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23 Tricks To Learn Anything Better

23 Tricks To Learn Anything Better

For the original unedited article, visit Greatist.

Learning hacks — they’re a thing, and while the college kids are heading back to school, it’s a good time for all of us to rethink the ways we learn. Student, professional, or parent, we’re all learning every day — whether it’s how to play guitar, use new software, raise a child, or poach an egg, the mind is always soaking up new information. Make it easier with the following tips.

PRIME YOUR MIND — CREATING HABITS THAT OPTIMIZE LEARNING

With a little regular maintenance, the mind can become razor-sharp and ready to tackle any challenge and absorb new information. Keep the brain in tip-top shape by making regular habits out of the following activities.

1. Work Out

Lifting weights and doing cardio carry a host of physical benefits (see: almost everything on this site), but turns out exercise can also improve learning and memory. If your thoughts are muddled, try taking a brisk walk or heading to the gym. One study found that memory and cognitive processing (the ability to think clearly) improved after a single 15-minute exercise session.

2. Meditate

Regularly getting your om on isn’t just great for managing stress, it also improves memory, impulse control, and attention span.

3. Eat Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids

PUFAs (particularly omega-3 fatty acids) are crucial for brain function and help control the brain’s learning and memory centers. Salmon is a famously terrific source of omega-3s, but other fish, such as herring and mackerel, contain a similar amount. Meat-free sources of PUFAs include walnuts, peanuts, and chia and pumpkin seeds.

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4. Sleep

When the crunch is on, people often sacrifice their Zzs in favor of more time to work or study. But the extra smidge of work that gets done isn’t worth the morning zombie eyes: Getting adequate sleep every night is absolutely crucial for brain function, good judgment, reaction time, and even using consistent grammarThe mind of a sensible sleeper will learn much faster, justifying the hours “lost” by getting an early night.

5. Drink Water

This tip might be a no brainer (pun intended), but dehydration is more widespread than you might think — if you’re thirsty, it’s already too late. Reaction times, responsiveness, and overall mental processing improve with hydration, so invest in a BPA-free water bottle and take it absolutely everywhere. Also remember that a lot of common foods, particularly fruits, are surprisingly good sources of water.

 

    6. Practice Yoga

    There’s an easy way to increase your brain’s grey matter: Do yoga. Yogis also report fewer cognitive failures, i.e., errors in perception, memory, and motor function.

    7. Take Up a Hobby

    It’s important to spend some time each day on activities other than work or studying. Not only does the brain need time to take stock of all the learning it’s done, but picking up unrelated hobbies can make you smarter . Try something that requires a lot of concentration and hand-eye coordination: One study found people who took up juggling classes demonstrated an increase in their grey matter (though it disappeared once they quit). That’s one more reason to never stop learning new things.

    8. Set an Agenda

    Success is often tied to the ability to implement structure in one’s life, so it’s a good idea to set goals and create realistic study schedules. By “realistic,” we don’t just mean allocating more than an hour for that 5,000 word report — it’s also important to schedule time to recover between bouts of intense work, whether it’s learning new software or how to drive stick. Scheduling in relaxation time for the brain is called “the spacing effect,” and it’s known to improve long-term recall.

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    9. Laugh

    Allocating time to relax is important to avoid burnout, but it’s even better to do so with people who make you giggle. The simple act of laughter has been shown to help with problem solving and creativity. Funny, right?

    10. Check Your Motivation

    Ask, the question, “Why am I learning this?” People learn better if information seems useful to them, and particularly if they believe it can have an impact on their community. Choose a course, hobby, or career (gulp) that’s important to you and gets you excited.

    LEARNING TO LEARN — HOW TO PRACTICE AND STUDY RIGHT

    Now that you’re ready to focus on learning new skills or information, try to be mindful of the following tips.

      11. Warm Up Your Brain

      Have a little fun before you begin work: Try mentally “warming up” for your brain workout with rhyming games or by uttering nonsense words. It’ll help you loosen up and become more receptive to learning. Sounds like a great excuse to finally take those scat lessons.

      12. Find a Friend

      If keeping yourself on task is an uphill battle, trying asking someone to join you. Learning in groups (be it a class, book club, or with a buddy) could be a good idea to help maintain focus and add some accountability to the process.

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      13. Check Your Surroundings

      The right learning environment is paramount. In general, it should be clean and quiet, but it’s also a great idea to add some novelty: Try working in a park, a café, or even just a different room in your home. Avoid lying in bed, though — while a study area should be comfortable, the bed is psychologically associated with sleep and relaxation. You’ll concentrate better elsewhere.

      14. Develop Metacognition

      This is the overarching theme in most literature about improving the learning process, and has been studied by teachers since Aristotle was lecturing in the 4th century, BC. The concept of metacognition emphasizes not just understanding material, but understanding how you understand it. Learn to step back from your first impression, question your own knowledge, and evaluate whether and how you’re digesting new material. Sometimes this is as simple as not reading so fast when the language is difficult, or developing a new system for taking notes. Most simply, metacognition is about being reflective about the learning process and making adjustments as needed.

      15. Do One Thing At a Time

      The ability to multitask might be lauded as an invaluable trait, but switching back and forth between tasks has been shown to increase the time it takes to complete them. Try to embody a different strength: single-mindedness.

      16. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

      A group study in Singapore found that people who tried to solve difficult math problems without any instruction or help were more likely to fail — but in the process, they came up with a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and what solutions might look like, which helped them perform better with similar problems later on. This phenomenon is called “productive failure.” While it’s akin to the frustrating process of trial and error, it keeps the mind creative and flexible.

        17. Test Yourself

        Don’t wait until the week of the exam or the big piano recital — self-test regularly, or (even better) have a classmate or friend ask the questions. If it’s difficult to remember the answer fairly quickly, it’s best to look it up. Otherwise, you’re really learning the “error state” of drawing a blank when asked the question. While “productive failure” (see: #16) is useful for problem solving, repeatedly failing to recall something that requires rote memorization (e.g. History or Law) won’t improve your learning abilities.

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        18. Always Be Compressing (ABC)

        This was a cornerstone of Tim Ferriss’ bestselling guide to learning quickly, The 4 Hour Chef. Try as hard as possible to fit all of the necessary information into an easy one- or two- pager by using mnemonic devices like acronyms or rhymes. Better yet, try turning information into an image, such as a graphic, chart, or mind map.Visualizing knowledge in different ways helps to give it a stronger representation in your mind.

        19. Conditionalize the Information

        In other words, study up on the broader applications of whatever you’re learning (i.e., figure out why it matters). Textbooks (and bad teachers) often present facts and formulae without giving any attention to helping students learn the conditions under which they’re most useful. Working to understand when, where, and why the knowledge is important will help to solidify it in your mind.

        20. Use Multiple Media

        The more ways you experience information, the more likely you are to retain it. Different media activate different areas of the mind, and we recall things more quickly and retain knowledge better when multiple parts of the brain are working in concert. Try reading, listening to a podcast, watching YouTube videos, saying material out loud, and writing about it by hand (just not all at the same time)

        21. Connect With Existing Knowledge

        If you can tie what you’re learning to something you’ve learned before, it helps toimprove recall speed and promote new learning. For instance, if you’re learning about Macbeth, it might help to link the play with your knowledge of Shakespeare, Scotland, the Middle Ages, or your favorite Olsen twins movie, Double, Double, Toil and Trouble. Embed your studies within as much of your brain’s existing framework as possible.

        22. Establish Consequences

        A lot of people fall short of their goals because there are no ramifications if they quit.Remedy the issue by committing to negative incentives (such as doing your roommate’s laundry for a month) should you fail to stick with your goals. Or, sign up for StickK, an online service that holds money in escrow and donates it to an “anti-charity” of your choice if your goal isn’t met (think donating to the Democratic Party if you’re a Republican, the NRA if you’re anti-gun, etc.)

        23. Be Confident

        Lastly, be confident and know that you’ll do great. Not just because it’s the truth, but because simply believing in one’s intelligence has been shown to improve it. Don’t worry about a thing, friend. You’ve got this.

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        Last Updated on July 17, 2019

        The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

        The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

        What happens in our heads when we set goals?

        Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

        Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

        According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

        Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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        Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

        Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

        The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

        Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

        So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

        Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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        One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

        Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

        Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

        The Neurology of Ownership

        Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

        In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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        But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

        This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

        Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

        The Upshot for Goal-Setters

        So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

        On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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        It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

        On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

        But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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        Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

        Reference

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