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Weekly 3: Tools for learning

Summary: Take advantage of how your brain works. Use "intelligent failures" to innovate faster. Combi

Idea Journal Weekly 3

April 29 · Issue #32 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Take advantage of how your brain works. Use “intelligent failures” to innovate faster. Combine the new with the old to make what you’re learning stick. (~6 min read)
Idea #2 is from a previous issue, and we’re including it here both because we think it’s a useful tool for learning, and also because doing so is an example of the underlying concept in Idea #3.
We hope you’re enjoying the Weekly 3, and if you know others who might find it valuable, we’d love for you to forward them this email so they can sign up.

#1. To learn more effectively, use the Pomodoro Technique.
Professor and bioengineering researcher Barbara Oakley points out in her book Mindshift that the brain has 2 operating modes: 
  • Focused mode: this mode is activated whenever you consciously turn your attention to a given task or material – most of your energy goes into intense focus.
  • Diffuse mode: this is when you’re not focused on anything in particular – most of your energy goes into other, more relaxed networks (e.g., when you’re standing in the shower, going for a run, or looking out the window of a car).
To help you learn more effectively by taking advantage of how the brain works, Oakley recommends using the Pomodoro Technique, originally developed by productivity expert Francesco Cirillo.
Here’s how to use it in 2 steps: 
Step 1: Remove all distractions, digital or otherwise, set a timer for 25 minutes, and then focus as hard as you can on what you’re studying or working on.
Step 2: When the timer goes off, let your brain relax for a few minutes: for example, go for a short walk, chat with friends, listen to your favorite song – do anything that makes you feel “comfortably distracted.“ You’re not completely conscious of it, but this is the crucial step that gives your brain "a chance to consolidate the material you’ve learned” and is key to making creative connections.
For Oakley, the Pomodoro Technique is powerful because it trains your ability to focus, acknowledges the inevitable temptation to procrastinate, and includes built-in periods of relaxation that are equally important for learning. 
It’s like first completing “a focused workout in your mental gym, after which you head to the mental spa,” so that the overall experience is both productive and enjoyable.
#2. Learning from “intelligent failures” can increase your organization’s odds of success.
Being innovative means, by definition, working in an uncertain environment.
Columbia Business School Professor Rita Gunther McGrath writes in the Harvard Business Review that while “failure is inevitable” in such a context, believing in “intelligent failures” can teach you useful lessons.
She recommends 7 practical principles to help your organization better plan for, manage and learn from failure:
Principle 1: At the very beginning of a project, ensure that everyone agrees on the same definition of success.
Principle 2: Make your assumptions explicit, and design small experiments to test and revise them where possible.
Principle 3: Fail quickly – “quick, decisive failures” have several benefits, from limiting the number of resources that could be lost, to shrinking the time needed to establish cause and effect relationships.
Principle 4: Fail cheaply – similar to Principle 3, reduce your downside risk by testing a prototype or adopting 3M’s philosophy of “make a little, sell a little.”
Principle 5: Limit uncertainties “at any particular decision point” whenever possible.
Principle 6: Build a culture that encourages and celebrates intelligent risk-taking, and doesn’t punish people for any resulting failures.
Principle 7: Capture the lessons you learn, and share them with others in your organization.
#3. To learn a new skill or concept, combine it with what you already know.
Science reporter Benedict Carey writes in his book How We Learn that many of us have been influenced by some version of the message: Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.
You do need a certain amount of repetition when you’re learning a new skill or new material, but simply reviewing the same stuff repeatedly can create a “powerful illusion” – your skills improve quickly, but then they plateau.
Cognitive science research suggests that a better way to study is “interleaving”: surround new material with older, related concepts you already know but haven’t revisited in a while.
As neuroscientist Michael Inzlicht points out, this is because the brain is “exquisitely tuned to pick up incongruities.” When the brain sees something out of order (e.g., old material mixed in with new material), its awareness is heightened, and this prompts the subconscious to process the information more deeply; the brain essentially asks: Why is this here?
Here’s how a musician who’s learning a new piece of music might structure their 45 minute practice session using interleaving: 15 minutes of practicing scales + 15 minutes of reading the new piece + 15 minutes of practicing familiar pieces.
Quote of the Week
“Learning acquired in youth arrests the evil of old age; and if you understand that old age has wisdom for its food, you will so conduct yourself in youth that your old age will not lack for nourishment.”
Idea Journal
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