Principles of Ultralearning: 4) Drills

Not this kind of drill…Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

Think about something you are learning. What’s the part you find hardest to improve? That’s the thing you work on.

Focusing on the parts you enjoy feels nicer, but it is not the best way to learn. To improve, to really improve, you need to focus on what you really struggle with and attack that problem ruthlessly.

Remove the Noise

Drills take away all the parts of what you want to learn, except the one aspect you want to improve.

If you’re playing guitar, you need rhythm, pick technique, finger placement etc. To drill, you would pick one of these and work at just that.

Direct-then-Drill Method

Last week, we looked at why Directness is the best way to learn a whole skill.

Drills are the opposite of Directness. They help you improve a small slice of a skill.

They remove all the real-world subtleties you can’t simulate, doing nothing but drills would mean you wouldn’t be able to Transfer your skills.

Drills are for improving weak spots, not replacing your whole project.

To overcome lack of Transfer, you work directly on the problem, then drill your weak point, then go back to directness and cycle through as needed. Keeping all that precious Transfer.

How Do You Drill?

Designing a good drill, requires that you know what to drill, how to do it and that you actually do it.

Time Slicing

Take a small piece of the main skill and work on it. Once you’ve mastered it, use the small piece as part of the whole again, for example:

Go over the few tricky bars in a song, then practice the whole song.

Take the same type of shot in football, then play a match.

Go over key phrases in a new language, then talk to someone in that language.

Cognitive Components

Skills are actually multiple smaller skills put together. Removing all the other parts you need to focus on, allows you to hone in on the one bit you want to drill.

Going back to the guitar example, if you wanted to work on rhythm, you could strum the beat of the song and mute the strings with your hand, so you don’t have to worry about the melody or your left hand at all.

The Copycat

Copying other work reduces the amount of thinking required to create the drill, so you can focus all your mental effort on the drill itself. You don’t have to work so hard to design a drill if it’s already been designed.

If you wanted to practice being more succinct in your writing, you could take someone’s essay and try to summarise it in fewer words. You could even do it with your own writing.

Magnifying Glass Method

If you can’t find a way to extract the specific sub-skill you want to improve, spend more time and effort on it instead.

If you want to do better research for projects, spend 10 times longer than you normally would.

Prerequisite Chaining

Start learning a skill without learning all the things you “should” learn first.

You can waste a lot of time and a lot of motivation learning all the basics you think you should learn first.

For example, when learning to draw, you can just start drawing, but you may realise that things at a distance don’t look right, so you learn perspective, you carry on drawing, suddenly things don’t look 3d enough, so you learn proper shading, rinse and repeat.

Whereas if you started off with perspective and shading, you might never have enjoyed drawing in the first place.

Drills aren’t fun, but they are an effective way to aggressively improve. Learn the rest of the principles here.

Let me know some ideas you’ve had for effective drills below.

Principles of Ultralearning: 3) Directness

unsplash-logoMiguel Henriques

Have you ever attended a lecture, understood every word, then someone asks you what it was about, but you can’t explain it?

You are not alone. many people struggle to transfer what they have learnt in theory to real life. You may understand that you have to kick a football at a specific spot to make it go to the top left corner, but you still can’t bend it like Beckham. Can you tell I am not up to date with football?

Maybe you heard a colleague explain how to do a fancy formula on your spreadsheet, but then you go to do it on your computer and the numbers all come out wrong. This is because transferring knowledge to actual applications is really hard.

First off, there is nothing wrong with reading books. Books are the source of endless knowledge. The problem is that just reading is not enough to get good at something.

Try reading how do a triple somersault before the first time you get on a diving board and see what I mean.

Transfer

Transfer is being able to apply knowledge or skills you have to other situations.

Transfer is why a plumber who has never been to your house can fix your sink, they have seen similar problems before. Not the exact same, yet they can transfer their existing skills and fix the new problem.

Explaining a concept using an analogy is also Transfer, you are using your knowledge of one thing to explain another.

Transfer is difficult.

Young cites studies where it has been found that university psychology students who learnt psychology at school level perform no better than students who started for the first time at university. Young says this is because the high school knowledge has not transferred well to university level.

Overcoming Transfer with Directness

Directness is Young’s solution to the difficulties of Transfer. Directness means learning in as similar a way as the one you will actually use the knowledge or skill in.

Directness works for 2 reasons:

  1. The closer your practice is to the real situation you will use the skill, the less Transferring needs to be done. Writing well-researched essays with citations is much more likely to prepare you for writing academic papers, than writing in a diary will.
  2. Learning by doing exposes you to subtle details that you can’t get from theory. When driving, you may understand that you need to find the biting point to move into first gear, but you can’t learn how the biting point feels by reading about it, you’ve got to get behind the wheel and drive!

Tips for Direct Learning

Project-Based Learning

Don’t just read about doing something, do something.

So if you want to program apps, build an app.

If you want to learn carpentry, build a chair.

If you want to climb a mountain, start climbing.

Immersive Learning

Get stuck into the situations you will use the skill for.

If you want to learn french, go to France and don’t speak English (Young did this, with 4 languages in one year) .

This method of learning is scary, but it forces you to get good fast.

It also helps you see where you’re going wrong through feedback (a principle we will look at later). A phrase book can tell you how to say specific phrases, one at a time, but knowing when to say each phrase is much more difficult.

Flight-Simulator Method

Some things you can’t practice in real life. Training fighter pilots in the most dangerous manoeuvres in real planes every time would result in a lot more dead pilots. So fighter pilots train in safe simulators that mimic real life.

The key to a good simulation is having the same level of challenge and the same cues to act, as the real thing. If you have those, then you can forgive slightly low-budget graphics or sound effects.

The skill itself is what really matters.

The Overkill Approach

Aim for a level of challenge you feel you aren’t ready for.

If you aren’t ready you will have to do your best just to be able to do it.

Testing gives you feedback, which helps you improve faster.

If you find the test easy, you need to try something harder. If you keep failing in the same way, you know what to drill later (another principle we will learn soon).

Take an exam you don’t feel you could pass yet.

Play a song you haven’t memorised yet, for an audience.

This is another scary method, but it is backed by research, pushing yourself to your absolute limits in practice has been shown to separate top-performers from the middle of the pack. You will get used to the discomfort.

To learn about the rest of the principles of Ultralearning see the rest of the series here.

Please let me know any projects you want to undertake in the comments below.

The Principles of Ultralearning: 1) Metalearning

ULTRALEARNING: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense” – Young’s self-described imperfect definition.

Ultralearning is a tool used to teach yourself things extremely quickly and effectively. In the book, Young gives many examples of people he calls “ultralearners” who master things from languages, public speaking, scrabble and chess. He even has examples of his own achievements: completing the MIT Computer Science course in 1 year, learning 4 languages in a year and drawing very realistic portraits in 30 days.

The book draws on 9 principles of ultralearning:

  1. Metalearning: Learning how to learn
  2. Focus: Learning how to focus more deeply and for longer periods of time
  3. Directness: Learning by doing the skill or using the knowledge you wish to learn
  4. Drill: Ruthlessly attack your weakest points until you don’t block your learning anymore
  5. Retrieval: Using testing as a way to learn
  6. Feedback: Getting genuine critiques on your work to confirm if you are truly learning
  7. Retention: Making sure you remember what you learnt
  8. Intuition: Learning how to understand at a deeper level, not just memorising
  9. Experimentation: Learn how to keep learning even once you have reached mastery

Metalearning

Metalearning is learning how to learn.

An oversimplified example would be to say that you can memorise 2+2=4 but learning how to add the numbers allows you to figure out any addition, rather than memorise every possible sum.

Why, What and How?

Metalearning can be broken down into why you want to learn something, what will count as success for you and how you will achieve your goal.

Why?

Your reasons why can either be Instrumental or Intrinsic.

Instrumental: You are learning the skill or knowledge in order to achieve an outside result, such as a promotion or a new job.

Intrinsic: You are learning for the sake of learning and don’t necessarily care if there is an immediate use for the skill.

What?

The what of your Ultralearning Project can be broken down into 3 main categories: Concepts, Facts and Procedures:

Concepts: Ideas you need to understand

Facts: Information you can just memorise

Procedures: Anything you can only learn through practice, such as pronunciation

How?

You need to know all the resources you have available to you. These can be planned through Benchmarking and Emphasise/Exclude methods:

Benchmarking: Figuring out the common learning methods as a starting point for your project. This can be reading lists, internet searches, or advice from an expert.

Emphasise/Exclude: Go through all the resources you listed in your benchmark and if they are not relevant, Exclude them. If a resource is not only relevant but more effective than most, you can use it more, Emphasise it.

How Much Should You Plan?

Young says to aim for 10% of the total duration of the project, but he says this isn’t law.

If you are doing a particularly large project (thousands of hours +), then you may only want to spend 5% of your time planning.

Also, don’t feel your planning all has to be done at the beginning, you can do more research during the project, such as when your learning slows down.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

The longer you keep using a specific technique or working on a particular skill, the less improvement you will see.

At the beginning, there is so much you don’t know, that every time you progress, you progress a lot. Once you know more, the amount more you knew is much smaller.

Imagine you have no water, then you get a pint of water from the tap. You now have infinitely more water than you had. Get another pint, you have twice as much water, another pint, you have 1.5 times what you had, this keeps going on until one more pint is just a drop in the ocean.

Learning using the same method will eventually lead to you progressing in tiny drops at most.

This is a sign you need to try another technique for your Ultralearning project. If you don’t have an idea for one, it is time to do more research.

I will write a summary of each principle outlined in the book, but I highly recommend reading the full book for yourself. The stories Young tells and the depth of explanation are much greater.

Ultralearning, is a new book by Scott Young, who is most well know for his blog about learning and the impressive learning challenges he has completed. The book can be found at the follow address: https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/ultralearning/

4 Simple Steps to Stop Procrastinating

This post will teach you why you procrastinate and how to stop procrastinating. It is part of my series of posts detailing what I learned on the Learning How To Learn course on Coursera.

Why We Form Habits

Habits save you energy. Your brain is only a tiny part of your total weight, yet it manages to use 20% of your energy. Sadly, this doesn’t mean that thinking really hard will help you lose weight. However, it does mean that your brain does whatever it can to save energy, like automating tasks it knows how to do. A habit is this automation.

The 4 Stages of a Habit

Habits have 4 stages, if you can understand them, you can learn to use them to your advantage, rather than letting them use you. Want to start a habit of exercising? Learn the 4 stages. Want to stop your habit of eating twenty chocolates a day? Learn the 4 stages. You have been kept in suspense long enough, these are the 4 stages:

  1. The Cue
  2. The Routine
  3. The Reward
  4. The Belief

The Cue

The cue is the thing you see, hear, smell or whatever that sends you into the automatic trance known as a habit. The Cue is the only stage where you need to exercise willpower. That’s great news, my whole life I thought people who conquered bad habits just had an iron will. Instead, they had better systems than me.

Common Cues include:

Your phone vibrating – makes you check for notifications

Seeing your to-do list – makes you watch TV instead of doing work

The smell of your favourite bakery – makes you go in and buy those pastries you love, but know you definitely can’t have

Resisting a Cue causes an actual pain response in your brain, but if you can overcome it, the pain fades very quickly. This is the time to start a better Routine.

The Routine

The Routine is very powerful. The Routine is you actually acting out a habit, it’s browsing YouTube for ten seconds, only to find out that mermaids do exist!! And that 4 hours have passed and you still haven’t done your assignment!!

Next time you see an unpleasant thing you need to do, but really don’t want to. Just work on it for the smallest amount of time you can handle. Since the pain fades so fast, you may find you actually end up doing more work than you thought you would.

The Reward

Now celebrate.

Celebrating helps you convince your brain that you did a good thing, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you fail. Habit changing can take time, it gets easier with each victory though.

The Reward is the immediate feeling of pleasure you get when you start your habit. It’s the warm gooey centre of your favourite chocolate cake, or that endorphin rush after a workout. Creating a good reward is key to avoiding procrastination.

Good Rewards can be a tasty treaty, some tantalising TV or telling yourself “well done, pal”.

The fun thing you do when you procrastinate is it’s own Reward, so you’re fighting a master of it’s craft. Your own brain!

If you’re struggling with rewarding yourself, try having the reward at the same time or same point in progress. This creates an expectation in your mind of reward, like you are training your brain to expect it.

The Belief

This is how you feel about a habit, if you don’t believe you can change a habit, then you can’t. If you do believe you can change a habit, then you can.

If you’re struggling with this part, then don’t worry. Beliefs can be changed. The first 3 steps will help you.

Once you have been trying to build a new habit for a while but it hasn’t become automatic yet, it can start to feel difficult and the allure of giving up becomes stronger. This is when you need to remind yourself that your system works and you are doing better with this new habit.

Process Beats Product

The Product is the thing you hope to achieve by starting a session of work, such as an item on your to-do list, a piece of homework, an assignment at work, the list goes on.

The Process is you actually doing the thing, it’s you lifting some weights, writing some words or cleaning some plates.

If you focus on the Process like “I will write for the next 20 minutes”, you never mentioned the finished Product you want to get out of it and you are less likely to produce the pain response in your brain so you have less of a Cue to procrastinate.

Let me know in the comments below if any of these ideas worked for you, or if they were total crap.

Overlearning, Deliberate Practice, The Einstellung Effect and Interleaving

This is the third post on the Learning How To Learn course available free on Coursera. In this post I will describe the 4 things I learnt in the second part of week 2.

Overlearning

Have you ever been driving down a familiar route, only to realise you weren’t concentrating, but still drove safely? It was almost like you were on autopilot? This is possible because you have overlearned how to drive.

Overlearning is the process of continuing to learn a concept or skill you have already grasped. It takes you from competence to mastery.

The best times to overlearn are when you want to be able to do something without thinking. Overlearning is also useful for a skill you want to perform in a stressful environment, for example playing music in front of people. If you have overlearnt the song, you will make fewer mistakes and feel more confident.

You should avoid overlearning one skill when you are studying for an exam with multiple topics. In a maths exam if you can find the longest side of a triangle perfectly every time, but can’t multiply two numbers together, solve quadratics, find the area of circle… you get it. If you can do only the one thing well, you will fail the exam.

Deliberate Practice

You know when you’re studying for an exam and you see those horrible questions you know you can’t answer? Do you tend to avoid them and focus on something easier to get a little motivation boost, or do you target those big hairy questions? If you choose to attack the big hairy ones, you’re doing the right thing.

Deliberate Practice is where you purposely practice the hardest parts of what you want to learn. We have all heard the 10,000 hours rule (it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything), but just practising isn’t enough. You need to practice the right way.

If your practice is uncomfortably difficult you are doing it right. You want to be just past the level you can comfortably do. I won’t lie to you, it doesn’t feel nice at the time, but it’s the ONLY way to improve.

The Einstellung Effect

Sometimes when I am trying to debug some code, there are times where it feels like I am just slamming my head against the problem. My whole body goes tense and I KNOW if just think harder, I can figure this out. Turns out, I’m wrong.

This is the Einstellung effect, you keep trying to solve a problem the same way, despite it not working. You feel like if you just stick with the problem long enough, the solution will come to you, but it never does. You are blocked.

When you are stuck by the Einstellung effect, it’s time to walk away. Talk to a colleague about something completely unrelated, take a walk. Basically, take your mind off the problem for a bit. Let the diffuse mode takeover and make connections you can’t make when you’re too focused.

Interleaving

The logical way to study, is to do each topic, one after the other. As humans, we like order, so this makes sense to us.

Interleaving is the practice of mixing up the order of what you learn, in one session. Remember earlier I talked about how context is as important as the chunks themselves. Interleaving teaches you context.

If you want to know when to apply each skill, interleaving is the best way to do it. This could mean, instead of studying triangles for an hour, then taking a break, then doing an hour on circles, taking a break and so on. You would do 10 or 20 minutes of each topic for each hour. Jumping from topic to topic forces you to change the way you are thinking, each time you switch topic, preventing you from getting stuck in the Einstellung effect. Your exams are most likely to have the topics in a scattered order too, so it’s good practice for the real thing.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below

A Simple Trick To Learn Anything Faster

Week 2 of Learning How To Learn is all about Chunking. This is a method of learning, where you break down the huge amounts of information you want to learn, into smaller more manageable pieces, called Chunks. Breaking down your learning into chunks makes learning on the larger scale, much easier. It’s like eating a meal, you don’t swallow the whole thing in one, you take many small bites.

What Is a Chunk?

A single piece of a concept or skill formed from many scattered pieces of information that share a similar use or meaning. If you can perform a skill automatically or you just “get” a concept, it has been chunked.

Chunks are like puzzle pieces. They can be joined together to create a bigger picture. For example when playing a song on the guitar, one Chunk will be strumming the strings in a certain pattern, another Chunk is forming the hand shapes to play the chords, another Chunk is the rhythm and together you can use these Chunks to play a complete song.

Once you know how to play the whole song, that song becomes a Chunk, rather than the individual parts of playing the song. In other words, Chunks can become more complex and larger. This allows you to perform more complicated tasks, solve more complex problems or come up with deeper ideas.

When you are stressed or scared, it can become harder for your brain to access Chunks, this is why some people perform much worse under stress, such as a public performance or an exam. They know the material when they are relaxed, but once their brain starts producing adrenaline, they can no longer retrieve the knowledge they need.

How to Form a Chunk

All disciplines are different, but Chunks are universal in learning. There are 4 steps to forming any Chunk:

Focus on the thing you want to Chunk ONLY

No multitasking allowed. If you want to learn how a new mathematical trick, you focus on just that one trick.

Aim to understand

It becomes much easier to remember something you understand, than something you have just memorised. Make sure you figure it out for yourself to really understand.

Review the Chunk soon

You need to refresh your memory to strengthen the connections in your brain. Remember spaced repetition.

Gain Context

Knowing how to do a skill or understanding a concept is only half of the battle. Knowing when to use a skill is equally important. There is no point in having a particular skill if you never know when to use it and there’s no point knowing when to use a skill you don’t have.

The Value of a Library of Chunks

The more chunks you collect, the more skills and ideas you can use as you learn to piece together different Chunks in different combinations.

There are two types of thinking when it comes to problem-solving: Sequential thinking and Holistic thinking. Neither is better than the other, they just each have separate uses.

Sequential Thinking

This way of thinking, allows you follow a train of thoughts one after the other, like a sequence. Sequential thinking uses the focused mode and is good for following a logical process to it’s conclusion, such as in a maths problem, understanding a series of events or cause and effect.

Holistic Thinking

Holistic Thinking allows you to make intuitive links between multiple disciplines, ideas and concepts. In the diffuse mode, you can join up seemingly unrelated Chunks to come up with more creative solutions to problems. This is great for brainstorming, solving complex problems, where logic isn’t enough and creating something new.

Illusions of Competence

An illusion of competence is when you feel like you understand something, but you actually don’t. You may go to a class and think “that really made sense” then you go to explain it to someone else and you can’t quite explain it right, the words just don’t fit together as well as they did when the teacher said it. Sound familiar?

How Illusions of Competence Form

Illusions of competence form when you don’t use the best methods to learn. Re-reading feels good, because you feel like you are putting in the effort and you are understanding it better, but this is actually an Illusion of Competence. You aren’t trying strengthening the neural pathways in your brain, you are tricking yourself into thinking you are learning better.

Highlighting is even worse. Just don’t do it.

Re-reading can be good, if a significant amount of time has passed since your first reading, so your memories of the material have faded.

What are the Best Ways to Avoid Illusions of Competence?

Trying to recall the material is best.

Try quizzing yourself or having someone else quiz you. This causes your brain to actively retrace the neural pathways of that Chunk and therefore strengthens your abilities to remember and understand said Chunk.

Test yourself.

You need to answer practice questions, solve problems or teach the Chunk to another person, to see if you really understand what you’re trying to learn. If you can’t solve the problem, or explain the concept easily, you don’t understand the material well enough. Simple.

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.