Brainy habits

There are many ways to study in life. Some ways are more conventional than others. There is an intricate connection between what we do and what we know. Some habits may have a surprising effect on our brain. This post was inspired by this, this, this and this articles.

Conventional education

It is pretty safe to say that a smart person finds ways to learn, and a person who learns a lot will eventually get smarter. The conventional education is not ideal, but it is a great way to learn systematically: from basic notions to exciting discoveries. Universities, certification courses, on-line courses, self-help and educational books – there are many faces to the conventional learning. Typically there are professors who explain a subject to many students, in a systematic way. A subject consists of an interconnected network of topics and ideas, which are grouped into courses. These courses progressively become more complex, starting from the most basic fundamental ideas and progressing to pretty advanced and controversial applications. We can take courses at each stage of our life and consume them not only at the university level but also as kindle books on vacation, audiobooks when driving and occasionally even when sleeping. Taking courses is a habit, and many people continue to take them well after getting a degree and finding a job.

Hands-on training

There is a huge difference between “know what” and “know how”. When we want to learn how to do things, we typically need to practice. We can probably get a preliminary explanation of what we need to know in order to start, but then we try things and each time we succeed or fail we try to find how we could have done it differently. Taking pet do-it-yourself projects, doing stuff with the kids, working in a small start-up company we get a lot of hands-on time and we can learn new things. You can read and memorize 10 books about programming, yet this would be significantly less effective than building just one program and seeing how everything that could go wrong indeed goes wrong. Even if you can buy something, you will learn more from building it. Taking pet projects and tinkering with the stuff is a habit, and it is a habit you will learn from.

Active life

Hobbies, sports, meditation are good not only for your body but also for your brain. Sports introduce oxygen to the body, makes us feel more energetic, reduces anxieties and generally improves our wellbeing. Our memory is partially a “state” memory: when our body is in a different state we get different ideas. Living an active life, you get access to all these wonderful ideas. Exercise and a good level of the immune system are correlated with neural generation and prevention of brain aging. You can boost your sports benefits by a healthy diet, 3-6 cups of tea or coffee per day, antioxidants consumption, and good sleep. Once you get more active, your body will adapt to its new state and you will probably be more alert, have higher endurance and generally feel better.

New experiences

Opening up to new experiences may be easy for some and extremely hard for others. New experiences come at a risk of looking and feeling genuinely awkward, so they require some resilience. Once you build up the resilience and understand that awkwardness is a much better motivator than demotivator, you can get into all sorts of new situations. You will lose some and win some, but you will definitely have a story to tell. The life experience is built from all these stories to tell we generate when taking risks. Generating a completely different adventure each time requires effort, money, attention to details and creativity. Generating a totally new experience every 3 months will make your life very different and generate a lot of stories. These stories will probably improve your common sense and intuition. They will also make you socially acceptable and interesting for other people.

Social interactions

We learn a lot from social interactions. Mentors are a great way to learn new things. Teaching others we get new fresh perspective on things we thought we knew. Competitors have similar interests and we will be stupid not to learn from them. When we get open with a friend or a coach we get feedback, gain new perspectives on something that used to seem obvious. We can also copy the behavior of other people, analyze how they treat their challenges and learn from that. Social interactions are a great way of learning, and it makes sense to overcome shyness and become socially active.

Introspection

With all the activity in our life, it is quite easy to get carried away. Introspection enables us by generating meaning from the activity around. We can write all sorts of diaries and to do lists, meditate and analyze our experiences, summarize each experience we have, generate stories to tell. Very active life is as good for introversion as a life of a monk. For example, when swimming we get some quiet time to think and feel. When socializing we can generate and tell stories. Even the necessity to do our basic needs may be a good time to turn away from other activities and think.

Train everywhere

This is something that is seldom mentioned and seldom done. People like my wife Anna or my friend Anthony Metivier really turn each opportunity into a learning opportunity. Every room they visit turns into a mental palace. Every car they see is an exercise in remembering numbers and details. Every conversation becomes a mnemonic tool. This looks very much like a zen skill. An apprentice needs to sit in order to meditate, but a master never stops meditating even when doing other activities. It takes a higher level of passion for using everything as a learning opportunity, yet people who do this become top performers.

Every ~30 min we recommend people to take short “pomodoro” breaks from their activities. These breaks can be used for socialization or introspection, for a short sports session or to drink and eat.

In a similar way every week we have a weekend and every several months we have holidays and vacation days. We can use those to generate new and meaningful experiences, build pet projects and learn new things.

Nobody is perfect. These things are easier said than done. Do not think that I have everything figured out in my life. You should not ask me for prescription of brainy habits, but build your habits yourself and teach others if you can. Together we can make the wold a better place.

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