Kris Bogdanov

Learning how to learn

Learning about mastery-based learning, techniques and a bit of science that help me to learn better and stay productive

20 February 2020

After stumbling upon Launch School and doing their prep material, I became interested in the science, psychology and different technique concerned with learning.

Learning, as defined, is the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study and experience. It is a crucial part of anything that we do in life - school, business, work, sports, relationships and hobbies. So if it a crucial part, we should probably learn how to learn.

Two modes for learning - diffused and focused mode

Focused mode is execution. Diffused mode is creativity.

Researches have found out that humans have two modes for learning - focused and diffused mode.

Focused mode is when you are concentrated on a single thing. It uses the abilities of the prefrontal cortex to help you concentrate on a single task and ignore all external stimuli.

Imagine focused mode as a single line where distractions are not welcomed. A really good way to engage the focused mode is using the Pomodoro technique, which we will explore in the next section.

But what if you need creativity or inspiration or source of new ideas? Then you need to go into your diffused mode. Diffuse mode is about the big picture. You can bounce from one place to another to look for inspiration for the solution to your problem.

New neuron connections are travelling on new pathways. Diffuse mode helps you understand the more complex aspects of a material. It also is key to problem-solving. In order to get in the diffuse mode, allow your brain to roam free and explore different solutions. Once you got something on your mind, jump back in your focused mode.

Scientists say that you can only be either in the diffuse mode or in the focus mode - but not both at the same time. Remember, one mode is no better than the other - you need to be able to switch between the two to get the most out of your time.

Get in the flow

The Pomodoro technique

This technique has been widely adopted and talked about over the lasts several years. It is still something that I need to get better at.

In essence, choose a task, work for 25 minutes and then rest for 5 minutes. During the 25 minutes, you shouldn't have any distractions - no social media, no phone, no messaging with friends - you are meant to go in the flow and work.

That's easier said than done, but once you get used to the process, you can achieve quite a lot in a day using 15-20 Pomodoro cycles.

I use ticktick's Pomodoro timer - I like it because it's in my mac menu bar and I can play sounds, such as rain and fire, during the Pomodoro cycle for extra concentration.

And yeah, I am using the Pomodoro technique to write this article.

Create a distraction-free environment

It takes 23 minutes to focus after you distract yourself. With this knowledge, now think about how often you get distracted during your workday - surprise meetings, social media, Slack, email, etc...

Take control of your own time

When I work, I try to eliminate as many distractions as possible. I put my phone in my backpack, mute non-fundamental slack channels and usually work either from home or café/co-working space. Sometimes it's not that straightforward and you might get distracted very easily but at least you have to give yourself the best chances.

Don't get gratification by doing the easy things

When presented with new study material in school, or new development sprint at work, you should prioritise the toughest aspects.

It is very tempting to start with the tasks that you know how to solve, but that leaves you in the possibility of having an illusion of competence. You might think that you know how to do the entire project, but in reality, there are gaps in your knowledge for the more challenging tasks.

Hard problems require a lot of time, attention and creativity to solve. It is a good idea to do them first while your brain is still fresh so you can get in your diffused mode.

If you get stuck, you can move to an easier task. The hard task is already "loaded" in your brain and your brain is thinking of potential solutions behind the scenes. Once you return to the hard problem, you might be surprised by the new ideas and solutions which weren't present before. That's the diffused mode in action.

Sleep and exercise

Sleep - seen as a waste of time by many workaholics. Why can't I just work and develop new skills instead of sleeping?!

Not sleeping enough not only leads to poor performance in the short term, but long term lack of sleep also contributes to other nasty conditions and diseases.

Sleep helps your brain recover and stay healthy. But sleep has another important function regarding learning - it strengthens strong connections that you need and erases other connections that are not that important.

This is why people say to "sleep it off" when you have a difficult task at hand. Have you ever been stuck on a problem for hours and hours only to go to bed, wake up and then be able to solve it in minutes?

Here is a trick - if you think about a problem right before you go to bed, you increase your chances to dream about it. If you dream about it, this might increase your ability to understand the problem.

Another thing that you can do to improve your learning capabilities is to exercise regularly.

Research has shown that aerobic exercise increases the size of your hippocampus, which is involved in your verbal memory and learning.

Exercise also improves sleep quality and reduces stress and anxiety. These aspects of exercises are crucial to learning as stress might be detrimental to your ability to concentrate and learn. My recommendation is to exercise 3-5 times a week, ideally mixing weight and cardio.

Mastery based learning

There is an entire book on mastery and how you can apply it to any aspect in your life. It's a great read, but the main points from the book are that you can achieve mastery if you:

  • remove time from measuring your success - everyone has a different pace of learning, so follow yours and don't compare your progress with others
  • find a good teacher or course to teach you what you need to learn
  • practice the current topic until you have a really good understanding of it - don't jump steps
  • love the plateau - don't be discouraged when you feel that you are not making any progress. This is where you will spend 99% of the time, mastering your current skills before you leap towards a new chapter.

Learn the fundamentals. Become comfortable with them. Then move to the next concept. You can't do ABC if you haven't learnt B. You might be able to do it for while with only AC but sooner or later your lack of knowledge of B will creep up.

When I learnt programming at the start, I didn't do it using mastery-based learning - I initially learnt Ruby on Rails with big gaps in knowledge in both Ruby and Rails. This meant that I often struggled with doing simple tasks or understanding the code. I decided to take a step back and learn the fundamentals of the language and the framework using railsjunior.

Being conscious of your learning habits and brain can increase your abilities to solve complex problems and retain new information. So go ahead and do that - exercise, sleep well, use mastery-based learning and try out the Pomodoro technique.

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