The Best Way To Learn New Information, According To Research

How many times have you re-read a few pages of text, then gone to write about them or answer some questions, only to find you can’t remember a word of what you just read? Revising for exams at school, university or even work is never fun (if it is fun, who are you and how did you find a way to bring joy to revision?), but there is good news. It doesn’t need to be so difficult and dull, “but what is this miracle technique?!”, I hear you cry.

It’s Drawing!

The above title is just for people who can’t be bother to read an amateur blogger’s whole post just to find the answer. Now most people at this point are worrying. Thinking things like

“I can’t draw!”

“I wish it was something I am good at, rather than drawing!”

But, imaginary worriers, you need not worry at all. Skill level is completely irrelevant to whether or not you learn better when drawing (please see the title picture for reference). It’s incredibly common to get self-conscious about your drawing skills around puberty, I know I did. I barely drew a thing for years! But it turns out that diagrams, maps, doodles even smiley faces count. So the bar for the required skill level really is low.

This takes off the pressure and means anyone can do it as easily as they would jot down a note. The drawings are for your benefit, not for anyone else.

Some scientists did a study, where a group of people was asked to recall a list of words and definitions, half were asked to write them over and over and half were asked to draw them. The results were that no matter how good each person’s actual drawings were, the doodlers did significantly better at remembering the words and definitions and understanding the content of what they had read.

Drawing Uses Multiple Parts Of Your Brain Simultaneously

It’s not actually clear just yet what happens in the brain when drawing that makes it so damn effective at helping you learn, but the leading idea at the moment is that it engages multiple parts of your brain at the same time. Similar to what I wrote in an earlier post about writing notes by hand.

When you draw:

  • You picture what it is you are drawing, this is the part of your brain that forms images.
  • You move your arm across the page to create different lines, shading and shapes. This is involves the part of your brain responsible for movement.
  • You judge the accuracy of your drawing, this requires analytical thought.
  • You feel the pen(cil) and the paper (or screen) you are drawing on, this engages the touch sensors in your brain

That’s a lot of brain parts and deeper processing has been found to increase the likelihood you remember something so using all those different brain parts are most likely responsible for drawing’s power to affect your memory.

Drawing Helps You Focus

For some reason, your mind is much less likely to wander when you are drawing, perhaps engaging your brain on so many levels means many more parts need to disengage for it to wander and you learn best when you’re concentrating.

Drawing Broadens Your Thinking

Drawing a thing requires you to picture how that thing looks, then how best to represent the thing and which version of thing to use. If you google aeroplane, you could get a whole bunch of similar looking planes, but if you draw a plane, you could draw: a propeller plane, a jet plane, a fighter plane. Then you could draw it: taking off, crashing, upside down, in a hanger. You can choose the detail level: cartoony, super realistic, just the outlines. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination will allow.

Drawing Keeps You Humble

Drawing is hard. I know earlier I said that it doesn’t have to be the best drawing, in the world to count, but try and draw a pig from memory now, how much does it look like a pig? Drawing shows us how much we actually observe in our daily life and how much we actually don’t know.

As with any skill, someone is always better than you, no matter how good you get. Also taking something in front of you and putting down only the parts you need requires a lot of thought. What parts of a pair of scissors do you need to make a drawing look like scissors?

Drawing something you think you can picture in your head only to see something completely different on the page, can be infuriating, but it’s not impossible, so keep trying, you’ll get there.

The following links contain all the information I used to write this post here, here, here and here.

Please let me know in the comments below, what you think!

Why I Take All My Notes By Hand And Why You Should Too

Swapping the keyboard for a pen, has many benefits

Why do you even take notes in the first place? Usually it is to keep a record of something you would not otherwise remember. Computers have become increasingly popular for note-taking due to their speed and the options of storage and (for those, like myself, who are cursed with eternal bad handwriting) legibility of the script.

So if my handwriting is so hard to read, so much slower than typing and storing all my paper notes is so much more difficult than using a computer, why am I recommending handwritten notes to you?

You Remember More Of What You Write By Hand

If your intention is to learn, it makes sense to get as much information down as possible, right? Wrong. Studies have found that when you write notes by hand, summarising in your own words, you actually retain more information than when you type the information.

The more deeply you think about something the first time the better you remember it. Whereas simply copying word for word what someone says, involves much less thinking, less understanding and therefore less remembering. Summarising in your own words, requires you to think about it and then translate it into language you yourself understand, this deep process that doesn’t happen in super fast typing is what helps you remember the information.

Writing By Hand Can Make You More Creative

When you type, you hit a few keys, the letters appear on the screen and you’re done. When you use a pen however, you draw funny shapes, each one different from the other, you feel the pen pressing into the paper, you hear the pleasing skrrtch skrrithch of a pen being dragged across the material.

The engagement of multiple senses, motor functions and cognitive functions lights up so much more of your brain than typing ever could. This ‘lighting up’ effect in your brain, allows many more connections between parts of your brain, allowing creative thoughts to flow. Essentially, typing is the same movement over and over, but handwriting involves seeing, hearing, feeling, moving and thinking.

Writing By Hand Is Relaxing

The slow pace of handwriting that I mentioned before, not only allows us to remember more and think more creatively, it turns out, it even soothes you. Modern addictive technology combined with the constant availability of such tech means we can be stimulated at all times of the day. If we want to be, we can be distracted endlessly. This seems fun at first but it is not good for us. In a world where we never stop, we never relax.

Handwriting is tech-free, it’s totally analogue and very slow, this combined with it lighting up all those different parts of the brain, mean that handwriting has similar benefits for the brain as mindfulness. It allows your mind to rest and recover from the barrage of notifications, videos and texts or just whatever has stressed you out that day.

I’m sure there are many other benefits of writing by hand, but these are just some I have read about. If you know anymore or disagree, please let me know in the comments.

An Experiment in Editing: Simple Tips to Become a Better Business Writer

The following is the first in a series of posts inspired by Jason Fried’s post on Signal V. Noise about a writing class he would like to teach. In the hypothetical class, he aimed to show that editing is truly valuable. That’s why the posts get shorter, not just varying in length, he aims to go from the full idea to just the main point of the text. I am going to attempt to do this with several of my posts, as an experiment to see if it helps with my writing. The first attempt is below:

Original Post (One-and-a-bit pages):

This blog is a game-changer, it’s going to disrupt the online content world and create a new, unheard of change in this tired, bloated industry… Actually, my writing is nothing like that, but how many times have you heard that with the word “blog” swapped for the word “company”.

The kind of writing you find on company websites is incredibly clichéd and most of the time boring. This is true for internally facing and externally facing writing. As someone with a blog, I am interested in being a better writer. I am not a business writer by trade, but improvements to any kind of writing are helpful to anyone. You might feel you don’t need to write anything in your job, but you have probably written an email or (for anyone pre-gen-Z) a letter. So, you might as well be better at that, right? Besides, words are what connect people. You can’t get your ideas across to someone without telling them about them, unless you’re a telepath or very talented mime.

Write to Someone Specific

Hey you, Reader, yeah, you! Are you paying attention right now? Okay, good. The first tip is to write to a someone, not to yourself. You know what you mean when you say something, that doesn’t mean a reader does. Know what I’m saying?

The words I say come across more clearly and sound more conversation-ey if I talk directly to you (I hope). Would you prefer that I describe to you how “this makes the writing read more like a personal chat?” or, would you prefer “that the writer of this blog post explain that there is a great benefit to be had, if one were to address a specific audience member, rather than just think aloud?”

Write Exactly as Much as You Need to. No More.

Write Out an Acronym the First Time You Use it

You get to a meeting, everyone is discussing the KPIs, HGTs and GMOs. What. The. Hell? I know maybe one of those acronyms, and I wrote this post! You start to feel stupid, out of the loop. Why does everyone know these words and throw them around so casually? Why don’t I know them? I’d say the fault is theirs, not yours. There’s no need to purposefully, exclude people, from certain information. You’re in this meeting to discuss something, learn something or otherwise communicate ideas to each other. No need to drown someone in codes they don’t understand.

Whilst the example I gave was more silly, there are times in my job as a BSA (Business Systems Analyst) where it can be really helpful to have someone explain the acronym about to be used. I am sure it’s the same for your job. I didn’t even realise SQL was pronounce see-quel when I started…

If you are the one writing in order to share information, make sure everyone knows the acronyms by explaining it the first time you use it, SWIM (See What I Mean?). This tip works for technical jargon too.

Passive Voice and qualifiers are really weak!

I sound stronger when I explain to you that I wrote this post. That I thought up how I was going to say it and then said it, exactly like that. I sat there in my leather armchair, smoking a pipe, surrounded by leather-bound books, pondering my next sentence. I didn’t actually, but it sounds better than “The leather chair was sat in by the author, the pipe was smoked by the author. The books surrounded him and thoughts were had by him”

Another thing that really doesn’t sound very good is a qualifier such as “really” or “very”. Just say it was “amazing” , not “really good” , or say that it was “crap” , rather than “very bad” .

Make It Easy to Scan the Page

How many times have you been reading a lengthy document thinking “I know the point I liked was here somewhere, in this never-ending wall of text. It was at that line, no. Next line. Ah, here’s the bit about the dolphin trainer, so it must be coming up soon, hmmm. Still can’t find it.”?

This is exactly the experience you have had before, dolphin trainer and all. This is what it’s like to try to find a specific point in a solid block of text. Instead, use headings, bullet-points, and the like to make the page easier to scan. People hate reading more than they have to, to find the bit they like. So give them signposts to follow, your readers will silently thank you.

The original article that inspired this post is from Fast Company, I didn’t take down all their points, just the ones that resonated with me the most. Please feel free to read the original article in full, here.

More Succinct Version (Under One Page):

Business writing is often uninformative and boring. The tips below aim to help you make yours much more interesting and easier to understand. Being able to write well in any context is a skill worth having, so even if you aren’t a business writer, I hope you gain something from these tips.

Write to someone specific.

If you write to everyone, you actually get through to no one. Speak to someone. It can be yourself, it can be an imaginary friend or an avatar of the person you wish to speak to. You could even speak aloud to someone and then write down what you said. Conversational language is the easiest to understand. If you are writing for other people to understand (this would apply to most cases, I imagine), then write tosomeone. People don’t talk through each other, they talk to each other, so write like that.

Write exactly as much as you need to. No more.

Passive Voice and Qualifiers are really weak!

When things are explained from the point of view of the thing, it reads and sounds bad. “The armchair was sat in” or “They sat in the armchair”. Which sounds better? You can’t emotionally connect with an armchair (probably). So talk about people, they’re always connecting.

Qualifiers sound weak. Instead of “it was really hot”, try “it was sweltering”. Instead of “I am very angry”, try “I am furious”. Remove “very”, “really” and “well” from your vocabulary.

Make it Easy to Scan the Page.

Readers might not want to read all the beautiful prose you have written. They might have spotted one thing in the headline and they’re looking for the answer to the question now burning a hole in their head. Or they may be re-reading your article and need to find a particular section. Give them bold headers and smaller text in the body of paragraphs so readers can pick out certain sections. Also Main headers should be bigger than sub-headers so they know the order to read in without thinking. The moment your reader struggles with the formatting of your writing, is the moment they are no longer absorbed in your content. Getting people’s attention is hard enough in the digital age, so don’t make it harder for yourself.

A Few Paragraphs (Less than 100 words):

Most business writing is full of cliches, these are boring and don’t give you any real information. Let’s change that.

Write to Someone Specific

Your reader is a single person, not a crowd, write accordingly.

Write as much as you have to. No more.

Passive Voice and Qualifiers are really weak.

Describe what people do, not what things do. People connect to people, not things.

Don’t amplify weak words, learn more interesting words instead.

Make it easy to scan the page

People don’t want to waste time. Save them time. Direct them with headers and formatting.

One Line Version:

To write better, aim for clarity and simplicity.

Why Walking Should Become Your New Habit

When I was a child, my parents used to take my brothers and I on long walks in idyllic parks, along beautiful rivers and over rolling hills. I hated every minute of it. It felt like forever and we would walk at the slowest pace, why do adults do everything so slowly?! I did not realise at the time how much there actually was to enjoy.

Cut to 20 or so years later, and now I love a quiet, solitary walk, just me and my thoughts. Interestingly, it turns out there are many benefits to taking a stroll, from improving your mood to actually helping you get slightly fitter.

Walking counts as exercise

If you’re anything like me, exercising is a lot of effort and the hardest past is getting started. However, you don’t have to be coughing up your lungs on a marathon or benching 200 kg at the gym, to start feeling the benefits of exercise. Any exercise, even when it’s light can improve your health and fitness. 

Walking is a good light exercise, you won’t necessarily have anything to boast about at the office, but it’s something for you, who cares about what Steve in marketing thinks?

Your body just likes movement, but if you find normal walking too slow, why not change up the pace a bit and walk faster? Or up the difficulty and go for a hike, challenging terrain and an incline can make the exercise much more intense, if that’s what you prefer. Plus, hiking up hills and other such structures can lead to the best views.

Walking for a few minutes, feels good for hours

Going for a walk gets your blood pumping and activates so much more of your brain than sitting still does. It can take as little as 20 minutes to get those feel good hormones going, but the effects can last as long as 2 hours after you’ve finished walking. That’s a damn good return on investment!

To amplify the relaxing effects of walking, try heading into the woods. The Japanese call this “forest bathing” and have even started recommending it as a cheap but effective form of therapy for people with issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. Something about it experiencing nature, just soothes us humans, it’s like a bubble bath for your mind.

Walking makes you more present

I am a huge fan of mindfulness. Sitting down, on a comfortable chair, eyes closed, Breathe in … Breathe out…Ahhh… Pure bliss.

Meditation is the most common people know of for becoming more mindful, but it’s not the only method. Walking can make you more present too. You can look at the sights, or even just get lost in your thoughts. The point is, you’ve slowed down from the busyness of your life and your just focusing on what’s there, with you. When was the last time you had some time just you and no-one else? In a world filled with beeps, flashing lights, vibrating devices and other distractions, a little time to yourself is a welcome change. Treat yourself to a quick walk on your next lunch break, you deserve it.

Simple Ways to Make Your Business Writing Better

This blog is a game-changer, it’s going to disrupt the online content world and create a new, unheard of change in this tired, bloated industry… Actually, my writing is nothing like that, but how many times have you heard that with the word “blog” swapped for the word “company”.

The kind of writing you find on company websites is incredibly clichéd and most of the time boring. This is true for internally facing and externally facing writing. As someone with a blog, I am interested in being a better writer. I am not a business writer by trade, but improvements to any kind of writing are helpful to anyone. You might feel you don’t need to write anything in your job, but you have probably written an email or (for anyone pre-gen-Z) a letter. So, you might as well be better at that, right? Besides, words are what connect people. You can’t get your ideas across to someone without telling them about them, unless you’re a telepath or very talented mime.

Write to Someone Specific

Hey you, Reader, yeah, you! Are you paying attention right now? Okay, good. The first tip is to write to a someone, not to yourself. You know what you mean when you say something, that doesn’t mean a reader does. Know what I’m saying?

The words I say come across more clearly and sound more conversation-ey if I talk directly to you (I hope). Would you prefer that I describe to you how “this makes the writing read more like a personal chat?” or, would you prefer “that the writer of this blog post explain that there is a great benefit to be had, if one were to address a specific audience member, rather than just think aloud?”

Write Exactly as Much as You Need to. No More.

Write Out an Acronym the First Time You Use it

You get to a meeting, everyone is discussing the KPIs, HGTs and GMOs. What. The. Hell? I know maybe one of those acronyms, and I wrote this post! You start to feel stupid, out of the loop. Why does everyone know these words and throw them around so casually? Why don’t I know them? I’d say the fault is theirs, not yours. There’s no need to purposefully, exclude people, from certain information. You’re in this meeting to discuss something, learn something or otherwise communicate ideas to each other. No need to drown someone in codes they don’t understand.

Whilst the example I gave was more silly, there are times in my job as a BSA (Business Systems Analyst) where it can be really helpful to have someone explain the acronym about to be used. I am sure it’s the same for your job. I didn’t even realise SQL was pronounce see-quel when I started…

If you are the one writing in order to share information, make sure everyone knows the acronyms by explaining it the first time you use it, SWIM (See What I Mean?). This tip works for technical jargon too.

Passive Voice and qualifiers are really weak!

I sound stronger when I explain to you that I wrote this post. That I thought up how I was going to say it and then said it, exactly like that. I sat there in my leather armchair, smoking a pipe, surrounded by leather-bound books, pondering my next sentence. I didn’t actually, but it sounds better than:

“The leather chair was sat in by the author, the pipe was smoked by the author. The books surrounded him and thoughts were had by him”

Another thing that really doesn’t sound very good is a qualifier such as “really” or “very”. Just say it was “amazing” , not “really good” , or say that it was “crap” , rather than “very bad” .

Make It Easy to Scan the Page

How many times have you been reading a lengthy document thinking “I know the point I liked was here somewhere, in this never-ending wall of text. It was at that line, no. Next line. Ah, here’s the bit about the dolphin trainer, so it must be coming up soon, hmmm. Still can’t find it.”?

This is exactly the experience you have had before, dolphin trainer and all. This is what it’s like to try to find a specific point in a solid block of text. Instead, use headings, bullet-points, and the like to make the page easier to scan. People hate reading more than they have to, to find the bit they like. So give them signposts to follow, your readers will silently thank you.

The original article that inspired this post is from Fast Company, I didn’t take down all their points, just the ones that resonated with me the most. Please feel free to read the original article in full, here.

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need – Daniel H. Pink

Why should you read this?

You go to work everyday and you don’t hate it but you don’t love it, you just keep going not sure what to do next. You are just leaving university and you can’t find that “dream job” that you are supposed to have by now. You see other people doing better in their career than you even though you are much harder working and much more talented than them!

What’s it about?

This book has 6 handy tips on how to do plan your career and is delivered in a manga-style format allowing you, the reader, to gain a lot of information incredibly quickly and also enjoy the content. I’d most recommend this book to new graduates (like myself), but it could appeal to people who are older and want a boost to their career.

The story starts with a pretty average guy, he works pretty hard at a pretty average office job and is doing pretty well, not amazing, but he isn’t a total failure either. One day he stumbles across a wise fairy (I don’t remember if she is actually referred to as a fair in the book), called Diana, who can explain how the working world works so Johnny can get set on his career. It sounds pretty stupid when I say it like that, but it is genuinely a fantastic book. It’s a short read and has some clear, sharp insights into how to do well in any career. This book isn’t about choosing the career for you, there are no career quizzes or suggested career paths, it just allows anyone to do better at the job they already have or will have soon.

Lesson 1 : There is no plan

This sounds like the opposite of what most sensible people would tell you. How can you not have a plan? You can’t just show up to work and flop around can you? Well no, but the idea that there is no grand plan does actually hold merit.

As Diana explains, the future is too messy to plan in detail, so if you make an incredible plan it won’t go as you expect, as the future is too hard to predict. She says there are two reasons for undertaking a project:

Instrumental reasons – These involve doing something because you believe it will lead to something better, regardless of how much you enjoy it. This thinking is flawed as you don’t know what the future holds for you and it’s hard to stay motivated when you don’t actually care about the work. Diana is against instrumental reasons!

Fundamental reasons – Diana’s preferred reasoning. This involves doing work you find genuinely interesting regardless of what the results could be. This is better as you are more likely to do well at it and being good at something is more useful than something you think might be useful one day.

I followed this advice by telling my boss every time I enjoyed a particular type of project, she can’t only give me those types of project, but she does take it into account, which I appreciate and as a result do better work, so we’re both happy.

Lesson 2: Think Strengths not Weaknesses

Traditional logic says that you should work on patching all your weaknesses. When you have a performance review, you can easily pick things that need improving, that way you will be able to make sure you are pretty good at everything, or at least don’t suck at anything.

Diana disagrees! Research has shown that the most successful people realise what they are good and get even better at those things. It is better to be amazing at something and have weaknesses than to be okay at everything but not have anything you excel at. Simple.

My first performance review was before I had read this book, so I chose some skills I needed to improve like time management and communicating with stakeholders, which were weak points for me. I did get better at them to be fair, but I wasn’t blowing anyone away. My next targets came after I read this book, so I decided to think about my strengths, I was good at problem-solving and mentoring, but I wanted to be even better, so these were my focus and as a result I am solving larger problems than before, creating more value and I am able to help more junior members of my team to excel themselves, which I find enormously satisfying.

Lesson 3: It’s not about you

Most successful people focused on how they could improve the lives of others, rather than focusing on how the world could improve their own life. Microsoft created software that allowed everybody to have a computer. Airbnb found a way to let some people make a bit of extra money and other people to find cheap places to stay in new areas of town, countries or states. The list goes on, Diana says to focus on how you can improve other people’s lives, the world doesn’t owe you anything!

I haven’t started my own business or found a way to save the world, but there is a lot of customer service in my job and when I started focusing on how I could improve the lives of my customers, rather than how I could get them to leave me alone, I started delivering a much better service and the customers noticed and appreciated it. I even started to look forward to seeing certain customers, as we had built a friendly rapport, in part thanks to my new attitude.

Lesson  4: Persistence beats talent

If a talented person has say 100 points of goodness at a skill but never practices they will always have 100 points. If you have 50 points but every week you gain one point, in a year you will have 102 points and actually be better than the talented person who never improved and that’s after just one year, most people work much more than one year in their life. This is actually how practice works, it’s like compound interest, you keep getting better and better. The better you get, the harder you try, the better you get, the … you get it.

Outside motivators like money, fame and praise don’t work to keep a person motivated for long, eventually it won’t be enough to motivate you and you will become dissatisfied with work and life. Instead you need to motivate yourself. If you can motivate yourself, you can keep going regardless of how much money, fame or praise you get or don’t manage to get. But, chances are, the better you are the more money and outside rewards you will get as a by-product, so it’s a win-win.

I used to believe that some people were just smarter than others, so when I realised I wasn’t the smartest person in the world, I was quite miffed. Luckily, this book promoted persistence and I had also heard about Growth Mindset (Carol Dweck’s brainchild), so I eventually realised we can grow and become better at any time. We aren’t stuck how we were born. As a result I try to get better at something everyday, it’s not always directly clear how each thing I learn helps, but the learning is fun in and of itself. Once you start to learn for fun instead of to pass exams, it becomes incredibly satisfying, I learn more in a week now than I did in a month in education.

Lesson 5: Make excellent mistakes

Sometimes, it feels like the best way to succeed  is to be perfect, to never make a mistake, have a spotless record, so no one can point to a mistake and say “this is why you suck”, but living in fear will stop you ever doing anything great. Instead is better to aim BIG, make mistakes and learn from them. Steve Jobs made plenty of mistakes in his career, he even got kicked out of his own company (temporarily), but no one can say he wasn’t successful. It happened after his death, but Apple was the first company to be worth a trillion dollars and Apple has thousands of successful products.

Diana says to not be too scared about what could go wrong, instead aim big, do something no one has done before, it could be a completely wrong and backfire, but it could also be amazing.

Hopefully this blog is my excellent project, only time will tell if it becomes an excellent mistake or an excellent success, feel free to tell me!

Lesson 6: Leave an imprint

Starting a new job, new school or new club can be scary, better not ruffle any feathers or draw any attention to yourself, right?

WRONG! Diana says to leave an impression, let something be different because you were there. Change something at your job, in a club you attend or even in your local community. It doesn’t have to be life-changing or huge, but make something different. At my job I changed something that was arguably pointless, but was massively proud that I had made a change:

  • I didn’t like people eating at their desks (I still don’t), I think we work enough and breaks are sacred, so I started a lunch club to get people socialising at lunch. HR loved it and it was a great way for new starters to have lunch without feeling like they were disturbing a “clique”.

There are many more ways to make an imprint in your career, my lunch club didn’t even have anything to do with doing my job well, but I was so proud when someone who worked in a different office to me, told me that my lunch club got people out of their cars, off their desks and having lunch as a group, enjoying each others company instead. There are so many ways to make an impact at the place you work, it’s more traditional to do so with the quality of your work, but what will you do to leave an imprint?

 

For a much better explanation of the above principles see the original material by following the link at the top of this page.