Design Principles for the Mind

first appeared on my personal newsletter.

Design Principles for the Mind

Gems from learning science, habit creation, and the psychology behind drive

I will cover how shapeable the brain is, discuss how to create habits and misconceptions about learning, and talk about how to pick up skills faster and maintain them longer, followed by a deeper look at what motivation is, the limits of carrots and sticks, and how to build inner drive.


The brain is plastic, which means that we can reprogram it. We know this from decades of analyzing various types of brain damage. A study that still boggles me is Grace Wohlberg’s brain operation. Her doctor removed the left side of the brain due to severe epilepsy. Soon after the operation, her right hemisphere started recreating what she had lost. This later took her out of the paralyzed state that she had woken up in. Below is her MRI scan — stunning.

Understanding plasticity makes me shiver with excitement. Our biological hardware on top of our shoulders has roughly 100bn neurons, an indication of the vast number of categories and hierarchies that we can comprehend. Children have the capacity to form 700 brain connections, synapses, per second. They intertwine the brain to form ideas out of matter, as the brain attaches 10K synapses to each neuron. From what we know, our brain is the most complicated entity in the know universe — and we all have one to explore.


We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. — Aristotle

There is a tale about Picasso. A woman asked him to draw a picture of her. He scribbled something down and showed it. She started crying while mumbling how it captured her essence. When she reached for it, he said that it would cost her $100K. She asked him how something that took 2 min to make could be worth that much. Picasso explained to the woman that it took his whole life to make that drawing.

To put habits in context, enjoy this gorgeous visualization of brain signals. It made me realize that we are doing a lot of stuff on autopilot. When something triggers in our brain, signals ripple — later shaping both what we think about and our actions.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explores the science behind habits. When we encounter a novel situation, our brain enters a high-frequency mode. If the brain detects a similar situation, it starts building a habit. The brain does this for two reasons, to make actions faster by automating them and to conserve energy.

It takes 21–254 days to form a habit, depending on the person and the undertaking. Once you learnt a habit, it often stays. That is why habits are more like a plateau rather than an endless hill — good and bad habits are easy to maintain but hard to build.

The video covers triggers, cues, and rewards — the secret sauce of habits. Tiago Forte, a master on productivity, has compiled the leading science on habits. He used this to create a solid 57-min course on habit building. The techniques helped me to get up at 6am, meditate, and exercise three times per week.

Another power of habits is its compounding effect. This is how David Hassell conveys it:

After a bit of thought, my conclusion is that the value of one’s time could experience a significant gain, and perhaps a compounding effect over time, given an investment of [that present-state] time in knowledge, skill or other capacity, and a reinvestment of future gains (just like currency).

Just to give an example. When I got up at, I had 2 working hours extra per day. This adds up to 18 working weeks per year, to build more habits that compound time. Other known habits that compound time are meditation, exercising, reflecting, and healthy food. Many efficient people also build morning routines, work routines, and read pragmatic philosophy.

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways. — Scott Adams


Good learning is like enjoying music. When you are immersed in music, you seldom think, “I’m listening to music.” You will switch songs until you’re absorbed. It is the same with learning. When you feel like you are “educating yourself,” you are procrastinating. You are just looking for a trigger to distract yourself.

Before we dig deeper, I want to cover some misconceptions about learning:

  1. You don’t use 10% of your brain.
  2. You don’t have a creative right brain and a logical left brain.
  3. Different learning styles do not exist.

It’s a shame that our schooling is such a poor experience and full of dogma. Students should not have to look down , gaze in defeat, and say, “I can’t.”

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeast

Bad learning experiences often arise when we “have to learn.” Teachers, parents, and our manager force us to learn. Often they have more experience than us but fail to explain the bigger picture. So, many fail to generate a natural interest. Even if we do see the value, we are often given materials to learn from that are not engaging. This is harmful for a couple of reasons.

When we learn by external pressure, we sometimes procrastinate. An American study estimates that over 70% of students exhibit this behavior: cleaning our rooms, reading top ten articles, and facebooking — valuable time that we could spend on what really interests us.

The long-term negative effects are worse. All the learning frustration makes us connect learning with pain. That is also why we buy into excuses such as the left and right brain. We rationalize our lack of motivation with dogma to explain our inability. This makes us avoid learning and reduces our chance of cultivating a rich mind. But the worst effects are for those who manage to force themselves to learn. This is how Yale English professor William Deresiewicz puts it:

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.

Forcing yourself to learn often takes unsound levels of psychological pressure. This makes people dissatisfied, and kills drive — making people climb an unfulfilling societal ladder. William Deresiewicz continues:

This notion that you’ve got to do X, Y, and Z or else your life is over makes you end up as a high functioning sheep. You end up being the kind of leader that I talk about in the last section of the book. You get the top, or you get near the top, but you don’t actually do anything interesting there — you just sort of fulfill your function in the organization. You don’t initiate or create.

Later, I will explore how to avoid this vicious trap. Now, let us dig into the fun part — learning science and how to build skills faster and maintain them longer.

Study smarter, not harder

Learning is affected by what motivates you, your state of mind, and the environment. How you use your senses to learn, the structure, and how you recite. Let us explore how you can improve these aspects, and combine them — to learn faster and retain knowledge longer.

Benedict Carey points to research showing how shifting one’s mental state improves learning. Taking a mild dose of marijuana, alcohol, or caffeine can improve learning. When altering mental states, you hook information to more things. The same goes with the environment. Altering study rooms, music, and study schedule makes your association richer.

Donald Hebb’s findings in neuroscience explain how it works :

The general idea is an old one, that any two cells or systems of cells that are repeatedly active at the same time will tend to become ‘associated’, so that activity in one facilitates activity in the other.

Great learning experiences take advantage of our biological strengths. Mainstream reading took off 500 years ago, compared to language’s 50–150K year history. Our hearing developed 100M years ago — making it 400M years younger than the eye. This has hardwired our brain for hierarchical organization, pattern memory, and storytelling.

Scientists in Deep Learning are building algorithms to mimic the brain’s ability to learn. This could explain how we organize and create meaning out of data. Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology at N.Y.U, describes it:

A typical setup is this: a computer is confronted with a large set of data, and on its own asked to sort the elements of that data into categories, a bit like a child who is asked to sort a set of toys, with no specific instructions. The child might sort them by color, by shape, or by function, or by something else. Machine learners try to do this on a grander scale, seeing, for example, millions of handwritten digits, and making guesses about which digits looks more like one another, “clustering” them together based on similarity. Deep learning’s important innovation is to have models learn categories incrementally, attempting to nail down lower-level categories (like letters) before attempting to acquire higher-level categories (like words).

For everything we learn we have to hierarchically organize the information to understand it. That’s why professional learners like Tim Ferris break down what he wants to learn into chunks, understand how they relate, to then start learning each piece in the right order. McKinsey has developed a good way of categorising information in a precise way, called the MECE principle. “MECE is a grouping principle for separating a set of items into subsets, the choice of subsets should be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.”

Tony Buzan, the mind map inventor, also emphasizes using imagery, categorizations, and storytelling for learning. Just like the world’s grand masters in memory, according to an Oxford study:

Most of the top memorizers, Foer realized then, rely on the same technique: building a ‘memory palace’ in their mind’s eye and populating it with absurd but distinctive images that they can associate with the number or word that must be recalled.

These ideas can be found in learning tools such as Cat Academy, Khan Academy, and TED lessons.

However, students often put too much effort into gaining information, rather than retaining it. Research shows that 70% of your time should be spent on retaining it and the rest on intake. The memory retention is also improved if you space the time between learning. To use this concept, schedule self-tests, discussions with classmates, and teach other students. This works better if you focus your efforts on an author, topic, or a group of topics, so you naturally recall information. The latest colleges, like Minerva, use many of these techniques.

Another great learning tool is diffused thinking. Many people that are stuck on a problem, or try being creative — bang their heads in frustration. What people like Dali and Edison discovered is that you need to be in the exact opposite state — relaxation. This also explains why many have aha moments during coffee breaks, after a good night’s sleep, or on a vacation. When you let the mind wander, you access more information and enable a broader cross-pollination, which creates new thoughts to fit your challenge.

To finish this section, let us get back to procrastination. As mentioned, forced learners can procrastinate for hours. When it comes to mild procrastination, most people do it at times. For this, I use the pomodoro technique and Tiago Forte’s 1h and 42 min course on Get Stuff Done. The course is based on theories by David Allen, the thought leader on productivity.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

“‘If-then’ rewards usually do more harm than good. By neglecting the ingredients of genuine motivation — autonomy, mastery, and purpose — they limit what each of us can achieve.” — Daniel H. Pink

Daniel H. Pink points to three areas that enable motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose — the desire to be self-directed, perfect your craft, and do something larger than yourself. Martin Seligman, a researcher on positive psychology, shows similar connections to happiness, strength of character, and optimism. He has researched 120 interventions proposed by thought leaders from Buddha to Tony Robbins. He found two important factors for health, to have a sense of meaning and flow in work. If you have these, you can improve health further by increasing the experience of pleasure. Seligman argues that it is done by regular meditation and practicing gratitude.

This is not news for many. Thus, the real value comes from implementation rather than understanding the importance of them. Alain de Botton believes we suck at this, he puts it this way:

One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.

We often ignore the difficulty in the simple secret of “following your gut feeling,” compared to using “if-then” rewards and fulfilling expectations.

Despite the difficulty, the long-term consequences of them are worth considering.

If your source of motivation is external, you have two ways to increase it, increasing psychological pressure — read, anxiety — or accumulating status points and objects. To increase inner motivation, you need to do more of what you enjoy. Keep working on your passion and autonomy and make an impact. The difficulty is to get there. In essence, you need to nourish a relaxed attitude for your self-identity.

Eastern philosophy and practice has a rigorous and informative approach to doing this because of their 5000-year history of experimenting with identity and inner strength. Robina Courtin goes to the heart of this in her straightforward Google Talk:

A good way to begin nourishing inner strength is to read light eastern philosophy. I recommend The Power of Now, Siddhartha, The Tao of Pooh, and Alan Watts’s podcasts. Many books boil down to one thing, observing your thoughts. There are many ways to achieve it, but the most recommended way is meditation.

However, with our dopamine-heavy surrounding, many fail to make meditation a habit. I recommend getting started with a 10-day Vipassana Meditation course. It’s donation based, and they run regular courses across the world. This enables you to feel the benefit, which often leads to a genuine motive to make it a habit. After the course, the Headspace app is a good tool to make meditation a routine.


Through this article, I wanted to highlight the toxic practice of forcing yourself to learn and how to use knowledge of our biology to build habits more efficiently. I explored what to look for in good learning materials and practices, the limit in basing your motivation on external pain and pleasure, and how to start building autonomy.

The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you. — Tony Robbins
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