Remembering How to Learn

By Jarrett Retz -July 7th, 2019

I was sitting at my office desk getting very frustrated with using a Python library to accomplish a simple task. It was taking me WAY longer than I was expecting it to. The longer it took me, the more I was stacking my frustration: completely ignoring everything I had learned about learning.

I was checking the documentation, YouTube, StackOverflow, etc. and my phone rang at me. My twenty-five minute focus session had ended, so now I was supposed to take a five minute break (I normally do). Instead, I felt I was too involved and wanted to power through this part in the project. I skipped the break (why does the app give me the option?). This was wrong.

This action was synonymous to the feeling of trying to un-tighten a screw (“lefty-loose right-tight”), but accidentally turning the wrench the wrong way. Now, instead of relieving tension, the goal has moved further away, but the effort has increased.

My decision to ignore proven learning steps went against one of my most cherished rules: process-over-product.

Personally, I want to learn everything, so it's important that I have strategies to conqueror different challenges. It could be Spanish, golf, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, statistics, web development, or handy carpentry skills. At this point in time, it was data science tools.

There have been three recent contributing sources to how I think about learning (and how I think others should think about learning). The three sources are:

  • Coursera course on learning
  • Daniel Pink theory on productive time slots in the day
  • Josh Waitzkin book on learning

The most important of the three is the first bullet. Almost a year ago, I took a Learning How to Learn Course on Coursera. It has been some of the most practical, simple, and widely ignored techniques that I have come across. Below are the notes that I kept from the class, which sit on my desk, that I ignore from time-to-time.

Learning How to Learn Notes

  • Get sleep
  • Focus for 25 minutes
  • Build chunks (get main ideas, skip ahead to see where chunks might lead)
  • Test by recall
  • Test using interleaving
  • Trust Lady Luck
  • Cultivate focus and diffuse modes for learning (walking, showering)
  • Cue > Response > Routine > Reward
  • Process is the flow of time (study 25 minutes)
  • Product is an outcome (finish homework assignment)
  • Product triggers pain
  • To change habit, change reaction to cue
  • The routine.. set phone aside, turn off notifications.
  • Find the reward. Offer the reward after the cue
  • Belief, need belief.
  1. Tips for betting learning
    1. Exercise
    2. Sleep
    3. Focus

I never planned to publish the notes, so they are not completely formatted. However, they are worth a glance. The instructors taught that there are key steps that someone can take in order to increase their chances of learning that revolve around two states of mind: the focus mode and the diffuse mode.

The reason why my phone rang at me after 25-minutes was because my ‘focus’ session had ended. It was time for me to give my brain a break. Usually, I spend the time mindlessly chipping foam golf balls at a target, or lie down on the couch trying to relax my mind. Instead, I chose to put product (finishing the small task I was working on) above process. Again, so wrong. I encouraged a frustrated state of mind that only reinforced the already incorrect sequence of thoughts that had lead me to the gridlock in the first place. The graphic that is used in the Coursera course for the two states of minds are similar to the ones below.

The pentagon represents the mind, and the black blobs are "chunks" of information. The arrows are way chunks of information work together to solve a problem.

In the focus mode, old connections are reinforced, or new chunks are seeded. Another important ingredient in the recipe is using recall (i.e tests) in order to cement that new chunk of information. The mind will continue to work with the chunks that it knows (i.e it's neighbor chunks). It won't look other places because it has a step-by-step sequence already in place.

The mind wanders in the diffuse mode. It’s free to make new connections. It branches out to new chunks, or different chunks, making a new sequence that may be the answer to the problem.

There are many examples given in the course of artists or scientists cultivating this important state of mind. Activities used as examples for the diffuse mode are showering, sleeping, walking, or napping. When there are small breaks in the work, these are activities that should fit in those time slots.

“Product triggers pain”

The process is the underlying structure, or set of principles that guide the allocation of limited time. Sleep and exercise are import cogs in the machine, but the time of day that learning takes place can also be optimized. My personal choice on when to learn is based on the Daniel Pink’s theory of “peak-trough-recovery”.

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

There are times in a day that may be better suited to sit down and perform an analysis that may not be the best time to organize files on the computer. The middle of the day, 12:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. is a great ‘diffuse mode’ time, recovery time, as Daniel Pink says it. Eat lunch, go on a walk, organize files, fold some laundry, mow the lawn, get a haircut, let the brain rest, or do something routine. I know that this is difficult, if not impossible for most people in the "real world”. I am not suggesting that someone stop being productive, but reducing the cognitive load with a different task could be very beneficial later. These are outer aspects of the process. The inner workings include the 25-minute focus time (for which the pomodoro technique is recommended), and the “cue, response, reward” structure. The cue is what lets the mind know it’s time to learn.

To change habit, change reaction to cue”.

For most kids in school, the cue is the feeling of the approaching deadline, and the response is dread, stress, panic, and fear. These are not emotions that encourage a learning environment. The cue should be hopeful, and motivational. It should invoke the vision, or hedonic purpose for the learning quest. The trigger can be, as explained by Josh Waitzkin in his book on learning, music, smell, or an environment. It can also be an action, like a physical location change (think or a baseball player stepping into the batter’s box).

Consider the cue closely, and tie it to the purpose behind the motivation to even try to learn something difficult in the first place.

Pounding one’s head against a screen in desperation is not a productive action that would incite someone to get back to work the next day. It can be devastating if that’s the last thing the brain remembers before trying to start back up again the next day.

The process should avoid distractions (phone, email, food). Speaking of food, it can be used as the “reward”. Be mindful with the reward, and try to let it have too much of a degrading impact on health.

Since I had broken the process by ignoring my break session, reinforced my frustration, and broken many rules I paid the price of having to get into bed with the many distracting thoughts. Were my problems solved the next morning? Of course not.

I was back on my computer, pounding away at the problem. Recklessly ignoring the reminders on my phone and desk. I almost didn’t go to jiu jitsu, but I can’t miss jiu jitsu. Even when I arrived at the gym I wasn’t myself. I was distracted and emotionally drained, but before long exercise saved me. I had to give attention to learning a new move, and the pure effort that goes into 30-minutes of sparring doesn’t allow for unnecessary thoughts. After the gym, I had my mind back.

Returning home in the car, the three words echoed: process over product. If someone finds themselves trapped in their current mental circuit, they should change their state. Waitzkin used to run sprints while stuck playing chess, Tony Robbins wakes up and changes his state with cryotherapy (it's also a good cue).

While watching the Learning How to Learn Course, a gentlemen was interviewed that had some expertise. He suggested that instead of working through the material in a start-to-finish, or linear, fashion someone should start with the questions. Starting with the test questions, or project may seem overwhelming, but it attunes the mind to the immediate task. It’s harder, which is a good thing, and in that way it’s no longer boring.

"Making smaller circles"

I can’t ignore the realization that I wasn’t properly tooled to handle the libraries in the way that I was trying to use them. I was relying on chance, and guessing, to hopefully get the result I wanted. I should have done what Josh Waitzkin recommends after learning a large procedure, and that’s “making smaller circles”. This is breaking down the bigger process into smaller steps.

I was struggling, but needed to recognize that I should have started smaller. It’s difficult to drive a stick-shift car if someone only has a general idea of how a clutch works. When they get in the car, they will meet immediate frustration. They will need more practice.

Last Thought

If someone was looking to create new ideas, find trends, understand systems of thinking, or brainstorm big ideas I would recommend that they take in a lot of information and let the diffuse mode do what it does. Allow it to find connections across the media, science, social, technology, and personal environments.

Focus attention on small things, or dig into deeper topics, and throw something strange into the mix. There might be a connection that someone hasn't made, or hasn't paid enough attention to yet.

Thanks for reading, and I hope it continues to be useful. I talked about important concepts that could be better learned from the sources. I recommend taking any curiosity that may be left over and investigating the online course, or book further.