Top 5 Concepts I Learned by “Learning How To Learn”

“Plan to Process the Diffuse Pomodoro Chunks.”

This obscure phrase is a mnemonic I devised to help me remember the 5 most important concepts I learned in the course “Learning How To Learn”.

More specifically, these concepts are:

  1. Importance of Planning
  2. Process over Product
  3. Diffuse versus Focused Thinking
  4. Pomodoro Technique
  5. Build a Chunk Library

In this post, I’d like to explain each of these 5 concepts. I have two goals in doing so:

  • Reinforce my own understanding of these concepts
  • Inspire you to learn more about learning

Let’s start with the first.

1. Importance of Planning

Jeff wants to drive from his house to Michael’s house. He has Michael’s address and knows how to get to Michael’s neighborhood, but doesn’t know the exact location of Michael’s house. Which is a more efficient method of driving to Michael’s house:

  1. Drive around the neighborhood until he finds Michael’s house 
  2. Enter Michael’s address into a map app and follow the directions

With both options, he will find the house (eventually). But if Jeff chooses the first option, he will spend much more time driving.

This demonstrates the importance of planning.

Learning without a plan is like the first method. Yes, you may have specified a goal, but without a plan of how to reach that goal, you will waste valuable time.

So how should we plan our leaning to be more efficient?

In one of the course interviews, Scott Young discusses how he planned his MIT Challenge. His goal: “Over the next 12 months, I’m going to learn the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science, without taking any classes.” But Scott didn’t only have a goal. He created a detailed plan for how to accomplish that goal.

Inspired by the interview with Scott, I introduced a planning process to improve how I learn. The process consists of these 3 items:

  1. Concepts Board. This is a Trello board that I use to track high level concepts I’d like to learn (ie, “C Programming). I have 4 columns: “Input”, “Basic”, “Intermediate”, and “Mastery”. I add concepts to the input column, and move them to the next column as my understanding of each topic improves.
  2. Weekly Learning Sprint. This is a second Trello board I maintain with 3 columns: “Input”, “In Progress”, and “Complete”. In this board, I track individual tasks necessary to gain an understanding of the concepts in my Concepts Board. These are tasks that I can complete in a week. Some examples of tasks: “Complete week 1 of Learning How To Learn”, “Read chapter 5 of Data Intensive Application”, and “Write Learning blog post”.
  3. Daily Goals List. From the Weekly Learning Sprint board, I break down each task into a daily deliverable. Instead of defining in deliverables in terms of a product (ie, “Blog Post”), I specify how much time I will devote to a task (ie, “25 minutes writing blog post”). The reason why I do this will be made clear in the next section “Process over Product”.

An important part of this planning process is a period of reflection at the end of each day. I look over my list of Daily Goals and evaluate my progress: 

  • What did I accomplish today?
  • What did I miss?
  • What can I improve?

So what’s the goal of this planning process? Ultimately, I want to ensure I am working on the most important tasks that will bring me closer to both my weekly goals as well as my high level Concept goals. If I discover I am not, I can determine why during reflection and introduce changes.

2. Process over Product

Has this ever happened to you? You create your todo list, set aside time to actually complete items on this list, only to get a notification on your phone. 30 minutes later, you’ve forgotten about your todo list and are now just scrolling through whatever social media app you like.

We all suffer from some form of procrastination. 

I have a list of things I’ve been telling myself I’ll do for a long time. But when I finally get the time to do it, something else always seems to pop up.

Why do we procrastinate?

As explained in the course, procrastination is our response to avoid the pain we experience when we think about a task. Why experience that pain when we can get instant joy from playing with our phones? Most of the time we choose that instant joy.

But it’s important to that the joy we experience is temporary. We are choosing the short term gratification over long term gratification.

So how do we overcome procrastination?

Concentrate on the Process over the Product.

Instead of framing a task in terms of a product, frame it in terms of the process. For example, let’s assume you want to write a book. Instead of putting the ambiguous and seemingly unachievable task of “Book” on your todo list, simply add a todo item to “spend 25 minutes writing book”. 25 minutes is easy. It’s doable. It’s less painful.

Just before writing this blog post, I was able to fight the urge to procrastinate by shifting my mindset from product to process. At first, I was telling myself, “You need to finish the blog post.” Thinking in this way, I found myself avoidant to want to sit down and write. However, I caught myself, and reframed it as a process. I said, “Just spend 25 minutes writing”, and I found it much easier to start writing.

When I write my list of Daily Goals, I write everything in terms of process by specifying how long I’ll spend on a task.

3. Diffuse versus Focused Thinking

In a course interview, Keith Devlin discussed how he, as a mathematician, solved advanced math problems.

He said he would first sit down with a problem, get a high level understanding of the problem, play with the problem, and try out different techniques. If one of those techniques worked, he was done.

If one of those techniques didn’t work, he’d start bashing away at the problem with different naive approaches.

At a certain point, he’d hit a wall. Instead of continuing to bash away, he’d walk away from the problem and go do something else. For him, that was go for a run.

Then he’d come back to the problem with fresh eyes. Sometimes, the solution would become obvious in a “duh” moment.

If not, he’d start the process again, repeating the cycle of bashing and stepping away.

In this cycle, Keith is exercising two different forms of thinking: diffuse and focused.

The focused thinking is almost self explanatory, and one which most of us are accustomed to. It is working intensely, without distraction. It usually involves some form of practice and repetition. For example, memorizing vocabulary words by practicing with flashcards.

On the other hand, there is diffuse thinking. This is the type of thinking responsible for the “aha” moments that occur when we are in the shower or driving to work or falling asleep. When we aren’t actively concentrating on a problem, and our attention is focused on something else,  our brain is running a background process to solve a problem we are aware of. It makes random neural connections and pulls in prior knowledge, even unrelated knowledge, to solve that problem.

Many great thinkers actively exercise their diffuse thinking. For example, Charles Darwin had his path which we’d walk along and allow his mind to wander.

I’ve started introducing this into my own learning and work. Before and after work, I’ll go for long walks. And during work, I rely on the Pomodoro technique (explained in the next section) to remind myself to take regular breaks.

I’ll talk more about the importance of these 2 forms of thinking when I talk about Chunking, but let’s discuss how the Pomodoro technique helps me enter the diffuse thinking mode.

4. Pomodoro Technique

As mentioned, in order to enter diffuse thinking, we need to pull ourselves away from our current task and concentrate on something else.

This has always been difficult for me. I’ll enter intense segments of work, stuck on a problem. At a certain point, I tell myself I’ll take a break in 10 minutes. Next thing I know, it’s an hour later, I’ve made no progress, and I’m still bashing my head against the problem.

The Pomodoro technique has helped me avoid this situation.

The technique is simple: spend 25 minutes in focused work mode, and then have a 5 minute break.

Using a timer with an alarm “wakes” me out of my focused mode and helps me shift into a break.

I find the Pomodoro technique helpful when planning my Daily Goals. Instead of specifying a certain amount of time (ie, “25 minutes”), I’ll specify the number of Pomodoro cycles to allocate to a task. For example, “write blog post for 2 Pomodoro”.

5. Building a Chunk Library

The final concept I’d like to discuss is the Chunk.

In fact, in my opinion, this is one of the most important concepts taught in Learning How To Learn.

So what is a Chunk?

First off, we must have a basic understanding of how our memory system works.

When we are actively thinking about something, it enters into our working memory. Unfortunately, our working memory has a limited space. According to the course, our working memory only has four slots in which to store information.

Therefore, we move information from working memory to long term memory.

To do so, we must compress bits of information into chunks. Our working memory is then able to recall those chunks into working memory. Because chunks are compressed, they consume less space in our working memory.

We can create chunks during our focused learning. Through repetition and practice, we can strengthen chunks. Equally important is having an understanding of the concept we are chunking. Without understanding, chunks we build are weaker.

The stronger the chunk is, the more easily we can recall it.

Here is an example you can try to see the importance of chunks and how they related to memory. Think of the five letters “o”, “e”, “s”, “h”, “u”. It wouldn’t be difficult to memorize, but would still require some effort. But instead if I told you to memorize the letters in “house”, you’d probably find that much easier to do. Same letters, but because we have a conceptual understanding with the word “house”, we created a strong chunk that is much easier to recall than seemingly random letters.

As we learn and practice, we build and strengthen chunks, building a chunk library. When we encounter a problem, our mind can start to pull from our chunk library to find a solution. Even more amazingly, it can pull unrelated chunks to help solve the problem at hand.

This is the background process that occurs during diffuse thinking.

To improve our problem solving abilities, we need to improve the efficacy and efficiency of our diffuse thinking. To do that, we need to build a strong, diverse chunk library.

Conclusion

How do I know I’ve learned something important and special? When, in retrospect, it seems so simple and obvious, yet has a profound impact on my life.

I felt this way about many of the concepts I learned in “Learning How To Learn”.

In this blog post, I’ve only shared only 5 of these concepts. There were many more that I welcome you to learn.

As such, if you’d like to improve your learning, I recommend enrolling in “Learning How To Learn” and discovering how it can change not only how you learn, but how you think.

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