How I Learned How to Learn

As my last project was ramping down, my colleague Rajesh hosted one final learning session titled “Invitation to Deeper Learning.” I left with one incredible revelation: throughout my educational and professional career, I never paid any mind toward the process of learning. So it was serendipitous I stumbled upon and subsequently signed up for an online course called Learning How to Learn through Coursera. The following are some of my key takeaways from the course and some thoughts on how we can leverage this information as analysts:

Two Modes of Thinking

Humans have two modes of thinking: diffuse and focused. You probably recognize when you’re in your focused mode of thinking: when you’re concentrating intently on something. However, being in diffuse mode may not be as obvious. The diffuse mode is a passive thinking mode and explains why you might come across a great idea when laying in bed at night or when taking a shower. The diffuse mode is helpful for seeing things from a big picture perspective. It’s useful to switch back-and-forth between these two modes when learning something new or difficult, to solve problems, and when trying to come up with new ideas.

The next time you’re stuck on something, try going for a walk or meditating to disengage and then come back to it later. Additionally, exercise is one of the best ways to activate your diffuse mode. Some find running or a similar cardiovascular exercise a great way to disengage from their regular thoughts and routines. Exercising is a great way to unlock the potential for new ideas or a broader understanding of something to occur.

Chunk, Chunk, Chunking

It can be hard to make sense of something when we are learning it for the first time. Chunking is “the mental leap helping you unite bits of information together through meaning,” as defined by Barbara Oakley. For instance, learning about a single piece of information isn’t as meaningful until we gain the context around that thing. When we understand how any ‘puzzle piece’ fits into the greater whole, we’re able to build a chunk and commit it to our memory in a meaningful way. Spend time not only learning the individual concept but all the related connections as well.

Recall Frequently and Consistently

One of the best ways to learn is to recall information you’ve acquired without the help of notes. When you have a spare moment, just play back aloud what you’ve learned, even if you’re alone. We see recall in practice with many analysts. They’ll hear something, then play it back to the group to get validation. They’ll also be eager to explain and communicate their knowledge to others, not just because it’s part of their job, but because it further imprints it into their minds.

The Importance of Sleep

Adequate sleep plays a critical role in the process of learning. When we’re awake, our brains create harmful waste proteins toxic to our brain cells. But sleep allows the flow of cerebrospinal fluid to increase dramatically helping wash away those waste proteins. It’s not hard to imagine what chronic lack of sleep and the subsequent denial of this cleansing can do to our ability to think, learn, and be productive.

Tackling Procrastination Using the Pomodoro Method

There’s always a dozen things to do, and there are often plenty of distractions preventing us from doing those things. One way to deal with this is to use the Pomodoro technique to work in 25-minute, uninterrupted (no texts, emails, Facebook, etc.) blocks of time. The idea is to not focus on output (the things you need to get done), but focus on the process (getting started and working for 25-minutes). You can download a timer app called “Be Focused” available for MacOS and iOS, but there are plenty of Pomodoro timers to choose from.

Divesting from Fossil Fuels

Climate change isn’t a debate. It’s real, it’s here, it’s happening. The most tragic part of climate change is those that contribute the least to it will be the most impacted by it.

That said, it wasn’t until the past three months I’ve educated myself about the steps I can take today to affect climate change in a positive way. I recently took the large step of divesting my 401K investments, and reallocating to a fossil fuel free fund. A friend texted me and asked why I divested and I told him it was a social statement more than anything. The following passage from CNN Money explains the basic premise of divestment well:

The point of divestment isn’t just to do it, but to fight over it. As Matt Yglesias argued at this week, divestment will be most effective if it changes the conversation. It aims to draw attention to oil, gas, and coal companies and to stigmatize them, chipping away their social and political power. (“Revoking their social license,” McKibben has called it.) New fund options could help the divestment movement mainly by making their demands on schools and institutions more plausible.

I’ve also changed the way I approached helping address climate change. Previously, it was overwhelming to think about how I as one individual could help. Instead of solving the issue overnight, I think we can, and have been taking incremental steps toward reducing our fossil fuel dependence.

The popular red meat (beef) requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. -The Guardian

I drive a gasoline fueled car, and I still fly all over the country as a technology consultant. I recognize I’m still a major contributor to climate change. But the following are some of the steps I’ve been taking:

  • I’m more diligent planning where I need to go to ensure I’m optimizing my time in a car.
  • I turn off my engine when it makes sense to as opposed staying in idle.
  • I’ve increase my usage of public transit when available.
  • I installed a Nest thermostat to more effectively manage heat/AC usage in my home.
  • My lights are faithfully turned off when they aren’t being used.
  • Chicken is now my main source of protein and beef is treated as a occasional treat.

I also plan on supporting and advocating for elected officials who are about putting effective policies in place to address climate change.


Project Management Essentials at MAUVSA Advance Conference

I recently presented a project management workshop at the MAUVSA Advance Conference (MAC). I spoke to a roughly 50 college students from schools in Virginia, D.C., and Maryland. I focused the presentation around iterative project management and the Deming cycle (plan-do-check-act). I found many student organizations still subscribe to the traditional approach to project management where there’s a much larger upfront planning effort and long or non-existent feedback loops. To help drive home the advantages of PDCA, we played the airplane game taken from Jeff Sutherland’s book, “The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.”

Preparing for #GivingTuesday

We’re just several weeks away from #GivingTuesday (December 2, 2014) and many non-profits are gearing up for what’s poised to be one of the biggest giving days of the year for charities. If you haven’t started preparing yet, here are a couple of things you can do to begin getting ready for this dedicated giving day:

  1. Learn about #GivingTuesday and access resources at the Giving Tuesday website.
  2. Create a fundraising campaign theme and key messaging
  3. Rally your staff, volunteers, and constituents to begin contributing on #GivingTuesday

I’d love to see all the charities out there take advantage of this special day of giving. Good luck!

Here are some other resources to check out as well:


Get Back to Your Primal Posture

For the last several months, I have been increasingly focused on establishing healthy habits at work. It’s clear the modern day workforce is spending most of their time sitting and that can be problematic for one’s health when older. When I remember, I try to sit straight up in my chair, but I did not realize until I watched this TEDxStandford talk there is a right and a wrong way to sit up straight.