Barbara Oakley: Learning How to Learn @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

He’d sit, and he’d relax, and he’d relax away. And just as he’d relaxed so much, you know, kind of letting his mind run free, he’d have a key in his hand. And just as he’d relax so much that he’d fall asleep, the key would fall from his hand, the clatter would wake him up, and off he’d go with this new idea from the diffused mode, taking it back to the focused mode, where he could refine and really use them. So you might think, well, you know, that’s just great for artists.

But what if you’re an engineer? If you look at this guy right here, this was Thomas Edison. And what Edison used to do, at least according to legend, was he’d sit in a chair with ball bearings in his hand. And he’d relax and relax, and then finally when he’d fall asleep, the ball bearings would fall from his hand. And whatever he’d, in his very relaxed way, been thinking about, he’d be able to take some of those ideas from that mode and bring them back with him to the focused mode, where he could refine it, analyze, and come up with some of those brilliant inventions. So the lesson for us, out of all of this, is this I’m giving some exemplary innovators in various fields.

But whenever you’re solving a problem, even if it’s a problem that thousands or even millions of other people have solved before, for you, it’s the very first time that you’ve solved that problem. And you need to use some of these same creative approaches that these other brilliant thinkers have used. And what you want to do, be aware of, is that you can be in focused mode or you can be in diffused mode, but you can’t really– as far as we know, unless you’re an exceptionally well-trained monk– be in both modes at the same time. So focused or diffused. And you want to develop both modes.

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Diffused thinking is often not conscious, but it is also learning. And so that’s why that relaxation process can also be very important. Now I just wanted to give you a quick image here. This shows some of the brilliant connectivity of the default mode network. See all these connections here between various aspects of the brain? This is a web for one mode of working, but focused mode has a very different web.

So if you’re only focusing, you’re not making access or getting access to a lot of the different connections that are available for you. That’s why going back and forth between modes can be so very important. Now, it takes time to do this. That’s why you can’t sit down and just solve a difficult problem immediately. You often have to go back and forth between the modes.

And in some sense, you can almost think of it like this is a weight-lifter. And a weight-lifter, he doesn’t cram the night before a big meet and build muscles like that. It takes time to develop those muscles. In the same way, it takes time to develop the neural scaffold that is involved in learning and in new thinking processes. But I know what you’re really thinking.

You may be thinking, I’m a procrastinator I wait. Sometimes I don’t, like, have time to do stuff, right? And so let’s talk a little bit about procrastination. And sometimes you can be a really effective human being but still procrastinate about some things. And so in that sense, there are things to learn to help improve your productivity and your effectiveness in what you do.

So procrastination arises in a very interesting way. Studies have shown that if you look at something you don’t like, the pain centers of your brain actually activate. So if you look at a book for a subject you don’t like, you can actually feel a twinge, and we can see it in the brain, if you’re being imaged. So what do you do when you feel pain? I mean, it’s the same pain as when you hammer your thumb with a hammer. Well, you have two different ways of handling it.

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The first way is you can work through it, like 20 minutes or so, and the pain will gradually disappear. But if you’re like most people, what you’ll do is you’ll just kind of turn your attention away to something more pleasant, and guess what? You’ll feel better immediately, right? And so in some sense, procrastination can actually be a little bit like an addiction. You do it once, you do it twice– it’s not that big a deal. You do it a lot of times, though, and it actually can be very, very detrimental for your life. So I’m an engineer.

I believe in totally practical, useful things. So what I’m going to do is cut right to the chase and say here’s the most effective way to help you deal with procrastination. And it is simply to use the Pomodoro Technique. And this is a technique that was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. And it involved– he called it the Pomodoro Technique because he had a tomato-shaped timer, and pomodoro is Italian for tomato.

And what he would do is he would– he recommends you set a timer for 25 minutes. Actually, you can have different times. Different time lengths are useful for different people. But you set it, in general, for 25 minutes, and then you turn off everything else. So no alarms, no instant messages– anything that can disturb your concentration, you turn that off.

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