Become an Effective Learner - Focused and Diffused Mode

Do you know that feeling after reading a book or an article that you can't remember the important key parts or concepts anymore?

Can you remember the last time you wanted to tell your friends or colleagues about your new knowledge and while you were explaining it, you figured out that you can't bring the particular parts together?

Do you also mark a ton of text passages in a book, but haven't learned anything at all?

I can often answer these questions with Yes. And the worst thing is that I haven't realized it for a long time. I discovered these problems while I was participating in the Coursera course "Learning How to Learn". And the whole concept about this phenomena has an explicit naming, illusion of competence.

Illusion of competence describes the phenomena when you believe you understood and memorized something by simply reading a book or article. While you were reading the text, the concepts and ideas made sense to you, but it takes more to put that learning into your memory for further processing.

So what I have learned to overcome this phenomenon? Our brain can be used in two different modes when it comes to learning and solving problems, the focused and diffused mode.

Imagine we would start learning to play the guitar. Intuitively, you start learning small passages of the song instead of trying to play the whole song directly. This behavior is called focused mode. You focus on small parts first, understand, repeat and practice them.

During this time you "burn" this information into your brain and build so-called chunks. You can imagine these chunks as boxes which contain information. These chunks contain all information to let you play a part of the song.

If you have built enough chunks, your brain starts to connect chunks together to let you play the song in whole. At some point, the chunks are so deeply cemented in your mind that you don't need to focus anymore on them. This is how all the professionals don't need to concentrate on the position of the fingers. They can use their whole brain power to be more creative while playing.

Let us briefly point out what is important to learn new topics while being in the focused mode:

  • Focus: Put all your attention to the new topic for a certain amount of time. Distraction is horrible for having good results in reasonable time.
  • Understanding: Try to understand the topic by understanding the big picture. Don't cheat your brain with obvious information. Tackle the important parts that help you to understand the topic in deep.
  • Practice: Recall the information and challenge yourself regularly. Practice is super important to manifest the information and make it accessible in future.

What do I do to be effective in focused mode or have I planned to apply:

  1. Kill distraction: Turn off notifications on my phone and computer while I want to work focused on something. I need to stop my brain from distraction and context switches.
  2. Focused attention: Use the Pomodoro technique to create really focused time spots by setting a timer. Keeping focus is not always easy for longer periods in daily life. But being focused in 25 minutes blocks should be possible for all of us.
  3. Writing: Taking notes which have been written in my own words helps me to manifest and information and challenge my understanding. I guess, it is quite hard to write a text about something that hasn't been understood.
  4. Notebook: Recently, I bought a small notebook that I can borrow around everywhere. I write down key concepts and question and I go through the book regularly when I have time, e.g. in the train or before sleep.

As mentioned before, not only the focused mode is essential for learning. To be creative, our brain works in the diffused mode. The diffused mode links unrelated information (chunks) to generate new findings and concepts.

How do you get into the diffused mode? This is a good question. You need to step back from the current problems and challenges to make your mind free and creative. Your brain is still processing and eventually come up with a solution.

Have you ever wondered where the ideas and solutions surprisingly come from when you take a shower? It originates from the brain's diffused mode.

Different studies showed that having some physical exercise, like having a walk or go running, leverages the diffused mode. Sleeping is an important factor for learning as well. While you are sleeping, the brain is still active and processes information that occurred during the day. I guess, the triggers are diverse and dependent on the personality itself. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for you.

The master of inventions, Thomas Edison, has really utilized this mode. According to legend, he sat back in his chair and relaxed to get into the diffused mode, hoping to invent the next big thing.

What do I do to get into the diffused mode or have I planned to apply:

  1. Environmental change: Take a walk every day and get away from the concrete problems and challenges. Recently, I tried out to work in front of standing desk. It felt good so far, but I can't quantify anything.
  2. Task list: Write down all task that I want to accomplish the next day before I go to sleep. The brain gets already triggered and eventually, pre-processes already some information.
  3. Physical exercises: Kill two birds with one stone. Not only good for the brain, but also for my body. While doing some exercises, I will always carry my small notebook to take quick notes if the diffused mode produces some thoughts and ideas.

The course from Coursera teaches you much more, but I wanted to focus on the most important part in my opinion. I hope, I could give you some insights and helpful tips to become an effective learner.

Reading recommendations:

This article has been published first on my personal blog. My colleagues found it quite useful and ask me to publish it on our engineering blog as well. And here it is ;-)

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