Learning How to Learn
Striving to be more productive while learning online a worthy endeavor. And while being able to perform your everyday tasks quickly and efficiently is an important productivity skill, knowing how learn new things and put that new knowledge into practice is just as crucial. That might sound easy enough on paper, but you’d be surprised how many people get the basics of learning wrong. So, I have put together a list of helpful tips which should help steer you in the right direction, and show you how to start learning the correct way.
Contextualize New Knowledge
Get into the habit of providing your brain with sufficient context for any new piece of knowledge. For example, if there’s a large article or a book you need to read, go through the contents page first and take a look at the illustrations. This way you’ll be creating a foundation that your brain will have a much easier time building up on as you tackle the task.
Use Focused and Diffused Thinking
When the task at hand in not new or contains familiar elements, using focused thinking is the best way to go. Collect your thoughts, concentrate and follow the previously established algorithms to deal with the issue using existing solutions.
Diffused thinking is all about revelations and unexpected solutions, original thoughts and ‘Eureka!’-moments — basically the opposite of focused thinking. When the subject is entirely new to you, try a more relaxed, less concentrated approach. Don’t lock yourself into one specific topic, think outside of it while trying not to rely on pre-existing solutions too much.
Now learning to combine the two modes of thinking is the real key — with focused thinking you build up a structure and map out a possible solution, while the diffused mode helps fill in the gaps and see the big picture.
When working on a complex task, remember to give yourself some downtime to rest and recharge. Take a nap, go for a walk or do a short physical exercise when switching between the two modes two maximize the benefits.
Mechanical Repetition = Bad, Repetition from Memory = Good
Reading a book or an article over and over again can create an illusion that through sheer mechanical repetition our brains can retain information better. Unfortunately for us though, that’s usually all it is — an illusion. In reality you’re just wasting your time while thinking that you’re making progress.
Repeating from memory is a lot more effective. Try reading something, then repeating what you’ve read from memory, and reading it again. Or try to remember what you’ve learned throughout the day and write it down, then retell it to a friend or a coworker. You’ll notice almost immediately just how much better new information sticks with you if you use this approach.
(Real Pros) Don’t Procrastinate
We’ve all experienced that nagging feeling of anxiety and dread of an upcoming task or a project due. The one when even thinking about it puts you in a state of stupor, where you’d rather do anything else than the thing you should be doing? Yeah, that’s called procrastination, and if left unchecked it can seriously impede your ability to learn and grow as a person.
The good news is it’s actually not that difficult to overcome. Studies show that the feeling of anxiety simply vanishes the moment you start working on the task. So, if you get distracted way too easily and it’s difficult for you to get the whole thing done in one or two sittings — work in shorter, focused 20–25 minute bursts with 5-minute rest periods in between, where you can allow yourself to do something fun as a reward. Make a list of things to do — when all of your activities are planned out, you’re a lot less likely to end up procrastinating.
Another great way to combat procrastination is by breaking down your task into several smaller ones that are easier to keep track of and get done. Don’t think “I need to read this book by the end of the month, where am I going to get the time?”, think “I’ll just read 10 pages a day and will be done with it in a few weeks”! Even the tiniest progress is still progress, and it works wonders towards making you feel good about both yourself and your task, eliminating your desire to procrastinate.
Go at Your Own Pace
When working or studying in a group it’s often very tempting to try to catch up to those in the group who just naturally absorb new information faster than you. Don’t do it! By rushing into it without giving yourself time to process everything at your own pace, you’re only making the gap between yourself and your colleagues bigger. Simply put, the more you take on the harder it is for you to process it all. So, you end up frustrated and falling behind, and all of a sudden you’re back to square one.
Stubbornness and ‘strong will’ are not your friends. They are the things that keep you from coming up with alternative solutions while you’re banging your head against the proverbial wall. If you feel that you’re starting to get irritated or upset, it’s a clear indicator of exhaustion and lack of focus. And when we’re stressed, it’s almost impossible for our brains to take in new information in any meaningful way. So just take a break, recharge, and get back to it at your own speed.
Use Analogies to Your Advantage
Our working memory capacity is very limited, and our brains are programmed to get rid of bits of useless information every single day, so it’s extremely important to make sure that the whatever you’re trying to learn sticks with you by any means.
Try to associate new ideas with actual experiences (a walk, a conversation, a bus ride, etc.) or incorporate them into stories, anecdotes or songs. Talk to yourself about what you’ve learned. All of these simple exercises can be a great help in moving the new knowledge from your working memory to your long-term memory where it will stay with you for good.
Keep Track of Your Time
Using a timesheet software can go a long way towards helping you better manage your learning time. Set up a list of tasks and activities and start tracking the amount of time you spend on them. Then, analyze the results and adjust your process and habits for more efficient use of your time.
The desire to learn is a beautiful thing, but if you want to get the most out of the process, knowing how to learn is absolutely crucial. Submerge yourself in an intellectually challenging and knowledge-rich environment. Use different types of thinking, provide the much-needed context for new ideas, don’t rush yourself, and employ every trick in the book to make sure that the knowledge stays with you to get your learning skill to the next level.