How to Hack Your Ability to Learn Quickly

I recently started reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, a book about unlocking the neurological insights for developing skills in sports, art, music, math, and just about anything. What interested me most about this book was the neurological perspective that Daniel Coyle wrote from. He truly dedicated this book to unlocking our ability to develop skills and talent all the way from the cellular level. His writing style is great and easy to follow.

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

In his book he talks about the significant role that myelin plays in learning and developing skills. Essentially, if you consider brain cells (neurons) the data and the connections (axons and dendrites) the reporting, synthesis, and insight from connecting the data then myelin is the auto-reporting feature that consistently extracts and executes on the insight from these established connections even as the data evolves and updates. So imagine an automatically generated report that runs periodically pulling updated data on a regular basis. You have essentially locked down this reporting insight and turned it into an actionable tool. Myelin is the wrapping that insulates the connections made between and among neurons in your brain. It exists in order to lock down skills and abilities you learn so that you can use them again on-demand and at increasingly difficult levels. Significant myelin forms when you achieve a deep level of practice on a regular basis. This is the kind of practice that the best athletes engage in on a regular basis, thus where we get the saying, practice makes perfect. However, Coyle makes a slight change to that by adding that perfect practice makes perfect.

MyelinIn his book, Coyle writes a great deal about perfect practice and cites a case where a girl learned to play a song on her clarinet in 6 minutes. Essentially, she captured a month’s worth of learning in 6 minutes. The student, Clarissa, was considered mediocre and not significantly talented prior to this event. What she did, successfully, was fall into a deep level of practice where she was aware of and worked through every mistake she made. She started by working through the entire piece with all of her mistakes and then broke it down into pieces. She hacked her learning ability in order to produce an outstanding result in a short amount of time.

Speed BagI recently tested this with an experiment of my own. I have wanted to learn the speed bag at my boxing gym for a couple of months now. I attempted it a few times and couldn’t get any rhythm going at all. So the other day I stepped up to the bag and committed to deep practice no matter how bad I looked (ignoring self-consciousness is key to deep practice). Five minutes into it, the on-duty instructor came by and offered some help. He demonstrated the entire skill and then broke it down into the steps. I gave him 110% of my attention. Then he left me to practice. I made so many mistakes but this time I was aware of them and simply kept making adjustments to correct for them. I started to become aware of my timing, the location on the bag I would hit, my positioning (feet and hands), my rhythm, my pace, and my posture. At this point I am adjusting each of these as I correct each mistake. All of a sudden I can hit the bag several times in a row. First I go for 5 in a row. Then what I felt was an impossible 10. Took some effort to get to 10. All of a sudden I am at 20 hits in a row. Then I set a goal of 100. I could not stop until I hit 100 with each hand, straight through, no errors. Thirty minutes later, I did it. I had completely acquired the skill of hitting the speed bag. I essentially compressed a month’s worth of practice into 30 hyper-focused minutes of deep practice. I felt like a video game character leveling up! I went back two days later and tried again. I picked up right where I left off. Except this time I had a new goal. I wanted to incorporate a little footwork into it and move while I was hitting it. Fifteen minutes into the practice, skill acquired. Two days after that, I had a new goal. To hit the bag at least 10 times in a row with my eyes closed. Thirty minutes of deep, hyper-focused practice later, skill acquired, level-up achieved.

This simple experiment helped me realized we can all do this for just about anything we choose. We simply need to spend time in deep practice and not care even one bit what others think. I have already begun a new experiment for taking penalty shots and direct kicks with a soccer ball. In my first two hyper-focused practice sessions I saw dramatic improvements in my consistency and accuracy with the ball.

Breakdown of the steps I took:

1. Decide that you truly want to learn something.  This is important because deep and focused practice requires dedication and commitment.

2. Observe a demonstration of the entire skill in action by an experienced person.  This is very easy thanks to YouTube.  Focus on all of the movements, steps, etc.

3. Break up the skill into smaller chunks (i.e. steps).  Ask someone or yourself, what are the steps this breaks down to.  Watch the demo carefully for these steps.

4. Attempt the entire skills with mistakes and all.  Just run through it so you get a feel for the entire skill you decided to acquire.  You MUST not care what others around you think.

5. Begin practicing and pause with each mistake, reflect on what the mistake was, make corrections and start again.  Focus 110% on this step.  No distractions, just you and the desired skill at hand.  Each time you will notice different steps that need tweaking so that they all come together for successful execution of the entire skill.

6. Repeat step 5 as many times as you need to complete a full demonstration of the skill.

7.  Celebrate with a big HELL YEAH when you can successfully execute the entire skill.

8.  Don’t stop there, keep increasing the challenge and practicing.  Myelin can eventually break down and with it goes your skill. This is why the best athletes practice even the simple skills (i.e. free throws) every day.

I share this with everyone because this is something all of us can do with almost anything we choose. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the learning process. While high levels of mastery do take time, you can acquire the necessary skills a lot faster than you think.

What skill are you going to experiment this method with first?

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5 Steps to Planning for Success

I’ve learned something over and over again. It seems no matter how much I plan for success, it never quite happens how I planned. In fact, my success turns out better than I planned.

To be honest, some things went according to plan, however, with reflection I realized that I never planned things quite as well as the situations that simply just happened spontaneously. When I strictly followed the plan, I was focused more on the individual tasks or objectives. And sometimes I would wonder what the purpose of all of this was. I was so focused on “the plan” that I would lose sight of “the goal.”

So, here’s what I learned about how to plan for success.

1. Decide on a goal and make sure it is as clear as can be at that moment. Truth is our goal today will never be as clear as it will be tomorrow. Tomorrow we will know more, we will have experienced more, and we will see things differently. It’s ok if your goal is not incredibly detailed. Just make sure you can share the essence of the idea with someone else. With each day that passes, it will become clearer.

2. Make a plan. This probably sounds contrary to my introduction, however having a plan is essential. A plan maps out the steps that you believe it will take to achieve your goal at that moment in time. You need a plan for things to NOT go according to plan. So make a plan 🙂

3. Be mindful. Be mindful and aware of your growth and development. Each day you learn something new based on the steps you detailed in your plan. With that development comes new ideas and new interpretations. What you know today is not what you knew yesterday, nor what you will know tomorrow. So stop for a minute to be mindful of your development.

4. Pay attention to the distractions. What may seem like a distraction from your plan may be a great opportunity to bring you closer to your evolving goal. When we allow our minds to step away from our goals for a little while we gain more perspective on them and begin to learn new frameworks from which to reflect on them. This is why TED is so successful, it provides people with an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and take a delightful journey into someone else’s comfort zone and broaden their perspective. That distraction also gives your brain a break from your goals and allows you to process your thoughts and ideas in the background.

5. Be flexible. This is perhaps the most important step. As your goal evolves, as your framework expands, as your perspective widens, you will see more and think differently about your own goal and plan. You will have ideas for altering your plan or what will seem like “deviating” from your plan. Be flexible. Allow that to happen. This is your brain and heart’s way of saying “I have a better idea now.” Listen and be flexible enough to “deviate” from the plan because you aren’t deviating from your goal, which may or may not be the same as it was on day 1. And that’s ok. Most of the startup founders I have spoken to say that what they eventually created was quite different from what they originally set out to do. Their advice was to be flexible and let the idea evolve along its journey.

Consider your goals and previous plans you have set.  Often these 5 steps occur naturally, but resisting them may be limiting your potential for success.  Decide on a goal, set a plan, allow some distractions, develop your idea, and readjust your plan.  As long as you are moving toward your evolving goal you will be on the path towards success.

Oh, and please take the time to enjoy your journey.  The journey is where you will spend most of your time, so make it fun.

Why are Mistakes Necessary?

Mistakes are often penalized in our current educational system.  For instance, you raise your hand with a wrong answer and it’s often followed by “wrong, anyone else?”  Or you receive a grade on a test without ever exploring your mistakes in depth to learn what was done incorrectly and how it could have been approached differently or why it was very close but simply off by one or two minor details.  Another demonstration of this punishment system is the rewards and positive labels that are assigned to students that make few or no mistakes and conversely the negative labels assigned to those that do make mistakes.  Just imagine how poorly Thomas Edison would have scored in a class dubbed “Making a Light Bulb.”  He would have been “wrong” over 1,000 times! Continue reading

Multi-Tasking and Distractions

Read a great article about multi-tasking…which follows up an interesting neuroscience book I recently read that covered the topic as well.  Studies and research show that the human brain is simply not wired for effective and efficient multi-tasking.  The recent article I read in Psychology Today suggests it’s really better labeled task-switching.  However, there are things we do simultaneously like watch tv while we talk on the phone and eat a snack.  In any case, we lose efficiency when we multi-task (or task-switch).

In his book, The New Brain, Dr. Richard Restak suggests that studies have found just a handful, if that, of activities that produce better results when done together.  One of them is listening to music while working with your hands.  This was tested on surgeons by providing them with headsets and having them listen to music while operating.  The results were positive and it even produced a short list of songs that seemed to be optimal.  One of these was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  The reason for this, without getting super technical is that the parts of the brain that work to listen to music and use your hands seem to compliment each other – SUPER simply put.

Continue reading