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

The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1)

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”

Jeffrey Eugenides (1960 – )

We use both the brain and the mind to perceive the world around us and decide the best course of action. The brain is an organ and, in some respects, isn’t just in our heads. It’s spread throughout our entire body expressed in our central and peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is essentially our spinal cord and what we traditionally consider the brain. The peripheral nervous system spreads out to our fingers and toes as our afferent and efferent nerves.

The mind is a completely different story. The mind isn’t tangible but, in some ways, can be more real than our brains. The mind is our cognitive functions which interpret and interact with the world around us. We usually consider our consciousness and thoughts as originating from the mind and because of this we like to think of the mind as “in the brain” but really the mind is an abstract idea. Our minds shape our reality and are responsible for our creativity and imagination.

There are known connections between the brain and the mind, which are easily demonstrated in drug use. But what I’m most interested in learning is how the brain functions physically, learning how the mind functions metaphysically, and maximizing their innate behavior to bring out optimal results.

The Brain

The brain is made up of 100 billion of neurons, nerve cells, that all work together to run our entire body. Neurons communicate with each other by sending neurotransmitters, electrical and chemical signals, through the spaces in between each neuron, synapses. These connections of neurons and synapses creates neurological pathways in our brain. Different neurological pathways do different things and our brain has a unique pathway for every single thing we think and do. Neurological pathways are a bunch of neurons that communicate through electrical impulses. It’s useful to know that these pathways strengthen every time they are fired. This gives the brain a unique ability to change and adapt based on what it thinks it needs to survive, this is known as brain plasticity. The brain is constantly morphing and changing, which is exciting because it shows that it’s never too late to learn anything. Learning doesn’t stop when someone gets older or gets “set in their ways.” Learning only stops when we decide it stops. However, like all organs in the body, the brain is something that requires energy and maintenance to function effectively.

In order to understand how to take care of our brains and use them more effectively, it’s helpful to know a little anatomy. This is not an exhaustive nervous system anatomy section – just some general knowledge and the parts that I’ve found relevant to learning:

3 Major Parts of the Brain

Thanks hopkinsmedicine.org

Cerebrum

This is the part in charge of performing higher order functions like interpreting our senses, developing and deciphering speech, reasoning, emotional regulation, learning, and fine motor skills. This is the youngest part of our nervous system.

Cerebellum 

This part of the brain receives sensory information, coordinates voluntary muscle movements, maintains posture, and regulates balance. This evolved after the brainstem but before the cerebrum.

Brainstem

This is part connects the rest of the brain to the spinal cord. It’s in charge of many automatic functions. This includes but is not limited to respirations, heart rate, temperature, circadian rhythms, digestion, sneezing, and sweating. This is the oldest part of our nervous system.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

We’ve all heard the common saying – left brain people are more analytical and right brain people are creative. This never really sat well with me because I’ve always felt like I could be a left brain person and a right brain person. I’m logical and extremely analytical but I’m also creative and artistic, where did I fit into this whole left brain right brain debate? Turns out, I didn’t have to pick a side! Everyone uses both hemispheres of their brains all the time. They’re just used for different things.

In Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series, he outlines (in extensive detail) how human beings interpret the world and derive value structures from that information. In the eighth video of the 2017 series he presents this image and I believe it’s a much better representation of the functions of the left and right hemispheres.

Maps of Meaning – Jordan Peterson (2017)

We use the left hemisphere to operate in places that we understand, it’s the part of the brain that gives us our positive emotion when the world around us aligns with what we expect or want. In the context of learning, our left hemisphere is what we’re using what we already know the answers. When students feel like what they’re working on is easy and within their realm of understanding, then they’re primarily using their left hemisphere.

On the flip side, we use the right hemisphere to operate in unknown territory, it’s the part of the brain that tells us what to do when we don’t know what to do. When it comes to learning, our right hemisphere is what’s going crazy when we’re trying to learn something new. When students feel like what they’re working on is scary, confusing, or too challenging, then they’re primarily using their right hemisphere.

Each hemisphere has a separate consciousness and they don’t communicate with each other as much as we’d think. They are seperated and communicate through the corpus callosum. It’s almost like each hemisphere makes their own interpretation and we just kind of roll with it. We see this in people with prosopagnosia, the loss of the ability of recognize faces.

Take the Weirwood tree from Game of Thrones for example. There’s curves in the tree that indicate facial information but it’s still a tree. One half of the brain interprets the visual stimuli as a face while the other interprets the information as a tree. We use both of these perspectives to understand reality but someone with prosopagnosia would see only the tree.

Ned & Catelyn Stark discussing duty

I believe our two hemisphere brain is an amazing demonstration of intelligent design. It’s extremely useful to have our control center, so to speak, ran by two systems. If one side goes down, then the whole thing doesn’t have to shut down. We see this happen in people who have strokes. If someone experiences a CVA (cerebrovascular accident), a.k.a. a stroke, they may experience some brain damage but because we have two hemispheres, people usually lose function of only one side of their body, rather than their whole body.

The Lobes of the Brain

The Cerebrum can be further divided into four different sections referred to as lobes.

Frontal Lobe

This is what’s in charge of our personalities, behaviors, and emotions. The frontal lobe is responsible for planning, problem solving, and judging and is where the majority of our executive and higher level functioning takes place. Cognitive phenomena such as concentration and self awareness are functions of the frontal lobe which helps makes us smart and also helps us move towards our goals. The Broca’s area, which is in charge of speaking and writing, sits inside the frontal lobe as well as the motor strip for voluntary body movement.

The frontal lobe also contains the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain which is involved with planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. It’s basically the part of the brain that’s physically responsible for our will power and ability to regulate the more animalistic and impulsive parts of ourselves. Someone with a strong prefrontal cortex is more able to do what they tell themselves to do.

Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobe sits on the top part of our brains and is sort of the sensory processing center of the cerebrum. The parietal lobe is in charge of interpreting language as well as tactile, thermal, visual, auditory, and other sensory stimuli. It also manages spatial and visual perception.

Occipital Lobe

The occipital lobe is at the back of our head and is the primary visual processing center. It interprets visual stimuli in three different ways – color, light intensity, and movement.

Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobe is located on the sides of our heads right under our temples – the parts where our skull fuses together. This part of the brain is great for processing auditory stimuli, sequencing, organization, and memory. You can find the Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobes so It also plays a huge role in understanding language too.

Internal Structures

Hypothalamus

This part of the brain runs us like a tyrannical 2 year old. It controls our autonomic systems and is responsible for the 4 f’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornication. So it plays a role in determining our body temperature, blood pressure, emotions, and sleep. The hypothalamus knows how to motivate us. When it wants something, it makes sure that we only care about that thing. That’s why it’s so difficult for most people to concentrate when they’re hungry – it’s because all we care about is the food! The hypothalamus is like our master orienting system. Whatever the hypothalamus wants, it gets. We can kind of regulate it with the cerebral cortex, but only to an extent. This is fantastic to know because there are learning techniques that take advantage of the hypothalamus’ behavior.

Pituitary Gland

This part of the brain hides in near the base of the skull in a place called the sella turcica. It’s connected to the hypothalamus, so you know it’s got some power. It controls the other endocrine (communication from far away) glands in the other parts of the body through hormone secretion that regulates sexual development, physical growth, and stress response.

Pineal Gland

This little guy is behind the third ventricle and regulates the body’s internal clock. This part of the brain controls the balance between melatonin and serotonin. The pineal gland is crucial to sleep, which is crucial for learning.

Basal Ganglia

Also known as the basal nuclei. This part of the brain works with the cerebellum to coordinate voluntary motor movements. It’s also involved in procedural and habit learning, eye movements, cognition, and emotions. So this is the part of the brain that we develop when we learn how to type, tie our shoes, ride a bike, or play a musical instrument. The basal ganglia recieves the information from the cerebellum to encode different skills, this is what people are referring to when they are talking about muscle memory.

Hippocampus

This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for information consolidation and spatial memory which helps us with navigation. Since I’m most interested about learning, I want to focus on the information consolidation feature of the hippocampus. The hippocampus moves our memories from our short term (working memory) to our long term memory. If someone were to damage their hippocampus they would experience anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories. If we think about what learning is, it’s really what the hippocampus is doing. It’s turning information that we know right now into information that we can have access to forever.

Amygdala

This almond-shaped clump of neurons is responsible for processing our emotions. The amygdala is associated with our fear response and pleasure. This is the part of the brain that goes crazy when some of my students see math problems. Understanding our fear and pleasure tendencies is crucial for understanding learning. Fear helps us remember things better and our seemingly endless pursuit of pleasure is a fantastic motivator.

Working Memory vs. Long Term Memory

Working Memory – this memory we use throughout the day is also known as short-term memory. Working memory has a finite limit. Holding things in your working memory increase cognitive load and since cognitive load has a maximum so does working memory. Things stored in working memory are easily forgotten. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the working memory. It stores information for about one minute and its capacity is limited to about 7 items (plus or minus 2). This is why we’re able to dial a phone number someone just told us. You can see it in reading too! Our working memory memorizes the sentence we just read so that the next one can make sense.

Long Term Memory – this is memory that we use throughout our entire lives. Some items in our working memory are converted to long term memory in the hippocampus through various methods, the most common is sleep. Highly emotionally charged ideas, events, or memories have a fast pass ticket to our long term memory. We have virtually unlimited space and the items stored in long term memory are not easily forgotten.

The goal that we are most interested in, as far as learning is concerned, is moving as much information as possible to our long term memory and be able to retrieve it using as little cognitive load as possible.


Some basic knowledge of the brain can help tremendously when examining methods for learning and improving. Given that the brain is set up for survival in dangerous living conditions, we can develop techniques which take advantage of these mechanisms. If we don’t use something often then our minds tend to forget it because the brain thinks we don’t need that specific neural pathway to survive. Our brains have evolved for a very different environment than we have built for ourselves as modern people. If we use something often, then our brain will strengthen that pathway so it’s easier for us to use later. I talk about this in my other post Neural Pruning vs. Long-Term Potentiation. This is the basis of Active Recall and many of the other scientifically proven study techniques.

Studying the mind in tandem with the brain sets up a fantastic foundation to test out other learning techniques for yourself. The next post will focus more on the mind and how we can use that knowledge to maximize our learning.