Learning How to Learn

December 9, 2015

Over the last few weekends I have sunk a couple of hours into studying a MOOC on Coursera called Learning How to Learn. Here are a few of the things I learned. Rather than reproduce an exacting list, I’ve explored a few of the bigger themes that have stuck with me a week or two later.


I completely misunderstood what Pomodoros are for. They are useful because they get you to focus on process, not the end result. Why does that matter? Procrastination is about perceived pain. If finishing, or even starting a task seems painful, you will avoid it. The focus of a Pomodoro is to ‘work on’ a [hard task] for 25 minutes, not to complete [hard task] in 25 minutes. This is a small shift that has large implications. When you find yourself procrastinating, or gritting your teeth at some horrible task, the mental story that you should be telling yourself is not “I have to get this complete”, it’s “right now, I should work on this for 25 minutes. Then I can reward myself with a quick break”.

Focused and Diffuse

We have two modes of thinking; focused and diffuse. There are times and places to use both, but you should switch between them. When you’ve been working for a while on a specific, hard problem and feel like you’re hitting a wall, step away. Go for a walk, run or lift some weights and switch off from the specific task. Your subconscious will continue to process it in the background, making links between neutrons stronger and deeper.

Sleep is just magically important. Memory is consolidated during sleep. Whilst this is going on, neurons shrink in size in order to allow the brain to flush out toxins. That’s a vague and non-scientific summary of some quite complex neuroscience, but that’s an effective working model for what’s going on. One of my main takeaways from this course was to be rigorous about getting 8 hours of proper sleep going forward.

Exercise is just as important. In response to this, I quit being lazy about weightlifting and ordered a squat rack, bench and barbell so that I could weight lift at home without any of the typical friction like travelling to the gym or putting gym gear on.

Spaced Repetition

A few other lessons confirmed some things that I happened to stumble across a few years ago, like the effectiveness of using spaced repetition chunk content into long-term memory. I personally use Anki, and it has been nothing short of a life saver in terms of remembering acronyms in professional services.


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