In today’s fast-paced world, effective learning is crucial for personal and professional growth.
In his latest book, “Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy,” Daniel T. Willingham, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, shares how you can hack your brain and increase the joy you get from learning.
Here are my ten items gleaned from the book to hack your brain and get better results from learning.
🧩 Hack #1: Be One of a Kind by Combining Your Skills
Willingham says, “Once you’re outside school, you don’t need to be great at learning; you need to be okay at it but also achieve proficiency in other skills.”
Say you’re a proficient actress who can sing. Then you learn how to take good pictures. You aren’t the best in each field, but if you combine all the skills, you can be one of a kind – an actress who can sing and take good photographs.
If you are learning something new, you don’t need to aim to be the best in the field; you just need to be a bit better than average. If you combine new skills with your existing skills, you can be one of a kind with a certain mix of skills.
🌱 Hack # 2: Pursue your goals, not to prove your abilities, but to grow your abilities.
Willingham says when you are picking a project to work on, select it based on what you want to learn. Think about what kind of experiences you’ll gain by working on the project.
The next time you pick a project or even a job, focus on what kind of skills or experiences you can gain from the job.
Focus on growth, rather than accomplishments.
🎯 Hack # 3: “Deliberate Practice” is the key to improvement
Even if you experience something millions of times, unless you intentionally practice and pay attention to it, you won’t get better at it.
1️⃣ Pick one component of a skill you want to improve.
2️⃣ Practice and get feedback externally & internally.
3️⃣ Adjust your practice based on the feedback.
Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., calls this Deliberate Practice in his book, “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.”
Complex skills take a long time to master, but if you continue this cycle, you’ll get there.
📝 Hack # 4: Add “Planning” to Your To-Do List
Willingham emphasizes the importance of planning ahead, instead of just jumping in.
Before you work on activities, know what you want to learn from them and decide what you’ll be paying attention to. After all, as Willingham says, “Memory is the residue of thought.” The more attention you pay, the stronger the memory will be.
✅ Before you read a book, think about questions you want to get answered using a technique such as SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review).
✅ Before you start each study session, make a “to-do list” with small and specific steps.
Do you feel that planning ahead is extra work for you? Add “planning” as the first item on your to-do list.
📋 Hack # 5: Don’t overestimate your brain: Embrace notes
You probably have experienced this in your life. When you’re reading a book or doing an activity, you come up with good insights. You think you’ll remember them later, but often those thoughts are fleeting. Unfortunately, the main purpose of your brain isn’t to remember things.
Don’t use your brain to remember your fleeting thoughts!
Take notes. You probably carry a phone with you all the time. Just dictate thoughts that come up to your phone.
To collect your thoughts and insights, you need to move your brain into the “diffuse mode.”
Go for a walk for 30-60 minutes with your phone. Every time a good insight comes to your mind, record it to your phone. You’ll be amazed at how many entries you’ll have by the end of the walk.
Be kind to the reader of your notes, who is going to be you. How many times have you seen your old notes that don’t make any sense to you? Include context and explanations.
🔄 Hack #6: Add “Recap” to Your To-Do List
As planning matters, recap matters too. Just like preparation, not many people spend enough time to recap what they’ve just learned.
After you take a class, attend a workshop, or read a book, pause and review what you’ve just learned.
🤔 Did you learn what you thought you would?
🧐 Did you find the answers to the questions you wrote at the beginning?
🤔Are there any gaps in your understanding?
Take time and reorganize your notes when your memory is still fresh. You might feel it’s a waste of time, but be kind to “future you.”
Include “recap” and “organize notes” on your to-do list to ensure you don’t undervalue these important steps.
⏳ Hack # 7: Develop habits to combat your procrastination
We tend to procrastinate when we have better alternatives.
Say you need to write an article. But the alternative of watching funny YouTube videos is more appealing. So you procrastinate and watch the video instead.
The remedy for this is not to give yourself better alternatives. You can do this by making the action you want to take a habit.
When you are doing something out of habit, such as brushing your teeth, you don’t think about alternatives. You are on auto-pilot.
If you want to write articles regularly, make it a habit.
There are a lot of tricks you can use to develop good habits. I shared many tricks in other articles, “How to build good habits like a pro: 10 tips” and “Do you know how to change? Learn these simple tips.”
You often hear that it takes about sixty-six days of repetition before you build a habit. You’re very distractible during that time. Be attentive during the period and intentionally experiment with various tricks to make the desirable action a habit.
🖼️ Hack # 8: Focus on the process, not the product
When you’re trying to work on something, focus on the process, not the final product.
Say you want to write an article. Aim to spend certain hours on writing every day, not to complete the article. If you consistently devote time to work on writing, you’ll inevitably see a finished article.
To help you with the process, develop your own system to keep track of your progress.
For example, you can use a Google Calendar. If you want to write for two hours every night, block two hours on your calendar.
✅ Once you complete the task, mark the task as complete. This marking will make you feel satisfied and help you keep going with your learning journey. It works as a reward for your brain.
😨 Hack # 9: Anxiety? Do it anyway!
Your anxiety can stop you from taking the action you want to take. For example, public speaking or talking in front of a camera might make you feel anxious.
The bad news is that you can’t be totally anxiety-free. The most important function of your brain is to help you survive. If your brain senses any threat to your survival, you feel threatened and anxious.
So what can be done?
Don’t try to get rid of your anxiety, but try to manage your anxiety. And take the action you want to take despite your anxiety!
🏆 Every time you take an action despite your anxiety, count that as a success. No matter how small the action is, tally them up and boost your confidence.
🔄 Hack #10: Get in the flow of the virtuous cycle of learning!
In the conclusion section of the book, Willingham describes the virtuous cycle of learning.
🧠 If you pay more attention to the content, whether you’re interested or not, you’ll remember more about it.
💪 If you remember more, your confidence in the topic will increase.
🌱 Once your confidence increases, you start to feel that you can learn more about it and get better at it.
⏳ You procrastinate less since you tend to procrastinate when you don’t think you can do something well.
📚 You’ll continue to work and become more knowledgeable about the topic.
🔑 The more knowledge you have, the easier it becomes to gain even more knowledge about the topic.
🔎 As you gain more knowledge about the topic, you get more interested and you will pay more attention to it.
It is truly a virtuous cycle. You can enter this wonderful cycle from any point and also from multiple points. Get in the flow and let the virtuous cycle carry you!
🚀 Take Action Now!
By applying these brain hacks, you can improve your learning abilities and get more joy from the process.
Remember to focus on growth, practice deliberately, and develop habits that support your learning journey.
As Willingham says, the potential for fun is limitless when you explore the unfamiliar. So go ahead, find one thing that you’d like to know more about, and start learning today!