Tag Archives: productivity

3 Things To Know About The Learning Curve

the learning curve

In my workplace, we’re fighting over our learning curve (of course, we don’t call it that).

It has to do with our pay scales and job categories. To make a long story short, if we can prove to our employer that it takes our rookies two years instead of just one to be fully autonomous, we’ll move up a category and get a 5% raise. Yes, there’s excitement in the air.

In any job or human activity, efficiency increases with repetition, and a learning curve is the best way to quantify and graphically show that improvement.

Here are three things you should know about this curve.

First, the learning curve can either go up or down. It goes down when it measures the decreasing time, energy or number of trials needed to perform a task (vertical axis) as experience increases (horizontal axis).

But usually, the first image that comes to mind is a curve that goes up. In this case, we measure the increasing scores or amount of learning (vertical axis) that result from increasing experience or study (horizontal axis).

By the way, when people speak of a steep learning curve, they actually say the opposite of what they think, because a steep curve really means rapid progress.

Second, the learning curve usually follows an S-shape (see image above). When you start something new, you typically struggle at first; after a while, you quickly improve; but as time goes on, your rate of improvement decreases and even levels off.

This last phase derives from the law of diminishing returns, which says that making progress becomes more and more difficult as you get closer to a high level of expertise. Each unit of input will produce less and less output.

The S-shape is especially true for skill learning. My daughter is currently learning to play the recorder, and I can testify to that.

Third, the learning curve is used in many industries, not only to assess the progress of workers but also that of the organization as a whole. Each time the production quantity is doubled, the rate of improvement can increase from 5% to 30% depending on the type of work.

Here are some industries’ average rates of learning.

  • Raw materials: 5%
  • Electronics manufacturing: 10%
  • Aerospace: 15%
  • Shipbuilding: 20%
  • Electrical operations: 25%

As my story above shows, my employer pays us according to some preset categories of difficulty rather than considering individual improvement. But variations exist not only among tasks, but obviously among people too.

Do you know how to recognize peak learners’ learning curves? Well, look for curves that are steep, straight and that seem to go on forever.

The Two (Almost Opposite) Ways of Learning: System 1 and System 2

humans' dual cognitive processor

In my recent posts, I’ve insisted on the importance of deep thinking. I even said that there’s no peak learning without effective thinking.

Well, this is not exactly true.

In some cases, thinking can actually hamper your learning. The popular Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a whole book (Blink) to show that deliberate thinking often reduces performance.

Really? How can that be?

That’s because humans have two separate learning mechanisms, often called System 1 and System 2. In fact, this idea of a dual process is applied to many cognitive functions such as memory, attention, social cognition, reasoning and decision-making.

By the way, the prominent psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research on this topic, which he summarized in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 1 is fast, automatic, intuitive and unconscious. It’s an old system based in the limbic system and shared by all animals. Thanks to this system, babies learn languages, you fine-tune your movements when playing a sport or musical instrument, and you update the map of your city without being aware of it.

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, effortful, logical and conscious. It’s located in the prefrontal cortex, and enables you, for instance, to learn foreign languages, change a behavior and operate a new machine.

Of course, we take pride of System 2, which has produced most of our culture, knowledge and expertise. In comparison, we often look down on system 1 as primitive and prone to error.

But brushing aside System 1 like I’ve done so far in this blog is wrong. This system is fast, powerful and most of the time reliable. Unlike System 2, it can process tons of information at the same time.

Many studies have shown that experts mostly rely on pattern recognition (S1) rather than analysis (S2) to solve typical problems. That’s why experienced doctors, chess masters and top football players are so quick at spotting the best solution, and that’s also why musicians’ and athletes’ performance suffers as soon as they start thinking about it.

In certain domains, peak learners need to move beyond academic learning, and turn their system-2 analytic skills into system-1 intuitive expertise.

Why the Gap Between the Educated and the Illiterate is Growing

people no longer read

Recently, I attended a conference on the future of the book. The speaker made the distinction between two kinds of readers, namely shallow and deep readers.

Shallow readers typically grab information on the go and consume it on electronic devices. Deep readers, on the other hand, practice slow reading and like to pause to reflect on the text they’re reading.

One type of reader, the speaker said, is growing in number, while the other is in sharp decline. Can you guess which is which?

Deep reading is losing ground for the most part because it’s increasingly hard to find distraction-free spaces (and yes, those are getting scare because deep reading is less popular). Even university libraries seem to shy away from guaranteeing the three prerequisites for deep reading, namely withdrawal, attention and silence. Rather, the big trend is for multimedia areas, team rooms and coffee shops.

What’s the consequence of this shift?

The speaker at the conference wasn’t the timid type. He argued that the old divide between the educated elite and the illiterate masses is making a comeback. People are losing the necessary skills to integrate written knowledge effectively.

Yes, my friends, you’ve read me right. The ideal of the democratization of education is taking a blow.

To me, this is overly alarmist. Neither do I agree with Nicolas Carr that Google is making us stupid.

That being said, there’s room for concern. Whether this is a modern problem or not, few people fully engage with written knowledge. Most are merely interested in getting information.

Deep reading enables you to transform information into knowledge.

Knowledge is information that has become part of your understanding and experience. If you don’t take the time to connect the dots and integrate what you read, you’re not really learning.

So find a quiet spot, dive into your reading and become a peak learner.

3 Reasons Why Winning the Attention War Is Vital for Peak Learners

how to optimize attention span

The great deep-thinking blogger Cal Newport thinks he’s tough because he’s not on Facebook ;-). Get this, I don’t even have a cellphone or smartphone. I’m not saying never, but I can’t afford that thing just yet. It consumes too much attention.

For knowledge workers, attention is the most vital thing in the world.

If you can’t use your processing power (aka attention) strategically, you’ll never grow, professionally and personally.

When it comes to highlighting the upside of exercising your attention muscle, most bloggers point to the increase of general productivity. Obviously, if you can’t focus your attention on your goals, you can kiss them goodbye.

Today let’s go deeper and look at cognitive output. Sustained attention is the power that enables you to think deeply. In other words, elaborate mental operations are impossible if you can’t hold your attention and dismiss distractions.

But why should you care about deep thinking?

For three reasons. Deep thinking produces high value, enhances your learning capacity, and provides profound satisfaction.

Deep thinking is radically different from everyday rule-based thinking that allows you to function in the world and make a living. Only deep thinking can produce creative breakthroughs, paradigm shifts and solutions to complex problems. Simply put, deep thinking will turbo-charge your value (personal intellectual capital).

Deep thinking will also make you a better learner. As Cal explains in many posts, reaching expert level in anything requires deliberate practice, and deep thinking is the ultimate mental deliberate practice. The higher you get in Bloom’s learning taxonomy, the more demanding the cognitive activities become.

Finally, producing great insights and output won’t only advance your career, it will also provide you with a sense of worth. The feeling following fruitful cognitive effort is simply great.

But there’s bad news; most of us are losing the attention war (look at the length of my paragraphs). The average attention span is apparently contracting.

Let me finish with the good news though. You can easily learn to control your attention. Practice going deep on a topic in your head. Uninterrupted. This means every 8 seconds (the current average attention span) you need to make the conscious effort to stay on that topic.

If you can do that for one hour, you’ll hold one of the major keys to peak learning.

You Want To Be a Peak Learner? Find Where You’re Stupid

what is stupidity

“That was stupid of me!” If you aren’t saying that to yourself at least once a week, you’re not getting as smart as you could.

When do I feel stupid?

Whenever I don’t operate optimally. Either due to a failure to plan correctly, to think effectively, or to find an obvious solution.

It’s cliché to say that you learn from your mistakes, but this is different. Most people don’t even register their own stupidity, and when they do, they quickly sweep it under the rug.

What is stupidity anyway? 

Einstein said it best when he defined it as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So doing something stupid doesn’t mean you have a low IQ; it means you’re not learning from experience (yes, I’m an incremental theorist).

Stupidity is a failure to change, to adapt.

As the paleoanthropologist Rick Potts explains, what has taken us from caves to rocket science is our gradual ability to adapt to variation itself. In other words, we became increasingly allergic to inflexibility (read: stupidity).

Feeling stupid is a signal.

Don’t shy away from noticing your own stupidity, and welcome the unpleasant feeling it creates like a straight-shooting messenger. Receptiveness (self-awareness) is indeed the prerequisite first step of any learning.

So whenever you act stupid or fail to act smart, don’t shake your head in disbelief and rush to forget about it. Rather, grab that info and course correct. This is the be-all and end-all of learning.

Study Less and Learn More with the Spacing Effect

how to optimize studying

Today I’m going to answer the first and foremost question any learner has in mind.

What is the minimum amount of study time you need in order to score high on a test or a new task? 

This is exactly what I was wondering when I did my certificate in accounting. I had to know lots of rules and procedures with perfect accuracy, but I led a busy life, was efficiency-conscious, and had no intention of wasting precious time on unnecessary study.

First, you need to fully understand the power of the spacing effect, which the psychologist Frank Dempster called “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning.”

The spacing effect says something we all intuitively know. With the same study time, you’ll remember more for longer if you learn your material a few times over a long period of time instead of repeatedly in a short period of time.

For example, a 1992 study showed that teaching third graders addition once a day for ten days was far more effective than twice a day for five days (Benedict Carey).

Now the real question is, what is the optimal learning schedule?

Intervals between your learning periods should be as long as possible to get the most of the spacing effect (i.e. the minimum number of repetitions), but short enough to make sure knowledge is still remembered.

According to the creator of SuperMemo, Piotr Wozniak, ever-expanding intervals are the most effective way to increase your knowledge. For example, you should review your material one day after your initial study, then a week later, then a month later and so on and so forth.

If you only have little time in front of you, you can’t afford this golden rule though.

In How We Learn, Benedict Carey presents this typical case. Let’s say you have a window of 15 days and 9 hours to spend on studying, here’s the optimal schedule:

  • 3 hours on day 1,
  • 3 hours on day 8,
  • 3 hours on day 14.

As a peak learner, it’s crucial to leverage the power of the spacing effect. This needs planning though. See when your deadline is and how much time you have for review or rehearsal. Then design the schedule leading to the best result.

Remember, efficiency means getting great results with the least time and effort.

Why I Turned Off Talk Radio and Tuned In to Music

music vs talk radio

Until recently, I looked down on people who listened to music while commuting.

What a waste of time. Why not make the most of this downtime by getting fresh news and opinions. Don’t you want to be the most informed person in the room? It’s enticing, but no thanks. As I’ve come to realize, such input gets you nowhere.

Yes, you guessed it. I’m a new convert of the low information diet. Here’s why.

Whenever you commute or operate on autopilot, your brain is on one of the three following modes. You either focus on what is in your head (deep thinking), on your environment (info receiving), or have no focus at all (mind wandering).

There’s no way you can become a peak learner if you don’t develop your thinking power, and that means making more room for the first mode.

No doubt, the acquisition of new information is crucial. As Benjamin Bloom showed, higher-order thinking skills feed on it. But a peak learner must filter and limit incoming information.

Tim Ferris nailed it when he said that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. And guess what? Attention is the fuel of deep, clear and creative thinking. So any new information that doesn’t make you think should be sorted out as entertainment. 

Finally, our third mode of thinking, mind wandering, shouldn’t be dismissed as totally worthless. For starters, it’s our brain’s default mode of operation (we typically spend almost half our time there). But more importantly, this mode is highly conducive to creative insights, as it fosters idea associations.

During downtimes, try to reduce information input and daydreaming, and engage in effective thinking (i.e. leading to an outcome), such as problem solving, problem finding and planning (for your next blog post for instance).

So next time you’re driving, do like me. Tune in to music (or turn off all noise) and start thinking.