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Interleaving: Train Your Brain for Effective Professional Development

by Sara Gallagher | August 23, 2017

A few months ago, I hit The Slump. You’ve hit it too, once or twice.

If you’re reading our Insights and Tools, you probably take your development seriously. You’re willing to put in hours of your own time to achieve peak performance. You’ve secured a mentor (or two, or three.) You’ve accumulated a large professional development library. “How I Built This” and “HBR Ideacast” are regular subscriptions on your podcast service. You’re constantly reading and sharing articles about management theories, or interesting industry innovations.

But at some point, you hit saturation. You wearily pause your audio book, remove your well-worn earbuds, and wonder… “Have I really learned anything new?”

It isn’t arrogance that prompts the question: it’s exhaustion. You can treat it by pretending your brain is caught in a Chinese finger trap. Relax. Take a break. PUT DOWN THE PETER DRUCKER BOOK. Wait a few weeks or months, and voila! Like magic, your brain is ready to soar again.

But what if we could prevent this kind of fatigue in the first place? What if there was a research-supported method to sustainably and effectively feed your brain new information—in a such a way that you could do it for longer periods of time?

A small but growing body of research suggests that we might all be doing professional development wrong.  Typically, when we want to learn something new, we use a sequentially ordered method known as “blocking.” This means that we start with one skill (or knowledge area) and practice it until it is mastered. Then we move on to the next one.

Almost everything about our education system (and later in life, our approach to professional development) is based on blocking. Blocking, in turn, often goes hand-in-hand with long, focused sessions of reading, training, and studying.

The alternative is a technique called “interleaving,” where we instead alternate between several related skills at once, often in a looser and less process-oriented way. For example, rather than spend an entire math class learning about fractions, a teacher might opt to spend 20 minutes on fractions and another 20 minutes learning about polygons and angles followed by a final 10 minutes working on mathematical brainteasers. This “focused switching” appears to lead to better overall performance in a number of applications, from sports to math to music.

Why does interleaving appear to work so effectively? There are two prevailing theories. The first is that the variety inherent in interleaving forces us to break out of rote responses. Our brain is constantly engaged as we process the new skills and think critically about when they might be used.

 

 

The second explanation is that interleaving demands more out of our long-term memory. Focused practice sessions merely require that we remember knowledge long enough to prove mastery in a single session. Constantly switching topics from session to session signals to our brain that the information is important enough to store for long-term retrieval.

So what might this look like for professional development? More research is needed, but in the meantime we might be able to stave off mental fatigue by infusing some variety.

My own experiment with interleaving started with learning German—a project that started out of necessity (I was working with some German clients) and blossomed into a personal intellectual renaissance.

Engaging this new part of my brain reawakened my curiosity in a way I hadn’t experienced in years—it led me to dig into the latest research about global differences in approaches to decision-making and authority.  After switching back and forth between related topics—driven by curiosity rather than curriculum—I picked up my next business book: One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams. My “ah-ha” moments are piling up as I dig into this book with fresh energy and perspective.

So here’s my challenge to you—think about a key topic of knowledge area you want to develop. Now, spend some time thinking around the edges of that topic. Decide how you will incorporate variety, curiosity, and mental breaks into your development process. Want to learn how to better manage conflict? Consider taking a break from articles with “conflict management” in the title. Instead, do some research on power dynamics in the workplace. Learn about how decisions are made in other countries. Read a biography about someone who famously unified disparate groups toward a common goal. Then switch back and forth between these at a pace that feels right to you.

Finally, let us know how this works for you. With research still in early stages, we’d love to hear from you about whether you find interleaving to be effective. Click here and share with us your findings and ideas!


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