Learn More by Doing Less


By Jun 6,2017  1
Illustration by Sam Falconer
Illustration by Sam Falconer

Two years ago, my daughter was gearing up for a move across the country to enroll in the Ada Academy, a Washington-state program geared towards improving the participation of women and non-binary people who want to become software developers. She was concerned about her ability to absorb, integrate and apply the new information at the accelerated rate that the program expected. She found a method that resonated with her, and she shared it with me.

She gave me a book by Professor Barbara Oakley called A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). After reading the book, we both took advantage of a companion online course at, titled Learning How to Learn.

Dr. Oakley’s approach focuses on understanding the mind’s limited capacity for retaining and integrating new information. Over-learning (trying to retain too much information, over too little time) is often counterproductive. For my daughter, limiting her conscious focus to shorter bursts, she was able to retain more information, understand key concepts, and – most importantly – better understand the relationships between the concepts to know how and when they complement each other.

With some adaptations, this has worked well for me to improve my development skills. At first, I used the program’s recommended “Pomodoro” technique (also discussed by Cris Ippolite at Find Your Moose), to isolate myself from distractions (email, text, web, phone, music) for 25 minutes at a time, and focus on a task. Not completing the task, necessarily, just applying focused effort. I’d set a timer. And when the timer went off I’d stop. Full stop. And I’d move away from whatever I was doing.

Without my conscious mind aware of it, I was still learning and problem-solving. I became aware of how much my brain was eager to help without my focus and attention. More and more, my unaware mind would form connections in what I was learning, and “tap me on the shoulder”, often in the middle of completely unrelated activities, to let me know that it understood a concept, suggesting applications for those concepts in projects that I was working on.

As this was happening more and more, I started to do this with more intention. I’d think about a complex problem before bed, and in the morning, I would often feel like the answer was “ready to go”. And I could sketch it out on paper with a clarity that I couldn’t conjure the day before.

I can get into a relaxed, semi-aware problem-solving mode when I’m awake, too. Walks or bike rides can quickly put me in an alert but relaxed state.

This helps me when I’m frustrated, too. In developing, I strongly believe in the PICNIC (problem in chair, not in computer) idea. If something isn’t working, it’s almost always because I haven’t learned to express the problem in a way the computer understands. When my frustration level builds, I can sometimes get an internal voice saying, “step aside for a while, and let me take a look at this.” So, I take my advice. I run an errand. I put in a load of laundry. When I get back, I have a quick punch list of things to double-check.

This has been a gradual, transformative adaptation. It’s opened me up to being wrong, unprepared and vulnerable. That’s not how I like to see myself. I’ve usually done anything to avoid being seen as any of those things. But that was limiting. I’d only do the things that I already knew how to do – out of fear that I would be seen as a novice.

Take it from my daughter (who is now a Software Development Engineer at IBM Blue Box in Seattle focusing on augmented reality and neural networks), there’s nothing wrong with being a novice and being open to learning and starting new things.


Expect Change, Be Prepared to Adapt

Adam Aronson

Cybersecurity for Small Business


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1 Comment

  • Mark Rubenstein June 9, 2017 Reply

    Great article, Steve. And thanks for the info about Learning How To Learn… I just started it based on your recommendation!


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