5 ways to become a better learner - Optimizing your mental warehouse

I would like to introduce you to a couple of methods to make you a better learner. In this article I will use an analogy for these methods - a warehouse. Enjoy!

Focused and Diffuse thinking

We all know about focus. This is when we try really hard and don't want anyone to disturb us. We are in the moment. We are highly productive.

This feels like something which we want to be in constantly. Wouldn't that be great?

That might not be the case. The problem with being in focused mode all the time is that we do not receive the opportunity to be creative, and solve tasks in new ways. Think about that one time you worked really hard and was stuck on this hard problem, but you just couldn't solve it. That probably happened because you did not let your brain search for alternative solutions - to find creative solutions. I bet if you took a short walk and came back, you suddenly solved it. This is where we introduce diffuse thinking.

Diffuse thinking is the mode where you brain makes connections all over the place. It wanders freely and makes connections at random. Some ideas might be plainly stupid, and some ideas might be genius! But this is the mode where you decide which processes you will use in the focused mode.

If you use these two ways of thinking in the right manner, you may find solutions quick, stay productive and constantly make new discoveries.

You could think of your brain as big warehouse. Diffuse mode of thinking is when you try to find what boxes to fetch from the shelves. Focused thinking is when you open a box from the shelves and look/search in it.


When you learn, how do you know when to apply which method? This is where the concept of chunking comes in.

The warehouse has sections - probably one for math, one for physics, and one for your extremely advanced cooking skills. The warehouse is all filled with boxes with labels. One label might say quantum physics another might say fish seasoning. A box is what one may call a chunk; a way to categorize information and experiences.

These boxes are what you create when you learn. When you learn something new you may receive a new box with a new label - and the box is open in front of you, because you are actively working on it.

The interesting part is how this relates to the different modes of thinking. Diffuse thinking would be the same as driving around and see what boxes you might need. Focused thinking would be to open the box and work from it (which wouldn't do too well if you are trying to figure out what to use to solve a problem).

  • Categorize the things which you are learning
  • Define how it relates to other subjects
  • Stuck? Take a walk or stare out the window.


Let us continue with this warehouse analogy. How would you become a great warehouse worker? How can you learn what boxes to fetch, without fetching too many boxes and in a decent amount of time?

This could be done by interleaving. This is the practice when you switch between subjects, to better know where they are located. This is instead of working with the same thing for hours on end. The learning process becomes slower, but in the long run it will be very effective - you can quickly access most things.

An example would be to not work on the same type of math questions - jump between calculus and geometry every now and again.

  • Every other task, switch the subject

Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is useful if you do not want to plateau in your development. This is to always practice the things which you do not know - the ones which give you a little bit of anxiety. By doing this you spread your reach even quicker, and do not receive the false sense of security that you are good at something because you have practiced one thing really well for many hours.

In our warehouse analogy I think one could see this as a way to effectively extend the reach for the boxes.

  • Don't become comfortable - constantly challenge yourself!

Distributed practice

Let us say that you enter a new friends home and stay there for six hours. 6 months later how well do you remember that house? Not so well, eh? Compare that to your local shop. You might be there twice each week, for maximum 20 minutes. Yet you know every nook and cranny - where to find the milk, the toilet paper and the cereal.

This is the same with distributed practice. Revisit a subject often and in small doses will have a greater long term effect than doing it all at once.

Retention Retention with distributed practice from lindsaydoeslanguages.com

As for the warehouse - it is better to revisit a box now and again than working through it for hours one time. You will become familiar with its content and its position.

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