Categories
Education Productivity

Phasing

“Excellence is the next five minutes, improvement is the next five minutes, happiness is the next five minutes.”

Tim Ferriss (1977 – )

In light of the new semester, I want to go over a method that can help in the majority of classes. I consider this to be a more advanced technique and if you’re new to learning about study methods, I recommend checking out my Strategies for Better Studying posts: 1, 2, 3, & 4.

This technique is called phasing and it’s designed to maximize results with minimal effort. Something to keep in mind about phasing is that it does require stellar academic skills upfront. The better the student one is, the less they have to work, so long as they know the right techniques.

During my last few years in college, I started to try this phasing technique. It took me a while to get down, but once I got it I was rarely ever stressed about my classes or exams and I was getting higher grades than ever before! Once I got my phasing system down, exam season and finals week were the most stress-free times of the semester.

Honestly, finals week should be the easiest week of the semester.

I remember one night my friends wanted to go out and celebrate someone’s birthday the night before I had my electricity and magnetism physics final.

Do you know what I did?

I partied my face off with them and still dominated that test. I got an A in the class and I wasn’t nervous about it one bit. This is all thanks to phasing. (Trust me, physics E&M was not a class that came easy to me at all)

Before we really dive in, I want to get two things out of the way early on. First, there is no substitute for hard work. For every class, there is a minimal amount of work necessary to receive a certain grade and there’s no way around it. If we want an A in a class, then we’ll have to do A level work. We can’t get As with D effort, but we don’t have to totally kill ourselves over the As either. Phasing helps with keeping the work limited to only what we absolutely HAVE to do.

Leave the busy work for those who pretend to make progress.

Second is sacrificing the present for the future is worthwhile. In order for phasing to be effective, we have to be able to keep our future selves in mind. Taping into the part of us that is capable of sacrifice is crucial for phasing to work its magic.

What is phasing?

Phasing involves breaking up the semester into 3 fundamental phases: Frontload, Review, and Relax. I love phasing because (if executed properly) it maximizes performance and requires far less effort than just “trying to get through the semester.”

I also love phasing because it follows the “natural curve of motivation” throughout the term. In the beginning, most students are highly motivated and well-rested but as the semester goes on students tend to get lazier and lazier. I know that’s true for me. I felt that way every semester without fail.

Frontloading

Frontloading is taking the entire load of the semester and moving it to the front, typically the first 1/3. For example, let’s say we wanted to frontload a class that was 3 months long, then we would plan to go over all of the class material in the first month. Now, this isn’t easy and it’s why I brought up the two points I did earlier. Frontloading is difficult, but at least this way we put the toughest part of the semester on the time when we are the most resilient. Remember, we can’t get As with D level work, but the sacrifice is worthwhile. Frontloading is a serious undertaking, but when the end of the semester comes and we’re not feeling as motivated we’ll be so happy you did it.

Honestly, frontloading was something that took me a few semesters to get down properly. It was easy to fall into the fallacy that it’s much easier to just learn and perfect the concepts throughout the semester rather than bust it frontloading. Until one semester, I finally stayed on top of the frontloading and I was getting the grades without any of the stress.

It’s critical to keep in mind that the goal of frontloading is not to take the whole class in a third of the time but to be familiar with all the topics covered. This is the difference between frontloading working properly and being more trouble than it’s worth.

When we’re frontloading, we do not need to be proficient in each topic, we just need to be familiar. The first 1/3 of the semester is for building the neural pathways necessary to kick ass. The rest of the time is dedicated to strengthening them. I talk about building neural pathways in my posts The Brain and The Mind (Part 1) & Neural Pruning vs. Long-Term Potentiation and strengthening them in my post, Active Recall & Spaced Repetition.

Earlier I said that this technique takes less effort than just taking the semester as it comes. So why am I suggesting to put in extreme levels of effort into the first 1/3 of the term if it’s already difficult to just keep up? Because in the long run, it will require less effort.

We are simply paying out dues upfront. There’s no substitute for hard work.

Frontloading Techniques

Frontloading is hard and can seem impossible if it’s not approached systematically. Do not just wing it and try to learn everything 3 times faster. That’s a guaranteed way to crash and burn out. Instead, take the time to plan it out. Take time. Don’t worry if it takes a few days to plan it out. Clearly articulate checkpoints and goals. Define a successful day and define failure.

When I took my second semester of o-chem, I couldn’t afford the textbook so I had to pay careful attention to what concepts I was responsible for learning and how long I had to learn them. I’ll go into how I handled this class into more detail later, but for my frontloading phase, I took the time to write down which mechanisms I needed to learn each day. When I was making the schedule I had no idea what an aldol condensation or a Diels–Alder reaction was, but I knew that next Thursday I’m going to figure them out. I also tried my best to not put too much pressure on myself to learn these reactions perfectly, I just simply wrote down the questions I had when I couldn’t figure things out (which was pretty often). When making these schedules, keep in mind the days and times which you will have access to someone who could easily explain the information to you. I try to get all the front loading in before the last review session with a tutor or teacher so any knowledge holes can be filled.

Also, keep this in mind when you start creating your frontloading schedule — trying to learn something proficiently every month is much more difficult than learning a bunch of things and spending 3 months trying to improve. Learning and proficiency take time.

When frontloading be sure to create a running list of questions. This is going to be invaluable later. Write all the questions you get while you’re frontloading. Write down everything that is confusing to you. This will capture your own unique understanding of the concept. If you can find the answers, write them down too.

Frontloading is by far the most cumbersome phase.

Review

Once we’ve reached the review phase, it’s all downhill. Reviewing can be challenging, but it is much less taxing than creating new neural pathways. Especially when study techniques are modified with the principles in mind to fit each unique situation. I highly recommend checking out my post, Active Recall & Spaced Repetition, that goes over the fundamental principles of learning more and studying less. The goal of this phase is to strengthen the neural connections created from the frontloading phase. This is when we become concerned with proficiency and excellence.

So how do we know when it is time to review?

There are two different situations when I could stop the frontloading phase and move onto the review. The first is when I finish going over all of the scheduled concepts. Maybe going over the concepts was challenging, but I was able to develop a basic understanding of the idea.

The second is when I get stuck on understanding a new concept and I will need support from a tutor or a professor. Maybe the concepts were too complicated for me to grasp on my own and I’ll need outside support.

What do we actually review when the time comes?

Remember that list of questions I said to make earlier? This is when creating those questions from the frontloading phase comes in handy. That list of questions contains all of the potholes of our specific understanding and it is a great place to start reviewing.

Studying the homework assignments and practice questions assigned by the teacher are also other great ways to strengthen these newly formed neural pathways. If you don’t have access to those, or if your class doesn’t operate that way, there are tons of practice questions online from other educational resources. All you need to know is the name of the topic or concept that you’re trying to practice and the rest is cake.

Final Thoughts on the Review Phase

Similar to frontloading, I recommend the review phase be scheduled out. Clearly articulate checkpoints and goals. Define a successful day and define failure. Take the time to create this plan, it will keep chaos at bay.

On that note, it’s worthwhile to know when the 2nd to last day that you will have access to outside help is and plan accordingly. I brought up this idea in the frontloading phase, but it’s critical to get it right in the review phase. We should make sure that our schedule (this includes spill days) can handle reviewing all of the material before the 2nd to last day of the lecture or 2nd to last office hours. Yes, this means we have to be extremely responsible with your time. I don’t recommend saving the unanswerable questions for the last office hours, everyone else is trying to get their questions in too and there’s a chance of not being able to ask a question at all. Everyone always tries to cram before an exam. Crowds ruin everything and we don’t want to be screwed out of information simply because there were too many people. Do the opposite of what the crowd does and find much less resistance.

I also recommend checking out my posts on schedules and Time Management: 5 Tips of Better Scheduling, 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling, and Another 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling.

Remember that reviewing takes less energy than learning something completely new. As the academic term moves forward the semester will get easier and easier and easier. Stick with the system and you’ll see the payoff slowly emerge. Eventually, recalling this information will be a cakewalk and all we’ll have to do is just show up.

When all the questions and concepts start to bore us (because they’re too easy, not because they’re uninteresting), that is how we know we can enter the last phase.

Relax

This is my favorite part of phasing and (to be honest) the whole reason why this method is worth it. While everyone is else is cramming and stressing, we can focus on relaxation and living our best lives. Maybe we might want to have a few active recall sessions just to keep our minds sharp, but most of our time will be spent decompressing. This is exactly how I was able to party it up with my friends on finals week and still kick ass on my exams. If we’ve executed the last two phases as designed, then active recall would work it’s magic and any gaps in knowledge would have been filled at office hours or in class.

By this point, we know everything we need to know for the class, and maintaining knowledge is so much easier than learning. Enjoy it. Getting to this point is not easy at all and the rewards ought to be reaped. Now, the focus can be shifted to other things like proper sleep and diet.

I love to play huge amounts of video games, make music, and watch tv before exams.

What do you like to do?

When is it applicable?

Phasing is a fantastic method for getting fantastic results with less effort than usual, but it’s not suitable for all class types. The types of classes we’ll encounter in our academic carrers are as follows:

Lectures – these are usually large scale classes held in giant rooms. The average class size for a lecture is anywhere from 100-500 students. Usually, the professor talks the entire time, while students take notes. These are most common in first-year college courses. Typically, students who attend a lecture also have to attend a discussion class.

Sometimes I had professors use the lecture before an exam as a review session, which can play a key role in the review or frontloading phase.

Discussion – discussions are smaller classes and are usually led by a graduate student studying the same subject as the course. This is where students receive additional instruction as well as extra practice problems. Typically, this is where most students get their questions answered.

If the schedule permits, I use discussions as an opportunity to fill knowledge gaps during the review phase. Discussion classes are invaluable if used right. I literally would not have passed Calc III if it wasn’t for the grad student who led my discussion that year.

Use office hours in place of a discussion for the same purpose. Some students feel awkward going into office hours, but that time is literally set aside so students can have in-person access to their professors.

Laboratories – oh labs. Usually, they come with science classes and last a few hours. In these classes, students will perform some kind of experiment, record data, and interpret the results. Phasing doesn’t really apply to lab classes, but usually, the person who leads the lab is another graduate student so you can use that time to ask them questions if needed.

I remember in my O-Chem II class, my discussion grad student was terrible and couldn’t answer my questions. But the grad student who helped me in my lab section was awesome! Dave if you ever see this, thank you! I managed to get all my questions answered during the lab section while I waited for my solutions to heat up. Phasing doesn’t typically apply to lab classes, but there is another opportunity to have access to someone who knows the material proficiently.

Studio – similar to labs, studios are a hand-on place for students to learn by doing. I wouldn’t recommend phasing for a studio class, but just like labs, these classes are a great opportunity to have access to someone who knows their stuff.

Independent study – these classes are designed to be separate from a regular course. These are great classes to use phasing on because the class is just you! You can schedule the material however you please and phasing is an excellent frame to base that schedule on.

Content-Based – these are classes that require us to understand facts and concepts then prove our knowledge. All STEM classes are this way. Phasing works best for content-based classes. Honestly, it was created in order to specifically get through content-based classes relatively stress-free.

Synthesis – these are classes that require us to take input from many sources and synthesize them to extract a greater understanding or to prove a point. Most language and humanities courses are this way. Phasing can work for synthesis classes, but some details would have to be changed. Synthesis work encodes information differently than active recall and the modifications to phasing should reflect that. Maybe instead of a review phase, switch the phase to rewriting or a drafting phase.

Phasing works best with lectures, discussions, seminars, content-based, and independent study type classes. It can be applied to the other classes as well, but the logistics would work a little differently.

Accommodations/Modifications

If you’ve read my other posts about studying, then you’ll know that I’m all about learning the principles of a system then modifying it to better fit the situation at hand. In other words, phasing is a great method to approach the academic term, but tweaking it to fit exactly what we need is even better!

Some classes may be too difficult to split into 3 equal parts. In order to accommodate this, I recommend keeping the phases in the same order, but repeat them as many times as needed. The full semester model is powerful, but sometimes we need to pivot.

For example, in my o-chem class, I had to split the term into 9 phases instead of 3. I had a set of “frontload, review, & relax” for each of the 3 exams. For each exam, I got a list of the concepts I was responsible for learning and scheduled which day I was learning each topic. I made sure I covered all the topics at least once before the 2nd to last office hours to ensure I get my questions answered. This meant I was studying for the exam as if it was the night before, a week or two in advance.


Phasing works because we only spend about 1/3 of the time heavy on the gas pedal as opposed to always being on every other week or so. At least with phasing, we know that 2/3 of our time will be spent efficiently or relaxing. It’s possible to get it all, it just takes a little foresight, discipline, and effort.

Phasing is not a catch-all method, but an ideal to shoot for. It is simply a framework to operate inside. I say this because the frontloading phase can take most people down and it’s easy to feel like there isn’t enough time to get through it all or that it’s impossible. If the schedule doesn’t totally fit, just make a few tweaks and account for spill days!

This is one of the more advanced techniques I talk about simply because it requires so much at the starting line, but the rewards are sweet.

Challenge yourself. Give it a try. Win. Take it all.

Categories
Education Productivity

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 4)

“Hard work is not always something you can see. It is not always physical effort.

In fact, the most powerful form of hard work is thinking clearly. Designing a winning strategy may not look very active, but make no mistake: it is very hard work.

Strategy often beats sweat.”

James Clear

This is the final part of my Strategies for Better Studying series. I recommend taking the parts which work best from each of these strategies and use them to create your own personalized study strategy. As long as we understand the principles behind the messages, we can create our own systems that provide support where we need it most.

I go over the principles of learning and studying in my post about Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. I recommend checking out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for more strategies to scrap for parts. Treat this as a buffet, take what you like and leave what you don’t.

Stop Multitasking

⬅ who remembers this?

So the truth about multitasking is that it doesn’t exist! Human beings are not capable of multitasking, what we actually do better thought of as task switching, or context switching. (Thanks APA!) We are never truly doing more than one thing at once. We may be switching contexts so quickly that it could appear as multitasking, but don’t be fooled by illusions.

Let’s say I were working on this blog post at the same time I was producing a song, I would have a difficult time of it because my brain is constantly switching back and forth between the two tasks.

My brain would be working on this blog post, creating new connections between ideas, and figuring out how to lay out my thoughts in a linear language until I decide to switch to music production. Once I switch over, my brain is now focused on sound selection, volume levels, and motion of the music. These two tasks require the brain to do different things and by constantly switching between them, our brain loses the ability to do any deep work. I mention the idea of deep work in Part 2.

Not doing deep work keeps the projects at a mediocre level. The highest quality products, ideas, book, songs, work is creating from long stretches of uninterrupted time. Let me bring this back to my example of blogging and producing. Let’s say I’m blogging and producing for 3 hours straight, ideally I should be getting a fantastic blog post and a fantastic mix, but the reality is the “uninterrupted” time gets “interrupted” every time I change from blogging or producing. So if I switch my task every 15 minutes, it doesn’t matter how long I sit at that desk, I’m only working on the blog post or the mix for 15 minutes. I’m no expert, but in my experience nothing amazing is created in either of these art forms in 15 minutes.

If we want to produce quality work, or study efficiently, we need to aim for working on 1 task for a long period of time. Lumping up a bunch of different responsibilities and working on all of them for 6 hours straight is a losing strategy. We would be much better of spending an hour or two on just one task than straining our brains trying to do everything all at once. The goal is to get into flow. Which also I talk about Part 2.

Context switching is much easier than we’d like to believe. Even something as small as a notification coming up can rip us right out of flow. This is why I recommend to work with notifications off. I talk more about that in the first part of my scheduling tips series.

Listening to certain music while working can also take us out of flow. When we listen to music, our brain has more input to process which adds extraneous cognitive load to our plate. I get a lot of pleasure from work with music, so I figured that little hit in productivity is worth it as long as I enjoy working. However, I don’t listen to music with lyrics. Lyrics rip us out of flow much faster than instrumental music because our brains will want to process the words and extract the message subconsciously. This is a task in itself, so a context switch would apply here and our productivity would take serious hits.

Focus on one thing at a time. Work with notifications off. Keep in mind that it takes 25-30 minutes of uninterrupted time to get into Flow. We all are incapable of multitasking and resisting that idea results in having a harder time completing lower quality work. Attempting to multitask is rarely worth it, especially if we are creating or working on something that we really care about.

Maintenance Rehearsal vs. Elaborative Rehearsal

Have you ever had to memorize a phone number? Whenever I have to, I say it to myself a few times and once I type it out, I instantly forget it! This type of thing happens whenever I know I have to memorize something quick that I know I don’t need later down the line. I still do this with vital signs when I’m with patients. I’ll take their vitals, say them to myself over and over, write them down, then forget them. (I’ll know what their signs roughly are, but not exactly. It may be a bad habit, but I’m human and my brain is just trying to survive.) This little trick is known as Maintenance Rehearsal. It keeps information in our short-term, or working, memory which is dependent upon our cognitive load. Maintenance Rehearsal is fantastic for memorizing information quickly that doesn’t need to be deeply thought about. It requires relatively little attention. I do not recommend using maintenance rehearsal for studying, but it’s a neat little trick our minds can do.

Much more suitable for studying is Elaborative Rehearsal. This type of memory rehearsal is more useful for transferring information from our working memory to our long-term memory (LTM), which is the goal for most learning. It involves thinking and internalizing the meaning of the information at hand, which is an attention expensive processes. Elaborative rehearsal is effective because of the depth required, the same reasons why Active Recall works. Using our brain to think about the meanings, accommodating new information, and connecting it to what we already know is an incredibly effective tool for moving information into our LTM. We do this when we think about a good novel or when we learn something that reminds us of something in our personal lives.

Maintenance Rehearsal is fantastic for phone numbers and other small tidbit that don’t need to move to our LTM, but Elaborative Rehearsal is what we want to focus on as students. Find the meaning in things, connect them to your life, and learn deeply.

Account for Spill Days

Spill Days are something that I started doing a few years into my scheduling game, but I didn’t have a name for them. Shout out to Dr. Ali Abdaal for giving me a catchy name for this extremely useful tool.

Scheduling is imperative for productivity, but more often than we’d like shit hits the fan and we get thrown off course. Back in college, I used to line my students up back to back so I can maximize the number of students I can help in a day. However, a huge problem came up. If I was late to one session, or if one session went over, then every single student after that would have to be pushed back and that was NOT a sustainable system.

The same thing can happen with planned days. If I’m planning to work on a blog post, film a YouTube video, produce a beat, and prepare for a birthday extravaganza (like I am today), but something happens that gets in the way of that, do I just put all of that off until tomorrow? No, can’t do it! Because I have other things planned that day too!

Should I just push off my entire life a day later because one day didn’t go as planned?

Hell no! I just put off the non-time sensitive stuff onto my next Spill Day! Spill Days are days specifically designed for catching up on all the things that don’t get done when life happens. I like making my spill days the day after I go out with family or friends since usually I get those days to myself. Spill Days can be thrown into our schedules as often or as scarce as we’d like. One thing I have to mention about Spill Days is that they are absolutely crucial. No one’s life goes as planned all the time, and we all need a little time to catch up. Knowing I have a Spill Day coming up reduces my stress when things don’t go according to plan because I know that my responsibilities will still be accomplished.

Something unexpected came up? Assign the displaced tasks to a Spill Day. The work you’ve been doing took waaaay longer than expected? Assign the displaced tasks to a Spill Day.

But what about time sensitive tasks?

Unfortunately, spill days aren’t useful for tasks that need to be done in the here and now. The best bet is reschedule any non-time sensitive tasks that day to a Spill Day and do the time-sensitive task instead of the non-time sensitive tasks.

Once I saw a job posting for a job that I really wanted, and I knew that it would close pretty quickly, so applying to this job was something I needed to do here and now. However, I did plan on producing a beat that day and I needed to maintain that schedule because my YouTube Channel has specified drop dates. Since I had more time to produce the song than I did with this job application, I decided to schedule my producing to the nearest Spill Day (which happened to be before the drop date) and did the application in place of producing that day. By the end of that week, I had an interview from that application AND I was able to get the song done. Unfortunately I didn’t get the job, but I was able to fulfill my responsibilities and maintain the view I have of myself as someone who gets their shit done.

Schedule Around Your Body’s Natural Rhythms

We all have a heart and it’s always beating in a special rhythm. Some call it normal sinus rhythm and it’s a sign that everything is working the way it should. I’ve always seen it as proof that humans are rhythmic creatures. Our hearts move to a beat, our bodies work through a cascade of reactions, everything doing their own thing but working together to make something much more spectacular, the human body. This is part of the reason why I love music so much. Each instrument, each track does it’s own thing, but in the context of everything else, the entire composition working together to create a beautiful song.

We have so many rhythms in us because they are part of nature. We have rhythms that govern sleeping, eating, and other habits. My dogs even have rhythms! They know what it is time to eat, walk, or sleep.

The main idea here is to learn and understand our own personal rhythms so we can effectively produce and perform with as little resistance as possible. Have you ever worked on a paper when you’re sleepy? Doing the work is difficult enough, but add that to the effort you need to muster up in order to just stay awake and you have yourself a miserable time. When we’re miserable, we’re less likely to repeat the actions that made us upset in the first place, so getting ourselves to work on that paper again will be even more difficult.

If we understand our rhythms, then we don’t have to worry about doubling up on the extraneous load. I pay attention to the times of the day when I’m more alert and schedule more cognitively demanding activities during these times. Knowing our rhythms reduces resistance to completing tasks and willpower necessary to work.

There are 4 main types of rhythms in the body:

  • Circadian Rhythms: a 24-hour cycle that includes physiological and behavioral rhythms like sleeping. I try to make sure that all of the work I care about most gets taken care of around the hours of 10am to 2pm because that’s when I’m most alert. I save low demanding tasks for the evening when I have less gas in the take, so to speak.
  • Diurnal Rhythms: the circadian rhythm synced with day and night. I notice the times when I sleep and wake and try to schedule my life around those times rather than force myself to get up strictly at 5 am every day. Sometimes my schedule can’t be helped and I have to do that, but when I can I make sure I schedule around my own sleep/wake cycle. This changes over time, but nowadays I’m up around 8 and I’m in bed by 11 or 12. Since I know this, I keep my schedule within these hours. The idea is to work with the rhythms I already have, not exercise more willpower to force productivity.
  • Ultradian Rhythms: biological rhythms with a shorter period and higher frequency than circadian rhythms. The time I eat is a good example of this. I pay attention to the times I’m hungry, and unless I’m fasting, then I try to eat at times so I’m not taken away from my work while I’m in a flow. I try to keep my breakfasts light and high protein so I don’t crash or get hungry during my peak hours from 10-2 and I try my dearest not to eat late because it slows me down in the mornings.
  • Infradian Rhythms: biological rhythms that last more than 24 hours, such as a menstrual cycle. For ladies, the menstrual cycle is something to consider when planning out what kind of work you will be doing. Scheduling physically difficult work while dealing with period cramps or other symptoms could add extra unnecessary stress. Scheduling around our rhythms helps us be mindful of how we are going to feel in the future. In my experience women tend to be better at this than men, but it is something that everyone can practice.

While everyone may not be in a position to control their schedule to perfectly fit their rhythms, but trying to plan the day to day activities with these things in mind will reduce much of the unnecessary stress that comes with living.

Create a Guiding Environment to Minimize Willpower

“Your environment will eat your goals and plans for breakfast.”

Steve Pavlina (1971 – )

I don’t know about you, but I’m terrible at telling myself what to do. Whenever I do something, I always find myself trying to look for ways out. The moment I hit a bit of friction, I usually decide what I’m doing isn’t worth the energy and just stop. This was a huge problem for me when I was younger. At first, I thought I had to just ignore the friction and brute force overcome it but I wasn’t able to do that 100% of the time and that was extremely difficult. I needed something that helped me get things easily and that worked every time I tried it. Then it hit me!

What if I create a place that made my work as easy as possible?

A place where I didn’t have to overcome any friction! A place where my work was something that I wanted to do and was easy to do. As a high school senior, I knew that I needed to get serious about getting my work done, especially if I wanted to become a doctor. So I payed attention to what pulled me away from my work. I determined I was too easily distracted and I needed a place to go with little to no distractions. My solution – reverse all-nighters. I would sleep as soon as I got home from school at 3:00 pm, wake up after 8 hours at 11, then work all night into the next school day. I learned a lot of these crazy experiments. This was terrible for my retention and the next day at school I was mentally useless, but I was able to focus on my work like I never had before. The late night atmosphere was conducive to my productivity because whenever I was looking for a distraction or a reason to not work, there was none in sight. It was brutal, but my environment kept me on the path.

Today, I’ve had a few changes to fine tune this method and now I create guiding environments that aren’t detrimental to my health. My home office is set up so I can do all the work I need to do with as little friction as possible. Create the spaces so they are conducive to the function of what we use them for.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

Cognitive Load

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

Commonly thought of as the effort required for our brains to do a specific task. Cognitive Load is a fun concept to use as we navigate the best ways to accomplish our daily tasks. Some people like to think of cognitive load as mental gasoline for the “brain engine.”

Australian Psychologist, John Sweller came up with the Cognitive Load Theory which suggests that our working memory can only hold so much information at once and in order to maximize learning, we must learn in a way that does not overwhelm the working memory. The amount of information held in the working memory can be thought of as our cognitive load. If the working memory is overencumbered, then we can’t process information effectively or execute actions properly. This effect is most obvious when we skip sleeping for about two days. The tiredness we feel comes from the working memory doing more than it’s used to. Typically, the more difficult the task, the more cognitive load is required to complete it, but there are nuances.

Types of Cognitive Load

Extraneous Load – this makes up the majority of our cognitive load. We can think of this as the unnecessary load when we are learning something new. Extraneous loads don’t contribute to learning and usually bog us down when we are exposed to them. Different stimuli have different levels of extraneous load. Examples of large forms extraneous load include but are not limited to poor instruction, task/attention switching, and redundancy. Some of the smaller forms are processing changes of motion or light in the room we’re in, or filtering out noise unrelated to the task at hand. Noticing these small things takes such little processing that we barely even notice, but it adds up and it’s possible to process so much sensory information that other tasks can’t be completed.

Intrinsic Load – this can be thought of as the difficulty built right into the subject. The more difficult the subject, the higher the intrinsic load put on our brains. Intrinsic load can be managed through high quality instructors, sophisticated study habits, and deliberate practice. It’s important to keep in mind that some things are so complicated that our brains cannot handle the intrinsic load of the complicated subject and process new information simultaneously. This was me when I was trying to learn quantum physics in college…it was really complicated and I had a hard time learning new information.

Germane Load – this is my favorite type of cognitive load. While it does take some of our mental resource throughout the day, germane load is for transferring the information in our working memory over to our Long-term Memory (LTM). So germane load is the processing devoted to processing information, constructing, and automating schemas. Not all memory consolidation has to occur when we sleep, we can move things to our LTM while we are conscious, it takes a little bit of energy and this is known as the germane load.

I like to think of cognitive load in relation to our “Mental Bandwidth” – it effects our processing power. We can only process so many things at once so it’s helpful to be mindful of our environment and the demands that we put on our brains.

Cognitive Load Threshold vs. Time of Day

The maximum amount of cognitive load we tolerate at a given moment is considered the Cognitive Load Threshold (CLT) and this threshold slowly diminishes throughout the day, or at least until we sleep. Our CLT is highest in the morning and lowest at the end of the day. I don’t recommend this, but if you don’t believe me try saving all of your difficult tasks for the end of the day and pay attention to how difficult it is to complete them. Do all the difficult things in the morning and save the “mindless” simple stuff for later in the day.

The reason for the gradual decline throughout the day is because our minds hold our cognitive load in our working memory is because our working memory has a finite capacity. In order to reset our CLT, we would have to clear out our working memory and that typically happens through sleep.

*Note – this curve is a representation of typical behavior of our cognitive load and everyone’s CLT curve may vary. Everyone’s mind is a little different, so I recommend taking time to figure out which times of day you have the highest and lowest CLT.

Competence and Performance vs. Cognitive Load

Our performance and perceived competence is also a function of our cognitive load. As we acquire cognitive load we perform better, but if we acquire too much cognitive load it can be detrimental to our desired outcomes. This curve mimics the Yerkes-Dodson Curve, a relationship between desired performance and mental arousal.

9 Methods to Reduce Cognitive Load

  1. Maximize the signal to noise ratio – optimizing our environment to facilitate the task at hand. Keep all the extra stuff away from what we are trying to do. The intrinsic load will usually be high for learning something new, so we want to keep the extraneous load to a minimum so we have as much processing power as possible dedicated to germane load. Signal is what we want. Noise is everything else. Keep our processing mechanisms focused on the signals.
  2. Minimize the decisions you have to make in a day – each choice chips away at our CLT. By keeping that number low, we have more brain power dedicated to other things. I minimize some of my decisions by meal prepping, having pre-set outfits, running routines, and having a calendar. Systems are clutch for minimizing cognitive load. Choices are inevitable, but most of the decisions we make throughout the day are unnecessary.
  3. Execute the most difficult tasks first – mentioned a couple times before. I believe that this is what Mark Twain really meant in the quote I included at the beginning. We have the most cognitive load at the beginning of the day and the most difficult tasks require the most cognitive load. Therefore, if we wanted to complete difficult tasks, it would be in our best interests to do them first thing in the morning. For me, blogging is a high cognitive load activity, so I usually get my best writing done in the morning. If I wait until the evening or the afternoon, it’s harder for me to write and my writing quality diminishes. Back when music production required high cognitive load for me, I used to produce first thing in the morning. Now that I’m more comfortable with production, I can do it at night and still produce high quality music. The production isn’t as high a quality as it would be if I worked on it with a clearer head, but it requires significantly less cognitive load to get a song done.
  4. Limit redundancy – learning repetitive stuff is boring and a waste of our valuable cognitive resource. It’s best to limit exposure to novel concepts and ideas, this is not to say that repetition doesn’t have its place. Repetitions are extremely crucial to studying efficiently, but everything we’re processing adds to the cognitive load even if we’ve “already see it before.”
  5. Collaborating – working with other people takes the load off of us, as long as we can work effectively with the people we are collaborating with. Putting multiple brains to the task multiplies our cognitive load threshold as well as gives us an opportunity to share the load with everyone else. Win-win situation.
  6. Provide cognitive aids – I love to use checklists, calendars, reference guides, and habits as forms of cognitive aids. Pretty much anything that we can use to remember something for us or anything that makes making decisions easier can be considered a cognitive aid. I try to keep my working memory as load free as possible and externalizing my appointments, grocery lists, small tasks, and specific facts is a great way of doing that. I have a few posts on scheduling. My calendar is my favorite cognitive aid and it can take years to get good at it.
  7. Minimize context switches – when our brain switches from one activity to the next, it takes on a little cognitive load. This switching can be with the smallest of activities. Let’s say I’m writing a blog post and I get a notification that someone texted me. I stop writing the blog post and start texting my friend. There is a context switch from writing the blog post to texting my friend and that adds to the cognitive load, but there is another context switch in this scenario, and it was when I switched my attention from writing the blog post to looking at the notification. Just the simple act of switching my attention elsewhere is a context switch for my mind. Focus on one thing at a time, and keep notifications off! Minimize context switching!
  8. Utilize the Modality Effect – the modality effect suggests that people learn best by taking in information through multiple modes. This means we learn better when we take in information auditorily and visually rather than just auditorily or just visually. While there is a higher extraneous load, the germane load is much less than what it would be when we optimize the modality effect.

Our minds can only do so much in a day. As tough as people are, we are biological creatures and our bodies have limits. Understanding our limits and what we can do to minimize our loads will help us be more efficient in the long run. Through incorporating these ideas into our learning techniques and practice, our minds will be able to perform at a higher level with less strain. Cognitive Load hygiene is crucial to maintaining a healthy mind and developing peace of mind. Being mindful of our cognitive load will help us live better and accomplish more over the long term.