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I tend to spend all of my focused learning time on understanding new technology. My approach is to bang my head against a side-project—while reviewing documentation—until I get it working. I didn’t use this approach when I recently decided to review math fundamentals, and as a result found myself unable to gain momentum, falling asleep with chapters of different math books open, never making much progress.

Student falling asleep

So I decided to review something even more fundamental: what does research tell us about how the brain learns? The result was that I added several tools to my learning toolkit, and I feel like I’m learning better than I ever have.

What did I review?

In order to learn more about how learning works, I read the book Pragmatic Thinking and Learning on Safari and took the Coursera course Learning How to Learn.

Both the course and book discuss two different “modes” that the brain uses to learn. Learning How to Learn calls these the “focused” and “diffuse” modes, which I found the more helpful explanation, compared with “L-mode” and “R-mode“ from Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. To summarize without any neuroscience background: in focused mode, your brain is consciously trying to solve discrete problems using existing knowledge, while in diffuse mode, it relaxes from conscious problem-solving and reaches wider to build understanding from sometimes unrelated information.

The book and course both offered a lot of practical suggestions of different learning techniques to try. I tried a bunch of them. What follows is an exploration of the techniques I found to work.

Invest in learning

The first new tool I gained from my reading was simple: approach learning as an investment. Your time is a limited, precious resource, and not everything is worth knowing.

Specifically, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning suggested that I treat my knowledge like an investment portfolio. Now I weigh the risks and potential benefits of my learning investments the same way Indie chose the life-giving Holy Grail from the death-dealing fakes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Focus with a timer

One suggestion from Learning How to Learn that I found immediately useful was to use a timer while focusing. The gist of this approach is that you set a timer for some amount of time (like a half hour), you focus while the timer is ticking, ignoring all distractions other than the task you have chosen. When the timer goes off, you do whatever you want for a few minutes. Then you set the timer again.

Two things about this technique interest me. First is that, as suggested in Learning How to Learn, the break at the end of your focus time may give your brain a boost as it switches into diffuse mode and makes bigger leaps than you might have been able to do while focusing intently.

The other thing I like about the technique is that as a focusing aid, it sets up focus-based tools in my learning toolkit for better success. I’ve noticed that when I hit an uncomfortable moment in a focus-based task (reading, practicing, coding, etc.), I feel a desire to check my email or a news site. However, when I’m focusing, it’s easier to push through the discomfort by telling myself that I’ll get time to relax in exactly 10 minutes and 17 seconds, or however much time is left on the timer.


When asked how they learn a new technology, I suspect that most programmers would say that they create a side-project and start playing with the technology. Everything I’ve read about learning suggests that this kind of hands-on practice with the material is among the best ways to solidify knowledge about it.

However, what if you’re like me and you’re so accustomed to project-oriented learning that you can’t imagine learning something without a project?

What I understand after flailing with my math review is that projects are just a form of practice well-suited to technical learning, and while many non-technical subjects (and even technical ones) don’t fit a project approach, there is usually a way to get hands-on with a subject.

Math, for example, has problem sets, and I’ve found that there is no shortcut around sitting down and spending the time to write them out; it’s the same as if I were to try to learn a programming language without writing any code.

If you’re a very project-oriented learner like me, consider projects a form of practice. If the project approach doesn’t fit the subject you are trying to learn, look for other ways to get hands-on that are more appropriate to the subject.

Take notes

Highlighting text and doodling questions to myself about the material while reading keeps me much more engaged than I am otherwise.

Maintaining active contact with the object that I’m reading seems to help my brain stay focused. Meanwhile, the mental act of choosing what to highlight causes me to judge which passages I think are important, which introduces an interactive element to reading that makes the activity more active than passive.

Through highlighting and notetaking, I can have the deepest reading experience. This has made digital books that support highlighting my preferred medium for reading non-fiction because I tend to avoid marking up paper books. (Note: Safari supports highlighting!)

Draw a mind-map

Chapter 6 of Pragmatic Thinking and Learning suggests drawing mind maps as a way to organize and explore concepts. A mind map is usually a piece of paper onto which you dump everything you can think of (and fit in the space available) about a particular subject. I tend to write a unifying theme in the center, like “Learning techniques” and then start to draw circles around it in the distance, into which I put related topics, connected by lines, and then branch these off into further related topics. Sometimes I add a funny drawing if I’m in the mood.

Image by!prettyPhoto

I can’t really explain why this is so useful, but ideas seem to spring out of nowhere when I release my mind from the need to order ideas sequentially, the way I do for an outline, or the need to make coherent linguistic sense, as with a journal entry, and instead write spatially. After drawing mind maps for all sorts of things over the past month, I find that I prefer them for almost every case in which I would have formerly written a journal entry or an outline to organize my thoughts.

Here is an example: I used mind maps to decide what to spend 2 – 3 months dedicated to learning. Picking a subject to learn about for an evening or a weekend is easy, but choosing one thing to dedicate months to is hard. Instead of trying to reason about the choice with long-form writing, I drew a series of mind maps, each one starting with “What to learn?” in the center. I branched out from the center into various topics I wanted to learn more about, like “Networking” or “Swift programming,” and for each one, I connected pros and cons. After I filled one page, I started a new page with the most promising items, and added any new ones that occurred to me. I did this every day for a week, once or twice a day, until I drew the final page and circled “Algebra.”

Review on a schedule

One problem I’ve had with learning subjects for which I can’t easily build a project is that there is no natural review process that keeps the material fresh. When I create a project, I’m often working on it for several weeks, even months or years, which eventually cements the thing I’m trying to learn in my brain. However, with subjects like personal finance or communication, I found that I would work through a book, make a bunch of notes that helped to keep me focused, practice what I read for a time (usually while I was reading the book or watching the videos) and then finish and move on. Gradually what I had learned would fade until it wasn’t in my active memory and, in some cases, I stopped applying it to my day-to-day life.

In the past when this happened, I had a narrative excuse I used to explain it: the material just wasn’t interesting or practical enough. However, after reviewing Learning How to Learn and Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, I have a different narrative: I did not practice and recall the concepts effectively, and as a result, my brain did not consider them important enough to build the kind of neural structures that would place them in long-term storage.

There are various techniques I’m using now to do this better, like explaining the concepts to someone and doing focused memorization with flashcards and spaced repetition. I’ll talk more about those techniques in other sections of this post, but in this section I wanted to discuss a simple technique: reviewing your notes.

I have two methods for reviewing my notes. First, I might schedule a review of parts of a book that I’ve already read as I make my way through it, somewhere near the halfway point. So, maybe while I’m reading a book with 12 chapters, if I reach chapter seven, I’ll review my notes for the past six chapters. I started doing this for reading groups, to make sure I could remember enough about the content to have a cogent discussion during a meeting, which it turns out is also a good indicator of whether I learned anything from the material.

The second method is something I use to try to keep material fresh after I finish a book. On the day I finish a book, I create a calendar entry to review my notes in a couple of weeks. I’m still experimenting with how often and when I want to review notes for books; some I might never review, if I don’t think they are worth it. Others, like Crucial Conversations, a book about how to have important, often emotionally-charged conversations with people, I feel like I should review every couple of weeks because they apply so often to my daily life.


There’s nothing like having a date on your calendar on which you will be expected to talk about a subject to motivate you to learn it well. This is why reading groups can be such a catalyst for absorbing new topics and have become one of my favorite learning techniques.

The principle here is gaining enough understanding of a topic that you can explain it.  You can also write a blog post or article, which doesn’t require in-person contact.

However I plan to explain what I think I’ve learned, my brain seems to pay a lot better attention to learning the material if I have something definite on the calendar. I don’t get quite the same effects if I try to learn something and then find myself having to explain it later without having the date in mind.

If you’re a social person, the best part of reading groups isn’t that they force you to learn material. Rather, it is the energy of bringing a few people interested in a subject together, reflecting on what they learned. Other people fill me in on parts of a book that I overlooked or undervalued, and often I learn new things related to the subject from the people in the group that I would never have learned from the book!


During my formal education, I failed to pick up effective approaches to memorizing concepts by repetition. Instead I gravitated toward subjects that I could explore with essays or projects, which required me to build enough of a conceptual framework to produce some output. In retrospect, this also seems like a memorization technique, but one that doesn’t work for all subjects.

Essay-based memorization seems ill-suited to the kinds of learning I’m doing for my math review, which involves a heavy amount of vocabulary and formula memorization. While I’ve come to understand that doing lots of math problems is similar to writing an essay or creating a new technology project, the subject also requires memorizing lots of small facts that I need to recall fluidly during problem sets. Memorization techniques that focus on recall, like flash cards using “spaced repetition” and quizzes, are useful for this.


I did not think of physical exercise as a learning technique until I read Pragmatic Thinking and Learning and audited Learning How to Learn. Now I believe that exercise, whether it’s vigorous running or a casual stroll among the meadows, has the power to switch the brain into diffuse mode and produce insights about problems I’m not actively thinking about.

It had never occurred to me that this was a mechanism of the brain that I could use to help with my learning because it seemed more like an act of God that flashed upon me when I was lucky. However, current research appears to suggest (I am told) that engaging in a physical activity that allows the mind to turn off its immediate problem-solving functions can switch it into the “diffuse” mode in which it makes bigger conceptual leaps. (And the same is true for sleep!)

The technique suggested in my reading is to build exercise into your day, especially around times that you’re learning new concepts. So after you study, do some exercise that you’re very familiar with (so you don’t have to think about how to do it), or meditate, and give your mind a chance to do its diffuse mode thing.

In summary

If you’re interested in how people learn and want to pick up some new techniques, I recommend the Coursera course Learning How to Learn and the book Pragmatic Thinking and Learning on Safari, especially Chapter 6: Learn Deliberately.

Tags: Learning, spaced repetition,

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