Success and being a lifelong learner are pretty much joined at the hip–without learning, it’s almost impossible to adapt to the new demands of the market or world. But if you’re already eating and sleeping right, writing notes longhand, taking time to ponder what you just read and all the other tricks we’ve figured out for learning and memory, how can you crunch even more information into your brain?
It turns out, one of the best ways to improve learning is to stop flitting about topics. Land on just one you have an interest in or need to know, and then just stay there a while (we’re talking months here). According to neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, author of The Distracted Mind, your ability to perceive information, recall it and make choices with it all depends on the brain filtering what’s relevant and what’s not. The more non-relevant data you send your brain, the more interference there is, and the harder it is to retain what’s really important.
To use an analogy, it’s a little like a game of baseball or tennis. If there’s just one ball coming at you, you can focus on it, make some quick subconscious calculations and smack the crap out of it with your bat or racket. If there are a hundred balls all coming at once, though, forget about hitting anything, and you’re lucky to come off the court/field without being stressed out.
Making the concept work in your regular day
Right now, most business leaders are bombarded with the ideas that they should seize every opportunity and be well-rounded, dabbling in as much as they can. But Gazzaley’s assertion means that you might be better off turning down or at least postponing opportunities so there’s less on your plate to stretch you too thin. This might mean, for example, taking on just one design or assignment quickly over a few months, rather than working on multiple projects and extending all their deadlines. Alternately, it could mean trying to group classes from one domain together as you earn a degree.
Note that this doesn’t change the amount of time you’re putting in to each subject. If you spend 30 hours on something in a month, that’s still the same as 30 hours over three months. You’re just reorganizing and prioritizing such that nothing is cut into chunks. This is important to grasp, because psychologically, abandoning the multitasking or many-irons-in-the-fire model might make you feel like you’re doing less, even if you aren’t.
How to keep your focus for the long haul
Of course, the brain likes distractions to some degree. It’s easily sucked in by what’s novel. So if you’re going to hone in on one thing for a while, you have to find ways to keep yourself motivated and not get bored. To up your mental endurance, you might want to
- Pay attention to and appreciate the process of what you’re doing, rather than constantly measuring how close you are to being “done”.
- Remind yourself of the bigger purpose behind whatever it is you’re focusing on.
- Set up lots of tiny milestones and actionable steps you can reward yourself for so your brain gets plenty of pleasurable hits of dopamine.
- Take spontaneous play breaks to let your brain rest and work in a different way for a bit.
- Coordinate and communicate well with others so they can help you set and reinforce boundaries.
- Make it as easy as possible to work. The more challenges or annoyances there are, the more turned off to continuing you’ll be.
- Share your information with others. Being a teacher or giving advice can help you feel confident and excited about what you’re doing. At the same time, it reinforces the core concepts you’re absorbing and guarantees that you’ve really understood them.
- Find some cheerleaders!
Since this way of working is so different than the way most people go through their day, you might get some pushback from people who are used to pinging from one thing to the next all the time. If that’s the case, just be kind and clear with them about your rationale. When they see that you get great results from your method, they might warm up to the idea and even convert to it themselves.