I was just reading this (actually rather touching) post by Fred Wilson on subconscious problem-solving. Basically, Fred talks about an experience that many have had: working on a problem slowly over time seems to allow your brain to work more efficiently, and come up with better solutions, than if you try to cram in all the work at the end.

Fred attributes this to “subconscious information processing”; your brain keeps working on a problem even when you’re not thinking about it.

It reminded me of the very first time I ever did work in advance (yes, really). It was early in high school, and up to that point I had almost always been able to do work the night before and get an excellent grade. That included studying for tests, writing essays, you name it. This ability was starting to flag, though, and so were my grades. I had just learned about an essay assignment, and my father suggested to me that I try writing a draft of the essay two nights in advance.

This strategy worked - I almost immediately went back to getting As instead of Bs. And in fact, the further in advance I did work for my various classes, the easier it seemed to be to do well. In college, it got to the point that I’d pull late nights for Greek Composition exams a week in advance, and then sleep regularly, and study moderately, in the nights immediately preceding the exam.

I can think of a couple of explanations for this phenomenon in addition to Fred’s (correct) analysis. I think preparing further in advance also:

  • Reduces anxiety. Too much anxiety has a negative effect on learning and eventual performance. Preparing earlier allows you to (1) learn earlier in your preparation process how much work you need to do, so you can more easily budget your time, (2) return later to any overwhelming aspect of your preparation, (3) wait out low energy levels and bad moods.
  • Gives you time to ask questions. This is related to the idea of “subconscious information processing”, but not only do you build more interconnects between the data, you also are able to look more critically at where the gaps are in your knowledge so you can fill them in. (This is related to the anxiety point as well; if you know you have the time to solve a problem, you’re more willing to acknowledge it).

Ironically, as I get older I am learning that I need to unlearn this lesson a little bit. If you start working on every problem right away, it’s easy to spend time on unimportant ones. It’s a useful skill to be able to put together a last-minute job where appropriate.