Leveling Up Skill #5: Warm-Up Reading

This post is part of a blog series called Leveling Up: A Guide for Programmers. The series covers skills you can use to learn faster, more easily, and more strategically as a programmer.

In the last post we talked about warmup activities to help you get started on your independent practice time each day. That post introduces the idea of warmup reading (or video watching) and taking notes on the material. I mentioned that I have a method that I like for consuming content and taking notes during warmups. This post is about that method.

Reading/Watching Videos and Taking Notes

I like to consume material about the topic I’m trying to learn, and my practice time warmup offers a fitting opportunity to do that. I prefer reading to watching videos because I like to set my own speed and sometimes I like to skip around. That said, there are some excellent talks on video about most topics.

Remember from the last post on warmup activities: I like my warmups to be formulaic, and I like them to involve either writing or typing.

Here’s how the content consumption/note taking warmup meets those criteria:

It’s formulaic: I pick a book, article, or blog series, and I go through it section by section, start to finish.

An important note: I distinguish warmup reading from active reading, which is much less formulaic and involves a lot more decision-making. We’ll talk about that process in a future post.

Also: I am not choosing academic papers for my warmup reading. We’ll talk about my approach to academic papers in a future post. My warmup reading material, instead, is usually written a) explicitly for a lay audience and b) with the explicit goal of being easy to understand.

It includes writing:

As I move through my warmup reading, I take notes on what I am reading. That helps me slow down and reflect, and it also helps me absorb the material.

I don’t usually take notes as I read/watch: when I do that, I tend to get too granular and take down things like code syntax. First of all, I have a better process for taking notes on code syntax, which we’ll talk about soon. Second of all, I do not need to remember thing at this granular level: in fact, I won’t remember things at this granular level. What’s most important to me is to understand the full picture and make connections so I can come back to these concepts later in more detail if I want to. So instead of taking notes as I go, I wait until I finish a section of reading, and then I add my takeaways from that section to a page of notes about that reading.

Sometimes, I draw lines in the notes to link a lesson from one section to a lesson from another section. Other times, I write down questions that I have about the material I’m reading, so I can find the answers to those questions later when the coffee kicks in. Finally, if a source mentions something like “Unfortunately, our field lacks the tools to do X right now” or “No one has yet compiled a good dataset for Y,” I note that down with a little star next to it. I think it is helpful to know the identified gaps in a field so I can passively watch for updates on those things in my news pipeline or, if I’m very dedicated and very lucky, I can contribute to closing those gaps.

Here is an example set of notes from a book I read during warmups:

About 20% of the time, after I finish consuming the source, I go back later and re-organize these notes into a mind map of what I have learned from the source as a whole.

Here is an example of that:

Confident Ruby

I like the flexibility of this warmup activity: I can do it for 10 minutes or an hour, depending on what I’m reading and what I want to do. I also take advantage of the fact that this warmup activity requires very little preparation: if I know what I’m gonna read at the start of my next study session, my preparation is done!

Conclusion

Warmup reading or video watching is a low-preparation, high-flexibility activity to get started on independent project sessions. I like to go section by section, recording my takeaways, questions, and thoughts in my notes at the end of each section.

This approach might work great for you; if not, perhaps you’d like to try one of the other warmup activities we’ve discussed, or make up something of your own!

If you think warmup notes sounds useful, you might also like:

This example of notes I took from a warmup video session instead of reading a book

Risk Maps, which include a drawing activity. Great for system-builders of all skill levels!

Accountability Calendars: Another pen-and-paper activity. This one even includes stickers, if you like.

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