Have you ever wanted to learn a language or perhaps start playing an instrument? What stopped you? Many people are put off trying because they assume such learning is best started as a child. Think again. Art Markman, cognitive scientist and author of Smart Thinking, shares with us the simple ways to improve your learning by forming new habits.
The beauty of habits is that your mind is a 'habit-creation machine'. Only two things are required for you to form a habit:
The first ingredient of a habit is consistent mapping between the world and a behaviour. If you sit down with a musical instrument, you will find lots of consistent mappings. I took up the saxophone 11 years ago. On the sax, you press down different combinations of keys to get different notes. Every time you press a particular combination of keys, though, you get the same note. That set-up allows you to learn to play particular notes without having to think about it. It would be a real disaster if someone reset my sax every day so that I had to relearn the keys to press to get a particular note.
The second ingredient is repetition. You have to repeat the action frequently. After a while, you will be able to perform the behaviour mindlessly. You can create a habit intentionally by practising. In that case, you are going out of your way to repeat the action several times. I try to carve out time from my evening each day to play my sax to reinforce my habits. However, the habit-learning system doesn't care whether you are being intentional or not. Repeat the action enough times and you will get a habit. You may not intend to create a habit for getting home from work but after a week or two at a new job you can get all the way home without paying too much attention to what you are doing.
So, how much repetition do you need? It depends on how distinctive the situations are that influence your behaviour.
When learning your way home from work, there may be a unique and beautiful old church on a street corner where you need to make a left turn. As that church is unique, you are quickly able to form a habit to turn left at that intersection.
Learning to play an instrument is much more difficult. Each of your fingers is part of the movement you need for many different notes, and all of those movements are fairly similar. So, learning to play each of the notes on an instrument by habit takes a much longer time. And those habits build on each other. After I learned to produce the individual notes on my saxophone, I had to learn patterns. These habitual patterns come in handy now that I play in the horn section of a blues band on Sunday nights.
For things like learning to play a musical instrument or learning to type, where many repetitions are necessary to learn the habit, it is helpful to develop a rehearsal schedule to repeat the behaviour enough times to create the habit.
In the end, remember that habits can be very good. They can be the key to enjoying more interesting activities.
Smart Thinking by Art Markman is available to buy now from Piatkus priced at £8.99. It is also available to download as an ebook from all of the major ebook retailers, so you can add this title to your Kindle, iPad, Kobo or Sony Reader.
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