I always carry a notebook. This has been part of my work life since its inception. I’ve always known that if I write it down in my messy handwriting, I remember it better. Even when I’m told in a meeting “No need to take notes; I’ll send you the PowerPoint”, I still take notes. Sometimes I do it self-consciously since it seems I’m the only one with a pen in the room. But it helps me soak in the information. Now that I understand the concept of Cognitive Disfluence I will pull out my pen with pride. Cognitive Disfluence is a fancy way of saying that you learn more when you interact with what you are trying to learn.
In 2011 a study was done at Princeton. Subjects were asked to read about complicated, fictional biologic taxonomies. One group read in the common Arial font and the second read in Comic Sans MS. The group that read in the more unusual font remembered 14% more. This study has been done in a number of ways and the results are the same. The same concept is true with numbers. If you have to graph the data yourself on a piece of paper, it will stick. If you do the math by hand and not with a calculator, you will remember it better. If you punch in someone’s cell phone number a few times into your phone, you will remember it.
Humans are meant to interact with their surroundings. Our brains are wired to forget the easy stuff and hang on to the stuff we wrestle a bit with. Knowing this can help us absorb the data and information that comes barreling at us day in and day out. Below are some ways to better grab onto what is flowing past.
- Use the whiteboard: For those of us working in offices whiteboards are ubiquitous. Have you noticed that some people are fast to jump up and use the board and others hang back? Be one of those board doodlers. As a discussion progresses, note the key points. Write down the dates and make a timeline. Assign owners. Draw a picture of how it works or who is connected to whom. If you are the leader of the meeting feel free to hand over the pen to others to pull them in. You will find that the room is more engaged and that the concepts are remembered. You and your team will think about this meeting more than most because the team was actively engaged.
- Take notes in meetings, during the lecture or sermon, as you read: Keep a notebook close at hand to jot down something that inspires. Draw a picture of the image that comes to mind. Even if you are doodling or writing key thoughts or names, this is enough to engage a different part of your brain and you are more likely to retain what you are hearing.
- Graph out your expenses or revenue or miles run over time: I’m a big proponent of dashboards in business. These simplify the noisy data and give leaders key performance metrics to be sure that they haven’t lost control. But the very best way to get to this information is by graphing it yourself. Those shop floor charts where the data is added one point at a time (remember TQC?) are the best. Maybe a good combo is to look at and manipulate key pieces of information. If you see the trends going in the wrong direction dig down a level. See what the key contributors are and normalize by doing some math.
- Write a list of things to do: Lots of us have “to do lists”. Crossing things off feels so good. But maybe the act of writing something down puts it into our heads to complete as well. We think about the task, consider how big the job is, break it down further and actually visualize the act of doing it.
- Write stuff on sticky notes and move ’em around: A Kanban board or Scrum board is used in businesses to track, prioritize and pull through work. There are tools available to put this online and manipulate virtually but many companies and teams find that a good old fashioned white board with columns and sticky notes work the best. Why? Because you are engaged with the work. You can write on it. Add thoughts and move them around.
- Argue from another perspective: One of the most interesting “features” of our brains is the tendency to find and stick with a simple frame of understanding. This saves us time. It helps us get through the day. We know how to drive our cars without a lot of brainpower. We can get ready in the morning without being totally awake. We have a perspective on life and we filter everything to comply with that perspective. The downside of this is that we don’t easily learn and change based on new information. We are blind to changes that can be very important in the running of our businesses or families. To shake ourselves out of this rut, try re-framing a situation by taking the other side and arguing it. It is helpful to hire or befriend people who are not going to simply feed you information that you already know or agree with.
The most successful people are ones who are exceptional learners. They digest new information, absorb new insights and aren’t afraid to look beyond their frames of reference. Many of these successful learners try crazy new things just to shake it up. Resolve to get out of your comfort zone and amp up your learning.
Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information. Albert Einstein