The Best Strategies for Overcoming a Challenge

Learning data science is a long-distance race. And while you may have days where you’re flying, everything comes naturally, and you feel like a coding god, you’re also going to have days where nothing seems to work and you just can’t grasp the concept you’re supposed to be learning.

Your long-term success depends on your ability to push through those tough moments, the moments where people are most likely to give up.

What can you do to keep your head in the game and ensure you stick around even when the going gets tough and studying doesn’t feel fun? Science, thankfully, has some answers.

Finding Success Doing Something You Aren’t Enjoying

A research team led by Marie Hennecke at the University of Zurich recently published a paper in the European Journal of Personality about a series of experiments they conducted to investigate the strategies people use to successfully push themselves through doing something they don’t like.

They started with a survey of nearly 335 people that asked about the strategies respondents used to get through sometimes-unpleasant tasks like running on a treadmill. Then, they boiled the list of nearly 2,000 specific strategies respondents gave them into a few categories:

Changing the conditions strategies included things like reducing distractions, changing the environment, drinking coffee, and putting on some music – strategies that don’t change the task itself but that are aimed at making it more pleasant in the hopes that that will make them more likely to complete the activity.
Attentional strategies aimed at focusing attention, either by focusing on the activity or intentionally distracting oneself from it, to facilitate persistence.
Cognitive change strategies were psychological strategies for helping people think differently about the activity: things like focusing on the positive outcomes of completing the run, thinking about the negative outcomes of skipping it, monitoring progress, thinking about how they’re near the finish, etc.
Response modulation strategies, of which the researchers cite just one: suppressing the urge to quit.

Then in a subsequent study, researchers asked subjects about unpleasant-but-necessary activities they’d completed recently (like self-study, attending lectures, commuting, etc.). Respondents noted which of the above strategies they’d used to get through these tasks, and whether or not they felt they had been successful.

Ultimately, the researchers found that some of these strategies were more correlated with success than others. Specifically, strategies that tended to correlate with self-reported success were:

  • Focusing on the positive consequences of completing the task
  • Controlling emotions
  • Monitoring progress towards goals
  • Thinking about being close to the finish

Interestingly, goal-setting had no perceptible effect on respondents’ success rate. Just one strategy correlated negatively with success: distracting oneself from the task.

What we can learn from this

We’ll start with a few caveats: this study makes some interesting suggestions, but they shouldn’t be confused for cast-in-stone facts (nor should the results of any single study). The fact that this research relies on self-reported success may be a particular area of weakness, since respondents may not always have accurately assessed their own results. And of course, correlation isn’t proof of causation, so it’s possible the correlation of these strategies with success is purely coincidental.

It’s also worth pointing out that if you’re learning data science, you should be having fun. These tips may be helpful for getting through the occasional down moments and those really challenging days, but if you’re feeling like you have to break these out every day, you might want to take a step back and look at how you’re studying data science.

With that said, this study suggests that when you’re having a tough day, attempting to apply these strategies might make it easier for you to push through and actually complete whatever you’re working on:

  • Thinking about the reasons why it’s valuable for you to complete this task or solve this problem. If you’re struggling to get through a two-hour study session, for example, think about how much you’ll have learned or how much additional practice you’ll have gotten by the end.
  • Doing your best to control the negative thoughts and emotions. This might be particularly helpful for frustrating moments where your code just isn’t working and you can’t figure out why. Pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and try thinking positively about what you’re doing or how you’ll feel when the task is completed before diving back in.
  • Tracking your progress through sections of study you find less interesting could be helpful. (Of course, the Dataquest platform tracks your progress in each mission, course, and path automatically for you, but you could also track other metrics like time spent studying, or even more granular metrics like lines of code written, to see if that’s helpful.)
  • Particularly when you’re trying to finish out a longer session, thinking about how you’re close to the finish might help. Struggling to make it to the end of two hours of statistics study? Thinking about how you’ve only got 20 minutes left may help you push through to the end more consistently rather than being tempted to clock out early.

None of these strategies are likely to be a magic bullet, but they’re all worth trying if you want to maximize your chances of success.