Learning How To Learn: Week 1

I took the course Learning How To Learn on Coursera and would like to share with you what I learn from it, in the next series of posts.

Learning How To Learn is a FREE course, offered by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terence Sejnowski. The former, a professor of engineering, whose research is on neuroscience and social behaviour, the latter researches neural networks and computational neuroscience. They’re combined expertise allows them to have some of the best insights on learning effectively and they offer the course free of charge. The course has had over 2 million students and has a user rating of 4.8/5. I fully recommend everyone does this course, as learning better will make every aspect of your life more successful. You can find the course here: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/home/welcome

The course is broken down into 4 weeks, where each week is like a chapter of what will be learnt that week. There is nothing stopping you going faster than one chapter a week though, they don’t lock the chapters. If you want to take the course slower than one a week that is an option too, but there are optional assignments you can complete and these have a deadline if you would like them marked.

Week 1 is an introduction to learning and what this course is going to teach in more detail in the weeks to come.

Focused Mode Vs Diffuse Mode

There are two distinct modes of thinking we use when learning. Focused mode and Diffuse mode.

Focused Mode is when we are concentrating hard on what we are doing, in this mode we can only think about 4 things at once, as we are using our “short-term memory” or “working memory”. It is commonly believed we can hold 6 or 7 things in our mind, but studies has been found that 4 is more accurate. Focused mode is best for when you need to learn or think about something difficult.

Diffuse Mode is how our brains act when we let our minds wander. In Diffuse Mode we concentrate less, so our brain can move between different thoughts more easily. This is best for making creative connections allowing us to form ideas we wouldn’t normally come up with.

For example I would use diffuse mode and focused mode to write this blog post. The diffuse mode is best for the first draft, I’m not second guessing what I write, the ideas just flow in a stream-of-consciousness style. Then once I have all the rough ideas down, I will switch to focused mode to edit the post. I am looking for mistakes, checking the grammar, making sure I used the best word for a situation and removing unnecessary sentences.

Procrastination

Procrastination is the act of avoiding doing something important, for a more pleasurable, less difficult activity. It turns out that this is not just a problem for lazy people, but many successful people actually suffer from it all the time. The good news is, it can be managed.

Why We Procrastinate

Seeing a task you don’t want to do actually activates a small pain response in your brain, even when you know that completing that task will ultimately be good for you. Your brain then wants to switch to doing something less painful, such as watching TV, chatting to friends or mindlessly browsing the web.

When To Use Willpower Is Crucial

Master procrastinators such as myself tend to believe that people who get stuff done are just more motivated, they have some innate willpower we mere mortals could never achieve. As a student, even when I was at my most motivated to do some work, I would look at my work and quickly see my motivation fade, as I felt the allure of watching some top quality Parks and Recreation ( a fantastic show, I highly recommend watching).

Research has found that people who get stuff done, don’t just have a vast resource of willpower that has been unfairly distributed to them. They have just figured out when to use their willpower. Everyone has a finite amount of willpower, so using it at the right times, allows you to get work done.

The initial painful feeling you get when looking at an unpleasant task I mentioned earlier, actually passes very quickly if you manage to start the task. So the very beginning of any task, called the “cue”, is the time you need to exercise willpower. Once you start a task, you forget how much you did’t want to do it, surprisingly quickly.

Practice

Learning any new skill takes practice, we have all heard the saying “practice makes perfect”, but is there any truth to this? The brain is made up of many pathways, each time you perform a certain activity, the same pathway is activated and activating the same pathways over and over again is practice. Think of it like a path through a field, you know the ones that weren’t put there, but people kept walking on the same route over and over, so the path becomes more visible. Eventually there is an actual bit of flattened grass or mud that you can follow easily. This is how practice works. The first time, the path is barely there and will fade if no one else uses it again, but enough repetitive use and the path becomes strongly defined. So rather than practice making perfect, practice makes permanent.

Why Maths Is So Hard

Many people consider maths their worst subject at school or the one they found hardest. Is this because they are stupid? No. Maths is often difficult because we learn best by comparing new knowledge to old knowledge. Maths, is full of abstract concepts, meaning we have nothing to compare it to. The more abstract something is, the harder it is to compare to something else or provide an analogy to explain it. It’s perfectly easy to explain 2 sheep to someone, you just show them two sheep. How do you explain just the number 2? This seems obvious now, as you learnt it so young, but there was a time when people had no concept of numbers just being numbers, it was too abstract.

People do eventually learn maths though, it’s not some big hoax intended to make the uninitiated feel stupid. The best way to learn something new, is to focus on the subject for a set period of time, then take a break and let yourself slip into the diffuse mode, so your brain can create connections between the new ideas you just learnt and your existing knowledge.

Memory

We have 2 types of memory. Short-term (or working) memory and long-term memory. Understanding the difference between the two is crucial in knowing how best to learn.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory can hold 3-4 chunks of information at any one time. Meaning we can think about 3-4 different ideas and use them to solve problems or create new ideas. Short-term memory is like a fuzzy blackboard, where the ideas you have can easily get smudged or rubbed away entirely, so you forget them or get them muddled up.

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is where information can be stored for life. Once you have committed a memory to you long-term memory you can likely remember it forever. It’s like a warehouse filled with information, it’s much clearer than short-term memory, but all long-term memories, started out as short-term memories.

Moving Short-Term Memories to Long-Term

There are two factors affecting how memories move from short-term to long-term:

  • The strength of the emotion felt learning the memory
  • Repetition

The first point is why certain things that terrified you once, seem to stay with you forever or why people always say the knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about 9/11. The emotions were so strong, that the memory was burnt into their memories forever.

The second point is how we can learn things that we don’t feel strong emotions for. By practising multiple times, we can create pathways in our brain strong enough to become permanent long-term memories.

Spaced-Repetition

Repeating the same thing over and over isn’t enough to learn it. The best way to commit something to memory is to use “spaced-repetition”. This is where you increase the amount of time between each practice session. The effort you go to, to remember a skill and do it again is called recall and this is what makes the pathway get strengthened. So re-reading or highlighting texts in a passage tends to do very little for helping you remember or learn as you aren’t reactivating the pathways in your brain, quizzing yourself is much more effective.

To make the quizzing even more effective, it is best to use spaced-repetition. To do this, you might practice a skill on Monday, then one day later on Tuesday, then 2 days later on Thursday and so on, until you no longer struggle to remember how to do it, even weeks later.

Sleep

I personally never feel like I have had enough sleep. I would sleep 10-12 hours a day if that were a realistic option, but sadly my employer want to accommodate this habit. Sleep is actually very good for your brain. During the day, you need to relieve yourself as nature calls, you get rid of waste you produced from your food and drink. Your brain can only relieve itself when you are asleep, so if you don’t sleep your brain becomes clogged up with toxins that make you less able to think and learn more slowly.

During sleep your brain sorts out what it feels are the important memories and removes the less important ones. This is why it can be hard to remember what you had for dinner yesterday, your brain didn’t need the memory and got rid of it. Sadly, you can’t tell your brain to keep the things you studied that day and forget how you embarrassed yourself at the pub the other day. But, you if you focus on what you are learning and tell yourself you want to dream about it before bed, you are more likely to dream about what you learnt and therefore retain more of what you learnt.

An Experiment In Editing – 4: To Sell Is Human

The following is the fourth 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 and compressing is truly valuable. That’s why the posts get shorter, not just varying in length, he aims to go from the fully explored 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 skills.

To see the original post, please click here.

One-Line Version

Selling is important, selling solves problems, selling can make lives better.

One-Paragraph Version

Every job involves persuading people, a good solution to a problem, needs people to believe in it, for it to be implemented. You need to understand people, keep going when things get tough and understand the problem you want to solve. To move people, you need you pitch your offer, be able to adapt to changing situations and you need to work for the customer. Not just yourself.

Three-Paragraph Version

Why Sales?

Every job today has an element of “non-sales selling” (persuading, influencing and convincing others in ways that don’t involve them making a purchase). These skills are critical in all jobs, so we are all sales people. In a world where everyone has access to the same information, moving people can be a way to help people solve a problem, not screw them over.

The ABCs of Selling

Attunement – Understanding your customer, so you can figure out the best solution for them, as an individual.

Buoyancy – Being able to keep going despite all the rejection you will face trying to move people.

Clarity – Understanding the situation as clearly as possible, so you can solve problems your customers didn’t know they had or didn’t know could be solved.

Skills You Need, To Be Good At Moving People

Pitch – Your customers can’t buy your offer if they don’t know it exists. If you never put the information into the world, it doesn’t exist. An effective pitch is crucial to moving people.

Improvise – Plans fail, situations change. You need to be able to think on your feet and adapt to the situation as required.

Serve – A good salesperson ultimately serves their customer. You can improve your service by making it personal (find a way to improve your customer’s situation). Or by making it purposeful (find a way to improve the world, even just a little bit).

One-Page Version

This book is about how Sales not only deserves a re-branding from being all about pushy con-artists, but that Sales is actually a necessary skill for workers everywhere today.  

We All Work in Sales

A Survey of western workers, found that 1 in 9 people work in traditional sales, but that the other 8 in 9 spend 40% of their time in “non-sales selling” (persuading, influencing and convincing people in such a way that doesn’t involve them making a purchase).  Pink refers to this as “moving people”

How We All came to be in Sales

One of the skills that seems to be universally useful, is the skill to move people. Teachers move their students when they get them to study hard and learn for their futures. Nurses move people when they work on building a treatment plan with their patients to create a plan that works and they will stick to outside of the hospital setting.

Does Sales Deserve Its Bad Reputation?

The success of a sales technique is determined by the amount of information on both sides of the transaction. If the seller has more information, he has more power, so he can use tricks and be pushy to get more sales. Today, every person has access to the same information as everyone else, this means the seller and buyer are equally powerful, so lies and tricks won’t work. So today, the best salespeople actually work to find the best solutions for their customers, not just to get the best deals for themselves.

Attunement

Attunement, is all about understanding your customer. The better you understand the person and their needs, the better chance you have of being able to help them with their problems and therefore the better chance you have of making the sale.

Buoyancy

Salespeople face a lot of rejection. No matter how persuasive you are, you can’t persuade everyone. If you give up at the first failure, you will never sell anything. Being able to bounce back and carry on is key to surviving in sales.

Clarity

Clarity allows you and your customer to see the situation clearly and understand it. You can offer a solution to a problem your customer may not have known even existed or that they did not have know could be solved.

Pitch

The pitch is how your customer learns about your offering. If you never make the offer, no one ever finds out about it and therefore never buys it. The stronger the pitch, the more likely you will move people.

Improvise

Selling on a formula doesn’t work in a world where information is so readily available. Being able to react and adapt to situations is a key skills in moving people.

Serve

As a salesperson, you have the opportunity to improve the lives of others, your offer solves a problem. There are two ways to serve. Make it personal, find a way your offer benefits the person. Make it purposeful, find a way your offer makes the world a better place.

Professional Advice on How to Make Work Better For Everyone

I watched The Way We Work, a TED Original Series, the following post will feature my favourite points, but I highly recommend you check out the whole series. Most of the videos are 3-5 minutes long, so you can watch them very quickly in one go if you like or just watch the odd one on a break.

Employees Are Adults, Treat Them With Respect

Most people want to do well at their jobs. Given the respect they deserve, they will perform better. People respond to the way they are treated, if you treat them like delinquents trying to get away with the bare minimum, they will do so. Treat people well and you can get great results from them.

The Job Of Management Is To Build Great Teams, Not To Control People

If your manager spends their time telling you off for little things, like a casual chat with a coworker or for slouching when a customer walks by, they are a bad manager. You manager is supposed to find ways to help you be better at your job, not pick at each little mistake you make. If you are a manager, you should be empowering your people, not knocking them down. Great managers build great teams.

Every Employee Should Understand Your Business

What does your company do? If you can’t answer that easily, how can you do the best work to support that company? How do you know what makes that company more or less successful? Not knowing, is an insane way to work. The leadership of your company, needs to make sure that everyone understands the business and their role in it. Know your business, know your worth.

Everyone You Work With Should Be Able To Handle The Truth

I love feedback, sometimes it can hurt, but it’s the best way to grow. Getting feedback once a year isn’t helpful. You complete work much more than once a year, so why only get feedback once a year? When you learnt to drive, did you get corrected once a year? No! That would be madness. So, don’t do this at work. If you tell the truth, then people should understand and respect that. If they don’t, maybe they aren’t the best person for the job. Feedback helps us grow and improve. Learn to love feedback.

The Company Should Live Out Its 
Values At All Levels

I once worked at a company where the CEO, whilst giving a speech to the whole company, was claiming that the most valuable asset his company had, was its people. In that same 5 minute speech, he publicly shamed a whole department. There is a time and place for negative feedback, in front of the entire company, is not that place. That does not show you value your people, it shows the opposite. The CEO can say whatever he likes, but if his actions don’t follow his words, employees notice.

All Companies Should Be Excited 
For Change

The world changes all the time, with the rate technology progresses, we are experiencing change faster than ever. Your company will change. If you don’t change with the times, you get left behind. So, it’s better to enjoy the change and figure out how to use it to your advantage, rather than wishing for the good old days. Change is good, embrace it.

Trust Your Employees

The Four Seasons, is known for having consistently amazing service. One of their tenets is to do whatever you feel is right for the customer. They trust their employees to make their own decisions about what could help a customer or make them feel better and this is key in their consistently high standards of service. When people feel trusted, they will feel empowered to make decisions that benefit your company and customers. If they feel they will be chastised for making a mistake, they will never take even the smallest risk, which will only cause harm for your company. Trust your employees and reap the rewards.

Treat Everyone Fairly.

People aren’t stupid. If you treat one group of people differently to the rest, they will notice. At one company I worked for, there was a health insurance benefit for all the departments, except the IT team. Once the IT team found out, they were understandably livid. They felt cheated. This was eventually overturned and the IT team felt better because they were now being treated as equal to other departments. Not everyone took the health insurance, but the fair treatment improved morale. Treat all your employees fairly or risk losing good people.

Watch the videos yourself, let me know your favourite parts below.