Your Favorite Book From Last Year
Think of a book you read maybe a year ago that had over 200 pages. One that you loved and recommend to people. You thought it was great.
Now, without looking it up, take out a pad of paper and rewrite the book.
Ok, that’s a lot to ask.
Write a 20 page summary instead.
How about a 2 page summary?
Try it. Without interjecting your opinions or analysis or stories, write what the book was about.
Unless you have an eidetic memory you’re like most of us: you’ve got strong feelings for the book, but you don’t have strong memories.
Whenever I rave about a book to someone and then they ask what it was about and I fumble the explanation, I feel disheartened. Why does this happen? How could I book I loved so much be limited to so few actually memories of it?
I’m going to pause here for a soon-to-be-related subject.
No Pain, No Gain.
When you learn, you are rewiring your brain. It’s not easy because your body resists.
Like building muscles, you need to be a little uncomfortable – sometimes a lot uncomfortable. Though it’s mental, you can feel the burn. It just manifests differently than a muscle burn: the burn is boredom, the itch to check your phone, tiredness, procrastinating.
A body at rest likes to stay at rest. A mind might be made for learning, but it doesn’t like to learn.
I think to avoid “the burn” we do all kinds of things to make it easier. But ultimately you have to lift the weight to get the muscle.
Here’s some popular “learning” techniques that I think actually harm learning instead of helping it.
Common “Learning” Tactics That Kill or Maim Learning
I’ll admit up front that many people have argued with me against these claims, but I want to share them in case you find them helpful.
- Being entertained in the “background”. Listening to music. Having the TV on. Being in a coffeeshop to people watch. Or otherwise having some entertainment going on while you’re trying to learn. Any time or focus spent being entertained is time and focus spent away from learning. Why add entertainment for your mind unless your mind is trying to get away from learning? Also, stop calling this “the background”. If you know it’s there it’s in the foreground, if intermittently. The more you avoid the pain, the less you get the gain.
- Being entertained by the “learning” itself. You need to get substantive material into your brain. Having a beautifully illustrated book where the illustrations are sugar not substance doesn’t help. Having a charming or attractive or funny teacher might make you feel good but it takes your focus off the learning. It’s like thinking about your workout clothes instead of doing the workout.
- Real-time “educators”. Audio books, podcasts, videos, and to a lesser extent lectures rarely have moments where they are at your pace. Unlike books where you can skim, slow down, stop, reflect, speed up, you are bound the the speed of the train. (Yes, I know you can stop and rewind podcasts and the like, but honestly how often is that really done?) The odds that they will produce the stream of knowledge to flow the way you and speed you need are next to nil. It’s like doing a circuit routine made for an 80 year old when you’re 20 years old (or vice versa).
- Reading for comprehension, instead of reading for learning. Like the “favorite book” example, you aren’t doing much besides letting the words flow over you. What’s making them stick? You’re just reading and understanding words. That’s not learning. That’s comprehension. It’s known in cognitive psychology as the Fluency Illusion. And the fact that you can’t remember much but feel like you know it is called the illusion of explanatory depth. These are real phenomena and we all do it if we’re not careful and don’t know how to learn. So don’t just surf over the words, figure out how to really learn the material (I recommend the book Make It Stick for many ideas on that). It’s like showing up at the gym just to use the restroom.
Objections to removing these tactics include “but I need a break”, “I need to distract the chatterbox in my head”, and “I’m not a self-starter so I need a teacher.”
- “I need a break.” Then take a break. But don’t try to multi-task. Even if one of the “tasks” is to entertain yourself. Multi-tasking has been shown many times over that it is terrible for getting things done and for learning. Trying to ride two horses at once won’t get you there faster.
- “I need to distract the chatterbox in my head”. Don’t reward a trouble-maker by providing them entertainment. Don’t make your learning pay the price for your chatterbox’s destructive behavior. Find ways to address the chatterbox directly so you can start using those brain cells for learning instead of entertaining.
- “I’m not a self starter”. Self-starting is a habit, not a genetic predisposition. It comes from passion of purpose and/or many other ways that you can control. Take the time to explore what’s keeping you from self starting and being an active learner instead of a passive one.
I know these suggestions to dig deeper are way easier said than done. But imagine if you could take breaks, didn’t have a chatterbox, and self-started. How awesome would that be? Instead of band-aid tactics that bring down your learning effectiveness down to 3% (not an actual science number, just my personal estimate), spend more time upstream addressing the issues at the source.