What Drawing for Fun Taught me about Daily Practice

I drew something almost every day for three months. It was a bit of an experiment on how to learn effectively. Learning a new skill is intrinsically rewarding. I wanted to see if I could learn to draw. I also wanted to see what kinds of practice work for me. Ultimately, it turns out that making time for practice every day was the most important thing.

At first, I started by following along with youtube videos. I followed along on videos by Christopher Hart. His videos are fun and he has some nice books, too. My versions of his drawings were… somewhat demented.

2015-12-05 11_13_11-draw blog - Google DocsI felt like I could improve at this, but it was hard to define what I wanted. I thought about how Covey said to begin with the end in mind. I was also inspired by the TED talk by Josh Kaufman called The first 20 hours — how to learn anything. I realized that I needed a more specific purpose. I started to ask what I wanted to be able to do. I realized that I wanted to be able to make a little comic and I wanted to be able to do it quickly.

At about 3 weeks, I made this comic about the frustration of being unable to tear a paper towel properly. I used stock art/photos, GIMP, and a drawing tablet to do it. It was fun. I wanted to be able to make comics like that more efficiently. I found a goal: to be able to make a simple comic panel in 10 minutes.

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I started reading about Scott Adams’ method. He deliberately designed a simple style that he could create quickly and consistently. He uses that style to tell a funny story every day in his comic strip, Dilbert. I like that. I started to study his style. The results were not very impressive.

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After working on them for 10 minutes a day for two weeks, though, my drawings started to look more pleasing (at least to me). The style is deliberately simple. For me to create a panel in 10 minutes, it has to be simple. The proportions are not great by any artist’s standard. But I was starting to feel like I could make something that could tell a story.

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There is no pause button on this skill: it’s “use it or lose it.” It has been a longstanding pattern in my life that when something is “good enough” I tend to get distracted. After 6 weeks, I got spotty in my practice. I would take a few days off, and the quality would noticeably slide. I think that was a big eye-opener to me. It was either improving or atrophying. I think people who play sports intuit this, but I certainly don’t. My (incorrect and dangerous) intuition is that I should be able to come back to a task or project and pick up where I left off. For someone who wants to draw or has a particular artistic goal, clearly the right thing to do is to practice every day.

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For a casual hobbyist like myself, there are tools on the internet to help make comics. Computational tools have certainly helped me keep the illusion that skill can be maintained without practice. A basic memory of how a program works is enough to return to a project after a month or longer and still make progress. Working a program is like riding a bike (at least to me). That doesn’t apply to more refined skills, evidently. If I am not going to practice drawing every day, can I “cheat” and use one of these programs to help make comics when the mood strikes?

Two internet tools for making comics are StoryBoardThat.com and ToonDoo.com. Storyboardthat is a little more refined and responsive, but both can lay out a comic a lot faster than I can draw one. I tried using a toondoo comic as a template for my own. That worked reasonably well. It still required some skill to get it to look consistent with what I had been doing earlier.

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After 3 months, it was time to move on to other things, but I think the core lesson was worth remembering. My little experiment in drawing didn’t make me an artist but it reminds me that many (most?) skills take deliberate practice. I am taking this lesson to heart with writing (which is a big part of my real job). Writing every day is critical. As of yet, there are not many technological shortcuts for that.

Meditation is helping me not procrastinate

If you want your mind to be less distracted, you have to practice the skill of un-distracting yourself.

That is meditation. It is a technique for training the mind to return from distraction easily. That is different from trying to focus. Trying hard does not work very well to increase attention span. It sort of backfires. Meditation is more like accepting a certain amount of distraction, but practicing bringing the attention back. The mind inevitably becomes distracted and it takes a lot of practice to sense that when that is happening and gently correct it.

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Pressure Cooker for Students

My pressure cooker has been one of my best purchase decisions

Before I purchased my pressure cooker, I would get home hungry and go to the restaurant across the street. Since I would take my girlfriend, that added up to $60-80 per week. I felt like I was bleeding money through my stomach. I bought the pressure cooker for $100 at the local hardware store. It paid for itself within a month. The particular pressure cooker which I purchased also can act as a rice cooker and a crock pot (slow cooker). So I gave away my old Crockpot. The net result was no increase in number of appliances in my small kitchen.

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Study Tip – Go Home When You Are Done

Work somewhere quiet and do not go home until the job is done.

In my later undergraduate days, I realized that I needed a place to study that was separate from my home. I was lucky enough to work in a university research lab that gave me some space to study. If I hadn’t had that, I would have found a quiet library nook to work in on a regular basis. One of my biggest advantages in finding a place to study on campus was that I could study until my day’s work was done.

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I’ve taken a media vacation this week and it was great

I have taken a week off from the news and Reddit and really enjoyed myself.

Strongly consider taking a media vacation, especially if you are stressed out. Watching the evening news or reading the morning paper can make an informed citizen, but the internet lets us get way too much news. The Internet allows us to check the news every 15 minutes. This uses up our mental bandwidth, distracts us from tasks at hand, and makes us feel powerless.

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Allergies make me feel tired

If you are experiencing fatigue, look into allergies

I thought something was really wrong with me when I moved to Texas. I felt unbelievably tired all of the time. I read up on all kinds of maladies and syndromes. Nothing fit very well. A good summary of the conventional approach to unexpected fatigue is at webmd

In my case, it wasn’t a serious disease. I was getting a decent amount of exercise and sleep. Water turned out to be part of the problem, but the other was unexpected. Texas allergies make me feel really tired. I did not know that I was allergic to anything and when I had the sniffles in December, I assumed I had a cold. When the “cold” faded but my tiredness did not. I stuck it out for months feleing like I was packed in cotton. It turned out that a Zyrtec every day made a world of difference. Claritin works for others. Benadryl is the last resort because it has the drowsinesss side effect. Hoewever, my allergy fatigue was so profound that the drowsiness of benedryl was much less. On bad allergy days, I would take half a dose of benedryl and perk right up.

So, if you are fighting the doldrums, try some allergy meds along with the other suggestions on webmd. Check with your real-live doctor, drink more water, get more sleep and exercise, but try a little antihistamine too.

Another step in the ongoing development of Bachelor Chow

High-calorie Bachelor Chow

Based on some feedback a few months ago from Reddit, lab mates, and commenters on the site, I decided to enrich the calorie density and lavor of my bachelor Chow recipe (available for download in the Top 10 Recipes booklet). This is a short report of my results. Obviously, not everyone is interested in adding calories or additioanal cost to their food shake. For those who are, however, the simplest manner with which to add such calories is vegetable oil. Oils/fats are very energy dense. Relative to carbohydrate and protein, oils contain almost twice as many calories per gram. They are also extremely cheap. Hence…

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Doing the First Thing – Browser add-ons to help avoid distraction and procrastination

Browser addons can help avoid distractions

I find that I am easily distracted with semi-productive sites on the Internet. I like Reddit for lots of reasons, but one of my favorites is that I can restrict the subreddits that get displayed to me. I have subreddits like /r/hardscience and /r/chemistry on my front page. While this is great, it tends to lead to my reading Reddit when I have other priorities that I know are higher. I found that the firefox add-on called Leechblock helps me focus. There are more, similar plugins for other browsers.

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Doing the First Thing – Tips to overcoming procrastination

Separate Decisions from Actions

David over at Raptitude talked about separating decisions from actions. I loved this. He has written very insightful pieces about procrastination. Any course of action is harder if you allow yourself to second guess it while also trying to do it. David uses the example of pushups. He wanted to do pushups every morning. That is a very simple decision without a lot of room for self-doubt or questioning. When willpower is at its weakest, those internal lazy voices start saying “are pushups really the right thing? Maybe sit-ups or a run would be better.” If you allow those questions, you will fail to do the job of pushups every morning. Separating the decision-making from the action can help accomplish the goal.

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