Learning, Leisure

In today's world of Google, memory as a function has been relegated only to the confines of servers and computers. No one really wants to remember the fact, data and dates. However anachronistic it may seem, I think, a good memory and a good method to memorize is a key to become a lifelong learner. If you are unable to remember the key take away from the lecture, if you are unable to state the exact clause in the policy under consideration or if you are unable to recollect the punch line in a joke, all that you have studied, learnt and imbibed is of no use.

I have a list of poems that are my favorite. Leisure by W H Davies, Even this shall pass away by Theodore Tilton, If by Rudyard Kipling and many more. These poems somehow speak to me. I love the philosophy that they propound. I love what the poet wants to say with those lines. So, as one of my long term goals, I plan to memorize the poems, so that they become a part of me.

Over the last couple of days, I have memorized the poem, Leisure. There are certain techniques that I used to memorize the poem.

1.            The first step was to read the poem and understand some basic background about it. Understand who the author is, in which context the poem was written, in which time period was it composed etc. This background information helps to create a unique place in our memory for the new poem. The poem, Leisure was written by William Henry Davies, a welsh poet, which was first published in 1911. The poem is written as a set of seven rhyming couplets. It talks about the business of life. It says that we need to slow down, connect with nature and enjoy it.

2.            How do you eat an elephant? - One bite at a time. How do you memorize a poem? One line at a time. Take a print out of the poem. Read the first couplet. "What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare". Memorize it. By its very nature, couplets rhyme and are easy to remember. Take each couplet as a chunk and remember it by repeating it again and again. Once you have mastered the first couplet, move on to the second couplet and memorize it. Then, repeat both the first and second couplet together.  You may want to look at the book and read it once again.  Then go for the third couplet and repeat the first, second and third couplet together. Then look at the book and read it several times. You have to follow this method till you reach the last couple.  It is like one memory chunk, getting attached to another chunk to create a larger memory chunk. Slowly, you will be able to recall one couplet after another and the complete poem in one go.

3.            Recollect the poem at various times.  Recall is a form of mini testing. It helps us to learn better. When you are shaving in the morning, or when you are exercising in the gym or when you are driving to office, try to recall the poem. Recalling something at a different place and time that it was learnt, helps to negate the influence of environmental cues and deeply ingrain the material to memory.

4.            If you get bored by one poem, you can interleave your learning by trying to memorize another poem. I tried memorizing ‘Even this shall pass away’, along with Leisure. This helps in even better access to the stored memory in your brain.

5.            Perform spaced repetition. Do not repeat the same poem over and over again throughout the day (You can do that! But it may not be effective). Rather, repeat the poem over several days. Say, first on every day of the first week, then every alternate day in the next week, then every 3 days in the third week and so on. Spaced repetition helps jog the memory. It has an effect of bringing the poem from our memory warehouse to our working memory. Moving the chunks of memory from long term to working memory helps in consolidating and committing the material in our brain forever.

Friends, the internet and Google can bring all information to your finger tips.  But unless you are able to hold large amount of ideas and concepts in your mind, cross pollinate them with your experience and rinse them with the wisdom from your long term memory, you will not be able to create something new, something astounding and something amazing!

Well, this may not be something new, astounding or amazing, but it is the final outcome of committing the poem to memory. I promise that I did not read this out from a book, but I have recited and recorded it from my memory. Click Here.

And here is another, much better rendition with music.

Sleep Well, Learn More

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,  
But I have promises to keep,  
And miles to go before I sleep,  
And miles to go before I sleep.

American poet Robert Frost, in his poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", had penned these immortal lines. These lines provided the much needed inspiration to the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, as the story goes, these were the lines that were found on a scrap of paper on his desk when he died - presumably the last words he saw.

While these lines are prized for their figurative meaning, Robert Frost and Jawaharlal Nehru, could have been a bit more aware of the importance of sleep.


It was a night I will never forget. The next day was the dreaded POM - I (Production & Operations Management) final exam. It was the last day of the term exams and in spite of whiling away my time throughout the term, I wanted to ace it. So, I was studying hard. In fact, I was running from pillar to post - from one room to another, in search of a knight in shining armor, one who could resolve my doubts, explain few of the problems how they were solved and identify some more that I could practice for the exam.

POM I was taught by Professor Sahu, a young man, who had returned from the US with a doctorate under his belt. He had a reputation of posing really tough questions in the final exams. He had a penchant for problems. And problems were something I was afraid of. Ask me the theory, and somehow, I could wing something closer to an answer in the text book. But with numbers, I was always numb!

My friend Ajay dropped in to check how I was doing. Ajay was the cool, unruffled guy. With a devil-may-care attitude, he was like the Buddha. He saw the fear in my eyes. "Don’t worry Dude. Everything shall pass away!” he said. "Yes, everything shall pass away, but will I pass this POM-I?” I wondered. Ajay patted my back, nodded in assurance, pointed me to Rajiv, and strolled away.

Rajiv, my meticulous corpo type roommate was stretching himself on his study chair. He had just finished his revision. "Rajiv, are you done?" I asked. "Yes!", he said emphatically. "Can you help me with some important problems?" I asked hesitantly. Rajiv was somehow gracious enough that night. He outlined 30 problems for me from 8 chapters and even gave me his notebook where he had solved them. Yes, Got IT!! I said to myself. I will now ace the exam!

It was 11 PM. The test was at 9 AM. So, I had 10 hours with me. 10 hours, 30 problems so, 20 minutes for each, I deduced.  I decided to go for a night out and smash the POM-I exam.

When Rajiv woke up at 8:00 AM in the morning, I was still poring over the solution. I have had several cups of coffee and solved most of the problems. I had got a hang of the different type of problems. I was fairly confident of cracking the test.

As I walked to the class that morning, my eyes hurt. I felt that the 9 AM sun was somewhat brighter than other days. Effect of the night out, I thought. I will finish the test, come back and crash throughout the day.

There was a tense air hanging in the exam hall. I felt everyone was busy on their own. Like a robot, I greeted few people and responded back to them. I took my place at the right hand corner of the room, waiting anxiously for the question paper to be distributed. Soon, I got the papers. I glanced through it quickly, mentally marking out the easy, theoretical ones that I would tackle first. I realized that there were 3 subjective and 3 problem-solving based question. I started working on the subjective questions. They were supposed to be easy for me. But I had to strain myself. Somehow, the words were not flowing out smoothly from me. I had to stop, think hard and focus on it. I lost my train of thought and re-gathered them several times. I was wondering why this was happening. But with a firm focus on finishing the task at hand, I answered them.

Then I moved on to the problems. I read the first question. I grappled with the numbers, my nemesis. I could figure out that they were from the 3rd chapter. But I was not able to crack it. I decided to skip it and move to the next one. That one was easy. I started solving it. But towards the end, I could not figure out the next step. I was almost close, but not yet. So, I moved on to the last problem. Again, it was very frustrating as I knew which chapter it was from. I knew the overall concept. But somehow my mind was not clear. I attempted it based on my conceptual knowledge and gave it my best shot, which I somehow felt was not good enough.

The rest of the day, I was moving like a zombie. I had not done well in the exam and it was not allowing me to sleep. Later in the day, I slept like a log. I woke up only on the next morning. That morning, when I looked at the question paper, it seemed like a piece of cake. I was amazed.

Have you ever felt like that? A good night's sleep and then things falling in place.

Modern research proves that sleep is an essential factor in learning. When we are awake, some toxic products are created in our brain. But, when we sleep, these toxic products are washed away from our brain. This helps us to think clearly when we are awake. Thus, if you take an exam after a night out, you have bits of poison and toxins running around in your head which make your thinking hazy. Too little sleep creates more problems in life. We may have stress, high blood pressure and anxiety. If we are sleep deprived for days together, we will have problem learning and remembering different things.

During sleep, our brain consolidates our learning and memory. It goes over and over difficult concepts that we are grappling with. Sleep after learning allows brain cells to connect with other brain cells, there by strengthening the learning and moving the ideas learnt from short term memory to long term memory. Dreaming, on the things that you have learnt, in your sleep, makes the learning permanent. In fact, experts recommend using forced dreaming technique. In it, you grapple with a difficult problem or concept just before you go to sleep, then think about it while falling asleep. There is a high chance that you will dream about it in your sleep. And you may even understand the concept clearly or solve the problem that you were grappling with in your sleep. In fact, modern research has shown that when people imagine practicing a skill or sport in their dream, their performance in that activity improves in real life.

Even after I have understood the importance of sleep in learning and memory, some habits are hard to go by. One such habit is doing a night out before the exams. We all feel that unless we put in a night out, we have not put in the required effort and hours to get a good grade. For all of us who have the difficulty of shedding this habit, the celebrated American poet Robert Frost penned these lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Try something different before the next exam. Don’t go for a night outer. Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep well. Trust me, you will do well!

Beat Procrastination

It is 10' O Clock on a Tuesday night. I go to check what Rajiv, my room mate is up to. To my horror, he is crouched over his study table, furiously working on something. "Rajiv"...He does not listen to me. "Rajiv, what’s up man?” I go and look closely. "Hey, is this the POM-I assignment. Dude you didn’t even tell me. When is it due by the way?”

Looking up from the table Rajiv says "10 AM Tomorrow morning"

Rajiv is our class topper. He does everything in time. I am sure you have one such fellow in your friend list - calm, composed and corporate type. Ever ready with that sly smile on his face. And you always curse him under your breath for him being super smart.

10:02 PM:            I go back to my study table and switch on the study lamp. I get my POM-I book, the assignment papers, my notebook, white sheets and my Lucky Mitsubishi Pen. Arranging everything on the table, I feel I should have a mug of coffee to keep me going and concentrate on this.

10:15 PM:            With the coffee mug on the table, I read the assignment papers and feel that I need to study the chapter in the book. I open the book laboriously and somehow I don’t feel like reading it. I stare at the pages blankly trying to make myself read the content. Suddenly, someone knocks at the door. I give a sigh of relief.  My friend Ajay is there. Ajay is a darling. He is always miles away from his books. He is never bothered about his grades or assignments. He is a jolly good fellow, ever with a big smile on his face, an eager helping hand and an ear that he lends to anyone.
Ajay has some work at the student center and wants to know if I can accompany him. I think that is a good idea as I will get some fresh air and come back and finish my assignment.

12:00 AM:            At midnight, we are back from the library. Now we are lounging near the canteen. There are a bunch of folks and we are having a good time. Someone reminds me of the assignment. I assure myself that I will finish it in good time.

2:00 AM:              Its 2 in the morning and I am back to my room. Rajiv is fast asleep. The assignment papers are lying on the table. I tell myself that I have to do it now. I spend the next 10minutes struggling with it. It does not make a dent in my head. I deduce that I am too tired now to fight with it. Better sleep now and try that in the morning with a fresh mind.

8:00AM:               I wake up. Rajiv, my room-mate is getting dressed. He has this smug smile on his face. He reminds me of POM-I. I press the panic button. The first lecture of the day is at 9:00. I have to finish my assignment in 1 hour. Without even getting out of bed, I jump on the assignment papers. I try to solve the problems as much as I can. It is 8:45 AM now. I am still on question 3. There are 2 more to go. I am sure; I will not be able to finish it. The POM-I assignment is very important and carries 10% weight. Also, I did not get good score in the last assignment. Have to do this one well. I need to finish it any cost. I decide to bunk the first class. 55 minutes later, I am done.  I have to rush to the class to submit it. With just a few minute to spare, I hand over my assignment papers, SHIT - Some How In Time.

I am sure many of you would have been through similar situation at different times. Even though we know that something is important, we keep postponing it till the last minute. Sometimes, we may even do a shoddy job, or worse even miss our deadline because of this.  The technical term for this is procrastination. The reason we procrastinate is because in the heart of our heard, we somehow dread doing it and always look for opportunities not to do the difficult task, even if it may have negative consequences. Procrastination often, becomes a habit by itself, albeit a bad habit. It is said to be one of the biggest obstacles to reach our goals. Procrastination is a big impediment to learning. So, why do we procrastinate?

As students, we have few specific reasons why we procrastinate:
o   We are overconfident of our ability.  We think we can finish the task in a short time
o   We underestimate the time taken to do something
o   We feel the time, mood, situation is not right to do it
o   We think a bit of pressure will do good
o   Boring, uninteresting work. We never procrastinate going to the movie!

Fortunately, there are some proven techniques to deal with procrastination.

1.            Create a TO-DO list:          This technique helps you by freeing up your working memory and putting things in perspective. Many times, things on paper look much smaller than what they appear to be in our head. Then prioritize the to-do tasks. A good way to do it (as per Stephen Covey) is to put them in an urgent and important matrix. Tackle the urgent and important ones first. As Prof. Barbara Oakland says, it is a good idea to create a TO-DO list the night before and sleep on it. It gives time to the brain to work on certain items in the diffused mode and get some breakthrough.
For certain type of tasks; it is advisable to schedule a very small chunk of time in your daily routine. For example, if you want to start a habit of running, and it seems a big daunting task, you may just schedule 10 minutes of time to run every morning. A 10 minute run is not very difficult. But once you start doing it, the positive habit of routine takes over and within a few weeks you would be looking forward to your run. This technique can also be used for writers writing books, papers or blogs.

2.            Eat that frog:      Start doing the most difficult and dreaded task first thing in the morning. As Brian Tracy says, if you have to eat the frog, it does not make any sense to keep staring at the ugly frog and thinking how distasteful it will be. You should rather take a deep breath, put it in your mouth and start chewing.

3.            How do you eat an elephant? – One bite at a time:          Most of the time, the task in front of us seems very large. It is like scaling the Mount Everest.  So, how do you scale Mount Everest? Well, One step at a time. Similarly, if you have a big task at hand, reduce it to smaller pieces. Then tackle each piece one at a time. Breaking down the task to smaller manageable chunks helps to reduce the enormity of task at hand. We can then accomplish each portion one after the other.

4.            Another way to stop procrastination is by having an accountability partner. You may have a friend ask you on a daily basis if you went for your run or not. Else, post your goal on your Facebook page and tell your friends to ask you about it. That will create the sense of responsibility that you need to do the task. Publicly displayed progress charts and various Smartphone social apps that are available today also serve similar purpose.

5.            POMODORO Technique:              Set up a fixed time frame to do the task that you have to do. Try to obstruct all other distractions and focus on the task only. Give yourself a reward after spending the fixed time on the task. Also, focus on the process and not on the product. This would help you get going and you will find yourself making good progress.

In spite of applying all these techniques, you may still slip into procrastination. Be aware and watch yourself. Have a Plan B, should this happen.

Procrastination is like an endemic. It grows. It grows from your academic tasks to personal and professional tasks. It is quite common among many people. If you are a superstar like Rajiv, always prompt, always ready and always prepared, you don’t have a problem. You don’t have to read this blog and apply these techniques. You are able get everything quite easily by virtue of your good habits. If you are a rock-star like Ajay - casual, carefree and cool and have a devil-may-care attitude, you do not need this either. You don’t care if you get anything or not. But, this lesson on how to deal with procrastination is for the vast majority of mortals like me, who are somewhere in between the two extremes. We are the ones who always keep trying. Trying hard for everything. We are the ones who need to stop procrastinating. We need to do it as procrastination is the only thing which stands between us and our goals. It is like a bad habit that grows slowly. We may not realize it until we find ourselves in deep soup. Hence, we need to shake off the inertia and take action. We need to do it, NOW.