The difference between a reflective summary and taking notes

I read an interesting little piece with an admittedly clickbait-y headline: “The 30 Second Habit That Can Have A Big Impact On Your Life“. Title (and capitalisation) aside I really liked the advice – after significant learning experiences or meetings, take 30 seconds to write down the most important points.

I pride myself on taking notes though more often than I like, I fall into the trap of mistaking detail for clarity. This is true both in professional meetings and personal journals – sometimes I feel like I need to get everything down and then by the end I’m spent and leave no time for the critical part, which is reflecting and summing it all up.

I’m looking forward to trying to put a bit of extra focus on this and trying to reflect a little bit more.

Jack London’s advice on writing

One of the great techniques I learned about during the Learning How to Learn course was ‘Pomodoro’, which sounds remarkably like what Jack London used to do (he called it ‘stints’).

I believe his advice applies not just to writing but to anything creative or deep that requires a state of flow. More than 100 years on it still applies.

Don’t dash off a six-thousand-word story before breakfast. Don’t write too much. Concentrate your sweat on one story, rather than dissipate it over a dozen. Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will none the less get something that looks remarkably like it. Set yourself a “stint,” [London wrote 1,000 words nearly every day of his adult life] and see that you do that “stint” each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year.

Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived. They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your fingers. They are doing things, and their work bears the internal evidence of how it is done. Don’t wait for some good Samaritan to tell you, but dig it out for yourself.

See that your pores are open and your digestion is good. That is, I am confident, the most important rule of all.

Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.

And work. Spell it in capital letters. WORK. WORK all the time. Find out about this earth, this universe; this force and matter, and the spirit that glimmers up through force and matter from the maggot to Godhead. And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life. It does not hurt how wrong your philosophy of life may be, so long as you have one and have it well.

The three great things are: GOOD HEALTH; WORK; and a PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth—SINCERITY. Without this, the other three are without avail; with it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.

Originally found at AOM.

Learning how to learn

I’m very fortunate to have some spare capacity at the moment to do some self-directed learning. There are a few topics that I’m interested in doing a bit of a deep dive into, as well as the general learning about new places, languages and cultures that comes with travelling.

With that in mind, I signed up for Coursera’s most popular online course: “Learning how to learn.” I found the four week course to be fascinating, informative and very well structured and taught. Essentially it’s a meta-look at how the brain learns and is filled with practical tips and tricks to improve the way you learn. Some of those tips and tricks formed the impetus for me to start writing more.

I’ve taken some notes on some of the areas I found most interesting or useful:

Focussed and Diffuse Modes of Thinking

The brain can only operate in one mode of thinking at a time. Focussed thinking follows well established neural pathways, where you are thinking about things that may be difficult but you’ve done before or know how to do.

Diffuse thinking is more freestyle, big picture or blue sky thinking. It’s letting your brain wander and create new neural pathways and connections to solve a novel problem.

It is important to create time for both modes of thinking. I often find I get a lot of ideas while in the shower, riding my bike or doing other random activities. I now understand this is my brain working in the diffuse mode!

The importance of sleep and exercise

The course really opened my eyes to the rhythms of the brain, which is always changing and generating new neurons. Your brain needs time to rest, to work away in the background, to clean up toxins and to deepen neural pathways. Both sleep and essential in this maintenance work.

Recruit dopamine and work on the process to help you focus

You can recruit neuro-modulators to help you beat procrastination. For example, dopamine is in the business of predicting future rewards and helps regulate your motivation. Scheduling rewards at the completion of the task can train your brain to maintain motivation.

Procrastination is your minds way of switching focus away from something that causes your anxiety. Process is the framework you can set up to minimise procrastination and maximise focus while completing difficult tasks or learning hard-to-grasp concepts. Using the Pomodoro Technique and ensuring your environment is distraction free (no phone in sight, no push notifications) are great ways to set yourself up for success.

How to bed things down in long term memory

Long term memory is important because it is where your brain stores fundamental concepts and models. There are some techniques you can use to ensure that the concepts you learn are stored properly in your long term memory and that you can access them easily.

Spaced repetition, recall and self-testing are fantastic ways to ensure you are really learning a concept, and also to practice retrieving that concept from your long term memory. Writing down or explaining to others are also techniques that help you retain information.


I felt like a lot of the concepts taught in the course are things I know intuitively, but perhaps couldn’t explicitly explain. It’s great to understand more about the science and neurobiology behind learning, as well as the cues to recognise what is happening when I feel like procrastinating. The practical techniques are really useful and I’m looking forward to learning more effectively.

I highly recommend this course for anyone studying, working or interesting in learning something new. I think it would be fantastic to teach at a high-school level – a lot of these tips would have been great when I was studying back then!


How to remember what you read

I’m a pretty voracious reader of articles and too often I get carried away, read too many things then run out of steam. I always worry that I don’t take enough in.

This article talks about the difference between passive readers and active readers. I try and mix the books I read (generally popular fiction or biographies, literary fiction and non-fiction) for variety and to maintain a good rhythm, but too often I think I read passively.

One of my goals of 2018 is to ‘consume less, create more’ and I think this ties in nicely with active reading. I want to get the most out of the time I spend reading, and hopefully publishing some notes will help me do this.

I like the suggestions presented in the article:

  • Getting context (something I usually do after reading to avoid spoilers, but will aim to do up front).
  • Understanding what you want to get out of the book.
  • Relevant reading (about things you are working on or thinking about).
  • Take notes (I do this occasionally, but will try and do so more diligently).
  • Make mental links.
  • Put it down if you get bored (I struggle with this, preferring to finish a book or movie I don’t like just to get the full picture).

There are also some suggestions for after reading. I have a long list of books / articles that I want to read, and this accumulates faster than I can get through it. So when I finish a book, I’m usually excited about jumping right into the next one.

The “Learning how to learn” course I did earlier this year focussed a lot on reflection and recall being important for bedding down long term memories.

  • The Feynman Technique (I’d never heard of this, but it is essentially “Explain it like I’m five”).
  • Think about where you can apply it.
  • Teach others what you’ve learned (I’ve always found ideas sink in a lot more when you have to explain them to others).
  • Goodreads (I’ve written small private reviews, but will aim to write more public reviews on this blog).

I think I’ll be coming back to this article over the year and using it to improve my retention, to make sure I’m consciously taking actions to read actively and improve the way I read!

Note: I just started work on a project I’ve called Mental Models – I literally put the website up this morning. I noticed that this article also has a Mental Models section – serendipity?