Brain science tips for efficient skill learning

This post is a follow-up of what I wrote about brain science and memory. That previous article was more theoretical, where I just reviewed my findings on this subject. Now I would like to use this knowledge and suggest some practical approaches to learning and mastering skills, not only from the software development area.

Visualize being awesome

In the previous article, I’ve mentioned that state of excitement switches on ‘learning turbo’ in our brains.

The problem is, how do we get excited about something when we’re simply not. Some people hype easily, some don’t. Also, certain subjects and activities may seem boring or feel like a chore. Most often, however, when we chose to learn something new, we are very eager initially. But the time it takes to master a skill is long enough for this original determination to wane.

Fortunately, there is something we can do to spark and maintain our enthusiasm – it is as simple as letting yourself dream.

Excitement comes largely from the anticipation that something really good is going to happen. This vision is usually what causes us to embark on a journey of learning in the first place. We dream of how our life will change once we master the chosen skill, and we are quite positive about it.

Eventually, slow progress frustrates. Realization of the difficulty of what we are trying to achieve crushes our soul. We then stop believing in our bright future and stop being excited about it. Instead of positivity, there is the dread of time and effort that needs to be put in. While it is difficult to persuade yourself back into believing in your success, we can trick the brain into believing that success has already been achieved. The trick is in visualization.

Virtual reality as good as real reality

Studies on brain scans show, that detailed imagination of ourselves in a situation where we experience success, fires the same neural pathways that real experience does. For the brain reality and imagination can in fact be very similar. If you do this regularly, the brain starts associating thoughts of the skill or domain, with the experience of success. This way, we start believing in the positive outcome of our learning efforts because we think it has already happened before.

If you are new to visualization, it may be difficult and feel weird when you first try it. There is however plenty of advice on the internet about how to start.

Prefer practice over structured learning

Probably not everyone has that problem, but I used to stress a lot about forgetting what I have already learned, and what I should be learning next to carve the most optimal path to mastery.

If you do get bothered about this, stop. You don’t do yourself any service wasting your time on trying to find or design most optimal courses or methods. It is a waste of time mainly for the following reason.

Your goal in learning is to make the things you learn to become part of you. Part of how you carry out certain tasks or think about solving certain kinds of problems. You want skills to become habits or muscle memory – all those things you don’t need to consciously think about when you do them.

Now, if you will try to follow some structured method composed of categorized bits of information and isolated exercises and follow this method, you will first of all be feeding your brain with dry experiences and few things to associate them with. You will also be tempted to rush the program to feel a sense of achievement.

Instead, try doing something real – albeit simple enough to be possible on your skill level. Let the real practice and problems you encounter during this practice feed your brain with rich experiences that are memorable. Let it also be the indicator of what you can well, and what you need to work on. You really don’t need much else than that.

Come up with small projects or challenges

So, we’ve established that learning by doing is the most effective way to learn. Practical application of tools and technologies we learn about provides us with a much richer experience than just reading or watching a video. It is, however, also worth noting that doing something that is already easy for us, does not contribute to learning.

Learning requires this sweet spot where we do something that requires us to focus and make an effort, but at the same time is achievable. Such activity gives us feedback on what was correct or not, or what strategies worked well or not. Repeating something we can do well, gives us no new feedback on our errors. Trying something that’s too hard gives us no feedback on what we did well.

When learning software development technologies, if as an exercise you would take on a huge project, chances are that you will be busy doing the same stuff for a very long time. Instead, try coming up with a series of small projects and challenges to accomplish. Every time, it should be something that will require you to apply new skills, or research new subject, but also small enough to be done in a couple of days or weeks.

Embrace forgetting as a necessary step towards mastery

We should never get discouraged when after some time of not using a skill we forget stuff and need to go back to reference or google. The brain lets unused memories become inaccessible, and that’s good. Otherwise, we would all probably be crazy.

On the other hand, re-learning something forgotten gives the brain signal that this memory is important and should be easily accessible. That causes long term memories to consolidate and become much easier to recall than after the first time we learned something.

One study says that we need to relearn a skill 3 times for it to stick for good. So be prepared for it and just keep it up and be positive that it will eventually become a part of who you are.

Obsess about it just a little

Not all learning happens when we see or read information, or with hands-on experience. Just musing, thinking and pondering about the thing you’re trying to learn also brings significant gains in learning.

Just like with visualizing success, visualized practice is not much different for the brain than real practice. In fact, sportspeople and performers around the world use this technique a lot.

Just don’t overdo all the obsessing. Remember to take care of yourself and your close ones. You don’t want other important parts of your life to fall apart as you focus on you becoming awesome.

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