How to keep your mind sharp: The rules that work for students when they learn also help adults. Here are 14 ways to make learning go better, and keep your mind sharp.
You have a task that involves learning something new. The rules that work for students also help adult students, whether they’re learning for fun, to meet challenges at a job, or boning up as part of a career switch.
Here are 14 ways to make learning go better.
1. Take a little time to get into the right frame of mind. A little time, not so much that you’ve used up all of your available time. Dance to an upbeat song for 10 minutes. If you’re distracted by chores that need doing, list them, then put the list away for later. If you’re completely obsessed with a distraction, be honest with yourself. But don’t just procrastinate. Decide exactly when you’ll do your studying and that you’ll then be in the right frame of mind.
Be positive. Instead of thinking, “I don’t have enough time,” think, “I’m starting now.” Remember that discipline and focus are skills that you can build over time, in small steps.
2. Find a quiet spot without distractions and return to it next time, says psychologist John Grohol. Think, “Where did I do well?” Look for the ideal situation, not just “good enough.” It might be as simple as choosing to sit up on a living room chair rather than lie down on the sofa to read. Bed probably isn’t the best place.
3. Bring what you need, but only what you need. If you need a book, don’t forget it. But if you can leave your smartphone well out of reach, do so. Do you truly learn best while listening to music? If so, have your music and earphones but otherwise don’t have them handy.
4. Outline your notes. Make lists and fill them in. Make outlines that work for you, Grohol urges, even if they might be confusing to someone else. Use words that make sense to you, translating the words in material you may be reading. “Chunk” together the groups of words or facts or ideas that you feel belong in a group. The goal is to produce an outline that will help you remember the material, not anyone else.
Writing may work better than keyboarding into a laptop. There’s some evidence that using our fingers in that way helps us think. Read aloud an important sentence if you’re alone or mouth the words if you’re in a library. You may think it’s babyish to mouth or read aloud. Actually, poetry was the first way that human beings remembered stories and we haven’t changed that much.
5. If you like memory devices, use them and get creative. Make up a catchy rhyme to associate ideas and repeat it out loud. Make up a sentence. For example, “Never Ever Seem Worried,” is a way to remember “North, East, South, West.” “Every Good Boy Deserves Fun” helps music students remember the five notes of the treble clef, “E, G, B, D, F.”
If you don’t know if you like memory devices, try one out and see if it sticks. Then the next time you’re studying, you can try another one.
If you tend to be visual, take your time looking at the illustrations or photos in the book you’re reading to associate with the information.
6. Practice. If you’re taking a class and will be writing the answer to a surprise question on a test, make up a likely question and do the exercise of writing an answer, with a timer on. Do it again.
Actually try to solve the sample problems in the materials you’re using; don’t just read the answers. Make up similar problems, try to solve them, and later on, at the end of a study period, find sources that can tell you whether your answers were correct. If you’re learning a new language, you might write out some questions and answers and show them to a native speaker at your next opportunity.
7. Find buddies. Some people like to work with a group of four or five other people who are at about your level. Quiz each other. Try to do as well as the person you most admire. Turn envy into a source of motivation rather than resentment.
8. Make a schedule you can stick to. If you have any flexibility, notice the times of day when you’re sharpest and dedicate it to learning. If you’re studying at home on a weekend, or work at home, take a warm morning shower to gear up for analytical work, says biologist and body-clock expert Steve Kay. Get your studying or work done before lunch, especially if you’re an early riser. You’re likely to be most distractible from noon to 4 p.m.
Sticking to a schedule may seem like a burden, but you’ll appreciate the investment if you can avoid last-minute cramming. How many minutes you spend each time is less important than regularity.
9. Take breaks. If you’re falling asleep while reading, you may have picked the wrong time of day to study. Consider a nap if you’re sleep deprived and then get back to work.
Most work goes better if you divide it into realistic chunks. It’s refreshing and healthier to stretch and walk to the other end of the library at least once an hour. Take time to look out the window, especially if you have a view of trees or other greenery. Nature is a good stress-reliever, even if you can’t climb the Himalayas today. If you succeed in a significant goal — maybe reading an entire chapter — treat yourself by a break flying over the Himalayas on Google’s satellite map.
10. Reward yourself. It’s healthy to set yourself goals, then reward yourself in ways you decide in advance — not French fries, but something you won’t regret later. Facebook is an okay break if you haven’t let it become a substitute for what you meant to do.
11. Students need to learn about finding balance: getting enough sleep, eating regularly and well, exercising, and not becoming too distracted or obsessed by love affairs or social problems. As adults we too need to keep that kind of balance.
12. Don’t depend on drugs or even herbs to make you more focused and productive. Also don’t indulge in partying in ways that will interfere with the next day.
13. If you’re actually taking a course, talk to the instructor early on, or an assistant, to know what to expect. You may be aiming high, so plan on working harder or be realistic about your grade. Suss out what’s most important to the instructor. Establish a connection so you can talk to the instructor if you find yourself falling behind or do badly on a project. Pay attention in class.
14. Remember that you actually want to learn — not just earn a credential. You may be spending significant sums for your education. You might be taking time away from your family or other projects. If you let resentment build up, you’ll have paid the same price and learned much less. Appreciate the chance to sharpen your mind and a future in which you may apply your newly honed skills or knowledge.
January 16, 2018
Janet O’Dell, RN