February 11, 2017

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.