mental-math-and-abacus

Going Mental with Math, and Attempting the Abacus

Read Time: 5 minutes

Are you good with mental calculations? I certainly wasn’t. I always had issues with even the most basic problems. My confidence really took a hit because it would take me ages to answer a simple math question, like how much change someone needed, or how we’d split a bill.

It affected me in a lot of ways, but I never took any steps to get around it. I just chalked it up to being bad at mental math. Not too long ago, I had a couple of interview rounds in which passing a mental math assessment was a requirement. Knees week, heart in my throat, I took the tests, and failed spectacularly.

I missed the benchmark by a mile both times and knew that I had to do something if I wanted a job in the industry.  That’s how I began my latest experiment: improving my mental arithmetic.

If improving your mental math skills is something you want or need to do, you might want to try the approach I took.

Here’s how I got started:

I downloaded a mental math app on my phone and started doing the practice problems during my morning commute on the train.

The app I use is called Math: Mental Math Games, although there are a lot of other options out there if you’re looking for one. I like this particular one, because there are a couple of features that I find quite useful, like the helpful tips section that demonstrates techniques or shortcuts that you can use to speed up your calculations.

There are different modes, but I tested myself on speed to figure out my benchmark. The speed training has a set of ten problems, and a timer, to track your performance.

I was shockingly slow at even the most basic level. I’m not kidding, I’m pretty sure this was preschool math and there are toddlers who would’ve gleefully decimated my time, taken a nap, and woken up to find me still struggling with the questions.

I started by taking note of the time it took me to answer the ten problems on day one. This is something you should do if you’re going to try this yourself, or you won’t know how much you’ve improved.

My time was over 30 seconds on the ten single digit subtraction and addition problems. I had a lot more difficulty on the double digit addition and subtraction problems, with an average time of almost two minutes, and over five minutes on the triple digit problems.

So here’s a quick summary for easy comparison:

Time taken to complete 10 problems

  • Single digit subtraction and addition = 30 seconds
  • Double digit subtraction and addition = 2 minutes
  • Triple digit subtraction and addition = 5 minutes
  • Double digit multiplication = N/A

Yeah, it took me an average of three seconds to answer a problem like “7 + 9”. For double digit multiplication problems, like “43 * 57”, I didn’t have a benchmark time. I was so bad at them, I couldn’t complete the ten problems at all.

The results of the experiment

After just a couple of days of practice, my speed was a lot better. It’s now been over a month, and my average times are as follows:

Time taken to complete 10 problems

  • Single digit subtraction and addition = 8 seconds
  • Double digit subtraction and addition = 30 seconds
  • Triple digit subtraction and addition = 50 seconds
  • Double digit multiplication = 2 minutes 40 seconds

I know these times are nothing to be bragging about, especially my time on the multiplication questions, but it’s a major improvement for someone who couldn’t answer them at all just over a couple of weeks ago.

This is good news if you’re looking to attempt this yourself, because I noticed that improvement occurs quite quickly.

Tricks and technique

Improving your mental math skills isn’t just a matter of attempting a bunch of questions on repeat. A few simple tweaks can really improve your ability to perform calculations in your head.

Schools tend to teach math in a way that’s clunky and impractical for quick mental calculation. For instance, most of us were taught to do math from right to left, but it’s far more natural to do it from left to right, especially when calculating mentally.

I used a combination of the app mentioned above, and an online course from The Great Courses, The Secrets of Mental Math. I found the online course to be especially useful. It’s well structured and the techniques are explained in full.

I can now calculate the square of any double digit number in my head — something that I always thought would be impractical because I would be too slow at it.

If you decide to give the course a go, you’ll probably find the presentation of the course to be quite cheesy, but the content is practical and very helpful. This isn’t a paid advertisement or anything, it’s just a recommendation I’m making because I found it worthwhile. The course is often on discount, so I’d suggest waiting for the sale.

What’s next?

If you’re interested in improving your mental math even further, you may want to consider learning the soroban or Japanese abacus. 

I tried my hand at learning the abacus, and while I’ll need lots more practice, I have noticed that the abacus offers a couple of significant advantages over regular mental arithmetic:

  • There’s significantly less cognitive load:
    • Consider trying to add the numbers 74, 986 and 17, 239 mentally. I’m sure you could do it, but I’ll bet keeping those numbers in your head will be a challenge in itself.
    • The beads on the abacus provides a visual form to the numbers and allows you to hold the numbers in your head with less strain on your memory.
  • It’s a lot quicker:
    • I’ve found that the using the abacus is like executing an algorithm to solve math problems. You barely have to think about the numbers, because the calculations become part of your muscle memory.
    • This factor, combined with the lower cognitive load, makes you a lot faster. It’s almost impossible to articulate, so you’ll have to try it yourself to know what I mean.

If you want to learn the abacus, you can certainly do it online. There are many options available, but as I haven’t used them myself, I won’t make any recommendations.

As it turns out, I’m no longer trying to apply for the job that required mental math skills, but sharpening the skill was definitely worthwhile. I’m going to continue working on my abacus skills too, perhaps at a more leisurely pace.

Mental math can come in handy in ways most people wouldn’t necessarily think of. Par exemple, if you’re quick with math and have some knowledge of basic probabilities, you could improve your odds of winning at poker. Those game nights could become a lot more fun with a couple more tools under your belt.

I hope you’ve found this useful, and if you do decide to give this a go, keep me updated on your progress! If you’ve found other ways to improve your mental arithmetic, leave a comment and let me know how you did it.

 

 

How to Find a Mentor

Having Trouble Getting a Mentorship? – Create Your Own!

Having a mentor can be extremely beneficial for your progression in virtually any field. They can accelerate your learning curve exponentially, help you shape your ideas and empower you. Given all of these potential benefits, I thought it would be useful to have a mentor of my own, so I started making a shortlist of people whom I could pick to be my mentor.

Enter Tim Ferris – World Renowned Author, Angel Investor and Polymath. 

Throughout my early teens, I was already fascinated by the concepts of accelerated learning, self-optimisation, and getting unconventional results by utilising unconventional methods. I would always try and figure out the easiest and most effective way to get something done. No one does all of this, and more, better than Tim Ferriss. If you haven’t heard of Tim Ferriss, you should certainly do some research on him and I promise it won’t disappoint.

You can check out his blog: fourhourworkweek.com/blog/  

Why Tim Ferriss?

When I first read the Four Hour Work Week, I was mind-blown. I instantly knew who my ideal mentor would be. I’d found someone who shared the same passion for everything that I enjoyed doing, except he was on a completely different level, far beyond anything I had imagined.

The reason I picked Tim Ferriss was because he is, in fact, a polymath, and exactly what I aspire to be. Secondly, I noticed that Tim was also utilising the tools that I had learned about from elsewhere, however he was applying them in ways that I had never thought of, which I found to be extremely interesting. He also has a knack for asking very simple, yet powerful questions which get you thinking and questioning everything, which can lead to some very interesting results.

To elaborate on the previous point, Tim has dabbled in a diverse array of fields, including his own television show (The Tim Ferriss Experiment, in which Tim attempts to master a new skill within a week), judo, language learning, self-experimentation, accelerated learning, and angel investing, just to name a few. He has enjoyed tremendous success in almost all of these fields. He is the living embodiment of my goals, and that makes him an ideal mentor in my case.

(Side note: I think the phrase “living embodiment” is quite superfluous, and yet I seem to find myself using it relatively often)

If I could have Tim Ferriss as my mentor, I certainly would. However, If you don’t have access to someone whom you would really like to be your mentor, what can you do?

You create your own mentorship.

How the Self-Created Mentorship Works 

Since I didn’t have access to Tim Ferriss himself, I looked at everything I did have access to and started with that. I voraciously devoured all of his books and searched for all kinds of material which he had released over the years. When I discovered his podcast, I began to listen to that too (It’s called the Tim Ferriss Show).

Side note: The Tim Ferriss Show basically involves Tim interviewing and deconstructing world-class performers from a variety of fields, and extracting the tools and tricks which we, the listeners, can put to use. I highly recommend the podcast, there’s an insane amount that I’ve learned from that alone. I’ve also recommended a couple of other podcasts, which you can check out: Podcast Picks of 2017: Productivity, Language, and Culture.

I also follow Tim’s progress through his blog, his Twitter page and of course, his podcast and try to make notes of all his titbits of knowledge that he imparts through all of the various channels.

Books, of course, are possibly one of my favourite ways to learn from my chosen mentor, because it distils all the information and leaves the reader with only the most useful and relevant content, which can be easily accessed and reviewed at leisure.

How to Create Your Own Mentorship Program

  • Find an individual/individuals whom you admire or aspire to emulate
  • Look for articles or books that they have published and read them. Write down questions and take copious notes
  • Search for other resources on your chosen mentor – read about their history and understand how and why they do what they do; it’s all about getting into their mindset and understanding how they work
  • Look for others’ work on them
    • Sometimes your mentor will not release their own material (Warren Buffett is a case in point). What you can do instead is to read books about them by other authors. These can be great because the author sometimes adds their own insight which can be very helpful.
  • Search for videos, interviews and other types of relevant content which can help you gain an insight into your mentor’s thought process
  • Finally, try connecting with your mentor. Some of them may have a Twitter account and you could try tweeting them. Hey, you could get lucky!

Now I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t anywhere near as great as having direct access to your mentor, but it’s the next best thing. I can honestly say that I’ve learned so much from all the different sources of information, even though I could not speak to my “mentors” directly.

I strongly encourage you to find someone whom you admire or would like to emulate, and embark on the journey yourself. It’s actually quite exciting to discover the information you require and try to search for all the answers by relying solely on yourself. It’s a challenge, but one that’s definitely worth it.

In fact, with this self-created mentorship program, you can have as many mentors as you want. Some of my other mentors include  Warren Buffett, Derek Sivers, John Mayer and many other incredible, talented individuals. There’s a wealth of knowledge that you can learn from your mentors, so go ahead and give it a shot!

Seeking a Natural High

A quick post today on my thoughts about why many people experience general down cycles in terms of happiness. This is different from depression, although the thoughts in this post could well be applicable to it.

My theory is that the sedentary lifestyle that most people live today has given rise to this issue of feeling unhappy all the time. It’s common knowledge that exercise makes you feel better, but I didn’t quite realise the impact it actually had on my quality of life until I started working out consistently.

I spent the majority of my university life in a state of constant unhappiness. Of course, there were ups and downs, but I’m talking about a general level of unhappiness. There were times when I would be feeling down for no apparent reason whatsoever. I never questioned this, and even thought it was normal. After all, why would you feel happy for no reason, right?

The 2-Week Experiment

At the start of summer, I decided to try a 2 week experiment. I changed my sleeping habit and started waking up at 6.30 every morning and going either for a bike ride or to the gym. At the end of every session, I would feel a natural high that allowed me to go through my day feeling relaxed and happy. I constantly felt lethargic, unmotivated and unhappy, but since I made this change, I’ve never felt better at any other point in my life.

In fact, I enjoyed the experiment so much that it’s become my daily routine. It’s pretty much an automatic process now, compared to before, when I would struggle to motivate myself just to go to the gym.

Working Out Provides the Natural High

Exercise is the secret to happiness. Or at least, it’s a big part of happiness. A potential reason for this is the release of endorphins into your system. Endorphins provide an effect similar to that of opiates – a euphoric feeling, or a natural high.  This is the feeling you get after a solid workout session.

I’m sure everyone knows that exercise has been linked to a diminution of stress levels, better health, etc. Before I started the 2 week experiment, I severely underestimated the impact it would have on my quality of life, and working out was always an “option”. I no longer consider it an option. I use my workout as part of the scaffolding for my day.

Mental Health Issues

I think that if society led a more active lifestyle, it’s quite possible that there would be a significant reduction in mental health issues (I don’t know if research has gone into this, at this point it’s simply an opinion based on my own observations and experience). As part of my mental health training, I noticed that a common pattern to recovering from mental health problems was the “Trinity of Happiness” (I don’t think anyone actually calls it that, just me); exercise, nutrition and sleep.

People greatly underestimate the effect that these activities have on them and I think it’s a terrible shame. Part of the problem can be remedied with education, but as usual, this needs to come from within. The individual needs to be open to the idea and willing to try it out.

Essentially, if you work out consistently, you’ll be significantly happier.

Disclaimer: I am not professionally trained in psychology, and these ideas are simply for discussion purposes and to encourage further research. 

TL;DR

  • I think our society leads a lifestyle that makes us highly susceptible to feeling unhappy.
  • My theory is that exercise could be the remedy for this.
  • The post workout “high” can help you get through the day feeling relaxed and happier
  • Exercise is very often underestimated (I would know, I underestimated it), and it has an incredible impact on quality of life
  • Don’t make it an option, make working out a part of your lifestyle