tips and suggest a couple of tools to help people stay productive at home.

Isolate From the TV and Internet

More often than not, it is impossible to isolate from the internet while doing work in the modern world, but sometimes it is possible. When my school sent us all home for the rest of the semester, I set up my study area in the basement of my family’s farm.

The internet there at the time was not very good, and I was able to avoid it. At the time, I was getting too engrossed in the constant barrage of news about the Coronavirus and the stock market crash that isolating myself from all sources was the only way to get work done. It made some things difficult, such as sending emails to my professors and obtaining my assignment, but I found I could do most of that before I went to the farm. On days when I had classes, I had to stay within an internet connection to attend. My point is that removing yourself from the internet is hard, but not impossible, and it eliminates all forms of useless internet browsing.

TV is not hard to eliminate from your working hours, and I would highly recommend it. I was one of those people who turned the TV on to a news channel while working on my computer. After some introspection, I realized that every time I heard something interesting, I would waste about 5 minutes listening to it, and then another 5 to 20 minutes getting refocused. Sometimes people in my family watch shows while I am working, what can you do, and it is tough to focus because some shows are just eye-catching. My advice is that if you are alone, limit the TV to music only, and if someone else is watching TV, either plug in your headphones to block it out or move to a location where the TV cannot be watched (if possible).

Block Distracting Websites

If it is impossible to isolate from the internet, it is possible to block the most distracting websites. There have been many apps and browser extensions that help people stay focused, encourage good habits, and block productivity draining websites. I will go through a few of the ones that I find the most helpful.

Stay Focused

My personal favourite because I have used it regularly. It is a chrome extension, but it can also be added to the browser Opera. I used it often on my Chromebook while studying because it was my main computer. Currently, my main computer is a relatively low resourced computer running Lubuntu, and I am presently adding StayFocused to it, so I will see how it works on Opera.

Interesting Features:

  • There are funny pop-ups telling you kittens get hurt every time you increase the time limit on websites and other things that loosen your restrictions.
  • You can set what sites you want to be blocked and you can explicitly allow sites.
  • The timer can be set to whatever you want, and you can also set your active hours.
  • The ‘nuclear option’ allows the user to block ‘All websites’, ‘All websites other than allowed list’, and ‘Only websites on the blocked list’. It also gives a ‘smart bomb’ option which will only block stuff like multimedia content and images.

At the moment, I have five allowed websites, and around 20 are marked as distracting. My active hours are from 06:00 till 21:00 on Monday through Saturday, and I have allowed myself 30 minutes each day on the distracting websites. That means if I spend 30 minutes shopping on Amazon, one of my blocked sites, I will not be able to use any of the blocked websites for the rest of the day.

Downsides:

  • Too easy to circumvent during weak moments. All you have to do is increase your time limit before it runs down, or go to incognito mode.
  • I would like more customization options like setting a specific time limit for each site, unblocking a site for a day, or blocking a site for a day etc

Waste No Time

I am interested in this one because it has an interesting feature of tracking how much time is spent on websites. I plan to use this feature to see if some websites should be blocked and currently are not. It also has most of the features that Stay Focused has. I don't have much else to say about this extension because I have not yet used it much, but I may expand when I use it more.

Others

There are many apps and extensions that offer a service similar to the ones that I have mentioned here, but I do not know much about them at the moment so I will list them and say a few quick words.

  1. LeechBlock: From what I have heard about LeechBlock it is similar to StayFocused but for those who use firefox browsers.
  2. Limit: It is another Chrome extension, but it allows the user to set a different time limit for each website.
  3. Pause - Stop Mindless Browsing: This Chrome extension redirects to a waiting page before you go to a distracting website. It is meant to make you reconsider whether you really want to go to that website instead of getting work done.
  4. Freedom: This is a fully-featured application that is offered for most platforms. The downside is that some of the options are only available at a price.
  5. Cold Turkey: It sounds like this is a stricter version of Freedom.
  6. FocusMe: Another paid fully-featured distraction handler.

The paid versions are definitely better than the free versions, however, I feel that it is possible to find a combination of the free versions that can meet the paid versions. I am planning to spend some time finding a good combination of the free extensions to use and then I may report back with my results.

Set Timers

Timing how long it takes for you to complete a task or how long you stay on a break makes you more aware of how you are spending your time. Over time I would think that trends could be seen, and those trends would allow for easier planning. For instance, say you always underestimate the time it takes to do writing tasks over time, you would be able to pick up that more time should be made for writing tasks. Keeping track of the time I spend on tasks is on my to-do list, but I still have not implemented it to its fullest extent yet. For more information on the benefits of using timers, go to the following links:

Plan Tasks and Set Goals

I try to set 3 or 4 main goals that I work towards continuously, and then roughly weekly, I set around 3 to 5 mini-goals to complete daily. I try to list mini-tasks that I can do for each of the main goals in advance of planning a week so that I can pull from the backlog of mini-goals easily. I find having a list of things to accomplish focuses my energy, and prevents me from getting distracted from the endless other things I could be working on. For more information about the benefits of setting goals, go to the following links:

Now goal setting can go for any time, but when things are especially chaotic or when there are multiple possible distractions, it is especially important. When at home, there are always numerous distractions, so having a list of goals is very important to keep your mind on topic. I would recommend a pencil and paper for the weekly planning (I have a day planner) because, in that form, it is always easily accessible no matter how many browser tabs you have open.

Identify Distractions and Eliminate Them

The advice that I have listed here is what has worked for me in the past, but it is only a starting point for others. What one has to do is be introspective and find the distractions and productivity drainers in their lives. I do not have a playbook for hunting distractions other than timing how long it takes to do tasks and take notes about your work environment. I’ll include a sample entry below that would signify a productivity drain.

Background Task Time completed
TV on with the news, birds in the yard, cat sleeping beside the computer Completion of a Physics Worksheet 1.5 hours
birds in the yard Completion of a different Physics Worksheet 1 hour

As can be seen, a similar task took a shorter amount of time with fewer potential distractions involved. More data may be needed to figure out which distraction is worse, the cat or the TV, but my bet is on the TV. Keeping detailed notes such as these may be very instrumental in identifying distractions.

When distractions have been identified, it would be useful to eliminate them. For the TV simply shutting the TV off could be the best option, but sometimes it is not that easy. Some distractions are easy to slip into, and for those, it is required to add more friction between the productive state and distracted state. An example of adding more friction is those website blockers previously mentioned, or putting physical distance between you and the distraction (while at home moving to a quiet room, or outdoors is good).

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Learning Resources for the Unstructured Learner

Many resources can be used to learn on your own, and it can be confusing, which are useful and which are not. In this blog post, several trusted resources will be presented and discussed in some form. At the end of the post, the vision of how Lifelong Learning Rocks can add to these resources will be offered. I hope that you find this post useful, and if you did, please subscribe to hear about more content like this.

Online Resources

MIT OCW

MIT OCW is one of my favourite websites for educational content. It holds content from MIT's various courses, and it can be trusted for quality given MIT is one of the most respected universities in the world. Classes can be searched for by topic, course number, and department. Below is a screenshot of what searching by topic looks like. First, a topic has to be selected, and then a sub-topic can be selected. Finally, a specialty can be selected if there is any. When I am searching for classes, this is the route I usually take because it allows for the most natural searching.

MIT OCW course finder

The courses have different amounts of material available. There are OCW Scholar courses, such as https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/physics/8-01sc-classical-mechanics-fall-2016/, which have all the material needed for self-study according to MIT OCW. The content that is considered necessary is video lectures, assignments, lecture notes, exams, textbook readings, syllabus... However, I have noticed that assignment solutions are not always included.

In contrast to OCW Scholar courses, there are more obscure courses with very little course material available. An example of a course with only some resources available is https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/physics/8-962-general-relativity-spring-2006/. Now even that course has the syllabus, and the readings from the textbook listed. I have found that every course has at least the syllabus and the textbook listed.

There is no marking support or anything like that available. I would encourage interested learners to post questions on forums such as https://www.physicsforums.com, https://www.scienceforums.net, https://physics.stackexchange.com, and many others. I would discourage anyone from looking for a solution or answer because that is not a very good way to learn. On the forums listed, people there will help others with questions but will resist giving away answers, so I would stick to them.

There is, however, some courses that have solutions to homework problems listed. One such course is this one: https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/chemistry/5-111sc-principles-of-chemical-science-fall-2014/unit-i-the-atom/lecture-1/. It is advisable to at least attempt the problem even if you have the solution, but these resources can be used for checking your work.

A website that is similar to MIT OCW is https://nptel.ac.in/course.html. I have used many of the “web courses” to supplement course material while at university. Courses marked as a “web course” have lectures in a PowerPoint format, and a “video course” has the course material in a video format. I would encourage interested learners to click around that site as well.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy is one of my favourite websites for pursuing the basics of almost any topic. Khan Academy has course material spanning from kindergarten to roughly first or second-year university. The topics covered include physics, other sciences, economics, finance, history, arts, and many others. A full view of everything offered is shown below in the form of a screenshot from there website as of May 29, 2020:

Khan academy subject list

As can be seen from above, the courses and topics covered are very extensive. To prepare for this blog, I decided I should refamiliarize myself with the platform. To achieve my goal of refamiliarizing myself, I choose to go through the first part of the World History topic (https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/world-history-beginnings).

It covered prehistory, and I found it to be great. After completing the module, I was left wanting to know more about the people who lived back then. I will probably finish that world history module, and then move one to learn more from other resources. That kind of feeling should be what everyone feels after learning something about a new topic. To put it another way, instructors and learning material should not only deliver the knowledge, but also spark curiosity. It is especially vital to spark curiosity when the basics are being covered, and I believe Khan Academy achieves that.

During my lessons on prehistory, I started with a video and then moved to an article to read. That structure happens a couple of times, and I enjoyed the alterations. I also noticed that some of the material was repeated. Personally, I find that a plus because when passively consuming material, I can stop paying attention for a bit and not notice what I am learning.

There was also a selection of quizzes that I had to pass to be marked as proficient and some ‘energy points’. It appears that the quizzes can be completed whenever and you are not prompted to do them. That is different from how I remember it was before where you were prompted to do a quiz after a video or article. Personally, I think the current setup is better because it lends more flexibility.

I mentioned ‘energy points’ in the last paragraph, so I should talk about what those are exactly. They are a way to measure student success and progress. A student earns energy points for watching videos, passing quizzes etc. Students can also earn badges, which is another way to see progress.

To close off this section, I would like to encourage everyone to go through the Finance material that is offered. It can be easily found at this link: https://www.khanacademy.org/economics-finance-domain/core-finance. It is an excellent overview of basic finance. It is really valuable to know the basics of finance, regardless of what you do in your life.

OER Commons

I am, admittedly, not all that familiar with this site, but from my first looks and clicks around, it is very rich in content. There are textbooks, homework, lesson plans, lessons, and many others. All of the material is under an Open license and can be accessed for free. If and when I look into the content more, I will update this post to reflect my increased knowledge.

Other Universities

Throughout my own university career I utilized content and resources from many universities. Much of this content I found by googling some search terms I will walk you through below.

If you Google “electromagnetism and optics assignments and solutions” you will find the following useful links:

  • http://org.coloradomesa.edu/~dacollin/teaching/2017Fall/phys132/index.html
    • This link contains all the course material for the first course in electromagnetism from Colorado Mesa University. The materials included are the lecture notes, assignments, exercises, and the schedule. Clicking around that site more you can find more course material made by the same professor.
  • https://www.wtamu.edu/~cbaird/courses.html
    • At this link some graduate level lecture notes on electromagnetism can be found. The worked out solutions to many problems from the graduate textbook are also given.

Other googles that could be useful while looking for supplemental resources are:

  • [topic] assignments and solutions
  • [topic] exams and solutions
  • [topic] lecture notes

Now I must again encourage you to try the problems first before looking at the solution. Looking through solutions is not as beneficial as people think, and solving problems is more enjoyable anyways.

Youtube Channels

Professor Leonard

This channel contains lots and lots of math videos. The math that is covered goes from what is learnt in grade school to second-year university math (Calculus 3 and differential equations). I have seen some of his videos, but have not dived into them full boar. I am aware of a few of my friends who have watched his videos and say they are really good. This Youtube channel, along with Khan Academy covers all the math you need for almost any undergraduate degree other than Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics.

It is missing complex analysis, and mathematical proofs/thinking to cover enough for a Physics degree. For Mathematics and Statistics, a lot more material would be required, but those degrees are almost all math.

Blackpen Redpen

It is another Youtube channel dedicated to math. From what I can see, it is much less organized than either Professor Leonard or Khan Academy, but it talks about a few more interesting topics. There is a playlist on number theory and one on special functions. Special functions are essential to higher year physics and are not one of my strong suits. I may go through the special functions playlist to add to my knowledge and to review the channel better on this website.

The New Boston

The New Boston was one of my favourite channels from when I was first learning to code. There are multiple playlists for learning to code and for learning how to use different software. On top of the computer science tutorials listed there are some out of nowhere tutorials like, how to brew beer, chemistry tutorials, physics tutorials, how to build a go-cart. It would seem that whenever Bucky (owner of the channel) learns or does something cool, he wants you to know about it. I can verify that the computer science tutorials are top-notch (I learned a lot of programming from them) all the other ones I am not sure about but I am guessing they are fun!

Domain of Science

Not a whole heck of a lot of videos here, but it is a popular channel. The particularly useful videos, I find, are the “maps” of a subject. I watched the Map of Mathematics in preparation for this blog post and found that it helped show how broad of a subject math is. It also shows people how different parts of the expansive subjects covered relate to other regions of material. In the video, it also linked and talked about how Mathematics relates to other subjects such as Physics. The video is short and did not go into detail about how to do the math and other nitty-gritty stuff, but instead displayed all of the families of topics that Mathematics covers. If you are looking to get a good overview of all the topics a single subject has to offer, I would wholeheartedly recommend checking out those map videos.

Offline Resources

Books are the oldest and still one of the best ways to obtain information outside formal learning. There are many different types of books that offer varying degrees of depth and types of knowledge. Textbooks provide the most in-depth knowledge of any books.

A textbook will usually have examples, problems and thinking questions to supplement your learning. They go in-depth and typically cover the entire topic that you are trying to learn. The biggest problem with textbooks is that they are so thorough that it is not the kind of thing you would read on the beach casually.

Biographies and memoirs are much better suited for casual reading, and you can learn a lot about tactics and life in general. I have recently read two books that can be classified into this category, and it was interesting, fun, and insightful. Seeing how someone came to the decisions they made, and listening to them reflect on how it turned out is great. I would recommend that you read books written by those who have lived a life that you identify with, because then you may get some good pointers from them.

Popular science books are a great way to get a brief understanding of a topic without diving too much into detail. I would recommend them if you want to learn a little about a topic, but do not feel the need to understand it fully. Popular science books are also great if you want to get some entertaining insights into a topic before you dive deep so that you can keep motivated.

Non-fiction books are also really great, even though they may not seem to be adding any educational value. I find that reading non-fiction gives you insight into how other people think, and that can increase your empathy. While reading non-fiction, I frequently find myself rehashing something I had previously learned in class and how it would apply to the story I am reading. For instance, in ‘The Expanse’ (one of my favourite series), there are mentions of actual real physics, so it is fun to think about it and even do a quick check on the math. Overall I think non-fiction books add a lot more value than we give them credit for.

Below are a few books I have read and would recommend.

Popular Science:

  • The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene: Amazon
  • Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku: Amazon
  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking: Amazon

Biographies/Memoirs:

  • Shoe Dog by Phil Knight: Amazon
  • Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger: Amazon

Non-fiction

  • Harry Potter Franchise by J. K. Rowling: Wikipedia
  • The Expanse by James S. A. Corey: Wikipedia

If you get into reading it is likely you will never stop since it is an endless river of knowledge. I am at the point now that there are more books that I want to read than I will ever have the time to read. So please go and support your local library!

People

People can be used as a resource to further your learning goals. You can reach out to helpful strangers online or surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and use them as teachers. I have used online forums and such before, but I have always enjoyed talking to people I actually know and using them for help. If you happen to be a university student, I implore you to reach out to your professors often. My professors at university were always happy to help and, of course, very knowledgeable.

Where does Lifelong Learning Rocks fit in?

With all these resources already out there and available, a lot for free, how does Lifelong Learning Rocks add to what is currently offered? Well, at the moment, that is not entirely clear. New resources are being posted to the site at a slow pace while the site is being built to have more features and be easier to use. The primary way that it will be adding value, by mid-summer, is through a system that allows learners to submit worksheets for marking by the author of the worksheet.

The author will set the cost of marking a particular worksheet, and then learners would have to pay to get it marked by that author. When a learner submits the money, the author will see it has been paid for, but will only be able to access the funds after the marked worksheet has been sent to the learner. It is hoped that the process will create enough trust in the system that both sides will feel comfortable.

Eventually, other features, like allowing authors to sell access to premium worksheets may be created. Another addition I have thought about is giving the option for worksheets to be geared to specific geographic areas. For instance, I live in Saskatchewan, Canada, and very few textbooks make reference to things people in Saskatchewan would identify with, but in my worksheets, I do make specific references to Saskatchewan and the culture of Saskatchewan. Being able to tag worksheets with a specific geographic area may allow learners to find material they identify with more easily.

At the moment, the website is not much. Still, hopefully, one day, it will be a valuable resource to the casual learner across the world!

Feel free to contact me with any suggestions at kodyrogers21@gmail.com!

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