Quintilian on time and study

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Quintilian writes:

Sed breve nobis tempus nos fecimus: quantulum enim studiis partimur? Alias horas vanus salutandi labor, alias datum fabulis otium, alias spectacula, alias convivia trahunt. Adice tot genera ludendi et insanam corporis curam, peregrinationes, rura, calculorum anxiam sollicitudinem, invitamenta libidinum et vinum et fractis omni genere voluptatum animis ne ea quidem tempora idonea quae supersunt.

[But we make the time short for ourselves, for how little is set aside for study? The empty work of paying visits removes some hours, idle time spent gossiping removes some more hours, the theater some more, and dinner parties some more. Add to these so many kinds of entertainment and unhealthy care of the body, travel, the countryside, anxious counting of profits and losses, the allurements of sex and wines. And sufficient time for study certainly does not remain to our minds, damaged by all kinds of pleasures of the soul.]

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (fl. 35–100 C.E.), Institutio oratoria, XII.11.18

Code-switching between comfortable cognitive aptitudes and the main aptitudes used in math and coding

I continue to reflect on different kinds of thinking I rely on in my current activities.

My study of and research on Chinese involves a kind of technical thinking about abstract linguistic categories, but those categories and the evidence for them require doing long stretches of basically mechanical, clerical work — collation of field notes or minute philological details — the aptitude for which the people at the Johnson O’Connor foundation call “graphoria”. In this work one does relatively little interesting original thinking, except to the extent that one is aware of the higher-level problems to which the mechanical work and the minute details will contribute. And there is also something meditative and satisfying about paying close attention to minute details for a long stretch of time, so the work by no means simply mindless rote action. Working with Chinese words, spoken and written, in particular, seems to stir my musical and graphic-analytical proclivities, and I have the sensation that Chinese grammar moves a kind of structural thinking, as well. So the mechanical work is not without its interest and satisfactions, though those do not compare to the kind of thinking one can eventually do when one has the necessary data assembled for actually attacking a problem in a unified way. I often think that one of the things that makes formal linguistics so uninteresting is that its practitioners seem to spend a lot of time avoiding actually handling data at length.

In programming and mathematics, however, neither the graphoria nor any aspect of language or music aptitudes seem to be directly helpful. In fact, I often find that my motivation to turn my mind to non-linguistic quantitative thinking is hindered by whatever time I have recently spent on mechanical or linguistic work, because those are inevitably easier to pick up quickly than math or a complex programming task. I experience a wrenching “code-switching” moment when I have to do this. I have still to find a good way to get my mind into the mood for math quickly if I have been doing those “lower”-level tasks. The only effective way I have found so far is to put clerical tasks completely away from myself for weeks at a time, but in real life it is not possible to do that, and certainly not for the coming half year, until my last two or three book projects are done.

I get a little help from using a timer to force myself to to spend some period of time working concentratedly on one type of task before switching to another. But the code-switching remains jarring even with the pressure of the timer to aid the switch. I wonder daily if overcoming code-switching is after all simply a matter of patience and concentration.