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!


Searching for Syria – evocative use of media

Searching for Syria - Screenshot

SearchingForSyria.org is a website put together by the UNHCR in partnership with Google. It’s a great example of storytelling on the web, using fantastic photos and an interactive site to convey a message.

More like a powerpoint presentation than a traditional website, navigation is minimised and stunning, full screen images take centre stage. “What was Syria like before the war” engenders empathy – google searches, Gorillaz concerts and days at the beach highlight universality, hammered home by personal stories and anecdotes.

Content and messaging is easy to read and clever use of media (like overlaid before and after photos with a sliding divider) amplify the words. The stories and images are truly horrific, and the statistics break your heart.

I think that efforts like this are really crucial in helping people understand the breath taking magnitude of a crisis like this and more importantly breaking down stereotypes and emphasising the human connection, the sameness in all of us.

The Best of Journalism

Conor Friedersdorf  is one of my favourite writers, and one (along with Sam Harris) that I turn to for nuanced (and counter-intuitive) takes on current affairs.

He puts together a “Best of Journalism” newsletter and each year publishes a list of over 100 exceptional pieces of journalism. This is an amazing snapshot of long form, investigative journalism that will keep you interested for hours.

Get lost in the abyss here.

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? 

General tips for healthy living

I recently read an article by John Schumann, a doctor who is frequently asked for medical advice by friends and family. He says that medical professionals aren’t always sure what is wrong and mostly use educated guesses to do their best to treat patients.

They do know a lot about prevention, and most of it is really simple stuff. There’s no silver bullet, the hard part is not doing these things, it’s doing them consistently, building them into your routine and making them a habit.

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Move your body.
  • Eat well.
  • Interact socially.
  • Take time to reflect and practice gratitude.

I love this simple advice. It’s like the one line diet “eat only foods with less than three ingredients” that steers you toward buying fresh and raw ingredients.

Like learning anything, it comes down to practice and repetition. Bill Gates said that we overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in a decade. Like compound interest, these preventative steps really pay off in the long run.

It’s worth reading the full article, and coming back to it often. Check it out here.