Most distance runners adopt interval training regimes.
Interval training involves sprinting in bursts with intermittent relaxation rather than running for a long time at a steady pace. A 40 second sprint could be followed by 2 minutes of recovery with jogging or brisk walking. Interval training improves performance by increasing the VO2 max capacity – a measure of oxygen consumption that corresponds to physical endurance capability.
Could we benefit from applying this to our minds as well?
Our brains alternate between two modes of thinking – the focused mode and the diffused mode. The logical focused mode operates during periods of intense and uninterrupted concentration, while the creative diffused mode is switched on when we are dreamy, distracted and look outside bus windows. The focused mode operates in the foreground, while the diffuse mode is a background process. However, they cannot work on a given problem at the same time. While solving a sticky math problem, if you are stuck at a particular step, the focused mode has pushed it forward until it has reached a creative block. This is when washing the dishes for 10 minutes without thinking about the problem improves the chances of solving that problem quicker when you get back to your desk.
Our education system encourages cramming – sprinting through textbooks and notes a night before the exams without breaks. Tests with stringent time limits drive us to bash away at problems, powering through without breaks to switch to the diffuse mode. Needless to say, a regimen with intermittent rest and focus requires practice for effective use. It would not miraculously help when adopted one night before an exam. This is why, it must be taught in schools and practiced during moderated study sessions, where students are allowed small breaks when they are stuck with a problem.
After all, the objective of education is to prepare students for a marathon and not a sprint.
Inspiration: Learning How to Learn – an excellent online course