A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley


“We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable. […] But there’s something important to note. It was the anticipation that was painful. When the mathphobes actually did math, the pain disappeared. Procrastination expert Rita Emmett explains: ‘The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.’” – Barbara Oakley
Everyone knows that procrastination is not a good thing, but we all seem to do it anyway. I believe that the reason we tend to procrastinate is because of our weak will and self control. We’re not used to exercising those muscles. The only way to grow those muscles is to constantly practice breaking the procrastination.


“Do you like to check your e-mail or Facebook right when you wake up in the morning? Set a timer for ten minutes of work first thing instead—then reward yourself with online time. You will be surprised to see that this tiny exercise in self-control will help empower you over your zombies through the day.” – Barbara Oakley
I used to be the person that would pull out the phone and check facebook and my emails the moment I woke up. However, over the past few months, I’ve started creating a morning routine that consists of waking up, using the bathroom, hydrating myself, meditate, work out and then get ready for work. I will purposely leave my phone in my room until I hit the stage of getting ready for work. This habit has helped me so much. Not only am I actively working my self control, but I have been able to successfully create the tone for the rest of my day.


“Process means the flow of time and the habits and actions associated with that flow of time—as in, ‘I’m going to spend twenty minutes working.’ Product is an outcome—for example, a homework assignment that you need to finish.” – Barbara Oakley
To prevent procrastination, you want to avoid concentrating on product. Instead, your attention should be on building processes—habits—that coincidentally allow you to do the unpleasant tasks that need to be done.”
Such a powerful idea. If you were to look at your goals, it can be really daunting to start and will drain your energy thinking about. However, if you were to break it down to a process, these things are things that can be done in 20 or 30 minutes. But over time, you will be surprised just how much progress you made.
This is my secret to my success thus far. Everytime I create a goal for myself, I find ways to break it down into 20 – 60 minute activities and work on it a couple times a week. Because of that, my flexibility has significantly increased, the amount of books I’m able to read per month has increased and I’m able to fully enjoy checking off my progress each day.


“If you’re a stressed-out test taker, keep in mind that the body puts out chemicals, such as cortisol, when it is under stress. This can cause sweaty palms, a racing heart, and a knot in the pit of your stomach. But interestingly, research finds that it’s how you interpret those symptoms—the story you tell yourself about why you are stressed—that makes the difference. If you shift your thinking from ‘this test has made me afraid’ to ‘this test has got me excited to do my best!’ it can make a significant improvement in your performance.” – Barbara Oakley
I’m lucky that I figured this out early in my education career. I would view each test / exam as a challenge to see how much I think I know about the exam (or the main points) vs how much I actually know. Because of that, I always viewed it as a game and hardly ever got stressed. However, when I say have fun to someone writing an exam, they always reply with “yeah right”. So if you’re one of those people who stress out when there is some sort of presentation or exam, think about it as a game – afterall, what is actually the worse thing that can happen (ie no one will die).


“You may think you really have to understand something in order to explain it. But observe what happens when you are talking to other people about what you are studying. You’ll be surprised to see how often understanding arises as a consequence of attempts to explain to others and yourself, rather than the explanation arising out of your previous understanding. This is why teachers often say that the first time they ever really understood the material was when they had to teach it.” – Barbara Oakley
Another thing I tend to like to do – share my learning with people (ie my girlfriend). I don’t really share with the goals to better understand the material, but more so because I inherently am interested in sharing the new knowledge that I think would be beneficial. This is something you should also do. Not only does it enforce how well you know something, but you’re helping someone else out by sharing your knowledge!

My Take Aways

A Mind For Numbers was surprisingly a very relevant book. At the beginning of this PN, Brian was quoting Barbara about how this book was meant for those doing poorly in math and science and those writing exams. However, after reading the whole PN, I realized that all these ideas are meant for increasing efficiencies in everyday life. Many of these ideas were things that I was fortunate enough to internalize early in my education and so I do not plan on getting a copy of this book. However, if there are ideas here that you are questioning, I suggest picking up a copy and give it a read with an open mind. You can get yourself a copy via Amazon (please note that I will be getting a small amount from Amazon, though it does not affect how much you pay – Amazon just makes less money than if you were to go onto the website yourself). I also suggest you check out the actual Philosopher’s Notes (note they even have courses that consolidate many of the concepts in the books that Brian Joshnson covers and puts them into videos that are really easy to digest). This is the first program that I’ve signed up for and am definitely getting my money’s worth!

Were there any other tips and tricks you used to get yourself through university / life?


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