How to Deal With Overwhelm When Learning New Skills (i.e. What to Do When I Am Stuck)

HOW TO DEAL WITH OVERWHELM WHILE LEARNING (I.E., WHAT TO DO WHEN I AM STUCK)


I don't want to convince you that learning is easy. You know damn well that is complicated and full of challenges. Even when you master the process of effective knowledge acquisition, you might still run into different obstacles.

Knowing how to learn is one side of the equation. However, being able to sustain your progress over a long period is an entirely different beast. It's a mental war that you have to wage against your brain and the resistance this sneaky, squishy spongy will create,

This article is supposed to serve you as a life ring. Whenever you feel that you're drowning in the sea of overwhelm, revisit it to resurface. 

​​Feel free to use just one of these strategies or all of them. The most important thing is that you shake off any gloomy feelings and snap out of the state of inertia.


What You Need to Know About Overwhelm


The first you need to know about learning how to deal with overwhelm is that it leads to three results:

  • Avoidance
  • Passivity
  • Hectic behavior (e.g., switching from one task to another in a hasty manner)

They all have one thing in common - loss of control. If you ever notice any of these telltale signs, you should be alarmed. It means that you are losing the grip on your learning process. Instead of being organized and methodical, you start floundering.

Here are some of the strategies that may help you regain the feeling of control


How To Deal With Overwhelm



1. Be primitive


First thing you need to be aware of is the concept of activation energy

Activation energy is the energy need to start performing an action. The higher it is, the less of a chance that you will start performing a given action.

That means that you should reduce any clutter that stands in your way and holds you back. It also concerns your general attitude. If you overthink everything, your activation energy will be high as well. You can't focus on the start of the action if dozens of thoughts and tasks are running through your head.

In other words, focus on primitive tasks.

Here is what I mean by that:
  • Too many resources? Reduce their number drastically!
  • Can't create a proper learning plan because it's getting too big? Screw it. Just grab the first book for beginners and start learning.
  • Too many reviews? Stop adding new flashcards temporarily or use Load Balancer plugin for ANKI
  • Can't maintain your current learning pace? Reduce it.
  • Too little time for learning today? Do 5 flashcards and call it a day.

Remember that ​ideally, you want to become a life-long learner. Any temporary setback is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The only thing you should care about is regularity.

Don't break the chain at all costs. Review even two flashcards if you're exhausted today or don't have time, but do something every day!


2. Identify the constraints


The theory of constraints states that in any system, there is one function, resource, process area, or process step that constrains the entire system's ability to deliver on its mission.

​​Sometimes it will mean that removing just one obstacle will unblock your potential. Other times, you will discover that after eliminating that one significant constraint, there will be another one looming underneath.

In any case, do your best to get rid of these obstacles. Once you do, your learning process should regain its previous smoothness.

Keep in mind that your constraints can be:

  • psychological (e.g., "I am too stupid to do it," passing away of your relative)
  • people (e.g., toxic persons in your life telling you that your project is silly or useless)
  • organizational (lousy time management skills, being unable to access some facilities)
  • health-related (too little sleep, bad diet, being sick)
  • material (not having appropriate tools)

Try to identify them on your own. If you can't figure it out, ask someone trust-worthy for helpSometimes it's easier to spot such problems when you're on the outside looking in.


3. Lower The Intensity


The intensity you can endure will always be a resultant of your:

  • character
  • motivation
  • health
  • frame of mind
  • habits
  • external conditions
  • and the current level of advancement in your field of expertise

It's impossible to tell anyone that they should learn X amount of hours per day or do Y flashcards per day. You can suggest a goal that will later be verified by reality.  In other words, good goals will be established only after some trial and error.

Regardless, if you notice that instead of jumping for joy at the thought of learning and discovering the unknown, you feel like somebody slapped you with a slimy mackerel, it's time to stop. It's time to rethink whether your learning pace is not too ambitious. 

Don't get me wrong - ambitions are great, but regularity always beats short-lived zeal. If your will to learn wanes, decrease your learning and practice intensity temporarily.

Try to find out what pace and effort level make you happy. And don't even try to think of it as a failure. You're making a wise and strategic decision that will guarantee your long-term success. 


4. Take more breaks


Very often, a simple solution to feeling overwhelmed is taking more breaks.


How to deal with overwhelm

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


How often should you do it? 

Once again, your endurance threshold will depend on all the variables mentioned in the previous point.

​​Sometimes you will discover that you can plug away for hours on end, and sometimes 20 minutes of tackling a complex topic will break you.

It's definitely true for me. I have noticed that my ability to write is very fragile. The slightest distractions will throw me off most of the time. What's more, very often, even 40 minutes of writing leaves me in tears. On the other hand, I can effortlessly pore over ANKI for hours and create hundreds of new flashcards. I am positive you will establish your observe such regularities in your daily routine as well.

The most important question is - when should you take a break?

The internet is full of different numbers. Some say 20 minutes while the other ones cite a 40-minute rule. None of these things are true. 

Your energy levels, and thus your concentration, constantly fluctuate throughout the day. They are also heavily influenced by the variables mentioned above. 

That's why the best predictor of the need to take a break is your mental fatigue.

Whenever you:

  • start daydreaming,
  • get distracted, i.e., you realize that almost anything is more interesting than what you're doing right now,
  • feel brain fog,
  • notice that your performance dropped drastically,

it's time to pause.


Keep in mind that your breaks should be meaningful. That means no electronics and no taxing activities. Go for a walk, meditate, or lie down.

Rest for as long as you need.

It's crucial for your full recovery. I know that 10-15 minutes of lying in my bed is usually all I need. Very often, that leads to micro-naps - I am okay with that. I know that once I get up, I am ready to rumble again.


​5. Take care of SPDSH (sleep, private life, diet, sports, health)


Damn, I really tried to find some cool acronym for these elements, but (HuSH PeDo!) is all I got. On the bright side, it is as memorable as it might be offensive to some.

The critical takeaway from this point is that your learning project is not placed in a magical void. Your life is a system of interconnected vessels. If you have problems in your private life or you are sick, learning will be the last thing on your mind. Don't neglect those things at the cost of education.

Trust me - I know how difficult it is. I learn so much that usually, my sleep suffers. It's not wise, and it's something I have been struggling with for a long time.


6. Organize your learning better


overwhelm while learning

Photo by STIL on Unsplash

The term Information Fatigue Syndrome has been coined recently to refer to stress coming from problems with managing overwhelming information. 

​​Some consequences of IFS listed by Dr. David Lewis, a British psychologist, include: anxiety, tension, procrastination, time-wasting, loss of job satisfaction, self-doubt, psychosomatic stress, breakdown of relationships, reduced analytical capacity, etc. The information era tends to overwhelm us with the amount of information.

For example, you might feel stressed by dozens of tabs in your web browser or 20 studies you still have to go through

I get it because I struggled with it in the past. How have I solved it?

I have organized my learning better, i.e., I focused my full energy on learning in ANKI whenever it's possible.

​​If I run into some papers or articlesI paste them into ANKI. I know they are safe and sound there, and I can process them by breaking them down into flashcards later. ANKI is my command center, and this feeling helps me stove away any anxiety related to learning.

With this conviction, you can devote all your energy to comprehension, analysis, and retention of the learned material, instead of eating your heart out.


7. Make a shift


A plateau happens when your brain achieves a level of automaticity; in other words, when you can perform a skill on autopilot, without conscious thought. Our brains love autopilot because, in most situations, it's pretty handy. It lets us chew gum and walk and ride bikes without having to think about it, freeing our brains for more important tasks. When it comes to developing talent, however, autopilot is the enemy, because it creates plateaus. 


Research by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, shows that the best way past a plateau is to jostle yourself beyond it; to change your practice method, so you disrupt your autopilot and rebuild a faster, better circuit. One way to do this is to speed things up—to force yourself to do the task faster than you usually would. Or you can slow things down—going so slowly that you highlight previously undetected mistakes. Or you can do the task in reverse order, turn it inside out or upside down. It doesn't matter which technique you use, as long as you find a way to knock yourself out of autopilot and into your sweet spot. - Daniel Coyle - The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills


Personally, making a shift means creating silly flashcards which are based on ridiculous associations or observations. It's refreshing enough that even when I start feeling a bit jaded, this procedure restores the proper frame of mind.


8. Break down your project into smaller chunks


This is a classic productivity strategy and for all the right reasons. Sometimes focusing on a big picture can be detrimental to your performance. The project seems so big and complicated that it robs you of the will to pursue it. 

You can overcome this obstacle by breaking your projects into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Take a piece of paper and write down a detailed plan of your undertaking. Number all the steps so you know how to prioritize them. Doing so will free your mental energy and allow you to concentrate on one task at a time.

Then getting "primitive," as suggested in the first point, become much more manageable.


EXAMPLE

Instead of creating your flashcards right away, you can spend two days just pasting learning material into ANKI - that would be your first stage. Next, you can process this material into flashcards in the next couple of days. Only then, after five days, can you buckle down and start reviewing them.


9. Go back to the roots - what's your motivation?


If none of the steps above seem to help, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Why did you want to achieve your goal? Has anything changed since then?

Revisiting the source of your motivation will allow you to accomplish two things:

  1. 1
    It will either pep you up and give you more power to carry on or
  2. 2
    you will give up.

The latter sounds ominous, but I assure you it's not.

Your life is dynamic and is in a constant state of motion. Thousands of elements enter and leave your life every week. They can all affect your initial motivation. If you decide, upon the close inspection, that you don't care anymore about your initial goal, I want you to know that it's okay. Ditch your project. Pour yourself a nice glass of whiskey or cocoa, sit in your armchair and think what you want to do next.

Your project is not a life sentence - you can quit anytime you feel that it's not right for you anymore.


10. Pep yourself up



Do you know what the worst part of every undertaking is? The middle.

Beginnings are usually exciting. It's like running into a magical maze. You have lots of energy and progress fast; everything is new and shiny. However, after a couple of things, you realize that you're running out of water, and your last meal was a dead squirrel. It's not good.

In other words, the middle of any project is the most monotonous. Your learning slows down. What's more, you most probably get any benefits from moving on. You don't get money out of this. No fans are showering you with their admiration. The only thing ahead of you is more work. It's not sexy, I know.

How to deal with this situation?

Pep yourself up!

It sounds cheesy, but sometimes cheese is all you need, as Paul McCartney used to sing.

Here are some things you might try:

  • Watch some motivational videos on YouTube.
  • Run around the room while drumming your chest and scream, "I am the king/queen of this jungle."
  • Watch Rocky for the 20th time.
  • Pump your ego by contemplating how amazing you are ("If I were an apple, I would be a really cute apple).
  • Reminisce on your past successes.
  • Take a step back and see how much you have learned so far.
  • Think about your future glory once you achieve your goal.
  • Gather all the empty whiskey bottles and spell "You're the winner!" 

There are no wrong answers here. See what works for you and stick to it in the moments of doubt.


How To Deal With Overwhelm When Learning New Skills - The main takeaway(s)


The moment at which you decide to start learning is usually a peak of your mental capacity and attitude. You feel awesome, and you want to do great things. The problem is that your energy and motivation to learn come and go. There will be plenty of days when you will feel bummed enough to start contemplating and romanticizing the life of a hobo just to run away from all your problems.

That's why it's always preferable to create learning systems instead of relying on flimsy companions like motivation. Here are some of the strategies that might help you:

To deal with overwhelm, try to:

  1. 1
    be primitive
  2. 2
    identify the constraints
  3. 3
    lower the intensity
  4. 4
    take more breaks
  5. 5
    take care of SPDSH (sleep, private life, diet, sports, health)
  6. 6
    organize your learning better
  7. 7
    make a shift
  8. 8
    break down your project into smaller chunks
  9. 9
    go back to the roots - what's your motivation?
  10. 10
    pep yourself up

Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies – Why You Should Take Them With a Grain of Salt

WHY YOU SHOULD TREAT POLYGLOTS; ADVICE, TIPS, AND STRATEGIES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT


One category of emails which I regularly get is called: "X did Y, what do you think about it?" (or some variation of it).

X is usually a polyglot or a YouTuber who just did a mission, whereas Y often stands for a short amount of time. Usually, what a reader expects from me is to tell them that it's possible because they also want to learn fast. I get it - it all sounds exciting. If you can learn a language way faster, then why wouldn't you take advantage of polyglot tips, advice or learning strategies? 

The answer is simple: critical thinking. You are not them, and depending on your skill set and language background, it might not be possible for you even to get close to their results. There is a long list of warning signs that you should be aware of before you decide to emulate what they did. And no - I am not above it. Apply those criteria to my advice as well. 

Let's chomp down a healthy dose of red pills.


Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies - Why You Should Take It With a Grain of Salt



I get this vague feeling that sometimes both people who give and take language advice are a bit detached from reality. 

In a rational world, if someone decided to start training box twice per week, initially, they would choose some simple form of training. Some stretching, basic forms, leg work - that kind of stuff.

A mere suggestion that, "Dude, Mike Tyson has this cool training, let's give it a try!" would be greeted with a pitiful smirk. They would know that this kind of workout routine would leave them in tears and wouldn't be too effective for them at this stage.

Yet, in the realm of languages, people get this idea that any language strategy is immediately applicable to them. Let me assure you - it is not. What's more, very often they can do more harm to your learning progress and motivation than good.

Here are a couple of arguments to bear in mind.


1. Expertise Reversal


The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.

If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learn more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learn more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.

Variability refers to a lack of consistency or fixed patterns in the tasks presented to a learner.
That means that beginners learn the best when there are:
  • not many tasks,
  • tasks are easy and predictable.

If you complicate a learning plan for them, they will never progress, or they will do it extremely slowly.

Call me pragmatic, but I wouldn't like to learn my first language to a B2 level while turning 70.

Sure, thumbs up from a nurse who is just emptying my bedpan sound encouraging, but I think I will pass.


What's an example of a crazy learning plan for beginners?

I bet you have seen or done it before - most of us did. Very often, if you have 45 minutes of learning time per day, you will hear the following recommendations:


  • 15 min of reading,
  • 10 min of listening,
  • 10 minutes of talking,
  • 10 of writing.
It's either this or some other variation of this madness.
Polyglots Advice

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

What I do recommend most of the time for beginners in my course Vocabulary Labs is this:

  • learn vocabulary with Anki,
  • learn basic grammar,
  • consolidate this knowledge with activation strategies.

Once they learn enough words, they start more advanced training, which involves lots of passive learning. Unsurprisingly, people who have failed to learn a language for ten years, miraculously start progressing like crazy.


Polygot Tips - Reading vs. Listening


The expertise reversal also manifests itself in the reading vs. listening effectiveness. Here is an excellent excerpt from a recent study.


Read-and-listen approach benefited novice learners; more expert learners could benefit more from the read-only approach.

2. Confidence can be misleading



The first thing you should keep in mind that we all crave confidence. Nobody wants to listen to people who seem hesitant. It all starts at a young age.

Researchers found that young children between the age of four and five not only prefer to learn from people who appear confident, they also keep track of how well the person's confidence has matched with their knowledge and accuracy in the past (a concept called 'calibration') and avoid learning new information from people who have a history of being overconfident. - ScienceDaily

Said another way, sometimes we don't pay much attention to what somebody has to say as much as how convincing they are when they do it. However, let's not confuse confidence (or age) with good advice.

Never underestimate how gullible we can be. While I am writing this, probably a dozen people on the internet are buying some course on healing cancer with banana enemas because the dude selling it looks and speaks like Gandalf.

Heck, I would probably buy it if he lowered his voice enough.


3. Experts are notoriously bad at explaining why they do certain things



Here is an excellent excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell's' book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."


"Out of all the research that we've done with top players, we haven't found a single player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does," Braden says.


"They give different answers at different times, or they have answers that simply are not meaningful."


One of the things he does, for instance, is videotape top tennis players and then digitize their movements, breaking them down frame by frame on a computer so that he knows, say, precisely how many degrees Pete Sampras rotates his shoulder on a cross-court backhand.

That's precisely how you combat this problematic phenomenon - you don't rely on opinions, you track data. Without it, our explanation of why something happened might be heavily warped by other factors.

If you want to see how far you can go with experimenting, check out this article: Over 30 Things You Can Learn From All My Fail And Successful Memory Experiments.


4. Achieving a certain skill level ≠ efficiency


I love Tim Ferris' approach to breaking down complex skills. One of his strategies involved finding outliers in a given discipline - people who shouldn't be good at something (especially sports), but they excelled against all the odds.

This framework allows you to cut through all the potential noise and eliminate variables that might distort your conclusions.

For example, I have had plenty of discussions with students of philology who claimed that the way they are taught at universities is impeccable. Every single time I had to point out that for five years, at least in Poland, they spend about 40 hours per week learning their target language. Go figure that you can achieve a C1 or C2 level after that many hours of practice!. Personally, I would be more interested in finding out how somebody, with similar or identical background knowledge, did it in a year.

The same goes for a lot of people who were born and raised in multilingual families or countries. It's great that they have acquired all this knowledge, but they are probably not the best people to give advice on how to learn languages.


5. The warping effect of background knowledge



Background knowledge is another variable that is NEVER considered by learners. 

Most of the relevant theories of learning to acknowledge that learners' knowledge bases are the most important moderating factor influencing our ability to acquire information (e.g., Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994).

It is well established that knowledge of a given domain facilitates recall of information in that domain. For example, Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, and Voss (1979) found that after listening to a description of a half-inning of a fictitious baseball game, participants high in baseball knowledge recalled more game actions and other game-relevant information, but less irrelevant information, than did participants lower in baseball knowledge.

Similarly, after listening to short vignettes from a game, participants high in baseball knowledge were better able to detect changes in the event descriptions on a subsequent recognition test than participants lower in baseball knowledge, especially when the changes related to the goal structure of the game (Chiesi, Spilich, & Voss, 1979; Experiment 1). 

Walker (1987) also found a domain-knowledge effect when participants could read as well as listen to a half-inning game description.

Finally, Recht and Leslie (1988) reported the same effect when participants read silently the half-inning description.

Knowing many languages significantly changes your ability to acquire new ones. What's more, the more similar the language you want to learn is to the ones you already know, the faster you will acquire it.


Factors affecting your ability to learn



Keep in mind that there are lots of factors affecting your ability to learn, among others:

  1. 1
    Lack of a learning system
  2. 2
    Regularity of exposure
  3. 3
    Timing of repetition
  4. 4
    Retention intention
  5. 5
    Pronounceability (i.e., how difficult it is to pronounce)
  6. 6
    The usefulness of a word
  7. 7
    Emotional saliency
  8. 8
    Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)
  9. 9
    Lack of context
  10. 10
    Number of contexts
  11. 11
    Active encoding
  12. 12
    Morphological awareness (i.e., derivational complexity)
  13. 13
    The capacity of your short-term memory
  14. 14
    Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)
  15. 15
    Germane cognitive load
  16. 16
    German cognitive load (GCL)
  17. 17
    Mental and physical condition
  18. 18
    Mental barriers
  19. 19
    Random variable(s)

Polyglots enjoy lots of unique advantages that have one thing in common - they decrease their general cognitive load. It means that they can learn much faster, longer, and more effectively than mono- and bilinguals. We can't pretend that it's not taking place, and we're all start at the same point. If this was a 100-meter dash, a typical polyglot would get a 70-meter headstart.

For example, quite a widespread piece of advice one can hear is that beginners should read simplified texts. Unfortunately, it's not true.

I want to make one thing very clear - no one is lying to you. These strategies DO work for them, but they will most probably won't work for you if your language background isn't extensive enough.


Learning Czech in 1 month


Let me give you a great example. My ninth and the last official language I learned was Czech. In 1 month (about 5 years ago), I managed to learn it from scratch to a B1/B2 level and confirmed with language tests.

It is a great result, and I am proud of it, but even at the beginning of this case study, I mentioned that I already know eight languages. What's more, my native tongue is Polish, and I speak fluent Russian.


Why is it important?

Because Czech shares about 70-80% of words with Polish. That means that right off the bat, my passive knowledge was big, and it was further increased by my knowledge of Russian.

Here are the implications of these numbers:


  • on day 1, I could already read and listen, and start acquiring some words passively
  • I didn't have to practice listening much because Polish and Czech are similar enough
  • there weren't too many words that seemed difficult for me pronunciation-wise
  • etc.


That was Czech. What about Slovak? To my surprise, when I visited Slovakia for Polyglot Gathering in 2017, I understood 98% of everything by virtue of knowing Czech. 

Would the above be true for me if I decided to learn Chinese? No!

That's why be alert if somebody tells you that passive learning is great. It's not - it sucks. However, it is effective for a person with extensive background knowledge.

If you have it - great. If not, better get back to active learning.


Summary -  Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies 



Taking polyglot tips and advice at face value can be a fatal mistake for people who don't know many or any languages. It can lead to opposite effects. Instead of progressing way faster, your progress can be almost non-existent. In extreme cases, you can become so overwhelmed that you will give up.

The overall explanation is simple - polyglots enjoy all the benefits of having extensive background knowledge in a specific field of language learning. That makes their knowledge acquisition process much more efficient.

My suggestion would be to think twice before using their (and my!) advice. Better make sure that it applies to you before you waste any time!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 18 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.