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Overcome challenges better with this brain hack

This brain hack helped this CEO adapt his new environment and quickly pick up a new skill.

Overcome challenges better with this brain hack
[Images: hakule/Getty Images; Tetra Images/Getty Images]

After a stint relocating outside of the United States, I thought learning French would come easily to me, due to my love of learning languages. Unfortunately, it did not, and I wanted to know why.

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I became obsessed with how humans are wired to learn, and my deep-dive of the scientific literature revealed the problem: My lessons were missing a crucial learning principle called spaced repetition. Once I revised my studying strategy to implement it, I became fluent in French within three months.

Spaced repetition is a method of learning new information by reviewing material at systemic intervals. This cognitive hack is the key to mastering anything in much less time, whether you’re growing your vocabulary in a foreign language, your skills in a new professional work environment, or your strength in the gym.

Here are four actionable steps you can take to harness spaced repetition to accomplish any learning or growth challenge.

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Review new information within the first 24 hours

Let’s say you just started working at new job. During the first few days, it’s like drinking from a fire hose of new names, systems, rules, software, and clients. The quicker you absorb it all, the easier life will get in your new role and the more you’ll impress the people who matter.

Your first step is to take some time at the end of your day to review all the new information you learned that same day. Try to recall as much of it as you can from memory by either writing it down or speaking it aloud. This action alone will greatly improve your knowledge retention, which applies to any growth objective, whether you’re learning the ropes at a new job, trying to speak French, or code in C++.

Break the objective down into smaller parts

The next step is to take all the new material and distill it down into its most important concepts, paying special attention to those you are the least confident in.

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For a new job, it could be writing down the names of important clients, providers, rules, and systems you’re expected to learn; for a new language, listing new vocabulary, verb conjugations, numbers, and commonly-used phrases; and for a professional skills training course, capturing new terminology and concepts.

Whatever the goal, break it down into bite-size components.

Attack your weaknesses

Notice the concepts or skills that feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable: This is exactly the area where your attention needs to be, for it’s here that you’ll find yourself in the zone of proximal development (ZOPD). This is the sweet spot between what you already know and can do on your own, and what you don’t know and can’t do without help.

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It’s being given a work assignment and having the essential skills to complete it but having to work hard to do so, perhaps with some research or consultation. If that assignment were too easy, you wouldn’t learn anything. If it were too hard, you’d flounder, without the benefit of learning anything.

Being in the “ZOPD” feels uncomfortable–your brain’s engine is running in a high gear–but it’s in this zone that we learn and retain the most information in the least amount of time.

Drill each exercise less frequently as you improve

Now comes the part where you drill the knowledge, skill, or habit into your brain through repetition that is spaced according to your unique strengths and weaknesses, spending less time on the concepts you are increasingly comfortable with.

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How often should you be repeating these drills? According to Polish researchers trusted spaced repetition schedule, it’s:

  • Every 20 to 24 hours after initial exposure for 2 to 3 days
  • Thereafter, every 24 to 36 hours for 2 to 3 days
  • Thereafter, every 2 to 3 days
  • Thereafter, every few weeks

Repeat each increasingly harder drill or exercise until you are so confident and comfortable with it that you can’t ever imagine forgetting it. And, remember, feeling uncomfortable is a sign that you’re in the zone of proximal development, which is where the fastest learning happens!

By feeding your brain information in the pattern it was engineered to receive it, you can learn anything more efficiently and remember it for longer. It’s the reason many of us remember our childhood phone numbers or the lyrics to songs we haven’t heard in years: because of our systematic repeat exposure to them. So, the next time you need to quickly “download” information into your brain, apply spaced repetition and you will find yourself rocketing toward your most ambitious personal and professional goals.

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So as the French, say, Bon chance!


Andrew Cohen is the founder and CEO of Brainscape, a learning app to help you study.

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