Learning

Absorb before Documenting – Deeper Conceptual Learning


Sometimes you need to dive deep into thinking as a form of learning. Don’t take notes, photos or video – just be there to absorb. Information can percolate in your subconscious and get deciphered.

You can revisit the material again later to create notes. When you return to review content a second time, you will already have a mental filter ready to apply. You will know what parts are slow, what sections to skip, and what to come back to again.

Reading, thinking, planning and taking notes at the same time is a form of impossible multitasking.

We don’t multitask. We switch our focus from one action or mindset to another. This focus switch slows us down as we refocus on our new role. 

Sönke Ahrens, the author of How to Take Smart Notes, says, “we can train ourselves to stay focused on one thing for longer if we avoid multitasking, remove possible distractions and separate different kinds of tasks as much as possible so they will not interfere with each other”.

Trying to absorb something new, while documenting it in the same step is stressful and unproductive. You split your attention, reduce your focus and add unnecessary pressure.

More time spent reading, watching, listening or note-taking does not equal more ideas. Slow down and be more selective about the content you consume and capture. Content consumption is panning for gold. Multiple passes over good content will benefit you much more than single passes over multiple bad pieces of content.

Zoom in and focus on one thing and do it well.

Naval Ravikant says “the ability to singularly focus is related to the ability to lose yourself and be present, happy, and (ironically) more effective. It’s almost like you’re taking yourself out of a certain frame and you’re watching things from a different perspective.”

A singular focus and intentional thinking give you the ability to absorb and understand the content fully.

Intentional thinking makes you more:

  • Focused and Attentive
  • Immersed and Informed
  • Efficient and Selective

Short term memory is limited

Your short term memory can only store 7 (+/- 2) items at a time. You can keep more by chunking information (grouping related items).

By deliberately avoiding documenting, you force your brain to look for connections and related information. You automatically chunk knowledge.

Chunking: Patterns and themes are information chunks. Grouping items may not be intentional, but our brain naturally connects information to increase short-term storage capacity. Chunking simplifies and is like an internal progressive summarisation. It removes minute details and provides you with an overview.

Having a general summary of something makes it easier to understand how it relates to everything else. It also makes diving back into the details easier when you want to take notes.

Long term memory has an unlimited capacity (as far we know). When you are absorbed in learning, your brain will look for connections already present in your memory – bringing your perspective to into play.

Information in long term memory is divided into two types:

  1. Episodic Memory is related to specific people, events, and past experiences. Adds context to information. Heavily influenced by our expectations of what should have happened, recollections from two people can differ.
  2. Semantic Memory is general factual knowledge. Not directly connected to how it was acquired.

Your perspective is unique. The things you notice, connections you make and ideas you have are different to everyone else. Learn from multiple sources but stop and think about how it applies to you and your opinions. Grow a rounded perspective.

Friction allows you to be more selective. Utilise the limitations of your time, focus levels and information retention. These limits will help encourage quality over quantity. If you have no experience, you cannot know how to be selective, so start with abundance.

The second pass is faster and more informed

“The second time you rewire a system after finding a hum, it might take two minutes. The first time, the time you figured out what the problem was, it might have taken two hours. Typing a book takes a few days at most. Figuring out what to type might take years.”

Seth Godin

Understand the problems you’re trying to solve, and how what you consume helps you. Then you’ll take notes with intention and speed.

Better understanding through multiple perspectives

The first pass is not usually your best. The first round of website designs are about exploring design ideas. Your first 5 minutes in a run is the warm up. The same goes for deep learning.

Actors don’t read the first page of a script and begin acting. They understand the entire story, connect the dots and figure out themes, goals and perspective.

Mathew McConaughey reads scripts over and over, in different environments, with different mindsets. He absorbs the content and understands his character’s perspective and motivations.

“You don’t try to remember all the lines. You look at what’s on the text first, you read to try understand it. You read it again after run when my endorphins are flying. I read it late Saturday night when I’ve got a good buzz going, right after church when I’m feeling in a very forgiving mood. I’ll read it when I’m mad, sad, glad, tired, happy, excited, at many different places where I am personally. I’ll read a script and that means I’ll have a different look (perception) at the same scenes because I’m in a different place (perspective). Don’t take things literally too early because you don’t want to get bound to anything. You want to stay loose.”

– Mathew McConaughey

How I apply a singular focus to learning

I downloaded the audiobook of The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgenson. I also have the Kindle version. I’ve been listening to it while taking my dog on walks, in the car or running outdoors. The book is fascinating and full of great quotes and ideas.

I listen to audiobook version to get absorbed in the content. Some ideas stand out, and I connect them to other information in my brain. Audio gives more tone to help understand the importance of certain words.

Note-taking is not easy on audiobooks – and I like that! Outdoor activities help make it more challenging to take notes. Instead of drawing from my limited source of willpower, and trying to sit and only listen, I use situations to steer how I’ll consume and focus on content.

I don’t even think about notes, quotes, ideas while listening. Something may jump out at me and stick in my brain for a few days. That’s enough time for me to add a note when at my computer. If the general premise does not stick for a day or two, it probably wasn’t that good, or I wasn’t paying enough attention. 

There are still times when I feel this is something I MUST write down. If there is something really terrific, I’ll add a quick note to Craft, but I avoid this 95% of the time.

When I’m on my computer and want to search the Kindle version, I’ll search for the words that stood out or a sentence that stuck. I’m searching from an informed viewpoint with something specific in mind. I know the overview, so I know how much the author goes into detail about subjects.

When doing knowledge work, I collect information and then leave it alone to marinate in my mind. I would end a session by thinking about what I wanted to achieve from the knowledge or what I learned.

Don’t be afraid to engage with the same content multiple times. Giving a good piece of content multiple rounds is going to benefit you much more than consuming lots of average content once.

Mindset over medium

Don’t let my example of using an audiobook and ebook confuse things. You can apply the same approach to any content medium.

The goal is to stay in one frame of mind and not let distractions pull you to different thought processes. 

Conceptual vs factual knowledge

Not everything deserves an in-depth approach. Deep learning is not always the goal. If you are reading to find facts and figures, find them and close the book. If you’re watching something to follow step-by-step, watch it at 1.5-2 times the speed. When looking for facts and clear yes/no answers, don’t give it more time than required.

Likewise, if you are watching live content (live a webinar or Zoom call), then you may not have the luxury of multiple passes. But you can still allow yourself to stop and think at the end. Mentally recapping what was most important, will help you better assess and enhance the notes you’ve already taken.

I have a different flow when I want to consume and capture content with intention (finding facts, supporting arguments, highlighting quotes). My goals are front of my mind. That’s another article for another day.

When you have content that requires you to think and apply your unique perception to it, slow down and be intentional.