I completed Barbara Oakley’s “Learning How to Learn” course on Coursera. The target audience seems to be students, but I found there were helpful takeaways for me as well, as someone who is a decade out of my last university classroom.

The course introduces a mental model (no pun intended) for how the brain works by contrasting two modes: focus mode and diffuse mode. Being in one of these modes prevents you from being in the other. For me, it helped provide some insight into why at some times things like coding, being creative, and writing can be more difficult than others.

The course also provided corroborating evidence for a few approaches to getting “unstuck” that I’ve learned after a lot of trial and error. If I get stuck on a problem, my first intuition is often to spend more time and energy trying to solve it. What often happens is as soon as I step away from the problem, whether it be doing something else or taking a break, a novel approach comes to me that helps me get unstuck. The course explains this phenomenon through the brain’s fluctuations between the focused and diffuse modes of the brain.

Because it’s somewhat focused on students, there is some content on test-taking tips. The most salient tip in the course about test-taking is to read the hardest problem first, then go back and do the easier ones. It is quite literally like a background thread in your brain starts thinking about that problem while you answer the other easier questions. Once you get to the hard question, you have all this useful context readily available and maybe even some insight into how to tackle the issue.

This approach seems to work with many things. If I am writing a technical design document for a system, I look at the most complex question I have to answer, then start writing the more straightforward parts of the document, returning to the more complex parts later, in a primed state.

At a high level, I found this course useful for thinking about how to operate my brain more effectively and make better use of my time. Getting stuck on a hard (or even silly) problem is inevitable. What matters far more is how you respond to getting stuck. Spending a lot of energy and effort to push through can eventually yield results, but being aware that this is not necessarily the fastest approach is important if you want to do the best job you can do.

It’s a far better outcome to work for 30 minutes, take a 10-minute walk, then work for 30 more minutes than to work nonstop for 70 minutes, even if it results in the same work product. When I take the latter approach, my energy gets drained. When I take breaks or put intentional space between work sessions, I find I am eager to get back to the task because I have new ideas for things to try that I came up with in the interim.

The brain doesn’t come with an instruction manual. I find knowledge like this empowering and it makes life more enjoyable.