Learning how to learn: modes of thinking, procrastination and sleep

This post is a note to my future self about three important ideas from Coursera’s Learning How To Learn MOOC.

Three important ideas I learned during the course were:

  1. Modes of thinking
    1. One of the core ideas of the course was the idea that there are 2 modes of thinking when learning
      1. Focussed
        1. Recall the pinball machine picture – in this mode the bumpers are close together and the pinball bounces between bumpers following a well know pathway.
        2. This mode of thinking is good for intense focus on a subject.
      2. Diffuse
        1. Recall the pinball machine picture – in this mode the bumpers are widely spaced and thoughts move widely before hitting a bumper.
        2. This mode of thinking is good for broad/big picture thinking at the expense of focused thinking.
    2. We can’t do both kinds of thinking at the same time.
    3. The Daphne Gray-Grant interview suggested diffuse mode was good for writing, where as focused mode is good for editing. Make sure we don’t let critical/focused mode brain to drive writing, use diffuse mode.
  2. Procrastination
    1. Solving procrastination problems is easier, and more valuable, than you think.
    2. Procrastination is easy to fall into. Some people say it’s a matter of using will power. However, using will power to overcome procrastination takes significant cognitive effort. There are easier ways to overcome it that don’t use valuable cognitive effort.
    3. Procrastination has similarities with addiction
      1. Temporarily excitement/relief from sometimes boring reality.
      2. Easy to fool yourself with stories about what is the best use of time, the nature of the subject, your ability and even that procrastination is good
    4. Understanding your procrastination
      1. The cue.
      2. The routine – the habitual, zombie response to the cue
      3. The reward – when procrastinating, the reward is temporarily relief from the task at hand or excitement of the distraction
      4. The belief – habits have power because you believe in them. To change a habit you need to change the underlying belief
    5. How to beat procrastination
      1. Focus on the cue, which could be related to location, time, how you feel, people, etc. Remove the cues: Turn off distractions (phone, internet, etc), Change location or time of homework, Noise cancelling headphones.
      2. Focus on the routine
        1. When procrastinating we go off into something “more interesting” once we receive the cue (e.g. “I’ll just look that tangental idea up on the web”) so we receive temporary relief.
        2. This is the point where we want to rewrite the routine. To do that we have to have a plan/new ritual. e.g. Going somewhere for work, leaving the phone in the car, sitting in a comfortable chair, etc.
      3. The reward – find ones that work for you such as
        1. Recognition of achievement (internal, external)
        2. Indulgence (chocolate, web surfing/TV watching without guilt)
        3. Remember that only when your brain gets to the point of expecting a reward will you have rewired your brain to create new habits.
        4. It can take a few attempts before we start getting into flow on a  topic. Use pomodoro and persistence.
      4. The belief
        1. When the going gets tough it’s easy to fall into the old habits, driven by a belief
        2. Need to recognise this might happen and address it, e.g. by hanging out with different people to help stay away from the old habits
  3. Sleep
    1. Sleep is extremely important to learning.
    2. Sleep reduces toxins in brain
      1. Normal cognitive processes creates toxic products in brain. Sleep allows brain cells to “shrink”, increasing the space between them and allows fluids to “flush” toxins out of brain.
    3. Sleep also helps with learning
      1. Strengthens important areas you’re trying to learning, weakens less important areas.
      2. Increases diffuse mode thinking —> Deactivation of conscious “you” in prefrontal cortex means other parts of brain increase communication, strengthening connections between ideas. Obvious requirement is to already have knowledge of the ideas, which means focussed mode thinking about those ideas
      3. Thinking about those ideas before sleep improves changes of dreaming about topics. Dreaming about a problem can help develop new solutions
    4. Dr Terrance Sejnowski interview indicates sleep and exercise help with creativity by creating new neurons.

The MOOC covered many more topics that I list here to help my recall during future spaced repetition exercises:

  • Focused and diffuse modes of thinking.
  • Key techniques proven by research to help students learn most efficiently
  • Illusions of learning
  • Memory
  • Chunking
  • Sleep
  • Metaphor, story, and visualization in learning
  • Transfer of ideas and concepts from one area to another
  • Deliberate practice
  • Interleaving
  • Procrastination
  • Testing
  • Mindset
  • Working with others in learning
  • Cultural similarities and differences in learning
  • Life-long learning and broadening your passions
  • Learning independently


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