Learn Twice as Fast

06/09/2015 01:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

Have you ever wished you could learn a new skill or get better at something? Or even change a habit?

It's usually hard, and you can make it easier.

Smart researchers in business, academia and the military are working to enhance learning, performance and creativity. They have uncovered some important brain patterns and thought structures that can help you learn and grow faster, and kick up your personal goals. Understanding your brain and making the choice to use it more effectively allows you to learn more quickly and access more of your creativity and intelligence -- anytime you want.

Your brain has two fundamental states: survival and growth. All biological systems fall into one of these two states at any given time. Survival is characterized by fear -- flight, fight or freeze, and stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol -- all designed to help you survive a serious physical threat. Great news if you're facing an angry bear, or a hostile neighboring village. All your energy goes to your core, your large muscle groups, and reflexes, and very little to "unnecessary" functions like digestion, or higher-order thinking... not so great for learning but this is hardwired in to help you survive.

Now, you may not have bears or angry villagers in your work life (I hope!), but your body does not know the difference between physical threat and psychological, or even imagined threat. So when your coworker takes credit for your work, or you have to present in front of a key audience, you may experience survival mode, as your sense of threat and stress increases. Your ability to learn and change in that moment decreases. We call that state "fear" for short, and if you want to learn twice as fast, you need to stay out of "fear."

Growth mode is where learning takes place. It is fundamentally incompatible with survival mode, like a light switch. On or off, not both at once. In growth mode, you have access to your entire brain -- and primarily the neocortex, including the pre-frontal cortex, where most rational thought and creativity comes from. Unless you are in growth mode, you will have difficulty making new neural connections -- the definition of learning.

The idea state for learning, is called "flow" or a special form of growth mode. If you think about your mind as a muscle, then flow is pushing a little to create growth. When you work a muscle a little harder than you thought you could, you stimulate muscle growth. If you work on a mental problem that stretches you just a little, you stimulate new neural connections, or learning. This state of "flow" silences our inner critic, it accelerates learning, and it is hackable. Flow is a cycle: struggle, release, flow, recovery. Think of this as strength training for your brain.

In flow, you lose track of time, you get lost in your task, and you enjoy what you are doing as you make progress little by little and feel your skill and knowledge growing.

So, to learn twice as fast, you need to:

Put yourself in growth mode. Focus on the possibilities and opportunities in front of you. Ask yourself, "What could we do? What is possible here? How could this be an opportunity to create something better or to grow?"

Challenge yourself just enough to create flow. The best learners are continual learners who always believe they can go farther and get better. Flow is created when something is not so hard you can't make any progress, but not so easy you don't have to work at it. This "Goldilocks" task is not too hard, not too easy, but just right, and will engage your brain in positive problem-solving.

Turn fears into opportunities as quickly as you can. Afraid of losing something? Embrace the chance to gain something. Angry at a co-worker or boss? Find a way to forgive and seek ways to create a win-win. Don't let someone else's bad behavior push you to have a bad day. You are in control of your feelings, and have no need to let others create fear and anger in you. It only hurts you, after all.

Want to really learn faster? Get familiar with your own brain-states and take charge. Be a fearless leader who learns and acts from growth mode and a state of flow.