You Learn More When You Relax

15.08.2017 |

Episode #6 of the course Learning how to learn by Ace Eddleman


In today’s lesson, we’re going to be covering why you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking breaks.

One of the most overlooked aspects of learning is also one of the most critical: rest periods.

When you want to learn something, how do you normally schedule it? If you’re like most people, you’re probably going to shoot for a schedule that involves long, multi-hour sessions.

While volume of training is an important piece of the puzzle, this type of approach is—counterintuitive as it may sound—actually not the most efficient. One of the main reasons comes from what has been observed about memory over time. There are 3 primary factors:

1. Your brain needs rest in order to go through a process known as memory consolidation, which strengthens memories and makes them permanent.

2. Your brain needs downtime in order to make meaningful connections between concepts subconsciously (a process known as incubation).

3. Fatigue can hinder performance and motivation, and if you aren’t taking breaks, then you are far less likely to continue practicing.

A famous memory study was conducted in the late 1970s that tested several different practice schedules for several groups of postal workers who were all learning how to use a new piece of technology.

What they found was that the most effective program was to train for 1 hour per day (a schedule often referred to as “spaced practice”), which was surprising, considering that there was a group that was practicing for 2 hours per day, twice a day (a schedule often referred to as “massed practice”).

This is a well-known phenomenon at this point, and it stands in stark contrast to the now-famous “10,000 rule,” which makes it seem like sheer volume is all that counts in building expertise.

So, here’s your practical tip for the day: If you’re going to learn something, don’t kill yourself to learn it. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Massed practice might intuitively seem like the right way to go about learning, but it will not A) be as effective as a learning schedule that incorporates rest and B) prevent burnout (especially if what you’re trying to learn is physical).

The other piece of this equation, the basics of which is important to know, is memory consolidation. Consolidation can be thought of as the process of “stabilizing” memories. This is a necessary process because memories are actually quite “fragile” when you first create them.

They need to be encoded using principles such as salience (from the last lesson) and spaced practice, and then consolidation takes over.

You can think of consolidation as “learning without effort,” because it is subconscious. Any learning system needs to account for this dynamic—the conscious effort side of things (like creating flashcards, practicing, etc.) and the subconscious, biological side.

Sleep is critical for consolidation and should not be neglected unless it absolutely cannot be avoided.

It’s a strange irony that so many “gurus” have historically advocated putting off sleep in order to become successful, since doing that is a guaranteed way to deprive yourself of consolidation and, as a result, learning.

Aside from the learning side of things, sleep deprivation is just downright awful for you.

It messes your mental and physical performance in ways that often exceed the damage done by drugs and alcohol. It will make you miserable and unhealthy. In case it isn’t coming through loud and clear: Don’t skip sleeping!

The 2 key takeaways from this lesson:

1. It’s important to get enough sleep.

2. Taking breaks actually helps learning.

If you feel like you’re stalling in your learning in one way or another, try taking a day off.

Go for a walk, compose your thoughts, and let them percolate a bit. If you’ve been skipping sleep, go take a nap, and then make sure you get enough sleep tonight.

Tomorrow’s lesson will be about the single most important external factor for learning: feedback. See you then!


Recommended book

Take a Nap! Change Your Life. by Mark Ehrman, Sara Mednick


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