Here’s how to set a self-study routine that you’ll actually stick to while learning data science
While self-studying data science, you’ll find yourself in one of two hypothetical settings: on an escalator or a staircase.
Those who laid the groundwork by making a curriculum of everything they need to learn, set daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals to help guide their progress, and continued to tweak and modify their learning process to produce optimum efficiency, will find themselves on an escalator. In other words, they’re accelerating slowly but surely toward their destination with a constant upward motion (while the escalator sometimes breaks down, you’re still guaranteed to go up instead of down).
Conversely, those who didn’t make a plan, didn’t set goals or learning objectives to guide their progress, and don’t tweak their learning methods, are bound to be stuck on a staircase, where upward or downward motion is a possibility. While there’s nothing wrong with being on the staircase, you can easily give up and just start going down, whereas, on the escalator, you can only go up.
But what makes the difference between being on the escalator or being on the staircase? It’s simple, really.
Your continued upward movement and success while self-studying data science all come down to your routine.
Routine is what sets apart those disciplined few who manage to self-teach themselves data science and go on to have a career in the field, from those who thought they might just “wing it” and end up flaming out early on because they didn’t have an ingrained routine that forces them to sit down at their desk every day and study.
All it takes to set up a self-teaching routine is four steps. I’ve used these steps for the last 6 years while going through post-secondary education and to help me study data science and have found that these four things are all it takes to create a routine that will bring you success. These four steps are simple and unglamorous but are enough to create a routine that you can easily stick with.
Step 1. Schedule the same time every day
Picking a time of day during which you’ll study is not just about productivity but also about maintaining a healthy work-life balance (more about that later).
Data science and all of the topics within require a decent amount of mental rigor to self-teach. This is why the time of day when you choose to study should consistently be when you have the most energy and ability to focus.
For example, I choose to do all of my mentally rigorous studying (such as anything calculus-based) during the morning which is when I’m most energetic and focused. The afternoon is reserved for less mentally-taxing studying or other tasks that don’t require much brain power (which for me is usually studying data visualizations, statistics, or working on my personal projects). By studying during the most productive part of my day, I’ve ensured that I’ll be as effective and efficient as possible.
The time of day when you’re most productive is different for everyone. Some people work best during the day, while others work best at night. The point is to pick the same time every day when you’ll schedule your studying. Not only that, but your brain needs to begin to associate a specific time of day with studying. This will help you maintain your focus for longer and will have you prepared to hit the books the minute your study session starts (as opposed to scrolling through your phone for 10 minutes because you need to amp yourself up to study).
As I mentioned previously, this technique of picking a specific time of day to study data science is also important for maintaining a healthy work-life balance. For example, today (a Friday), I finished all of my calculus studying this morning which meant that I was done for the day, having finished everything on my study to-do list for the week, and leaving me an entire half day to relax, catch up on errands, spend time with my dog, and enjoy a bit of a long weekend.
Step 2. Pick a place to study
Where you study is just as important a part of your routine as studying every day at a regular time.
Studies are showing that where you work can have physical and psychological impacts on your health. This relates specifically to people who work in their beds, which can result in ergonomic nightmares as well as the development of the wrong associations with your bedroom — i.e., that your bed isn’t necessarily just for sleep — which can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule and productivity.
The bottom line is that your brain is really good at associating specific locations with specific activities. This is why many college students will choose to go to campus to study even if they could just study from home. Thus, when it comes to self-studying a topic, it’s important to give your brain a leg up by letting it know that it’s time to focus when you sit down in a particular spot every day.
The same philosophy should be used when picking your place to study. Having a pre-determined place to study tells your brain that every time you sit down there, it’s time to do work. This should be a place with excellent lighting, plenty of space for all of your study materials, and as good an ergonomic setup as you can make.
For example, I’ve been studying at the same desk for over four years now. Whenever I sit down at the desk, I know that it’s time to work, whether I’m studying, writing, or doing some other type of work. This desk is huge and has everything I need within reach which minimizes the number of times I need to leave my desk during a study session which helps me in maintaining my focus.
One of my favorite tricks to create a great study space is to have all of my data science books nearby. For whatever reason, having those books near me brings me so much inspiration because I know that soon I’ll be able to accomplish everything held in those chapters, whether it’s creating visuals that tell a story, doing multivariable calculus, or knowing how Python code can be written for a production environment.
Step 3. Know what you’re going to study before you sit down
Seeing as you’re reading this article about developing a study routine, I would assume that you’ve already done the hard work and have created the curriculum that you’ll use to self-teach data science. Perfect! This means that you’ve pretty much already completed this third step.
Knowing what you’re going to study before you sit down is a crucial part of maintaining a routine. Spending 10–20 minutes looking through your materials and trying to find video lectures is a waste of good study time, and a hassle that can actually make you resent the time you spend studying. Instead, take 30 minutes to an hour every Sunday night to plan out exactly what you’re going to be studying each day of the coming week. This should include laying out all of the topics you’ll cover in a day (be realistic and don’t overwhelm yourself) as well as queuing up video lectures, resources, and the code files you’ll be working on. This is also the time to charge your electronics, organize your study space, and maybe prepare some grab-and-go study snacks to keep you going.
For example, I abide by this 30-minute rule every Sunday and write down a big to-do list for the upcoming week. This way, come Monday at 6 am, I’m not fumbling around trying to figure out what I’m working on and can instead get right into my work as the coffee kicks in.
One big tip I’ll leave you with is that as soon as you’ve completed your studying to-dos for the day, stop. Stop your work right there and walk away — you’re done for the day. Yes, you can always say just one more calculus problem or just one more Leetcode challenge. However, this will lead you down a one-way street to Burnoutville — trust me. So, keep yourself fresh and raring to continue with your studying by quitting once you’ve completed all your studying for the day. This is a great way to ensure you maintain the routine by not letting yourself get overworked.
Step 4: Put it in your calendar
I don’t know what it is but there’s something about putting a routine into my calendar that just makes it so much easier to follow. Even if I know exactly what to expect each day, the satisfaction of checking things off my list is enough to keep me going on the routine.
Now that you’ve determined what time of day you’ll study, where you’ll study, and what you’ll study, you need to put it all in your calendar. The calendar event should hold all of this information and should include a checklist of your study to-dos that can be checked off every time you complete a task.
Once something is on your calendar, it becomes important to complete and subconsciously you’ll begin to prioritize your daily tasks around your study time because your study time is “king”. Even if you’re doing the exact same thing every day, the reward center of your brain needs to get the endorphin rush of checking things off your to-do list. So, don’t forget to put all of your studying into your calendar.
Not only is this an important tip for maintaining a habit, but keeping a calendar of your studying is a bit like keeping a diary or a log book. It’s a great way to track your time, see how long it’s taking you to study topics, and is a great reminder at the end of the year of how much work you’ve put in.
Some quick tips and troubleshooting
- When you can’t fulfill your study obligations for the day due to extraneous factors, find just 10 minutes to go over some concepts. The main factor in deciding whether you set (and more importantly maintain and continue) a routine or not is whether or not you sit down every day and study. However, don’t be misled into believing that you have to do the same amount of studying every day. Whether you have the time to study for 10 hours or 10 minutes on a given day, all that matters is keeping yourself in the mindset that every day you will dedicate some time (no matter how much) to studying data science. Some days will be better than others, but all that matters is that you fulfill your routine in one way or another to keep your mind trained in anticipating that you have a routine to complete as part of every day.
- Your routine isn’t working for you? Don’t be afraid to change it up. One of the most important things I learned while self-studying my entire online university degree is that what works for you at a given moment might not always work for you — and that’s okay. Our obligations change, whether they be for work, family, or something else. So, if you find that it’s becoming difficult to maintain your routine and that you’re missing several days in a row at a time, don’t be afraid to change things up and try a different routine that fits into your life at that time. Remember, a routine that’s easy to do every day is one that you’ll be able to maintain for years if necessary.
- Don’t be afraid to use rewards to keep yourself on track. Somehow it became a negative thing to use rewards to keep yourself going on a routine. In my experience, humans are reward-driven creatures, which is why it’s an important tool to use in the self-teaching process. For example, after I complete a calculus assignment, I take myself for a treat, whether that’s a bubble tea, a long walk with my dog, or just enjoying some guilt-free time on social media. Don’t think that rewards are toxic — instead, celebrate completing your studying for the week or hitting a big topic milestone.
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