Sometimes we find ourselves situated at our desk, work space, or kitchen table, with our eyes squinted at information that just doesn’t make sense. We read a sentence for the fifth time, or try that mathematical formula for the second time, and no matter what we do, we can’t crack the meaning or mystery of the problem. It does not matter whether you are a high school mathlete, a college art student, or a parent attending night class — the point is, we’ve all been stuck.
Dr. Barbara Oakley, the author of A Mind for Numbers, has been there and done that. An engineering professor who flunked her way through high school math, Oakley knows that there’s almost always more than one way to solve a problem—and here are her the five learning hacks she uses to overcome problem paralysis:
1) Don’t focus too hard; Look at the bigger picture
People can find themselves in a learning rut because they are trying too hard to fit something new into the mold of something they already know. The point of learning something new is exactly that: it’s new. Dr. Oakley introduces us to the concepts of our “focused-mode” and “diffuse-mode.” Focused-mode is our rational and analytical approach that we have developed through preexisting knowledge. On the other hand, diffuse-mode is when our mind is relaxed, but still doing work in the background. After all, don’t some of our best aha! moments come when we are just messing around with things or when we least expect them? Dr. Oakley tells us to turn off our precision-focused thinking and turn on our big picture diffuse mode. When we do this, we stumble into more creative and fruitful ways to approach a problem.
Yes, it’s a funny name for a technique that is supposed to help you better learn, but it’s useful! Oakley writes, “Chunks are pieces of information that are bound together through meaning.” When looking at a bunch of new information, it can be difficult to see how all of the pieces fit together because you’re so focused on individual details. As you may have heard before, if you are too focused on the intricacy of one tree, you can miss out on the beauty of the forest. The same goes for information.
3) Work intensely for brief periods of time and then rest
Sometimes a good sprint is more satisfying than a mile run. When you think about this in terms of work, you are thinking about the “Pomodoro” technique. Essentially, you give yourself a time limit to just sit down and do work. A little bit of pressure (from yourself) never hurts anyone. So set your timer for fifteen minutes, maybe twenty minutes, and don’t let anything distract you for that brief amount of time. Once it’s over, reward yourself and open Pinterest. It’s important to note that you’re focusing more on the process rather than the product. You power through those minutes and get whatever you can done without necessarily worrying about what it will look like at the end. These brief periods of intense focus actually turn out to be fruitful, because you’ll find that it can be hard to stop once you’re on a roll.
4) Plan your success
It can be easier said than done, but in our everyday lives we can be overwhelmed with tasks or underwhelmed because of distant deadlines. The question then becomes, well, where do I start? Dr. Oakley suggests that you do the things you don’t want to do first. Get them out of the way. But most importantly, know when to start…and also when to stop. Tell yourself when you want to begin your day, but also set a deadline for when to end. Scheduling times to rest is just as important to your success. So when the clock hits 6 pm, know that it’s time to wrap up your day and set up new tasks for tomorrow! Planning and organization strategies differ from person to person; take the time to find what kind of method works for you.
5) Pause and Reflect
There will always be stuff you need to get done, but take a moment to pause and reflect not necessarily on how you’re going to get it done, but why it needs to get done. Once you think about this, your priorities immediately come into order. In doing so, you avoid rushing and making mistakes. Instead, you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it — and therefore appreciate the task, ultimately making you all the more motivated to succeed.
So take a deep a breath, take a step back, and try to learn something that you thought you couldn’t.
From A MIND FOR NUMBERS, available at these retailers: