This is a review of week 1 of the Coursera course, Learning how to Learn. The concepts introduced here focus on how to think and learn better, which requires two different approaches.

These two modes are the focused mode and the diffused mode. The fact that both have equal importance in the thinking process is often overlooked. The importance of daydreaming is something that is often eschewed in favour of the protestant work ethic. Greg (my Irish friend) often complains that most of what is classified as ‘English Literature’ is in fact from Ireland and the other Gaelic countries, his theory is that it’s because the Protestant work ethic never caught on in Ireland.

CNN has a great article “For a more productive life, Daydream“, which sums up this concept extremely well. We need to leave time in the day to dream. For me, this means making sure to know when enough is enough on a task; realising when additional time spent on it will only lead to frustration.

This leads to the other point, that learning is best done through spaced repetition. Walking away from a task, relaxing, doing something else, and returning back to it the next day will help us approach the problem with fresh insights. A little bit everyday is better than a lot all at once. It’s funny how all these ideas already out there are clichéd idioms which we don’t pay attention to because we’ve heard them so many times we think we know what they mean, but actually don’t.

Spaced repetition is also a good way to tackle procrastination. Instead of thinking of the mountain of a task you have ahead of you, you could think of the first few steps you need to take. Choose those steps. Take some time to figure out the route that is right for you. Once that’s done, put it on your to do list. I personally don’t have a procrastination problem, because my to-do list handles that.

Another important way of handling procrastination is understanding the cues, routines and rewards associated with handling tasks. Facebook has come up as the number 1 tool for procrastination because it has hijacked our internal cue-routine- reward system. The moment you enter Facebook, you are presented with a cue (red notification button) to keep scrolling down your news feed. You enter the routine (scrolling down the news feed) and the system continuously rewards you (giving you the impression you’re learning something new all the time). It’s dangerous.

But you can use Pavlovian processes for good. Figure out what gets you to start doing what you want to do, and instead of procrastinating, do that. For me, it is enough to say “The time is now”, or if the time is not now, then the time is the soonest time you can affect the change. Tonight, tomorrow morning. But you’d better start doing it tomorrow. Next week is too late.

Finally, there are two other things that are absolutely key to making sure you are at the top of your mental game, and stay the top. The first is sleep, the second exercise.

This important finding is highlighted in an NPR article “Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep“. Sleep is important, because if you don’t get enough, you are looking towards Alzheimer’s and an early grave. We all know we can’t think clearly without enough sleep, yet so many of us give ourselves so little time for this key activity.

Exercise is important for so many things, and indeed, a healthy body makes for a healthy mind. For a long time, it was believed that neuron growth stopped once we reached adulthood. That neurons could be rewired to learn new things, but our brain’s capacity stayed the same. Now, we know that exercise can subvert this depressing fact. This enlightening discover is outlined in an article in the Guardian: Start Running and Watch your Brain Grow.