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Beyond Test Taking: Learning to Handle Information

Beyond Test Taking: Learning to Handle Information
Books

    I read lots of books. I follow several blogs. I take classes. I’ve learned enough new information I want to incorporate into my work that I know I haven’t got a chance of remembering it all. There have been times that all that information consumption has felt like a waste, because the human brain just isn’t built to remember so many details and act on them. Not just a waste of time, either — my college classes cost enough to make the thought of missing even one abhorrent.

    It’s worth my while, then, to make the effort to process the information that I learn and apply it in real life. All of the tricks I have for learning new information when I was still in school just don’t work out in the real world. So many learning techniques focus on a test or classes where you have a clear chance of how to build on specific ideas. We need more practical solutions.

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    Create tasks.

    As I read, I try to keep the question of how I can apply my newfound knowledge. I want specific things I can do to follow up on a given piece of information. My actions can vary a great deal: if I’m looking at a blog post about ten tricks to improving a website, I might just move each of those ten tricks directly on to my task list. If, however, I’m reading a biography of Mark Twain, I might write down specifics as ideas for blog posts or articles — which wind up as tasks slated for a certain date.

    I’m ruthless about my tasks, though. I try to avoid adding tasks that aren’t going to help me. Even then, I have to keep a task list dedicated to ideas and tasks that I know the odds of getting too aren’t so great. I consider those tasks my “rainy day” list: when I don’t have anything else worth doing, I pull a task off that list.

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    Pass on information.

    There used to be people who hoarded information, usually for the information’s own good. Monks saving libraries from marauding barbarians, a nobleman hiding an important tome in his library: these are archetypes we recognize. But the Internet has allowed us to move past them to a certain extent. Sites like Digg and del.icio.us are based on the idea that we want to tell our friends about all the cool stuff we learn. Even better, I’ve found that if I learn something, pass it along to someone who will find it useful and promptly forget it, I still feel like I’ve done something worthwhile with that information. Passing along a link or making a copy of a file is a great action item, I think.

    Organize your notes.

    Even if you’re on the ball about getting rid of material you don’t need to keep, some notes will probably accumulate. Some people don’t need to go much beyond keeping their notes — they’ll be able to handle any necessary research from their stack. Some of us, however, need some method of organizing our notes so that we can find them again easily.

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    I know plenty of people are vehemently against handling information anymore than they absolutely have to, but I do find filing my notes to be a great opportunity to review them and check for any new action items I can develop, or information I can pass along.

    Prepare to forget.

    If you aren’t willing to flat out forget some information, you can go crazy. And there are plenty of things that are worthwhile to forget. Forget, here, really means that you don’t need to make an active effort to remember. You’ll probably remember plenty of things that fit into these categories — the human brain is funny that way. But if something slips out, you’re still okay.

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    Facts you don’t need regularly — I know that at some point, I learned a whole list of facts about Honduras, including the total area of the country. My apologies to any Hondurans reading, but I just don’t need to know that. I know that I can easily look it up if I need to know it.
    Things you’ve already written down — There’s no need to actively try to forget upcoming tasks, but once they’ve hit paper (or the electronic equivalent) there really isn’t a reason to actively try to remember them either.
    Details you pay someone else to remember — Some of us are lucky enough to have a secretary or administrative assistant (while others of us have just worked as secretaries). Assuming you have a capable assistant, leave the details that they are paid to handle with them.

    Please note that I didn’t suggest forgetting about things that don’t relate to your current projects. I’m a big believer that interdisciplinary knowledge is the real clue to breakthroughs, whether you have a case of writer’s block or you’re designing a new house.

    Prepare to remember.

    All of my suggestions for forgetting aside, there are plenty of pieces of data you need to remember. You may have a big presentation coming up, or an interview on a certain section. Heck, you may even need to write a term paper. Instead of stressing out about remembering details, however, I’d like to suggest a simple tool: the review.

    I set aside material that I know I’ll need for a given project and, when the project is actually near enough to be worth working on, I review my information. I don’t prepare for presentations weeks in advance, because the information may not stick in my mind. My ideal prep time is much closer to a week — long enough that I have time to practice and review as many times as I feel necessary but not so long that I run the risk of forgetting necessary material.

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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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