The Lifelong Learner In All Of Us

Aug 4, 2021

While searching for a high-school graduation gift this summer, I came across a book called, “Learn Like a Pro, Science-based tools to become better at anything.” Primarily a guidebook for students about how to learn, study and prepare for tests, it also has application for all who desire maximizing their learning abilities regardless of age.

The authors, Barbara Oakley and Olav Schewe, are university professors who share their failures along the way and how they transformed themselves into skilled learners.

As a PR professional for an award-winning PR and marketing agency, I wanted to give this book a “test drive” to see if it could help me in my own work, as well as provide colleagues with best practices.

One of the methods they recommend is the Pomodoro Technique, where an individual sets aside e-mail, mobile phones and other distractions for 25 minutes of uninterrupted study or work. The technique avails itself of the focused mode of learning, where the brain tackles an assignment or problem intently. After the focused period, the doer takes a five-minute break so that the diffuse mode of learning can continue working in the background while the person listens to music, takes a walk, gets a snack, etc. The idea is to rinse and repeat. The diffuse mode, incidentally, is the part of the brain that spurs creativity.

Focused and diffuse modes of learning help build connections between neurons, the brain’s building blocks. The links between neurons are synapses. The stronger the neural connections, the stronger knowledge, understanding and insights take root in long-term memory.

Exercise also plays a part in these neural connections because it produces a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor BDNF, a type of fertilizer for the brain.

The Pomodoro Technique may even mitigate procrastination by giving the user a set amount of time to focus intently on a task with a built-in reward at the end of the period. For those struggling with a particular task, like an essay or math problem, stepping away to do something else allows the diffuse mode to continue pondering the issue at hand. Often, new ideas emerge in our brains when we return to that task.

In a new business presentation, for example, the authors might recommend that team members review materials for one hour a day, every other day, in the week before presenting. The breaks allow the diffuse mode to do its thing. As that presentation day approaches, reviewing materials and rehearsing the presentation grow in frequency.

For the chapters on self-discipline and motivation, who better to reference than Theodore Roosevelt to make their points. In 1912, the former President sustained a bullet wound by a would-be assassin in Milwaukee. The shot missed Roosevelt’s vital organs, and while still bleeding, he continued speaking for over 90 minutes! Roosevelt, from a young age, pushed himself to read, study and exercise at a breath-taking pace. He is said to have read one book a day during his eight years in the White House.

Their point is that not everyone has self-discipline or that type of sheer will. But there are ways to improve one’s chances of success at assignments and getting things done.

The way to do it is by limiting the distractions and temptations that require such self-discipline in the first place.  Again, removing mobile phones during focused work, limiting the distractions on one’s desk and workspace are great starts.

To be deep learners, the authors have several recommendations while reading books and other materials: The first is to skim a book chapter or white paper for section headings, executive summaries, graphics and bold-faced copy to get a feel for the material. Later, with focused reading, it’s important to turn your gaze away every few pages to engage in a method called recall (or retrieval), which entails summarizing, in one’s own words, what has been learned. Studies suggest this method of reading breeds greater retention than reading materials repeatedly, where the strong neural connections often don’t form because one hasn’t really absorbed the material.

To aid in this process, the authors recommend taking notes on the right 2/3 of a notebook, leaving the left 1/3 to summarize key words and thoughts later in the day. This helps in the recall/retrieval process.

Another area impacting effective learning and time management is the writing and editing process. The authors assert not to confuse the two. When one is writing, one ought to pour one’s heart into writing without worrying about everything being perfect. It’s essential to get thoughts on paper and digital screen. The editing process takes place later and is more effective as its own discipline.

Setting process, milestone and long-term goals also go a long way to sowing a path to success. To establish goals and fulfill them, one must develop good habits and weed out the bad ones. This exercise can be accomplished by finding the triggers to bad habits and resetting them so that there are positive cues and then rewards at the end of the tunnel.

That’s all for now. My Pomodoro session has now concluded, and it’s time for a break.

Philip Anast

Philip has been building, managing and executing PR programs for technology providers since 1995. Using the power of storytelling and influencer relations, he has launched new companies, brands and products, resulting in market penetration, market share growth and corporate acquisition for such clients as HP, Language Analysis Systems, Motorola and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Prior to joining Amendola Communications, Philip worked at Chicago-based PR firm Tech Image, serving in various roles over his 15-year tenure, including managing client programs, providing strategic counsel, pitching new business, growing client relationships, teaching best practices and managing finances. During that time, he served several clients targeting the healthcare/HIT sector, including NEC Display Solutions, IBS (now Iptor Supply Chain Systems) and Cleo. Philip also has worked in the technology practices of Hill and Knowlton and Porter Novelli. He began his PR career at U.S. Robotics and 3Com. Philip holds bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from Northwestern University.