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 – 2: What I Discovered When I Tried Warren Buffett’s 5/25 Rule

The following is the second in a series of blog 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.

Original

I saw a video recently about Warren Buffett’s 5/25 rule in which it is claimed that Buffett once had a conversation with his pilot. For anyone who doesn’t know, Warren Buffett is one of the most successful investors in the world and has been top of his game for decades. After realising he’d had the same pilot for 10 years, he was perturbed to find that the pilot had not moved on in all that time. I will be paraphrasing, but Buffett says something along the lines of “if you’ve been working as my pilot for 10 years, I must not be doing my job right” so he instructs the pilot to write down 25 career goals and that he can write anything he wants.

Next Buffett tells the pilot to prioritise the top 5. This is more difficult, but the pilot does it. Now, Buffet asks him

“What will you do with the other 20?”

The pilot says “I will treat these as 2nd best and work on them when I have spare time”

Buffett replies “No. You avoid those at all costs, until you had achieved your top 5.”

Buffett explains that spreading yourself too thin means you don’t make any significant progress towards any of your goals. Focusing on a goals instead, is the key to making progress.

This doesn’t mean that you are limited to do just 5 things for the rest of your life, never trying anything new, just repeating the same cycle of days for the rest of time. BUT you can’t do number 6 until you have achieved ONE of the top 5. This is the crux of the idea.

This idea can be applied to any area of life where you have too many options. Too many options meaning there are multiple things you want to achieve, but you never quite seem to get any of them done, they just remain on a wish list for all time. For example, do you have too many hobby projects you never complete? Too many career skills, so none seem to improve all that much? Too many new business ideas, but you don’t ever seem to start any? All of these can be whittled down to your top 5, allowing you to focus and make real progress.

I tried this for myself. I don’t have 25 career aspirations, so I wrote down 25 things I want to do in my life in general from hobbies, to work, to travel. The top 5 I prioritised, see below:

  1. Improve my writing
  2. Improve my blog
  3. Exercise regularly
  4. Travel outside Europe
  5. Start a side-Hustle
  1. I have been reading more and more lately about the benefits of being able to write well, which was part of my inspiration to start a blog, so that was always going to end up on this list.
  2. This blog is new, there’s lots of room to grow and improve, but I’m enjoying the process so far With a lot of practice I hope to be writing better articles, have a better website and anything else that would make the blog better.
  3. I have been trying to do this for years, but I always give up a few weeks in. I was recently pointed towards “Couch to 5k”, which aims to make running a habit by easing you in. Instead of going too hard too soon and quitting, as I always have done in the past, you build up to longer runs until you can do 5k even if you started from a point of doing no exercise at all. The best part for me has been the structure the app provides, as I tend to just run hard, then get tired and never want to run again.
  4. I love to go on solo-travel trips, but I have played it pretty safe so far, going to European cities where pretty much everyone speaks English and the culture isn’t too different to our own. I want to go further away and experience more, even if it is a little scary to not speak the language or know all the customs, that’s part of the fun, right?
  5. I recently read a fantastic book by Chris Guillebau, in which he describes the merits of having a “side-hustle” and how to start one. The book is very clearly written and inspiring, with great advice. I aim to write a post on it someday soon. The main reason the idea drew me in, is it allows you to have a project of your own, that gives you a sense of achieving something of your own. Guillebeau says it’s not about workaholism, having a second job would be a nightmare for many people. Side-hustles come come in many different forms, as you can see on his podcast it’s a creative outlet for some people for others it gives them a sense of independence. It’s a great way to do some work you enjoy, just for you, without going all in and quitting your job to start a business.

If this post or the original video inspires you to try the idea for yourself, please let me know in the comments below, how it worked out for you!

One Page

Warren Buffett’s 5/25 rule, comes from an anecdote where, it is claimed that he wanted to help advance the career of his pilot after realising the pilot had had the same position for 10 years. In order to do this, he questioned the pilot about his top 25 career ambitions, making it clear to the man, that nothing was off-limits.

Now that the pilot had his list of 25 career goals, Buffett told him to prioritise them in from most important to least and then circle the top 5. Once this was done, Buffett asked his pilot “now that you have your top 5, how will you treat the other 20?”

The pilot replies “I will focus on the top 5 and work on the other 20 in my spare time”

Buffet says “No. The other 20 are now your list of goals you will avoid at all costs, until you have completed one of the first 5, then you may move on to number 6”.

Buffett’s thinking, was that by spreading ourselves too thin, we end up making little to no improvement at all in the goals we have set ourselves. It is better to focus on a smaller, narrower range of things until you have reached one of those goals, then progress on to the next one, so at any one time, you only have 5 goals vying for your attention.

I tried to do this for myself, my top 5 being :

  1. Improve my writing
  2. Improve my blog
  3. Exercise regularly
  4. Travel outside Europe
  5. Start a Side-Hustle

1. I want to improve my writing for many reasons: work, this blog, being able to communicate better, being able to organise my thoughts better, being able to argue better, this list goes on.

2. I find writing this blog to be a very rewarding hobby, so improving it should hopefully improve that satisfaction.

3. Exercise is just good for you and I haven’t had a regular habit of exercising well since I was at university. The health benefits and benefits it provides to my mood and well-being have been sorely missed.

4. I enjoy solo-travel trips, but I am starting to think I have played it safe for too long, I want to fly further afield and see more of the world than just my home continent.

5. I recently read Chris Guillebeau’s book on Side-Hustles and was convinced by him that it’s not some workaholic’s dream, it’s more about having a project you do for yourself that you can enjoy, be creative in or just use to provide yourself with a little extra money and therefore independence.

3 Paragraphs

Warren Buffett’s 5/25 rule is a rule where a person lists their 25 top goals for their career, then prioritises the top 5 and finally ignores the other 20. That seems counter-intuitive, but the idea is to focus on fewer goals more intensely to achieve real results, rather than making next to no progress across many many goals. You don’t have to never do anything other than the top 5 though, once you complete one you can move on to goal 6 and so on, until all 25 are completed.

I tried this for myself, my top 5 are:

  1. Improve my writing
  2. Improve my blog
  3. Exercise regularly
  4. Travel outside Europe
  5. Start a Side-Hustle

1. I want to improve my writing as I see it as a valuable skill in life and work.

2. I want to improve my blog as I enjoy the hobby and want to make it as good as it can be.

3. I want to exercise more regularly to improve my health and well-being

4. Europe is safe and familiar, travel is about new experiences, so I want to go further to find newer experiences.

5. I like the concept of creating a project for myself and I need more money!

One Paragraph

Warren Buffett’s 5/25 rule is about listing your top 25 career goals, prioritising the top 5 and forgetting about the rest. Only moving on to goal 6 when one of the top 5 is completed. I tried this for myself and found I want to focus on writing, blogging, exercising, more adventurous travel and starting a Side-Hustle.

One Sentence

Focus on your most important goals, don’t think about the rest until you have succeeded in these goals first.

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!