Applying What We Learn
“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” ~ Albert Einstein
I had a participant in a workshop this week ask about how you really use what you learn in a workshop. What a great question! She said, “I attend the workshops, or read a book, or hear information that sounds like a great idea, but then I don’t do anything with it after that.”
This is so typical. We read or hear something that we feel in that moment could change our lives, but then we go back to the status quo. Why? Probably the biggest reason is our innate resistance to change. But we can overcome our hesitancy to change by simply taking baby steps instead of thinking we have to overhaul our entire lives.
When you hear or read something that really feels motivating in the moment, that’s something you really need to pursue. But if you’re not in the habit of executing new ways of thinking or being, it feels a little overwhelming the day after. We have thoughts like, “Oh, that would be great, but I don’t have time.” Or, “I’d love to do it, but I don’t think I can.”
One of the simplest acts to take when you hear or read something that resonates is to write it down, the old-fashioned way, with pen on paper. In a study published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles sought to test how note-taking by hand or by computer affects learning. They shared, "When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can. The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them."
They conducted three studies, one based on showing participants TED talks, one where they instructed laptop users not to take down all of the words verbatim from a lecture, and one where they gave students the opportunity to review their notes in between a lecture and test. The students taking notes by hand performed better. "This is suggestive evidence that longhand notes may have superior external storage as well as superior encoding functions," Mueller and Oppenheimer write.
In addition to retaining the information better, as well as helping the brain to process the information better, there is also the mind-body connection to consider. When you write, you’re synchronizing mind and body. This sends the message to the brain that this must be important information. That causes the brain to seek similar information as you move throughout your day, as the brain is always on the look-out for familiar data. That results in you observing more information to support you in your efforts, without any extra effort!
Once you’ve written down the information, start thinking of ways you could incorporate that information into your daily routine. If you’re trying to think more positively, for example, how could you integrate small steps into your daily activities? Repeat positive affirmations while you brush your teeth? Change the radio station from the news to pleasant music? Replace the word “but” with the word “and?” None of these take any extra time, but consistently practicing them will change your neurological pathways so that they become habits. As you begin to notice that you are thinking more positive thoughts, you’ll be motivated to do more.
Another trick that I use to anchor a new concept or practice is to seek out more information on a topic. If I read a book or watch a TED talk that inspires me, I look for more books or TED talks on the same subject. If I read an academic paper that moves me, I check out a few of the references to deepen my understanding of the subject. I also seek audio books on the subject, so that I can listen to them in my car as I commute around the county. Even if I’m not 100% focused on the book (hopefully, for the sake of other drivers!), my subconscious is picking up the information and integrating it into that “chunk” of data already being collected.
Because the brain works in images, not words, I also doodle or find a picture that represents the change I’m trying to make. If I can’t find an image, I make a mind map. You can find instructions online for creating a mind map, but it’s basically taking key words or concepts and writing them in different colors and within bubbles or squares, connecting concepts and subtopics. When you write something in multiple colors, the brain recognizes it as an image, which is what it seeks. All of these tactics are simply reminders for my brain to keep searching for confirmation that this “thing” is something I want. I also write reminders on sticky notes or index cards and place them everywhere I can to remind me. Taped to the bathroom mirror, on my desk, attached to my car visor, even inside kitchen cabinets. We’re easily distracted, so these reminders are really powerful in bringing the attention back to the thing we’re trying to change.
Finally, as you begin to grow towards this new way of being, you’ll also begin to notice when you fail at it. It’s important to remember that failing at anything is simply an opportunity to learn, so as you mess up, just self-correct and be grateful for the mistake since that only helps anchor the lesson in deeper.
We have the capacity to continuously learn, continuously revamp anything we don’t like, and to continuously improve the quality of our lives. Give it a try. The next time you get those little thrill bumps when you hear a new concept, remember that’s your mind and body telling you to go for it!
Have a mindful week,
For the podcast version of this post, listen here.