Make Your ANKI Learning Sessions Longer and More Enjoyable by Manipulating Dopamine Levels

Make Your Review Sessions Longer and More Enjoyable by Manipulating Dopamine Levels

It's generally true that we all learn effectively in a very similar. However, we certainly react differently to bigger workloads. Some find it motivating; some find it tedious and frustrating. This difference is obvious even among my students. 

Some write to me that they find flashcards so interesting that they can work for hours on end. Others start strong and find themselves more and more exhausted with every passing week. It's understandable - high learning pace always comes with the price. The prices, in this case, is increased effort.

You probably have noticed that regardless of your attitude to learning, you get really weary after some time. It might be 20 or 40 minutes, but it inevitably happens. One way to combat this, like I have suggested in one of the previous articles, is to break your learning into many sessions. However, there is one more strategy that will allow you to both increases the duration of your session and the joy you get out of it.

We can achieve all those things by manipulating your levels of dopamine. Let me explain step-by-step how it works.


What Is Dopamine?


In the brain, dopamine functions mainly as a neurotransmitter. The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behavior

The anticipation of most types of rewards increases the level of dopamine in the brain, and many addictive drugs increase dopamine release or block its reuptake into neurons following release. The dopamine release is also necessary for Initial memory consolidation.

The most important information for us is that it's the main driver of reward learning in the brain. It makes us focused and vigilant and craving for more of any dopamine-boosting stimulus.


How Can You Increase Dopamine Levels?


Now that you roughly know what dopamine is and how it can drive your learning, it's time to answer the following question:

What can you do to boost your dopamine levels? 

It's simple. Lots and lots of cocaine instead of sugar in your coffee! Lol 😄 Ok, not really. It's not a very sustainable approach. The answer is quite complex, and it envelopes many lifestyle-related things. 


1. Diet


For example, low-carb diets are naturally more dopamine-based as they revolve around lots of protein-heavy products. Those products, on the other hand, contain an amino acid called Tyrosine that is a precursor to dopamine (i.e. it gets converted into it).

Carbohydrate-heavy diets bring quite the opposite effect as such products are very Tryptophane-rich. Tryptophane is also an amino-acid but, contrary to Tyrosine, it gets converted into serotonin, which then, gets converted into melatonin. I am sure that you have already heard something about this hormone. Melatonin is one of the main hormones that signal that it's time to go to sleep and thus makes us drowsy and sleepy.

In other words, to simplify things:

Low-carb diets -> more dopamine -> you're more vigilant and focused

High-carb diets- > more serotonine -> more melatonin -> you become drowsy and sleepy 

There are also lots of herbs and plants that can further boost this effect, however, just temporarily. One of the best examples is coffee that releases dopamine in the prefrontal cortex.

Read more: What To Do Instead of Nootropics In Order To Maximize Your Brain Power Permanently


2. Exercise


Make Your Review Sessions More Enjoyable


Any kind of exercise and especially high-intensity exercise will help you to achieve the same effect (Loprinzi, P. D. (2019)). It's a good idea to interrupt your learning sessions to do some push-ups, squats, jumping jacks, or whatever else that floats your boat. Not only will you look better, but you will also boost your concentration and tickle your reward centres the right way.


3. Novelty


All those basic tricks above will definitely help, don't get me wrong, especially if you haven't been eating well or exercising. Then the effects should be even more impressive. However, there is one more thing which I find even more useful if you have lots of reviews to do.

Tons of flashcards usually mean one thing for your brain: BORING! One thing you should know about the brain is that it's a disgusting junkie. It likes varied and exciting things. That's why social media are so addictive. One "ping" and your brain goes haywire. "Who could it be?! Have they written something nice about me?!: Hell, most of us can't even go to the toilet without a mobile phone anymore because there is nothing to do. And if that happens, we start reading product labels to keep ourselves entertained.

Now guess how exciting a 2-hour ANKI session is according to this sponge? Yep. You're right - not very. This is our bane, but interestingly, we can use this "property" of our brain to our advantage.

All we need to learn longer is to provide our brains with a little bit of Novelty. If all the flashcards look the same, even if they are pictures, our brain just shuts off after some time.

Here are some ways in which Novelty affects our brain:


How Novelty Affects Your Brain and How It Can Help You With Making Learning Sessions Longer


There is a ton of research on the role of dopamine and novelty in learning, but I will do my best to not go-over-the top. Here is a handful of studies you can read on that topic:


"Novelty directly activates the dopamine system, which is responsible for associative learning."
"The major "novelty center" of the brain--called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA)--might be activated by the unexpectedness of a stimulus, the emotional arousal it causes, or the need to respond behaviorally."
"Researchers have long suspected that the human brain is particularly attracted to new information and that this might be important for learning. They are now a step closer to understanding why. A region in the midbrain (substantia nigra/ventral tegmental), which is responsible for regulating our motivation and reward-processing, responds better to Novelty than to the familiar. This system also regulates levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, and could aid learning."
"We find that familiarity increased retrieval of other unrelated memories but reduced the chances for memory formation. On the other hand, Novelty enhanced the later formation of distinct memories without worrying about previous experiences."

How To Use Novelty To Make Your Learning Sessions Longer and More Enjoyable


I have been experimenting with a new approach to doing ANKI for quite some time, and I must say that even I am surprised by the results. It seems that incorporating this dopamine-centred approach can significantly boost your willingness to learn.

Doing it is very easy.

You need to interweave your "normal" flashcards with dopamine (i.e. novelty-related) flashcards. 

Those dopamine-boosting flashcards should be different from flashcards in order to keep the novelty factor at a high level.


Make Your Review Sessions Longer

Photo by ETA+ on Unsplash


Such cards can include the following things that have already been mentioned in other units or will be mentioned in the modules to come:

  • Jokes
  • Gifs
  • Funny pictures
  • Other kinds of pictures
  • Snapshots from movies/TV Series
  • Short videos
  • Anecdotes
  • Lines from movies
  • Fragments of lyrics
  • Proverbs
  • Excerpts from articles/books

Those elements, ideally, should be related to your target language. However, even if not all of them are, that's ok. They will still boost your dopamine levels.

If you take a cold, hard look at those elements, you will quickly notice that NONE of them forces you to retrieve anything. That's one of the reasons why they become such a welcome distraction. EVA flashcards demand effortful retrieval while those remaining flashcards provide you with distraction and additional passive exposure to your target language.

Feel free to experiment with this strategy and let me know about your results. 


Make Your Learning Sessions Longer and More Enjoyable by Manipulating Dopamine Levels - Summary

Dopamine is the main driver of reward learning in the brain. Its release helps us stay motivated, interested and vigilant. 

The four simple ways to boost your dopamine levels are:

  1. low-carb diets
  2. exercise
  3. supplements (e.g. some herbs or caffeine)
  4. novelty

Out of all four of them, novelty can certainly give you the easiest boost. What's more, it doesn't take much to introduce this strategy into your learning plan. All you need is to interweave your normal flashcards with anything that you deem fun, funny or plain interesting.

Keep in mind that those dopamine flashcards shouldn't force you to retrieve any information effortfully. They are there as a welcome distraction. You can treat them like a friend, telling you a joke or showing some meme. 

I have never had big problems with doing my reviews. Still, with this strategy, I have noticed even more motivation to go through my flashcards.

Feel free to experiment with this strategy and let me know about your results!


Forgetting as a Form of Feedback – How To Use It To Remember Better

Forgetting as a Form of Feedback - How To Use It To Remember Better


Forgetting is as integral to our lives as it is disliked. It takes many forms - from the nastiest ones, i.e. neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Alzheimer's), to relatively innocent ones (why am I standing in front of the open refrigerator again?!)

No wonder we treat this phenomenon as our worst enemy. After all, it robs you of the fruits of your work. You have put so much work into acquiring a given skill, and after a couple of months not much is left in your head. As depressing as it all might seem, I would like to show you a different perspective.

What if forgetting is not your opponent but your ally?

Your brain is actively working to make you forget most of the things you've come into contact with. It is the most sophisticated spam filter in the world. This process allows you to focus on the most important information. In other words,

forgetting is one of the best forms of feedback.

It took me many years to understand this simple truth. It was also a turning point for me, which completely changed the memory systems I created at that time. Since, as far as I know, this concept is not widely discussed, I hope this article will be a sort of "memory awakening" for you.


What Is the Purpose of Memory?


Many people believe that the purpose of memory is to store information as accurately as possible. I think this is an erroneous perspective.

Memory serves to guide and optimize decision-making by sticking only to meaningful and valuable information.

I could describe a lot of memory processes that take place during the stage of encoding or information retrieval. Still, I think it's better to focus on a very logical and practical example.


Optimization of decision-making processes as exemplified by crossing the street


Think for a moment how much information you need to safely walk from one side of the street to the other.

While performing this activity, do you analyze:
  • Wind speed?
  • Type of surface?
  • The number of people in front of you?
  • The number of people on your sides?
  • The distance you have to travel?
  • Air humidity?
  • Surface moisture?

Of course not.

Too much irrelevant information is detrimental to a given decision-making process.

If you really had to take into account all this information, it would take you forever to make any decision at all. In other words, the process would not be optimal, also energy-wise.


Thus, it is much easier to focus on activities such as:
  • checking if there are traffic lights at the crosswalk,
  • making sure the light is green,
  • looking to your left and right (and left again).

As you can see, a handful of relevant information can be more valuable to the brain than a ton of meaningless data. However, we shouldn't forget that it doesn't make sense to remember much—quite the contrary. The trick is to combine the memorized information into meaningful scripts that can be activated in a given situation.

In the example above, a type of surface is almost certainly a useless piece of information. Nevertheless, if our decision-making process required making sure that we can do a dangerous stunt on the said surface, it would be one of the first factors that should be taken into consideration.


What Kind of Information Is Meaningful To Your Brain?


Forgetting


Another question we have to answer is what information the brain perceives as valuable, and what information is the equivalent of food scraps at the bottom of the dishwasher.


In simple terms, information must meet two main criteria to be considered valuable:
  • frequently appear in your immediate environment,
  • it must be related to your life, i.e. be relevant to you.

I will discuss them in more detail later in this article. At the moment, it is worth looking at how slowly we forget information when the above two criteria are met.


Almost Complete Elimination of Forgetting



Problems with research on memory


One of the big problems that plague most of the memory studies is that they are often detached from reality. The overwhelming majority of them are carried out in laboratories. I know what you are thinking. Why would that be a disadvantage?

Laboratories are artificial creations which, according to the rules of the scientific method, try to limit the number of variables that affect the tested value as much as possible. It sounds nice until we realize that our memory does not work in a vacuum. Hundreds of stimuli and information constantly flood our minds. One should not try to artificially separate them from the process of memorizing and retrieving data.

The effect is that most such studies come to conclusions that are as out of touch with reality as a team of Marvel superheroes from a nearby asylum.

What's even worse is that there are quite a few people who accept this nonsense uncritically. I often hear some strange websites or YT channels saying that "in this or that study, scientists proved (sic!) that if you imagine that you have an orange on the top of your head, your ability to remember and concentrate will increase by 15%".

I wish it were an anecdote, but the video had over 100k views and lots of positive comments at the time. In my mind's eye, I could almost see 20,000 people sitting with their eyes rolled over and the face of a constipated walrus wondering why memorizing books didn't get any easier.


Forgetting names - Bahrick's and Wittlinger's research


Bahrick is one of my favorite memory researchers. He was one of the first scientists to insist that research of this kind be carried out outside the laboratory, despite the difficulties it poses.

One of his groundbreaking works, which he did in 1975 with Wittlinger, is about remembering the names and faces of high school friends over many years. The study lasted 50 years (!!!), and it showed for many years after graduating from high school, the process of forgetting this information occurred only slightly. Although, as always, the active recall was the first to go.



You can conduct this experiment virtually. Assuming a minimum of 10 years has passed since you have graduated from high school, check if you can still remember everyone in your class? I know I certainly didn't have almost any problems with it.


How to explain the almost complete absence of forgetting over a long period?


In one of my past articles, I mentioned the Ebbinghaus curve:


the Ebbinghaus curve - Forgetting as a Form of Feedback


Notice how huge the difference in retention (i.e., keeping the information in your head) is between Bahrick's and Ebbinghaus's experiment. Even after 7 years, the retention of names was higher than the retention of meaningless knowledge presented by the Ebbinghaus curve after 20 minutes.

The explanation for this phenomenon is based on many elements. 


1. High frequency of repetitions

Note that the contact with first and last names in high school is extremely common, be it during the roll call or the regular socialization with your peers. What's more, almost all children are forced continuously to retrieve this knowledge. It would be difficult to get through high school only by yelling, "Hey you!"



2. Relevance of the information

Ebbinghaus tested the information decay by memorizing nonsense letter clusters. Bahrick, on the other hand, demonstrated how we absorb vital information in the real world.

It is worth mentioning that the relevance of information automatically means one more thing - emotional load. It doesn't matter if it's positive or negative. It is an inherent factor modulating your ability to remember.

The meaningfulness of the information is a very personal and individual thing. Two different people may perceive the same facts as useless or vital. It is reflected in another one of Bahrick's (1984) studies, that showed that college professors have difficulties with remembering their students' name.

Can you see that contrast? Of course, one might argue that the frequency of information, in this case, is much lower. However, in my opinion, the decisive factor here is the indifference of lecturers. Most students are as important to them as half-dried pigeon carrion on the side of the road.

Of course, we could name more factors that contributed to the almost complete absence of forgetting in the first study. However, I think that the ones mentioned above are the most important.


Forgetting as a Form of Feedback, I.e. What Information Does It Provide You With?


The example above does not seem to be fully related to subjects such as physics, foreign languages or medicine. Regardless, I hope it convinced you of one thing - the frequency and relevance of information are among the most critical factors affecting your ability to remember information.

Thus, from now on, I would like you to change your mind about the phenomenon of forgetting. Don't see it as something negative.

Treat forgetting as the best possible form of feedback.

If you can't keep information in your head, your brain is trying to subtly say, "Hey buddy! Don't even try to make me remember this string of numbers. I don't know; I don't understand, I don't care. When are we going to do something exciting like tap dancing in banana peel shoes? 

Whenever you cannot recall information, you should ask yourself, "How can I modify it so that it makes more sense to my brain?"


Forgetting as a Form of Feedback - Three Main Takeaways



1. Too little interaction with the information


Consider whether you should increase the frequency of a given element. If you use programs like ANKI, it happens organically to some degree.



2. No connection between the element and your background knowledge


Forgetting as a Form of Feedback

 

Your brain is a very practical sponge. If it finds no connection between an item and the rest of the information you have in mind, it considers that item to be irrelevant. Thus, this information is forgotten very quickly (see Ebbinghaus forgetting curve).

If you want to remember a given piece of information, there is nothing to prevent more than one flashcard from encoding a given word or concept.


3. Lack of the relevance of the information


The relevance of information always means one thing - emotional load. It is the basis of the so-called affective learning that is related to feelings and emotions.

If you are trying to learn information that has nothing to do with your life, it will not evoke any feelings in you either.

Think of it as a date, if your potential partner sparks as much passion in you as the thrilling acting of Kristen Stewart, will you remember it? I doubt it. You come home, douse yourself with bleach, you disinfect yourself from the inside and life goes on. For the same reason, we pay attention to items that stand out - they simply spur more emotions. 


You are the one who is supposed to find the reasons why the information is relevant and meaningful.


The enormous mistake people make while learning is waiting until this magical connection between some abstract concept and real life materializes itself out of thin air. Nothing could be more wrong.

If you want to learn quickly and effectively, you have to look for such connections yourself. Think about how many thousands of practical examples of different types of concepts were shown to you at school. They ranged from history, through physics to economics. Now think how much of it honestly is still kicking around in your brain.


Effective learning is measured by the amount of effort you put into the information encoding process, not by time.

If I chew an exquisite dish for you and spit this slimy mass onto a silver tray, you won't probably find it appetizing. Your brain reacts the same to the information that someone else has digested.

Of course, finding relevance can also be a natural process. Remembering all the symptoms of diabetes doesn't seem like a significant thing. You need more room in your head for more important things like memorizing all names of all the Pokemon.

However, do you think that something would change in your head if your spouse were diagnosed with this disease? Without a doubt. You would immediately begin to absorb this knowledge and remember it well for a long time. This is the power of the relevance of information.


Forgetting as a Form of Feedback - Summary


Forgetting is stigmatized nowadays with a passion that characterizes naturopaths promoting coffee enemas. However, this is a short-sighted approach. 

The inability to recall the information in question is nothing more than your brain, saying that it doesn't care.

Although there are many forms of feedback, hardly any of them is as valuable to adults as forgetting. After all, it does require teachers or coaches. A program such as ANKI and a bit of introspection is enough.  

  • Forgetting is a natural spam filter that helps us separate relevant information from the noise.
  • What's more, the primary purpose of forgetting is to optimize decision-making processes.
  • Forgetting should be seen as feedback from your brain. If you can't remember a given piece of information:
    - it doesn't often occur enough in your direct learning environment
    - it is not relevant to you in any way
    - it probably does not evoke any emotions
  • Remember, it's your job to find the relevance of the information to your life. No one else can do it for you.

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 19 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.



Obstacle Thinking – a Simple and Effective Strategy for Solving Complex Problems

Obstacle Thinking – a Simple and Effective Strategy for Solving Complex Problems


Problem-solving is a skill that ranks very high on my list of evergreen skills. We all struggle with problems of different magnitude. Being able to tackle them in an organized way can make our lives way easier.

Unfortunately, there aren't many people that can pride themselves with being problem-solvers extraordinaire. One part of the issue is that they are not aware of the existence of problem-solving methodologies. Another problem, however, is settling for the wrong strategy. It's as ridiculous as trying to traverse the desert with a pair of sandals and a hamster at your disposal. Not only will you be swallowed by the vastness of possible solutions, but you will also look stupid.

In my years of trying to tackle different learning-related issues, I have come to realize that the right way to start solving any problems is identifying the constraints of an area at hand. Once you do, it's much easier to capitalize on those structural disadvantages and arrive at the right answer. This is the approach I have dubbed obstacle learning


What Is Obstacle Thinking?


Obstacle thinking is the approach to problem-solving that emphasizes the importance of identifying bottlenecks in a given area. Their identification allows narrowing your vision.


This way, you can concentrate on what's truly essential, i.e. avoiding the said obstacles and then adding to the mix the elements that have been proven to work well within a given domain.

You can think about it as entering the invisible maze. If you do it ad-lib, all you will be doing most of the time is headbutting every inch of every wall until your brain convolutions straighten up.

However, the entire process will look completely different if you start with determining the potential constraints. The moment you identify a potential obstacle, a part of the maze materializes, and it allows you to move past it. If you identify enough constraints, you will be able to skillfully move through the maze until you find the exit.

Another way to look at the problem is thinking about doing jigsaw puzzles. Most people don't start assembling them randomly by grabbing a couple of pieces and praying that they fit. Instead, they begin by creating the outline of the picture and then slowly filling out the rest.


Why Not Start With Positive Instances?


Starting the problem-solving process with identifying constraints seems counterintuitive. Thus, the natural question arises - why shouldn't we start with positive instances, i.e. the concepts that are known to be true?

Nassim Taleb has mentioned a great explanation of this phenomenon in his book "Black Swan".


"In a famous argument, the logician W. V. Quine showed that there exist families of logically consistent interpretations and theories that can match a given series of facts. Such insight should warn us that the mere absence of nonsense may not be sufficient to make something true. 


The implications of the above are far-reaching. Just because a solution consists of seemingly true facts, it doesn't mean that the entire solution is indeed verifiably true.

It's one of my biggest pet peeves ever. The internet is rife with various idiots who try to conceal their stupid theories under the disguise of science. If you are not careful enough, they will lull your vigilance with scientific banalities and then sell you on their fallacious solutions.


In other words, hundreds of potential solutions might seem true until you start adding constraints to the system.

I will demonstrate examples of this phenomenon at the end of the article.



Limitations - Why They Are Needed To Think Effectively


Even though starting the creative process with identifying constraints might seem counterintuitive, it's very natural. Everything that has ever existed has been born within the constraints of different variables.

The constraints of physics, chemistry, and geometry have governed life from its origins onward—and even into the technicum. “Underlying all the diversity of life is a finite set of natural forms that will recur over and over again anywhere in the cosmos where there is carbon-based life,” claim biochemists Michael Denton and Craig Marshall.  Life, rather than being boundless and unlimited in every direction, is bounded and limited in many directions by the nature of matter itself.  - Kevin Kelly - What Technology Wants


It's only logical to apply the same logic to problem-solving. Without directing and concentrating your effort within certain boundaries, you are almost guaranteed to fail. A number of choices you will have to face is simply too big.

However, identifying even one limitation shows you that a solution cannot be perfect in a given situation. Think about it.

Even one constraint has the power to disqualify hundreds or even thousands of potential solutions.


What Kind of Constraints Are There?


There are two kinds of limitations that need to be taken into consideration:


(1) Permanent constraints

This is the category we can't do anything about. Those limitations can't be overcome. They are usually specific to a given area of knowledge, but they can also transverse many different disciplines.


Examples: 

(1) Using context in language learning

It's been proven beyond a shadow of the doubt that our knowledge is activated contextually. Any language learning method that fails to consider it can be automatically deemed as ineffective.


(2) Removing harmful compounds while composing diets

Depending on a person and their particular health issues, one must deal with lots of permanent limitations that need to be taken into consideration to maximize the benefits of a given diet.


For example:
  • Thyroid problems - two big steps are removing goitrogen-containing foods and gluten that impair the function of the thyroid.
  • Male fertility issues - removing alcohol, recreational drugs and other factors that increase the production of reactive oxygen species and damage sperm.
  • Etc.

Composing diets for different ailments is such a great example. Very often, the mere fact of identifying (and removing) those constraints (i.e., harmful compounds) will allow us to establish an excellent base for solving a problem at hand.


(3) Differential diagnosis

The very core of being a good diagnostician means you can apply obstacle thinking. Every symptom that doesn't fit the picture is a constraint that decreases the pool of potential options.


(2) Temporary constraints

Even though those limitations are no different from permanent constraints at the moment of tackling the problem, they can be overcome over time.


Examples: 

(1) Budget

Limited budgets are a great example because even though they are an obvious obstacle, they can be increased later on. Alternatively, one might find a way to lower potential costs.

(2) Computational power

Computational power can be a limiting factor in a company for now. However, we know that it's one of the variables that become cheaper with time. It might turn out that it won't be an obstacle anymore in, e.g. two years.

Of course, we have to keep in mind that some factors can be both temporary and permanent, depending on a particular project. Deadlines are certainly one of them. Often they can't be changed because of external obligations. However, in other projects, they are merely a suggestion.

What's worse, some constraints will be self-imposed because of gaps in our knowledge. Once you expand it, it might turn out that they weren't even a problem in the first place.



Requirements for Using Obstacle Thinking Effectively


(1) Ability to amass and manage your knowledge

Most projects are multidisciplinary. They require extensive knowledge from many different areas. If you don't know how to acquire it and manage it, you will never have enough know-how to tackle problems effectively. You will be doomed to forever roam the hamster wheel of knowledge.




(2) Critical thinking and the ability to interpret/analyze data

Expanding your knowledge won't mean much if you're choosing your input indiscriminately or randomly. Not all information is equal. You need to learn how to distinguish primary sources of knowledge from secondary.  

What's more, you should also have a good understanding of how to read and interpret scientific studies and comprehend what their limitations are. That requires a very diverse skillset.


(3) Time

Expanding your knowledge and analyzing data, etc. are all time-consuming processes. It's essential to keep in mind that arriving at the right solution might take some time.


(4) Ability to suspend your opinion 

We live in quite depressing times where people who don't have an opinion on a topic are considered stupid or ignorant instead of being praised for their prudence. Forming your opinion too fast can be harmful to your problem-solving abilities. It's so easy to fall in love with your idea, even when it's demonstrably false. Before you know, you start disregarding any evidence that contradicts your opinion (see confirmation bias).

A much better solution is to suspend your opinion for the time being until you amass enough knowledge to have a bird's eye view on the problem you're trying to solve.

It takes a special kind of courage not to commit to any opinion, even temporarily. But choosing to be an ignoramus, for the time being, is undoubtedly the right choice for any quality thinker.


An Example of Obstacle Thinking in Action


Let's say that just like me, you are obsessed with finding the perfect learning strategy. Instead of starting with a specific method on our mind, let's focus on the potential constraints to quickly eliminate the ones that don't make much sense. In this case, I will skip the part where I analyze countless scientific papers to establish whether the limitations I quote are true.


(1) Limitation #1 - Passive rehearsal


Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

Passive rehearsal is simply a mindless act of rattling off a cluster of pre-prepared information. It's like trying to desperately rehearse someone's phone number and hoping that it will help you remember it ten years from now.

This tells us that if we try to rely on ready-to-use materials, we will fail. In other words, this one piece of information allows to initially discard the following learning strategies:

  • Any flashcard system/app/method based on ready-to-use flashcards
  • Reading, re-reading and reading aloud
  • Rewriting information from other sources with almost no changes

Limitation #2 - Habituation



Habituation is the diminishing of an innate response to a frequently repeated stimulus.

Each time the brain detects a stimulus, it forms a representation of that stimulus and compares that representation with its memory (that is, existing representations) of previously experienced stimuli. If there is no match, then a response is triggered, such as an orienting response, allowing the organism to study this new stimulus further. On the other hand, if there is a match, then the response is suppressed. In other words, responding to familiar stimuli decreases, or habituates. 

Multiple exposures to the same stimulus are nothing else than habituation. I won't delve more into this topic as it deserves an article of its own. Instead, let's look at the repercussions of this phenomenon.

  • Even if you create your learning material yourself (e.g. flashcards), your brain will quickly stop reacting to it if you don't force yourself to look at it from many different perspectives and to apply it to many different problems.
  • We have to discard mnemonics as an effective long-term strategy. If thousands of pictures stand out, then nothing stands out.
  • Any strategy that doesn't introduce novelty and variety will limit my learning time. My brain and I will get quickly really fast.

The list goes on and on. With every next constraint, we will add into the system, a pool of potential winning strategies will diminish until we arrive at the final answer(s).


Obstacle Thinking - Summary


Obstacle thinking is probably the single most effective problem-solving methodology I know. It allows you to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. Think about it.

Every potential constraint narrows down your focus by eliminating hundreds of faulty strategies. The more limitations you find, the easier it is to come to the right conclusion.

Unfortunately, simple doesn't mean that it's easy. The requirements for applying this strategy can certainly be considered strict. What's more, often, the right solutions may differ depending on the stage of the process we are trying to improve. For example, we can't expect that beginners and advanced learners will get the same benefits from one single strategy.

Even though obstacle learning thinking a relatively steep learning curve, it's still a must for any problem-solver.


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 20 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.

 


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 spongy thing 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

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 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 is 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

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, becomes 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 weeks, 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. 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