Life — Fending off Procrastination

We all know what procrastination feels like. It sucks when you run out of time to handle what needs doing and you’re forced to do everything at once, only doing a passable job with the time constraint. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has been given a major ten page essay to do months prior to it being due, only to write the entire thing in one sitting on what would otherwise be a relaxing Sunday. You tell yourself that you’re never going to let this happen again, and it probably isn’t even a full month before you rescind that promise.

I’m not going to say it’s easy to stop procrastinating. It’s a habit, and a rewarding one at that. You reward yourself early by relaxing when you should be working, so when the situation comes and goes, you can’t remember it being entirely bad because it started off so well. But you can’t train a dog to sit by giving out treats followed by directions. That’s just not how it works, and our brains are programmed the same way.

There are two ways that I’ve found out of this hole, and unfortunately, my experience says these solutions are only case-by-case, and not cures to the disease that is procrastination, but perhaps with vigilant and unyielding practice they can turn into habit. The first way is what I’m sure many people have heard, and that is to parcel out the assignment. Work on it for an hour every other day or so, depending on what the assignment is. Even if you end up getting to that fateful Sunday night with a half-finished essay, it still yields some success, because now you only have to work half as hard as you would have without trying at all. I’ve personally found this method to be the worst, because its hard to think “Oh, I’ve got free time today, I should spend it working on the essay.” Rather, you’d say to yourself “Oh, man that was a long day of work and/or school. I can’t wait to relax!” and you continue to do that to yourself until you realize that you’ve spent no actual time on it. (Plus, I personally have a hard time devoting only one hour on something, even if its video games! If I’m working on something, I’m giving it all my attention which means I need a good chunk of free time that day.)

The method that I prefer is what I call reverse procrastination: you get everything done immediately, the first chance you get. This gives you the most time to relax afterwards, and the feeling is amazing. I can only recall a few times I’ve pulled this off, because it’s incredibly difficult to jump on something like a ten page essay as soon as its assigned when you doubtlessly have other things to do, but if you can get it done, it’s incredible. You can sit down with your free time and think “Do I have anything I need to be doing?” and then remember you already finished the essay that isn’t due until two weeks from now and you get an extra sense of happiness and accomplishment every time you think about it. Rather than this essay being a stress inducer, you’ve just managed to make thinking about it a stress reliever, and it makes your life so much easier.

Now, I totally get that saying “Just do the thing,” is a terrible way to stop procrastinating. To make it easier on yourself, target things that you cannot procrastinate on. Let’s say you’re taking five classes in high school or college (doesn’t matter). Tell yourself whenever you get an assignment in specific class X, you do that assignment immediately. You handle the other classes like normal, but for that one class, challenge yourself to do everything as soon as possible. As you’re doing this, you’ll find that you probably enjoy that class more than the others, or at least more than you think you would have, because that class is not a source of any stress whatsoever. This advice doesn’t have to be school related. It could be something along the lines of your job, or housework/chores, etc. Take one piece of your life that is a constant source of stress, and tackle it ruthlessly, compressing all the air out like a plastic bag with a hole in it. If you can manage to do that, tackle two things. If this works, keep adding more until deadlines don’t stress you out anymore.

Life — Making Friends

So, the problem came up in my life recently that I literally don’t know how to make friends. I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid talking to people for so long that I’m not comfortable if I’m not in a very closed off position. It isn’t that I’m shy, just that when I’m with friends, they are very specific (and almost always planned) parts of the day, so every other time I’m alone, usually with headphones in staring at my phone.

How does one solve this issue, you might ask? Well, if you look carefully, I already did. “When I’m with friends, it’s because it’s a very specific, often planned part of the day.” So if I’m trying to meet new people, the easiest way to do it is during planned parts of the day, certainly not at random times while I’m at the school. This means I have to find social situations in which people are already going to be friendly and open towards other people, (not during lunch or other times where they’re already hanging out with the people they want to). In other words, I need to join a club, or some sort of gathering that involves other people my age.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come to that answer, simply the first time I’ve been able to definitively say why it’s such a good idea. Think about it. When you’re in class (specifically college), most people will be there to learn, and even if the class is a boring one, it’s not the best place to make friends; at least, not if you’re introverted. Of course, some classes will be more conducive towards meeting new people, but for the most part I’ve gone through my college career being friendly with my fellow classmates and then disappearing off the face of the Earth when the semester is over (though who is the one disappearing has varied in each circumstance).

I’m well aware that “not having enough friends or people to talk to” isn’t a problem most people would ever consider. In our current world of social media, regular conversations with people across the globe, even regular meetings, isn’t even far-fetched anymore. If I tried hard enough. I could see (or at least communicate with) virtually anyone I’ve ever met on any given day. Even the first friend I had ever made (somebody I met before kindergarten) is a Facebook friend of mine, even if we don’t talk anymore.

So, if you’re lacking a substantial social circle like I am, there’s ways to get around it. Parties, bars, clubs (whether they involve DJs or books), etc. are great ways to meet new people, but really, the only thing you really need is to find people that are genuinely open to talk to strangers. A passing “Hello” certainly isn’t enough. Heck, getting a job could work out just fine, because coworkers are a great way to make friends.

If you don’t have easy access to any of those things (which I would doubt), my recommendation to you would be to go online and find groups in your area that physically meetup and talk about or do something you’re interested in.

And hey, making friends isn’t easy. But it’ll never happen if you’re not open to it.

Life — Spring Semester Plans

In preparation for the spring semester, there’s a few things somebody will need to keep in mind in order to both do well and not die from the stress. In college, every semester is going to come with its own challenges, so its important to learn from the past and look at your own capabilities when signing up for classes and the like.

As always, the two things I always do when signing up for classes is to find classes I’ll enjoy that line up with my schedule. Ratemyprofessors is a great source that helps identify good from bad teachers. I won’t sign up for a course unless the professor scores over a 4/5 on this scale. It’s a great way to avoid getting into a bad class. (This does often narrow down the eligible classes when signing up, so if you don’t have a very open schedule, you’ll have to way the stress of taking bad classes versus completing the courses you need in a timely manner.)

When signing up for these classes, you also have to look at the schedule you’re building for yourself and other things you might need to do that day. If you’re taking over three classes, you’ll need to give yourself a lunch break, and only sign up for classes you’ll be mentally prepared to take. (Taking six classes with the first starting at 8am doesn’t work. High school is not college!) On top of all that: ask yourself this: do you have a time slot to do homework or study? If you need to do things every day, like go to the gym (or write a blog post!), when can you fit that in?

For last fall semester, I didn’t give myself proper time gaps in my schedule, so I was under a lot of stress. If you can’t breathe because you’ll be so busy on certain days, maybe you should drop a class or two. Don’t be afraid to give yourself time to relax (that goes for all aspects in life), so know your limits. That part, unfortunately, mostly comes from experience.

And I’ll always bring this up because its a lifesaver and every college student should be aware of this: Thriftbooks. Imagine buying all your books online for a fraction of the cost, and I’m not just referring to textbooks here. I bought seven books last semester for around thirty-eight bucks. This isn’t a marketing scheme or anything: its just amazing. They don’t sell new books, so you probably won’t find the newest edition of a title on it, but in all honesty I don’t bother buying the newest edition of a textbook just because a professor tells me I have to. Older versions have always worked out okay for me. It’s a bit extra work for far, far less money, and I’d highly recommend it.

Also, after having been in college for a few semesters now, I can tell you you’ll save time buying your pens, binders, whatever before school actually starts. You’ll always need the same things, so you might as well buy it before everyone else starts rushing to buy their stuff!

Learning! — More Factoring

I’m going to give a disclaimer here and say that this was really hard to write out purely in word form. If you’re a visual learner, this will probably confuse you more than anything. It’s not easy to explain mathematical processes without visual aid, so while I tried my best here, I’m not actually sure how effectively I accomplished that. (I’ll also be breaking my typical rule of writing out numbers in sentences just to make things a little easier to read.

Often, in algebra, we have to both factor and expand equations of increasingly complexity. This post will assume you know how to use the “foil” method when expanding equations such as (x + 4)(x – 2). We won’t be talking about expanding today. Instead we’ll look at factoring binomial equations like x² +2x – 8 back into something like (x + 4)(x – 2).

Let’s start simple with x² + 5x + 6. The goal here is to foil backwards. We have to find two factors of +6 that add up to +5. The factors of 6 include 1&6, and 2&3. (Remember we have to look at the factors in pairs. We can’t take 2 and 6 because we’ll be left with 12, which isn’t what we want). 2 and 3 add up to 5, so there we go: (x + 2)(x + 3) =  x² + 5x + 6. This is because when foiling it, you’ll end up with x*x + 2x + 3x + 6, and when we combine like terms, this means we can simplify it down to x² + 5x + 6.

Let’s throw in some subtraction to make things a bit more difficult. How about x² – 3x – 28? Again, we look at all the factors of -28 here. In this case we have a few more: 1&28, 2&14, and 4&7. Now, we know one of these numbers has to be negative, because we’re looking for a -28 here. But we can pick which number we want to be negative, so it’s not too daunting. Our target is -3. This means that when adding these two factors together, we’ll be left with a negative number, so the negative will have to be the larger of the two factors. This leaves us with -7 + 4. After that, we can piece it together and get (x – 7)(x + 4) = x² – 3x – 28.

For a leap of faith, one last challenge: adding numbers to x². Let’s factor 3x² – 7x – 20. In a case like this, we have to look at the factors of both 3x² and 20. Obviously, the only two factors of 3 are 1&3. The factors of 20 are 1&20, 2&10, and 4&5. So how do we get all these numbers to add up to -7? This time around order becomes important. Now we have to multiply the factors by each other to get to -7, its not as simple as adding them up anymore.

So, multiplying 1&3 by a pair of 1&20, 2&10, or 4&5, we have to hit -7. One of the numbers in the factors of 20 will also be negative, and again, we want it to be larger than the positive factor. This time, we can solve by trial and error.

Let’s start with 1&3 * 1&20. 3*20 leaves 60, which is way too high for our target. 3*1 leaves 3, and 20*1 leaves 20. This leaves us with either -17 or +17 when we add them together, so the factors of 1&20 are out.

How about 1&3 * 2&10? 3*10 leaves thirty which is still way too big, so we have to multiply 1*10 and 3*2. This leaves us with 10 and 6, and whichever factor of 20 we make negative will leave us with ±4 (± means positive or negative, if you didn’t know).. Much closer, but we need a seven.

So, 1&3 * 4&5 could work. 1*4 and 3*5 gives us 4 and 15, leaving ±11. 3*4 and 1*5 leaves 12 and 5, which adds up to ±7! In order to get -7 specifically, we needed 12 to be negative. Since 3 can’t be negative in this case, this means that we have a -4.

Now, how do we use that information? Let’s back up to 3x² – 7x – 20. We now know that the factors of -20 are -4 and +5, but is the answer (3x + 5)(x – 4) or is it (x + 5)(3x – 4)? Well, for that we look back to the multiplication. In order go get -7, we needed to multiply 3 and 4, which means they cannot be in the same grouping of parenthesis. This means that the answer is (3x + 5)(x – 4) = 3x² – 7x – 20.

There are a lot of special rules and easier ways to learn these techniques than by reading how to do them, though. As I said last week, here is the link to the site that helped me relearn all of this. Though I’m not a math major or anything, I’m generally pretty good at math and am open to help anyone that needs it. There is also a foiling calculator that can solve the problems for you, but if you genuinely don’t know how to do it, use the calculator to check your work, not give you answers. Getting answers to something you don’t understand is the worst thing you can do because it will tell teachers you’re either ready for the next level or you cheated. That said, the calculator is very useful for checking whether or not you got the right answer, and if you already know how to work out the problems, it saves a lot of time on homework.

Learning! — Simple Factoring

It’s been some years since I’ve taken a math class, so I admit I did need to relearn a little bit, but factoring is actually really simple once you get the hang of it. It’s super important in pretty much any math class you take, so if you never understand it, life will be hard for you. So, if no teacher or tutor explained any of this in a way it made sense, allow me to give it a shot.

The baseline here is that factoring is taking out and simplifying complex equations. You can chop them up and organize them in a way that looks more orderly, so eventually you’ll organize “z³ – z² – 9z” into “(z – 3)(z + 3)(z – 1)”.

But lets start more simple. A factor is a whole number that, when multiplied with another number, makes a new one. So, 2 and 3 are factors of 6, because when you multiply them together, they equal 6. So if something multiplies into another thing, it is a factor of that thing. It’s worth noting that every number that can be multiplied into a larger number is a factor of it, so 1,2,3,4,6,8, and 12 are all factors of 24.

Which brings us to letters. “Letters don’t belong in math!” you proclaim, and you’d be right. Letters themselves hold almost no value in mathematics. But the letter itself is meaningless. “X” is a variable. The number can change because its “variable”: its a placeholder for a number we don’t know. It holds no linguistic value, because we aren’t referring to language here. We could just as easily use a drawing of a hippopotamus in place of the letter X. In math, letters aren’t letters at all, but convenient, understandable symbols. when we say A = L * W, it serves as both a sentence and a mathematical expression for “area equals length times width”. I could say “T = & * $” and get the same answer when I plug in the same numbers. We just use letters, or variables, because it’s easier to convey what each specific symbol means when we involve other people.

So, all variables mean in this context is “we don’t know what this number is”. The Area of that rectangle could be a lot of different things, but if you just say A, we know what you’re talking about even if we can’t quantify it with a number.

So, if we say “3x”, we’ll take that to mean “3 times whatever number X happens to be”. Without knowing what X is, we’ll have to leave the equation at that. We can treat “3x” as one number, though, because when it’s all said and done they would be mixed together.

So if we try to factor “4x + 8”, we are going to try to take out the common elements of both (or all, if there’s more than two) numbers. When we’re factoring, we want to simplify the equation as much as possible. So we can take out a 2 from both 4x and 8. We put that outside of some parenthesis, and we divide 2 from everything because that’s what we took out. This leaves us with 2(2x + 4).

But we’re not done. We can take out another 2 here, because they are still factors of both numbers inside the parenthesis. We’ll divide that from everything inside, and then multiply it to whatever is on the outside, leaving us with 4(x + 2). (If this doesn’t make any sense, sorry, it’s hard to describe numerical processes with words!)

If you’ll notice, we could have simply removed a four from both numbers in the beginning and saved ourselves the extra step, but we get the same answer in the end.

Now that we’ve got the basics, let’s throw in an extra step. Let’s bring in exponents. You probably know that anything squared (ex: 3²) is a number multiplied by itself. We can do that with variables, too! Let’s try factoring 6x² + 18x. We can easily take out the largest number, 6, and be left with 6(x² + 3x). You may think we’d be done, but we’re not. Once you start getting into more complex math, we’ll need to start factoring variables, too. If x² means x*x, then x² divided by x will just leave us with one x. So, from 6(x² + 3x), we can divide X from inside the parenthesis. x² divided by x will leave one x left, and dividing x by itself will just leave 1. Since 3*1 will just be 3, we can shorten this equation all the way down to 6x(x + 3).

“Hold on,” you say. “We’re still super far from being able to factor z³ – z² – 9z” into (z – 3)(z + 3)(z – 1).” And you’d of course be right, but in the interest of keeping things simple, we’ll stop here and continue on next week. Or, if you need to know how to do that now, here is the link to the website that helped refresh my memory.

Life — Holiday Free Time (280)

Now that the holidays are just around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about what you might want to do with the extra free time. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in college, high school, flying to distant family for the week, or only get the day of the big holidays off of work: there’s still time that can be used.

I think one of the most important things to do with free time is to always maintain some level of productivity. Now, John Lennon is often credited with the quote “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time”, and while I agree, there is a limit. If you regret having spent the day watching Netflix, did you really enjoy wasting that time? Was it spent in anxiety because you are procrastinating doing something you know you should be? I’d say time spent in relaxation is only justifiable if you can honestly relax with it.

That being said, I know I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I went through the next few weeks only playing video games. I might accomplish some cool things in those games, but I’d probably come out of it in regret. That means I need to think about what I can do to be more productive. In my instance, I’ve already made plans: audiobooks, finishing Aluvalia’s novelette, updating The Archive (which I’m starting to think more and more of as a Nacre Then Wiki), and doing more planning for my D&D campaigns. Whatever happens, though, if I can jump into the new year with an explanation for what I accomplished over the holidays, I will have succeeded.

But maybe you don’t have that much free time. If you have a job, for instance, your hours are probably going up, not down (at least that’s been my experience for retail). But there’s still things you can accomplish. The key thing here is thinking about what will help you start of 2017 thinking positively about yourself and your life. It doesn’t have to be productive, necessarily.

Maybe you want to get in shape. You don’t have to wait for the new year to start working out, and you probably shouldn’t wait if working out makes you happy! Even if it’s just a few push-ups in the morning because you don’t have any free time, every little bit helps. Or maybe you want to finally see some friends you haven’t talked to in a while. Make plans! Even if they’re not free till January, you still go into the new year feeling good about yourself because now you have something to anticipate!

Everyone should find a way to end the year in a positive light. This was, in a lot of ways, a terrible year for me. But it does me no good to think like that. Instead, I think it’s best to constantly look ahead (but not too far ahead!) and plan out what I can accomplish with the tools I have available now. Best of luck to you.

Learning! — Writing Essays

I’m going to go out on a limb here and wing this post. One could argue that I wing every post, and while that’s certainly true, for Learning! posts I actually do research to make sure I know what I’m talking about, giving links to the websites I did research on to help anyone that wants to cross reference or whatever in case I didn’t explain something very well.

Today, though, I’ll mostly be talking about how I write essays. It’s worth mentioning that I put relatively little effort into these things, but I’m fortunate enough to be able to intuitively know what works for me. These strategies may not work for you, but this is how my mind works when I go about handling essay writing (regardless of topic or length).

First and foremost, you have to have at least minimal interest in what you’re talking about. If you are writing about the imports and exports of China in the seventeenth century, you’re probably screwed, but maybe you can find some aspect of even that that you find interesting.

If you’re writing an argumentative paper (which in my experience is by far the most common), find something you can actually argue. Something you’re passionate about but has an opposing view. If you just talk about how X game is the best selling game of all time, making it the best game of all time, and use only facts throughout the essay, there’s no debate. For argumentative papers, you need to use your own opinions and then back those opinions up with facts. It’s a small but very important detail.

In college, most of my essays have been about books or papers I’ve read (big surprise for an English major, I know), so that works a little differently. If I’m discussing the theme of mortality expressed in Hamlet or the allegory of the cave in Plato’s The Republic, I obviously need to know what I’m talking about. Now, of course, its ideal that you will have read the thing you’re writing about, but if you mess up big time and find yourself with an essay due tomorrow for a book you haven’t read, you’re not out of the game yet. For me, even if I have read the book, I look up sparknotes or shmoop. Very often they’ll have clear summaries of how themes are expressed in the work, so I can get an idea of what the author meant when they used X theme a lot and how Y character enforces it. After that, I read some other essays (google “Z book critical analysis” for some quality content you can cite in your own essay) and use their words to help make my own argument.

I’m not going to go over how to construct an essay, because pretty much any teacher in any English class should have covered that at some point. But as far as outlining goes, the thesis is everything. I’ve had professors that graded me more heavily on my thesis than the actual content of the essay, so it’s imperative that you know how to write one. I’ve heard somewhere that in essays, all you have to do is this: “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said”. Deconstructing that, the thesis should tell the audience exactly what the essays about. It should say something like this:

In The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne shows his audience that while everybody has a noble goal to strive for, a single ‘sin’ or misstep leads them to social banishment, as is the case with Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Coverdale as they each seek Priscilla’s affections, which ultimately leaves the reader to conclude that no person is beyond fault.”

That is an actual thesis that I wrote less than a week ago for one of my classes. These are my major ideas that each had their own (several) paragraphs, and they are ideas I went into in the same order I described in the thesis: ‘everybody has a noble goal’, ‘a sin leads them to social banishment’ (which I further went on with each of the three characters), ‘each seek Priscilla’s affections’, and my last point was ‘Hawthorne says no person is beyond fault’. Each of those quotes should have at least one paragraph. In this essay, since it was eight to ten pages, each idea in this specific circumstance typically took two or three paragraphs.

So, the thesis is a little mini outline, if you want to think of it that way. It certainly helps structure what you’re going to say. After you write body paragraphs that reflect that thesis, then you can wrap it all up with a conclusion. When I write my concluding paragraphs, I ask myself these questions: “What does it mean?” aka “So what?” and “Why is this information important to ME the reader of this essay?” I try to use the information I discussed, briefly summarize it, then explain what it should mean to you and how you should go about life having read it.

Here are some (sort of irrelevant) links if this wasn’t helpful at all!

http://www.fastweb.com/student-life/articles/essay-tips-7-tips-on-writing-an-effective-essay

http://www.internationalstudent.com/essay_writing/essay_tips/

http://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/strategies-essay-writing