How to Learn Effectively

TL;DR version:

  1. Use the Pomodoro Technique to overcome procrastination. Start a timer for 25 minutes every time you need to work on a task.
  2. Break what you want to learn into chunks, and focus on learning one chunk at a time. Practice and recall. Combine chunks to form bigger ones.
  3. Focusing intently for a long time can sometimes prevent you from being able to understand a new idea or solve a difficult problem. Take a break. Go for a walk. Sleep over it.

In this post, I’ll describe some simple tools and techniques that can make the process of learning more effective and efficient. Some people seem to better at picking up new concepts and skills. Often, this is attributed to an inherent ability of person to learn new things. While this may be true to some extent, it is also true is that anyone can learn provided they ‘learn how to learn’. People who are good at acquiring new skills are often able to do so because they have either learned or discovered for themselves some of these techniques.

Over the past four weeks, I’ve been taking a course on Coursera called “Learning How to Learn”, which has helped me gain valuable insights on how parts of our brain that are responsible for learning and memory work, why we procrastinate, and how this knowledge can be used to make the process of learning more effective through simple mental techniques. In this post, I will cover 3 topics from the course :

  1. Focused and Diffuse modes of Thinking
  2. Chunking
  3. Overcoming Procrastination

Focused and Diffuse Modes of Thinking

Researchers have found that we have two fundamentally different modes of thinking. To understand these, it helps to think of the brain as a Pinball machine :

You pull back on a plunger (at the bottom right in the picture), release it to shoot the ball, which then bounces around against rubber bumpers and moves across the table. The ball can be thought of as a thought moving around in the brain along neural pathways. With this analogy, the two modes of thinking look something like this :

Focused Mode
The focused mode is active when you concentrate intently on trying to learn or understand something. In the focused mode, the “rubber bumpers” are placed very close together, restricting the movements of the thought along familiar pathways. As a thought moves around in a familiar neural pattern, we are able to focus and solve the problem. Often however, the problem needs new ideas, approaches or concepts that you haven’t thought of before. In the focused mode, thoughts are restricted to move along familiar neural patterns, and it is not easy to form new ones.

Diffuse Mode
The diffuse mode of thinking can be imagined as one where the bumpers in the brain are placed very far apart, and thoughts can move around more freely and not be restricted to familiar neural patterns. This allows you to look at things more broadly. You can’t focus in on the finer aspects of a concept or idea in the diffuse mode, but you can discover new ideas and form new connections between existing ideas, often unconsciously. The diffuse mode is active when you’re not actively concentrating on a problem, such as when you’re taking a walk or exercising or sleeping.

How are they useful?
The two modes of thinking are like two sides of coin. You can only been in one mode at any given time. This knowledge of the focused and diffused mode can be used to one’s advantage. Being aware of which mode you are in at any given time can be extremely useful. If you’re stuck on a concept or a problem even after concentrating for a long time, it can be useful to let your brain go into the diffuse mode of thinking.

The key takeaway from this is that when you’re trying to learn something new, especially something difficult, then your mind needs to be able to go back and forth between the two modes of thinking, the diffuse mode to form discover ideas and make new connections, and the focused mode to hone in on the details and form strong neural patterns.

A personal example
During my final year of college, I became interested in Algorithmic Programming. I started working on reasonably difficult problems from websites such as CodeChef, SPOJ, TopCoder etc. Often, it used to take me many days(sometimes even weeks) to solve a single problem. After a few months of doing this, I noticed that the most valuable insights came not while I was focusing intently on a problem, but when it I was doing something else, like taking a walk or watching a sitcom, and the problem was in the back of my mind.


Working memory is the part of memory that deals with what we’re immediately and consciously processing in our mind. It is widely believed that our working memory can hold only 4 (!!) chunks of information at a time. The working memory is also short lived, and it often requires focus and repetition to maintain items in the working memory. We move items from our long-term memory into the working memory and replace existing ones as needed.

What are chunks?
Chunks are compact packages of information bound together through meaning or use, that you can easily access and think of as a single unit. In the brain, a chunk represents a network of neurons that are used to firing together, as a result of understanding, focused practice and repetition.

Chunking is the key to learning and helps your brain function more effectively. Chunks take up only one slot in the working memory, and thus you can expand your working memory by forming larger chunks. Once you chunk an idea, concept or action, you don’t need to remember all the underlying details to use it, because they are so well engrained in your brain.

How to form a chunk?

  • Focus : While a chunk once formed will only take up one slot in the working memory, forming a chunk often requires making connections between ideas. Remember that your working memory has only 4 slots. Eliminate distractions. Use the Pomodoro technique.
  • Understand : Take advantage of the focused and diffused modes of thinking. Beware of illusions of competence. True understanding is when you can explain it to someone else.
  • Context : Understand the big picture. Learn how chunks are connected and when or when not to use a chunk.
  • Practice and Recall : Strengthen neural patterns through practice. Especially the parts you find difficult. However, practice alone is not enough. Recall and test yourself. By practicing and recalling, you learn far more and at a much deeper level. It takes more mental effort and helps you identify blind spots or weak connections in your learning, and recover from them.

Building a library of chunks will help you combine them in creative ways, and understand and form otherwise complex ideas. Your diffuse mode can help you connect two or more chunks to solve new ideas. With chunking, you can have different solution techniques lurking at the edge of your memory.

An Example of Chunking
Learning to play the guitar is a good example of chunking. At first, it may seem daunting to play an entire song on the guitar and sing-along. You start by learning to play chords. They are the smallest chunks. Through practice and repetition, you can learn to make the right shapes with you fingers and play chords without much conscious effort. Once you are able to play chords, you can learn to play chord progressions : combinations of chords that are used frequently. Through practice, you learn to switch easily between the chords in a progression. Thus, you can combine smaller chunks (chords) to form larger chunks (chord progressions). A song is simply a sequence of chord progressions, so once you have mastered a few chord progressions, you can easily play many songs.

Overcoming Procrastination

Before going into the details of procrastination, I’ll describe the Pomodoro Technique, because it’s probably the most important takeaway from this section. A timer is all there is to this technique. Here’s how it works :

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  • Turn off all interruptions.
  • Focus!
  • Take a short break of 5 minutes and reward yourself. Then repeat.

While it is a great way to overcome procrastination, the technique goes beyond just this and can be used to greatly improve your work and study habits.

What is Procrastination?
You have a task at hand. You observe and get a cue about something that causes a tiny bit of unease. To make the sensation go away, you turn your attention onto a more pleasant task, such as browsing the internet, to feel happy temporarily, and put off the task. This might lead to putting off the task repeatedly, until there is very little time left to actually do the task. This cycle often ends with a feeling of regret for not having started earlier.

It is easy to think that procrastination is an innate, unchangeable characteristic. I believed this for a long time myself. But this isn’t true, and with just a little bit of conscious mental effort, you can overcome it. It has been found that soon after you start working on a task, the discomfort associated with starting the task goes away.

Why do we procrastinate?
Procrastination is a habit. It has 4 components :

  1. The Cue : This is the trigger that launches you into the habit. This is feeling of discomfort that you experience when you realize you have an assignment deadline coming up, or a stimulus that let’s you escape the discomfort, such as a notification on your phone.
  2. The Routine : This is the habitual response the brain is used to falling into when it receives the cue, such as spending time on Facebook.
  3. The Reward : The habit develops and continues because it rewards you and gives you an immediate feeling of pleasure by moving your focus to something pleasant.
  4. The Belief : Habits are powerful because of your belief in them. People truly believe that they cannot change their habits and this often prevents them from even trying to change them.

Why tackle procrastination?
Good learning involves bit-by-bit and day-by-day building of solid neural scaffolds. It is similar to building muscles with day-to-day exercise. It’s a lot like building a wall, brick-by-brick in layers while giving each layer enough time to dry and strengthen :

Procrastination leads to cramming or concentrated effort at the last moment, instead of spaced learning over time. This isn’t an effective way to learn as it does not give you the time to build and strengthen neural patterns. Cramming looks like this :

How to overcome procrastination?

  • Acknowledge the fact that you procrastinate. Realize that the discomfort you are experiencing is simply associated with starting a task, and not the task itself.
  • Recognize the cue. Often cues are one of the following : location, time, how you feel, and reactions (to stimuli such as notifications on your phone). With a little bit of will power, you can avoid launching into the routine. To help with this, eliminate distractions.
  • Focus on process, not product. If you think about the outcome of a task, then it might cause more discomfort as the task may seem more daunting than it really is. If you focus on the process itself e.g. 25 minutes of focused work. Use the Pomodoro technique.
  • Reward yourself. Watch a movie. Go shopping. Setting a reward at a specific time helps set a deadline.

Some Pomodoro Apps

  1. Pomodoro One (Mac)
  2. [moosti] (online)
  3. ClearFocus: Pomodoro Timer (Android)


With a little bit of conscious effort, these techniques can be applied to any form of learning. I would encourage you to try and apply at least one of these (especially the Pomodoro technique, because I’ve found it really effective) and see if it helps. I’m going to try and learn a new skill too by applying these techniques. If you’re interested in learning more, you should definitely take the course on Coursera.


  1. Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects (also the source for images)
  2. The Pomodoro Technique

Originally published at

Founder, Jovian

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