How To Learn: 6 Surefire Tricks to Train Your Brain
“Learn more, to earn more” I have made this motto one of my guiding principles.
From day one I was hell-bent on learning from the best.
This lead me to travel the world and undertake all possible challenges life threw at me. It was not easy, but it was worth it. Along the way I’ve got the knack of learning. I’m happy to share some tips with you.
Here’s 6 tips to learn more efficiently.
#1 Dismiss Distractions
Cal Newport calls the ability to stay focussed, “the superpower of the 21st century.”
Fortunately, such an enviable state is nurtured rather than innate. It may come more naturally to some, but that’s not a valid excuse. Part of the winning formula is actually a zero-tolerance policy for excuses.
Here’s how I cultivate this state.
First, I am proactive. I create the perfect working environment. So, I work in isolation. It’s very easy to achieve when I work from home. I turn my cellphone off and put it away. Computer goes in airplane mode. And I become unavailable to the world and its chatter.
Cellphones, screens, and loud noises all deplete acetylcholine. Since your reserves are not endless, and this neurotransmitter controls how sharp your mind is. It sounds better not to squander it. Especially if you plan to use your brain to full capacity.
Studies show that cellphones are powerful distractions. Subjects’ IQ drops 5-15 points when they spend their working day grazing online checking e-mails, peeking on their Facebook stream, answering text messages… basically falling to prey to whatever notification pops up. In comparison being intoxicated only amounts to 1/3 of the damage!
Keeping your cellphone turned on is, quite obviously, distracting. But, when placed in view, even a turned-off phone sucks away your focus. Just ditch it somewhere out of harm’s way!
Second, I schedule slots of time where I commit to study. I make it a pact with myself. Same way I write my training journal. Each goal is crystal clear and emotionally charged. Compliance and success rates go through the roof because I attach a value and a reward to such dedication.
Third, I pick ONE task. Anything else becomes temporarily irrelevant. You’d be surprised how liberating this mind trick proves to be! And here’s another trick: I imagine my core identity momentarily becomes: student. I am no longer, coach, father, entrepreneur. Nope, I am merely a student, doing what he is programmed to do aka studying. Period.
#2 Manage Your Blood Sugar
Your brain amounts to 2% of your total body weight, yet it requires 20% of your energy for proper function. Better keep up with the demand!
High and low blood sugar wreak havoc on brain’s function. You already know that fast sugars are out of question. High sugar intakes correlate with acute and significant drops in IQ. It has been estimated that a 20% decrease is the norm. Plus, the sugar rush comes with symptoms that bear striking similarities to those of ADHD. Not exactly the ideal condition to develop unfragmented attention.
High blood sugar also depletes dopamine. This neurotransmitter is essential for sustained focus and drive. Two things you want in ample quantities when studying.
High blood sugar nefarious effects extend to BDNF. BDNF is the brain growth factor. It sustains and repairs neuronal circuits, one pivotal mechanism when it comes to learning and making memories.
Yet you don’t want to slide down the slippery slope of hypoglycemia.
Low blood sugar also pulls the drain on your mental acuity. Confusion and slow thinking are the hallmarks of low blood sugar. Additionally, low blood sugar raises cortisol. If the condition goes unchecked for extended periods of time, it negatively impacts memory. It actually shrinks your hippocampus. For the record, the hippocampus happens to be general quarters for memory formation, learning and the control of emotions.
The best route is to opt for smart fats – quite appropriately named. Ketones, MCT are perfect adjuvants to your study hours. Your brain loves them. And you should too.
If turning off all communication devices for a WHOLE hour seems daunting. A great way to quail this anxiety is to schedule your study period early in the morning. Anyway, unless you are a brain surgeon on a shift, there is no task so urgent that a one-hour delay will totally screw everything up.
But the elegant solution is to work early in the morning, when nobody is up. There’s no urgency when everybody is asleep. Genius!
Pro tip: to excel you have to be an oddity. Wake up at 5 am. Race the sun!
Besides, scheduling your study time in the AM is an interesting compromise. It allows to accomplish several things.
As the saying goes: first thing goes first. If studying is your priority, and this is not a bad route to go. Then it makes sense to place it in your first available time slot. At that time, you have most control over your environment and you can also benefit from your highest energy. Second, it forces you to wake up early. The corollary being that you have to go to bed early too. Establishing a sleep hygiene and sleep/wake routines are absolute game changers. So, it all ties up nicely! Studying should definitely become a part of your morning ritual. The benefits will trickle down throughout the day.
As for me, I wake up, have my meat and nuts breakfast, then I set down to study technical material – anatomy, program design, nutrition, supplementation, you name it – for one hour. I often proceed with another hour of studying that is more business oriented. And then, I can plunge into the day’s various demands and social obligations. But I can do it knowing my priority has been taken care of. It sets the mood for the day. Remember, one small win at a time!
You’d be hard put to find that one skill – mental or otherwise physical – that is not negatively affected by sleep deprivation. There is none! Nitch! Nada! Focus, attention span, mood, decision making, even motor skills disappear like snow under the sun when you are not putting the required attention in the sleep department. A one-nighter can cause a 30% loss in effectiveness cognition wise!
Funnily enough, if sleep loss makes you dumb(er), appropriate sleep makes you brighter… with a twist. You have to sandwich your creative thinking in between sleep periods.
One experiment assessed two groups mental dexterity. The first group was allowed a 12-hour break between initial training and a problem-solving test. The other group was tested right away. The rested group showed a 3-fold increase in skewedness. Impressive! Same was observed with team work. Teams came up with more innovative solutions when they were first presented with the problem at hand, allowed to literally sleep on it, then and only then, brainstorm.
Even if the exact mechanisms are still unknown and debated, sleep seems to improve memory retention. This is what scientists call consolidation. Apparently, the brain repeats what it has learned during day-time. It rewires the same patterns. Greasing the groove. Engraining them. Adding layers of myelin to the circuitry.
Yet this is an area of debate since some evidence points in the opposite direction. Sometimes, sleep impairment enhances memory. At any rate if you are playing for the long run, sleep remains your best ally!
Fun fact! Your brain shrinks when you doze off. But this time the shrinkage is beneficial. It is actually a curious thing. The glymphatic system takes care of waste removal in the black box. During slumber, the cerebrospinal fluid circulates with added vigor. It is allowed to do so by way of a whopping 60% increase in extracellular space. The glial cells (immune cells/scaffolding of the brain) make themselves smaller to allow the cerebrospinal fluid to flow through channels in cell membranes. Thereby sweeping your brain clean of natural metabolic waste products alongside many not-so-natural toxicants.
#5 Challenge Yourself
Let me introduce you to the Fluency Fallacy. This tongue twister relates to the illusion of mastery that comes when a studying material becomes familiar. This thing is, our brains equate familiarity with ease and competence. This is, by the way, something the advertising industry shamelessly uses. Repeated exposure to the same stimuli makes it known territory. Like a lulled immune response that no longer react when presented to an irritant.
To prevent this false sense of mastery from creeping in, the best remedy is to quiz yourself. Study for 30 minutes then pull out a blank sheet of paper and jot down 10 big ideas. I do this during seminars. Every 30 minutes or so, I ask students to list 10 things they’ve learned. It’s easy because each student only has to come up with one idea – if at all. But you are on your own, make it harder. There’s no peer pressure at play. And nobody will know if you fail. If you want to step-up your game. There’s even more challenging than quizzes, try to teach the subject!
Anyway, you should embrace the difficulty. The brain clings to difficult material like an octopus to your leg. Jettison the illusion of fluency by going over the material a couple days later. What was beginning to be easy, appears difficult once again. But that’s a good thing! That’s the reason why spacing your learning sessions out is another scheduling gold nugget. Keep your studying sessions short and intense. It’s better to allocate 1h x7/week than squeezing 2 blocks of 3h work in one sitting. So, you’d be well advised to implement a: “what are the 10 things you’ve learned yesterday” test for yourself.
Bonus: Coitus interruptus and Zeigarnik effect. It is easier to commit unfinished tasks to memory. So, stop reading midway through a concept. And your subconscious might loop it for the whole day making it more vivid.
#6 Have a Break, Have a Dart
Your brain is a fast twitch muscle. It is not well suited for extended periods of work.
Most authors advise to take a 5-15 min break for 60-90 min of work. But that’s for a seasoned intellectual athlete. You might find that 15min spans prove to be quite a stretch at first. It’s okay, start from there, and build up your neurons stamina. Time yourself and monitor your progress. Exactly the same way you would do with training.
You’d also be well advised to reward your efforts. But DON’T binge on Facebook or Instagram in between work sessions. That’d be the dietary equivalent of a pro-inflammatory cheat day. We know it can take as long as 3 months for inflammation to abate after ONE single badly planned refeed. My bet is that logging in and out repeatedly throughout the day is about as bad.
Remember that multi-tasking is pretty much magical thinking. At best your mind can switch fast between two tasks. But there is something scientists call attention residue. Basically, your brain is lagging behind still preoccupied with the previous piece of information. You can’t run fast and be agile if you are carrying a weighted vest!
During your breaks, move around. Limber up. Movement helps with memory and focus. Your brain needs oxygen, activating blood flow is a super and fun way to achieve it. One high performer was known to do all-out sprints to keep himself sharp. That might turn a few head and earn you a few puzzled looks. But the hell with it. Dare to be great!
Besides its less-than-stellar stamina, your brain also gets bored quick. It tends to flat line when things are uneventful. Some authors argue that your brain wants to call it quit every 10 minutes. Hence the need to spice things up. An easy way is to so is via stories. Your aim is to raise emotions. If your subject is dull, or if the author MAKES it dull, make up stories on your own. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Raising dopamine increases information retention. It’s pedagogic.
These are general guidelines. I differentiate between 3 different types of learners. There are the Visual learners, the Aural and the Kinaesthetic ones.
I am a visual creature. And my attempts to learn using audio books were for the most part miserable. I remember diligently listening to functional medicine courses on tape while driving. It did very little for me. As for my daughter, it was another story. I remember being stunned one afternoon when she declared was aplomb that we must get her some snack high in protein ASAP since she could feel her blood sugar was falling and it was interfering with her mood and concentration. Well, she had always been a bright kid, but it was still a bit unsettling to ear that from a 6-year-old. At least the functional medicine courses were of benefit for her. And it helped shed light on the fact that they did very little for me. My advise is to find your forte and capitalize on it.
Also, be patient, according to the 10,000-hour rule, mastery would require about 5 years of intense work. Forgo the Marshmallow, and cheer-up because grit out-predicts IQ by a factor of 2!
You can prime yourself for performance by managing your time and energy and modulating your outer and inner environment.
Coach Charles R. Poliquin
Deep Work, Cal Newport
Straight A Student, Cal Newport
The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin
The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
The 5 Second Rule, Mel Robbins
The Growth Mindset, Carol Dweck
Grit, Angela Duckworth
The 10x Rule, Grant Cardone
How We Learn, Benedict Carey
Brain Rules, John Medina