There’s a reason famous thinkers like Einstein and Salvatore Dali would sleep for 10-hours at a time and tap multiple naps a day.
They knew it was vital for their brain to clear out toxins built up during the day which prevented engaging the focused mind.
The next time you feel like pulling an all-nighter and studying, you’d probably be better off getting a good night sleep and resuming the next day.
Spaced repetition, a little every day
Jerry Seinfeld writes jokes every day. He has a calendar on his wall and every day he writes jokes, he marks an X on it. Because he writes them every day if you looked the calendar you’d see a chain of X’s.
Once the chain has started, all he has to do is keep it going.
‘Don’t break the chain.’
This technique is not only good for writing jokes. It can be used for learning too.
In the Learning How to Learn Course, they refer to a similar concept called spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition involves practicing something in small timeframes and as you get better at it, increasing the amount of time between each timeframe.
For example, when starting to learn Chinese, you might practice a single word every day for a week until you’re good at it. Then after the first week, you practice it twice a week. Then twice a month. Then once every two months. Eventually, it will be cemented in your mind.
The best learning happens when you combine these two concepts. Don’t break the chain by practicing a little every day and incorporate spaced repetition by going over the difficult stuff more often.
To begin with, you could set yourself a goal of one Pomodoro a day on a given topic. After a week, you would’ve spent 3-hours on it. And after a year, you’ll have amassed over 150-hours. Not bad for only 25-minutes per day.
Bonus: A great tool for spaced repetition is the flash card software Anki and for not breaking the chain, I recommend the Don’t Break the Chain poster from the writers store.
Part 2 — Chunking
Part 2 of the course introduces chunking. Multiple neurons firing together are considered a chunk. And chunking is the process of calling upon these regions in a way which they work together.
Why is this helpful?
Because when multiple chunks of neurons fire together, the brain can work more efficiently.
How do you form a chunk?
A chunk is formed by first grasping an understanding of a major concept and then figuring out where to use it.
For example, if you were starting to learn programming, it would be unwise to try and learn an entire language off by heart. Instead, you might start with a single concept, let’s say loops. You don’t need to understand the language inside and out to know where to use loops. Instead, when you come across a problem which requires a loop, you can call upon the loops chunk in your brain and fill in the other pieces of the puzzle as you need.
Deliberate practice: do the hard thing
Forming a chunk is hard. First of all, what are the important concepts to learn? Second, where should you apply them?
This is exactly why you should spend time and effort trying to create them. Instead of learning every intricate detail, seek out what the major concepts are. Figure out how to apply them by testing yourself. Work through example problems.
The process of doing the hard thing is called deliberate practice. Spending more time on the things you find more difficult is how an average mind becomes a great mind.
Einstellung — don’t be held back by old thoughts
Dr. Barbara Oakley introduces Einstellung as a German word for mindset.
But the meaning is deeper than a single word translation.
Every year you upgrade your smartphone’s software. A whole set of new features arrive along with several performance improvements.
When was the last time your way of thinking had a software upgrade?
Einstellung’s deeper meaning describes an older way of thinking holding back a newer, better way of thinking.
The danger of becoming an expert in something is losing the ability to think like an amateur. You get so good at the way that’s always worked, you become blind to the new.
If you’re learning something new, especially if it’s the first time in a while, it’s important to be mindful of Einstellung. Have an open mind and don’t be afraid of asking the stupid questions. After all, the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t get asked.
Recall — what did you just learn?
Out of what you’ve read so far, what has stood out the most?
Don’t scroll back up. Put the article down and think for a second.
How would you describe it to someone else?
It doesn’t have to be perfect, do it in your own words.
Doing this is called recall. Bringing the information you’ve just learned back to your mind without looking back at it.
You can do it with any topic. Reading a book? When you’re finished, put it down and describe your favourite parts in a few sentences.
Finished an online course? Write an article about your favourite topics without going back through the course. Sound familiar?
Practicing recall is valuable because it avoids the illusion of competence. Rereading the same thing over and over again can give you an illusion of understanding it. But recalling it and reproducing the information in your own words is a way to figure out which parts you know and which parts you don’t.
Part 3 — Procrastination & Memory
The Habit Zombie
How hard do you have to think about making coffee in the morning at your house?
No very much. So little, your half asleep zombie mode body can fumble around in the kitchen with boiling water and still manage to not get burned.
Because you’ve done it enough it’s become a habit. It’s the same with getting dressed or brushing your teeth. These things you can do on autopilot.
Where do habits come into to learning?
The thing about habits is that almost anything can be turned into a habit. Including procrastination.
Above we talked about combating procrastination with a timer. But how do you approach from a habit standpoint?
Part 3 of the Learning How to Learn course breaks habits into four parts.
The cue — an event which triggers the next three steps. We’ll use the example of your phone going off.
The routine — what happens when you’re triggered by the cue. In the phone example, you check your phone.
The reward — the good feeling you get for following the routine. Checking your phone, you see the message from a friend, this feels good.
The belief — the thoughts which reinforce the habit. You realise you checked your phone, now you think to yourself, ‘I’m a person who easily gets distracted.’
How could you fix this?
You only have to remove one of the four steps for the rest to crumble.
Can you figure out what it is?
What would happen if your phone was in another room? Or turned off?
The cue would never happen, neither would the subsequent steps.
The technique of removing the cue doesn’t only work for procrastination. It can work for other habits too. It also works in reverse. If you want to create a good habit. Consider the four steps.
To make a good habit, create a cue, make a routine around it, give yourself a reward if you follow through and you’ll start forming a belief about you being the type of person who has the good habit.
The dictionary isn’t the only place product comes after process
Thinking about the outcome of your learning is the quickest way to get discouraged about it.
Because there is no end. Learning is a lifelong journey.
No one in history has ever said, ‘I’ve learned enough.’
And if they have, they were lying.
I’ve been speaking English since I was young. Even after 25-years of speech, I still make mistakes, daily. But would getting upset at where my level of English is at be helpful? No.
What could I do?
I could accept that knowing everything about speech and the English language is impossible. And instead, focus on the process of speaking.
This principle can be related to anything you’re trying to learn or create.
If you want to get better at writing, the end product could be a bestselling book. But if I told you to go and write a bestselling book, what would you write?
Worrying about what a bestselling book would have in it would consume you. It’s far more useful to focus on the process, to write something every day.
Free up your working memory and set a task list the night before
Dr. Oakley says we’ve got space for about four things in working memory. But if you’re like me, it’s probably closer to one.
Some of the people I work with have three monitors with things happening on all of them, I’m not sure how they do it. I stick to one and push it to two when a task requires it.
If I had a third monitor it would be the A5 notepad I carry around everywhere. It’s my personal assistant. Every morning, I write down a list of half a dozen or so things I want to get done during the day. Sometimes I write the same list on the whiteboard in my room to really clear out my brain.
Even when I’m in the middle of a focused session, 12 minutes into a Pomodoro, things still come out of no where. Rather than stop the Pomodoro, the thought gets trapped on the paper. Working memory free'd up.
The course recommends creating a list of things the night before but I’m fan of first thing in the morning as well. Putting things down means they’re out of your head and you can devote all of your brain to power to focused thinking rather than worrying about what it was you had to do later.
Don’t forget to add a finishing time. The time of day you’ll call it quits.
Because having a cutoff time means you’ve got a set timeframe to complete the tasks in. A set timeframe creates another reason to avoid procrastination.
And having a cutoff time for focused work means you’ll be giving your brain time to switch to diffused thinking. Who knows. That problem you couldn’t solve at 4:37 may solve itself whilst you’re in the shower at 8:13.