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As I get started on my new journey this week, there are a few tools I’ve discovered that will be useful along the way. And I’d like to thank Terrence Sejnowski and Barbara Oakley for exposing me to many of them. They’ve got a great course on learning up at Coursera that I highly recommend checking out here for anyone looking to maximizing their time where it concerns learning new material.

One of the concepts the instructors above champion is the importance of recall (without referencing the material) as a tool to reinforce learning. It turns out that this is one of the most powerful ways to ensure we’re making real connections and embedding new knowledge into our long-term memory. With that in mind, below is my top-of-mind (and perhaps a bit sophomoric) summarization of a few powerful study tools that – if used correctly – just might fundamental change the way you engage with material that you set out to learn:

– Focused vs diffuse modes of thought: Essentially, when in a “focused” mode of thought you are able to focus more intently on a subject. This is valuable if you are trying to do something with very clearly defined steps that you already know (like when completing an Algebra problem), but it’s a less valuable mode of thinking when trying to learn something new. In the latter case, the “diffuse” mode of thinking gives your mind the flexibility it needs to tackle novel ideas / new concepts. You can access the diffuse mode of thought by doing things such as exercising, drifting off to sleep (but waking up before you fall into a deep sleep), and doing other things to otherwise distract your mind (such as watching a simple cartoon).

– Overcoming procrastination: There are several great techniques one can use to overcome procrastination, but one of the most powerful ones is the Pomodoro technique. Essentially, the technique involves focusing on something for 25 uninterrupted minutes at a time, then giving yourself a short rest break wherein you do something else to relax and reward yourself. This can be something simple like having a tasty treat or watching a Youtube video. Larger rewards should be utilized after one completes several Pomodoro sessions (after which point a longer break is typically required in order to recharge). The Pomodoro technique builds on the power of reward to train you to focus. Understanding the role reward plays in everything you do is critical because you can also use the concept of reward to alter bad habits, responding to cues that trigger non-desirable routines and instead directing that energy towards more valuable pursuits.

– Chunking and Interleaving: Our brains can store up to 4 “chunks” of information into our working memories. And by repeatedly reinforcing the material we want to learn in our heads through deliberate practice (dedicated efforts to learn more difficult material) and interleaving (mixing up how and where we learn material to enhance our ability to access it), we can both expand the size of the “chunks” of information we can store in one of our memory slots and even move that information into long-term memory for later use.

…There is a lot more fantastic information I learned, but I am writing this in the evening on Monday (as I won’t have time to write on Tuesday morning) and I am exhausted. And as I stated above, one of the most powerful mental tools we have at our disposal is the ability to access the diffuse mode of thinking via (you guessed it) sleep…

…And I’m going to go get some of it now.

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Best,

Rory

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