A s I write this, it’s January. The customary time of the year for setting resolutions and embarking on making yourself just that little bit better than last year. In 2016 I made such a resolution: I wanted to read more and learn more. Unlike the stereotypical fitness and diet resolutions, I didn’t have difficulty sticking to it — after all, I like reading — my problem was I didn’t feel my increased reading correlated with increased learning. It was like spending a year eating kale and spinach only to find the effects were no different to gorging on Hula-Hoops and Haribos. This post is about how I changed tack the following year, challenged myself to apply a set of self-management principles to achieve my resolution and how I packaged this up into a new programme called Focus Six.
Whether it’s because I’m a psychologist or just a little obsessive, I get insanely agitated when I have the feeling something is not productive. I arrange the washing up in order of griminess, even separating cutlery so I can hand wash all the knives together, then forks, and then spoons. And I’m continually disappointed when faced with a shop door that simultaneously has a push sign with a pull handle. So you can understand my anxiety when I get the feeling that my very own habits are not achieving my intentions.
This feeling weirdly reminded me of the time in my teens when a friend and I went through a phase of ‘bodybuilding’. We were both in awe of celebrities such as Arnold Schwartzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme and binged on back-to-back action films. Amazed how these muscular superheroes were unlike any real person we’d met, we convinced our school to provide some weight-lifting equipment in the sports hall, and we soon set to work on pumping our pecs and boosting our biceps.
With nobody to teach us technique, we went at it with vigour but without rigour. We each wanted to lift the heaviest weights and complete the most repetitions. It was fun, but it wasn’t doing much good. One day our local policeman visited the school and happened upon our very own version of Gold’s Gym, and he wasn’t impressed. As fortune would have it, he turned out to be a retired Commonwealth weightlifter and training partner of the World’s Strongest Man, Geoff Capes. He took us to one side and asked what we wanted from our training; was it to train our bodies or to look good in front of the girls’ hockey team? Being teenage boys, it was obviously a bit of both, but he kindly took time each week from that point to show us how to use the equipment properly and how to concentrate on our real outcome of building muscles, not just lifting the weights.
My learning resolution felt familiar to my teenage training, eagerly going through the motions without achieving the best outcome.
An oversimplified, but quite useful, way to look at learning is that it requires two elements to be useful: input and output. To learn, you need to put things into the ‘system’, and for that learning to be valuable, you need to be able to pull it back out again, preferably just at the time you need it.
In our school years, we experience an intense period of input and the occasional (usually quite stressful) point of output. Despite worry-mongering articles frequently berating teenagers for spending more time playing computer games than studying, they still study far more than adults. Our culture of education is built around our first 16 to 18 years of life being focused on input, so we can spend the rest of our life benefitting from the output. For a great many people, their input considerably diminishes when they leave formal education, however over the past ten to fifteen years there has been an intense increase in adults engaging in self-motivated learning.
The rise in self-motivated learning has been pretty much in line with the growth of the internet and the ability to quickly access and share information with people all over the world. With a click of the mouse we can enrol with Coursera, Udemy or Future Learn to open the doors to anything from coding to cryptocurrencies, women’s rights to writing creatively and from machine learning to learning to design machines. Our daily commute can be used to absorb ourselves in video lectures from the world’s leading thinkers via platforms such as TED, Do Lectures and The School of Life. We can even order books recommended on Twitter to be delivered the next day and do so while simultaneously listening to podcasts from all over the world. Our adoption of always-on technology and the symbiotic surge of social sharing has made it easier than ever to access any topic, on any platform and at anytime — but it hasn’t yet tackled how to promote focus among all this stimuli.
On the output side of our learning equation, memory is a principal actor. If we knew we would never remember anything we learnt, then the act of reading, watching, or listening to others would merely be a form of ephemeral entertainment. Learning shouldn’t be analogous to watching a stand-up routine from quick-fire comics, such as Tim Vine, where we enjoy it at the time but are helpless to recall any detail later. It’s far less amusing finding yourself sat in an exam room or job interview, struggling to recall anything you’ve previously poured into your brain. Remarkably, contemporary education curriculums don’t spend a great deal of time on teaching memory as a complementary skill to learning. They are happy to fill our mental bookshelves with essential topics for life, but forget to begin with building the shelves. As a result, we often end up with our cognitive libraries stuffed with reams of information but have no idea how to find the relevant detail when we need it. If we had a Dewey decimal system for our memory, we would be more efficient at recalling what we’ve learnt.
Such systems do exist. Ironically, they’ve been forgotten in our modern landscape of external memory aids.
“The subject of this book will be unfamiliar to most readers. Few people know that the Greeks, who invented many arts, invented an art of memory which, like their other arts, was passed on to Rome when it descended in the European tradition.”
– Francis Yates, The Art of Memory (1966)
Brought back into public awareness through the recent Sherlock Holmes incarnation on the BBC, memory palaces are a technique to train your mind to remember massive amounts of information. The technique of using physical environments to ‘locate’ memories was credited to Giulio Camillo around 1540 when he created his memory theatre, however the roots of location-based memory techniques trail back through Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Aristotle, Cicero, and right back to the earliest recorded use of memory techniques by Simonides of Ceos in 447 BC. In the time before print, a trained memory was of vital importance and was included as one of the five parts of rhetoric to be taught at every school. In a time when we’re used to seeing the abundant use of digital technology vilified as ruining culture and lowering intelligence, it’s nice to point out the same was said of printed materials when Gutenberg’s printing press made the recording of information easier than attempting to remember it. The connection between the rise of printed material and the decline in the teaching of memory techniques is probably more than just a correlation.
“It is usually classed as ‘mnemotechnics’, which in modern times seems a rather unimportant branch of human activity.
– Francies Yates, The Art of Memory (1966)
Today, we have more access to more information than any other point in human history, and yet we have forgotten how to organise our minds to structure and recollect what we’ve placed in there. We have downsized our memory palaces in favour of memory kitchen drawers. Mindlessly casting our muddle of knowledge together, coalescing over time into a tangled mental mess which we struggle to tear apart at our time of need.
“We have downsized our memory palaces in favour of memory kitchen drawers.”
I’m not the type of person who harks back to the ‘good old days’ and berates the advance of technology, or those who absorb themselves in its warm embrace. I believe we live in a better world than ever. I would urge those that disagree to listen to a few episodes of the great podcast ‘The Pessimist’s Archive’ which entertainingly reviews instance of past technophobia, alarmism and puritanism to promote the idea that the best antidote to fear of the new is looking back at the fear of the old. However, even with a positive stance on where we are today, there’s plenty of room to keep adapting and making changes to our environment to promote positive behaviours. This sentence may sound oddly phrased to some, focusing on changing the environment and not on changing ourselves. I chose the words carefully to reflect a ‘behaviourist’ view of change and self-management.
“We manage our own behaviour when we deliberately alter the variables of which that behaviour is a function.”
– Robert Epstein, ‘Skinner as Self-Manager’ (1997)
In his 1997 paper, Robert Epstein shares his experiences working alongside one of the most important and controversial figures in psychology, B F Skinner. Epstein shows through copious examples how the area of self-management — the deliberate application of principles of self-change — was not just an academic topic for Skinner; it was a lifestyle. And this belief started early.
“The clothes closet in my room was near the door, and in it I fastened a hook on the end of a string which passed over a nail and along the wall to a nail above the centre of the door. A sign reading ‘Hang up your pyjamas’ hung on the other end. When the pyjamas were in place, the sign was up out of the way, but when I took them off the hook at night, the sign dropped to the middle of the door where I would bump into it on my way out.”
– BF Skinner, ‘Particulars of my Life’ (1976)
If you’re interested to find out more about Skinner, you can listen to how he filled his life and work with self-management techniques in an episode of ‘Mind Changers’ available from the BBC.
The methods that Skinner applied to his life, his work and his writing (including writing an entire novel about a self-managing community) show the strength of adapting your environment—rather than changing yourself—to reinforce the behaviours you wish to promote. You may not be aware of it, but you probably use some of his techniques in your daily life. From leaving yourself a note on the front door about taking your packed lunch the next day, to rewarding your children when completing their chores or homework, Skinner’s self-management principles are pervasive.
For me, approaching a new method of learning needed to encompass all these elements. How can we tailor our input to best effect? How should we organise our information to promote efficient recall? And how could we arrange our environment to reinforce our learning behaviour?
After a year of trying different techniques and introspecting what worked and what didn’t, I reduced it down to the following strait-forward principle.
This simple sentence conveys the essence of my thinking, which I’ve christened the Focus Six learning programme. Pick one topic to study, then commit to reading, watching and listening to only this topic for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, you can decide to recommit for another phase or switch to a new topic.
“What we read at nine in the morning we will have forgotten by lunchtime and will need to reread by dusk. Our inner lives must be lent a structure and our best thoughts reinforced to counter the continuous pull of distraction and disintegration.”
– Alain De Botton, ‘Religion for Atheists’ (2012)
Adhering to this structure has helped motivate me to focus over the past year, and has certainly contributed to me feeling a greater sense of achievement. My ambition is that it could be more than a personal system, helping anyone get more from their investment in learning by providing a structure to study outside of formal education institutions.
In the next post, I’ll break each part of the statement down in detail and link to supporting research.