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Phillip Adcock

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Chunking – the efficient way to store information in your brain and succeed


You can’t learn a complex skill instantly. Your brain has to break down incoming information into manageable, bite-sized ‘packets’ in order to embed them into your long-term and muscle memory.

The number of steps depends on a number of factors, including intelligence, interest in subject matter, and learning environment (learning in a dance studio versus on a bus, for example).

Breaking down the brain

Have you ever thought about how our brains can manage the most complex tasks with seemingly little or no effort? How can we cope mentally with all the functions involved in driving a car, for example?

So many buttons, dials, knobs, levers, and pedals control a growling two thousand-pound beast travelling at breakneck speed and into some seriously small spaces. Our brains can perform these complex actions, and many others, by relying on something called ‘chunking’.

Chunking involves creating a strategy for making more efficient use of your limited reasoning power by grouping small bits of information into manageable bites, or chunks.

It’s a similar process to learning Morse code. The operator begins learning the dot-dash code by learning each letter’s dots and dashes.  As the trainee gets more proficient, he chunks groups of dots and dashes into words. Then, as he becomes even more astute, he learns to chunk entire phrases into manageable blocks.

We chunk groups of behaviours together to reduce the input needed from short-term working memory.

Think back to when you learned to drive a car. The first time you sat behind the wheel the process of driving was alien. For a beginner, driving a car is a mentally draining series of conscious evaluations and adjustments. New drivers must evaluate any number of situations constantly. As a result they soon become cognitively ‘full’. But, as time passes, driving becomes easier until it’s second nature. That’s because we chunk groups of behaviours together to reduce the input needed from short-term working memory.

What new drivers find so mentally taxing and stressful we can handle with ease once we’ve been driving for a while. Not only do more experienced motorists drive more easily, but we can also drive while multi-tasking: holding a conversation, programming the radio, or finding and drinking from a bottle of water.

(Some people stretch chunking too far, though, by believing that they can safely shave, put on makeup, or even change their clothes while driving, which is dangerous, not to mention illegal.)

Chunk your way to success

Chunking allows the mind to retrieve these chunks from memory much more quickly and efficiently than if it were retrieving individual pieces of information. For another everyday example of chunking, consider memorising a phone number. It may be difficult for most people to memorise 435558426. But if the digits are divided into three simple chunks (435-555-8426), it’s far easier to remember.

Some of us chunk recipes and then cook a meal with no further need for the recipe. An image of a lasagne triggers all the ingredients needed, and if you’re in a familiar grocery store, you then buy them on a single pass down the aisles without backtracking. (This is why menu cards are such popular giveaways in supermarkets.)

What have you been putting off learning or doing because it’s too overwhelming? Chunk it into smaller steps, and see how much easier it is to make progress.

We can use chunking to achieve greater success, whether in the exam room, at work, or on the dance floor. If you try to recite the lyrics to a pop song cold, you probably have trouble doing it. But if you sing along to it on the radio, the parts you couldn’t remember spring to mind once you hear the first few words.

This is chunking in action, and it can be a powerful tool for personal achievement.

What have you been putting off learning or doing because it’s too overwhelming? Chunk it into smaller steps, and see how much easier it is to make progress.

2 Responses

  1. Chunking makes sense. More
    Chunking makes sense. More and more clients are moving away from whole day courses to 2-3 hour ones. It makes sense business-wise. They find it difficult releasing staff from shop floor activities for long durations.
    Bryan – course delivery and off-shelf bite sized course materials

  2. Chunking is all very well –
    Chunking is all very well – it has its uses. However this can become a trap if it prevents your mind from building more complex structures of thoughts.

    Indeed, when we consider the mind’s pattern-making capabilities, we begin to see that ideas are structures built from individual thoughts and that structures of ideas become what we call knowledge. Structures of knowledge become strategies and visions by which we create futures we desire.

    So this is rather the reverse process – we build complex structures in our minds that enable us to act effectively. In my own work with managers I like to use Logovisual thinking (LVT) to achieve this but others obviously have alternative methods.

    Chunking is a first step but then we epitomise and use narrative forms to challenge ourselves to think at a higher level – algebra of the mind!

    Chunk away – but then explore what might come next.

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