Learning How To Learn Better

29 Oct 2014

There probably was only a handful of subjects at school and later at uni that I liked - and I despised or ignored the rest, doing everything I could just to get a good enough grade to get to the next term. It wasn’t all that different at work after that - whenever something boring had to be done, I’d distract myself with whatever I could - news reading, social media, pretending to ‘learn’ by reading tech articles/books. Sometimes that worked out ok, other times it totally sucked due to the stress of looming deadlines.

I however managed to notice a few things that affected my personal productivity and that fuzzy ‘wellbeing’ feeling in both good and bad ways. For example, focusing on a task for some period of time, even if it wasn’t terribly exciting at first, helped to get into ‘the flow’ and continuing further on was much easier than getting over that initial hump. A day of focused work made me feel much better both physically and mentally, compared to the other days that were occupied by mixture of work and impulsive internet browsing.

Recently I started doing an online course on coursera.org, “Learning How To Learn”, and to my utmost surprise some of the mental tricks that I discovered the hard way are discussed in the course and apparently have some solid scientific backing. I’d like to list my favourite ones here - I do hope they’ll help you to be more effective and less frustrated (read - more happy) or maybe even encourage you to take the course.

Distractions kill attention

It turns out that people do not multitask all that well - there’s actually an inverse correlation: those thinking they are good multitaskers are more likely to be quite bad at it. Multitasking uses up our mental resources pretty quickly (which in my case makes me feel completely drained of life by the end of a day), leads to increased rate of errors and can be downright dangerous if lives of other people depend on your work. Strictly speaking we don’t even multitask - i.e. we don’t do two things in parallel, but switch between them.

Researchers at London Institute of Psychiatry found that multitasking dumbs people down more than smoking a joint of marijuana. Another study by RAC Foundation, a British nonprofit organisation, found that people who were texting while in the driving simulator reacted 35% slower when writing a text message — that’s slower than driving drunk or stoned.

A study, published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that for all types of tasks, the participants lost time when they had to switch from one task to another and back again. It also took significantly longer to switch between the more complicated tasks.

Worst of all, it appears that multitasking is linked to lower density of neural connections in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions. These findings support earlier studies that highlighed a link between high multitasking activity when using various media (phones, computer etc) and poor attention in the face of distractions, as well as emotional problems such as depression and anxiety.

Practically this means you better avoid multitasking and eliminate distractions, such as instant messaging/notifications of various sorts, new email alerts and SMSes and focus on one solid piece of work.

There’s a very simple, yet surprisingly effective technique for “getting into the groove”, called “Pomodoro” - I briefly described my personal experience in the this blog post - “Four apps that changed my messy life for the better”. Setting a 25 minutes timer and focusing on a particular piece of work while avoiding distractions and interruptions feels surprisingly great and most importantly, it gets stuff done.

Problem dead end

I always suspected it’s hard to solve novel problems by just intently focusing, and almost always solutions to problems at work or precursors to those solutions popped up in my mind while I was doing something completely different, like riding a bike or walking. I outlined some strategies that seem to work for me in a blog post “When You Are Stuck”.

Now I have a scientific confirmation for this finding - apparently our brains use two distinct modes of operation: focused and diffused (aka ‘default mode network’). When you work on a problem intently, your focused mode kicks in - your true and tried neural network get engaged - all those skills and experience you have acquired and honed during countless hours of work or study. It’s all well and great, but these networks will hardly help you in solving problems of new, unknown kind. That’s where the diffuse mode steps in - in that mode our brain restructures learned information and experiences and connects them in novel, unexpected ways, thus increasing the chances of finding new types of answers.

Diffuse mode is activated when you are not working on that problem and doing something else - resting (see this and this articles), exercising or even sleeping. Physical activity seems to be particularly beneficial for enhancement of cognitive abilities - it helps to cope with stress better, increase growth of new neurone and their integration into existing networks.

Understanding is the key

I hated statistics at school, but later I found out that you can actually do pretty amazing things with it. Since then I took a couple of online courses on statistics - some bad, some really good. What made the good ones to stand apart from the bad ones was the way new learning material was structured and explained. Everything was broken down to small, digestible bits and supplemented with easy to remember, sometimes visually striking metaphors.

For example, the concept of the average value was presented like a see-saw with weights at different places.

mean or average is really a see-saw

This unexpected, yet easy to grasp image that related to something that I already new and made it really easy to remember the idea.

Again, there’s a strong evidence that we don’t remember abstract facts, numbers and ideas all that well, but when we try to connect new information to something that we already know it becomes much easier to memorise. Our visual cortex - area of the brain that processes visual and spatial information has remarkable memorisation abilities, that’s why “a picture’s worth thousand words”. It’s much easier to remember something visually striking than just a dull set of numbers or facts.

Another proverb, “morning is wiser than the evening” is something that we now have a scientific confirmation for - sleep is essential for the formation and enhancement of new memory


Something that I am yet to find a scientific explanation for is the effects of meditation on attention. I noticed that my attention span improved dramatically after a few weeks of 30 to 40 minutes per day of mindfulness meditation practice. See my blog post “You are batshit crazy” for more details on that. I really wish I started meditating earlier in my life, such a great effect it had.