24 January 2019

My Learning - Part 4 - Learning modes


In part 2 I spoke about my inability to multitask and the dish washing observation. In this post I'll expand on that.

First, let me explain why this is a fairly recent discovery:

When I was at my "time spending peak" as a software tester I read blog posts daily, checked Twitter constantly, software testing was the main topic in basically every work related conversation I had and I prioritized sitting in front of my computer honing my skills on a daily basis. To do this I not only used time I had normally spent on computer games or watching TV but also time I had used to stay in contact with old friends as well as time I had spent on taking care of my body.

The point here being: If you spend this much time on something you get pretty incredible results even when you're not that efficient...

... but it's not sustainable.

The result when I started to shift my focus back to "my life" was a drastic loss in momentum. However, since what I had changed was "time" I assumed the solution was to somehow find more time and finding that time proved to be very hard. This is basically where I was stuck until late 2017.

Today I still try to free as much time as I can for learning but the big wins are not in finding more time; the big wins are in making that time count. The idea of two distinct modes, or mindsets if you like, has been one of the biggest improvements in this area for me.


I look at myself as being in one of two distinct modes when learning:
  • Focused mode
  • Distracted mode
When in my focused mode I shield myself from (almost) all distractions and focus my full attention on whatever I'm trying to learn. When doing this I (almost) always have my trusted notebook and colored pencils ready.

In this mode, information sticks and this is where I take the big strides forward in my learning. The actual activity and environment can still differ quite a bit though; for instance I might be at a conference, do an exercise with someone or just sit in my bedroom reading a book. This mode typically takes a bit of energy to initialize but after that it normally builds energy for me as long as there aren't any distractions I have to actively manage (more on "energy" in a later part).

The reason I'm not always in this mode is because everything else stops, as well as the fact that some initial energy is required. Sure, there are sometimes nice by-products created but the clogged water pipe in the bathroom won't get fixed.

... which brings us to my distracted mode. In this mode I consider any learnings made a bonus. Examples are when I listen to a podcast while doing the dishes or when reading during a bumpy, noisy bus ride. In this scenario the "learning action" is more a distraction from a boring activity than an actual attempt to learn something. There are perks though: Even though sloooow some things stick (works best with resources I want to just quickly refresh/revisit) and it's a great way to get through tons of different resources without really sacrificing anything which in terms is valuable since it helps filter out resources I want to process later in my focused mode without having to spend precious focused time doing that.

Why it's important

I know I'm an ineffective learner when distracted and if I forget that I end up in a scenario where doing the dishes takes an hour just because I spent most of the time looking at some presentation on YouTube even though I know very little from the presentation will actually stick.

Same thing with my focused mode: If I forget that I'm a terrible multitasker I easily end up stopping everything around me but instead of using this precious, me-time on learning I waste it on mindlessly watching TV while holding a book in my hands.

Different sources fits different distractions

Most sources work well in my focused mode; I can have a conversation, read a book, listen to a podcast, do an exercise on the computer or just do regular work while having my notebook ready trying to make sense of the information I take in.

Various distractions puts various limitations on my distracted mode however. Let me give you a few examples:

Eyes needed, ears free (e.g. loading the washing machine):
Great sources: Audio books, presentations I don't need to watch, some meditation exercises

Ears needed, eyes free (e.g. waiting at the airport):
Read (blogs, books, articles, check old notes)
Write (blogging, organize my thoughts, plan, improve old notes)
Hands (build something, learning games, make illustrations)

Dumpy and loud (e.g. bus):
Some meditation or mindfulness exercises, reflect, some reading
(I love my noise cancellation headphones in these scenarios though)

Frequent interruptions (e.g. anything that involves people around me):
Reading blog posts since they're short (not much progress lost), exercises I can jump in and out of


What I'm experimenting with right now is questioning the sources I choose when distracted because I've found myself going back to the same subset of sources over and over again:

"Sure a podcast is easy since I have a long list of episodes ready but is it -really- the most useful source right now? Even if I think it is, I should at least come up with a few options just to make sure I'm not answering 'yes' out of laziness"

Wrap up

Obviously the above is a very simplified model and there are tons of nuances to it but I actually do identify which mode I'm in and use that as a guide on how to progress... and the fact you'll see me reference these modes in many subsequent parts, I think is proof of how central they are to my learning.

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