A Mind For Numbers - Barbara Oakley PhD

A Mind For Numbers - Barbara Oakley PhD

Video Book Summary

Download all of the Mind Maps here.

Book Summary Notes 

A Mind For Numbers

“This book is for high school students who love art and English classes but loathe math." 

"It is meant as well for college students who already excel in math, science, engineering, and business, but who suspect there are mental tools to be added to their learning toolkits." 

"It’s for parents whose children are either falling off the math track or trying to rocket toward math and science stardom."

"It’s for the frazzled nine-to-five worker who hasn’t been able to pass an important certification test, and for the night-shift convenience store clerk who has dreamed of becoming a nurse—or even a doctor."

"It’s for the growing army of homeschoolers. It’s for teachers and professors—not only in math, science, engineering, and technology, but also in fields such as education, psychology, and business."

"It’s for the retiree who finally has the time to embrace new knowledge in computing, for example, or the intricacies of great cooking." 

"And it’s for readers of all ages who love to learn a little about everything. In short, this book is for you. Enjoy!”

When do you really stop learning?

Some people it's after highschool, others when they start their career or even retire..

But if you're watching this channel it's very likely you will be a lifelong learner!  (If not I suggest you adopt that alter-ego).

The truth is that the concepts in this book will make learning easy over our entire life!

Compounding us way past what we could have ever reached without them..

Learning how to learn is perhaps the most important thing you can learn..

Now other than being confusing that sentence is really true.. 

What if you could learn 10% faster?  Compounded over the next 50 years that would be quite a lot of knowledge.. 

Suddenly the learning goals you had for yourself aren't quite so far away!

This book is filled with principles not tactics..

Like Barbara said.. This book is for you!  

No matter where you are at in life or in learning there are principles here that will last you for a lifetime..  All in a 20 minute video!


“One way to think of the diffuse mode is as a base station when you are mountain climbing." 

"Base stations are essential resting spots in the long journey to difficult mountaintops. You use them to pause, reflect, check your gear, and make sure you’ve got the right route picked out."

"But you would never confuse resting at a base station with the hard work of getting to the top of the mountain. In other words, just using your diffuse mode doesn’t mean you can lollygag around and expect to get anywhere."

"As the days and weeks pass, it’s the distributed practice—the back and forth between focused-mode attention and diffuse-mode relaxation—that does the trick.”

Learning is like climbing a mountain!

There are times when we need to rest (Diffuse Mode). 

  • This is taking your mind off what you're currently studying..  Letting the subconscious mind connect the dots!
  • Things like going for a walk, taking a nap or having a shower are examples..
  • Ever wonder why you get your best ideas in the shower?  That's why!

And times where we need to lug ourselves up the mountain (Focused Mode).

  • This is where we do the hard work of learning, studying, reading, listening or watching material on our subject of choice..
  • In order to make connections we first need points to connect..  Information we learn (ideally) during focused sessions of study!

How are you keeping the balance?

Everest can't be climbed in a day..  

Actually you need scheduled breaks just to survive up there!  

Are you scheduling breaks for Diffuse Mode thinking? 

Taking walks, meditating or just lying down can lead to some serious connections being made in your mind!

But there is going to be a heck of a lot of climbing!

Hard work is necessary.  No one is saying you can diffuse your way to competence in a subject!

Just knowing that there are two different mode gives us something though..  It allows us to focus HARDER for shorter periods of time!

Knowing we can take a nap after a couple hours of studying does wonders for our focus!

Juggler Storage

“Working memory is the part of memory that has to do with what you are immediately and consciously processing in your mind." 

"It used to be thought that our working memory could hold around seven items, or ‘chunks’ but it’s now widely believed that the working memory holds only about four chunks of information."

"You can think of working memory as the mental equivalent of a juggler. The four items stay in the air—or in working memory—because you keep adding a little energy."

"In contrast, long-term memory might be thought of as a storage warehouse. Once items are in there, they generally stay put."

"The warehouse is large, with room for billions of items, and it can be easy for stored parcels to get buried so deeply that it’s difficult to retrieve them."

"Research has shown that when your brain first puts an item of information in long-term memory, you need to revisit it a few times to increase the chances you’ll later be able to find it when you need it.”

Two Primary Components of Memory:

The Juggler

  • This is short term memory..  
  • The Juggler is in charge of keeping all the stuff you're 'working on' in the air while you're working on it!
  • Really helpful because obviously not everything we learn needs to be shipped to the storage facility..  (That would make it hard to find ANYTHING). 

The Storage Facility 

  • This is long term memory.. 
  • All the things you need to remember get filed into a Storage Facility with billions of items that can be recalled!
  • But they can sometimes get lost in the giant warehouse if you're not careful!

The Discerning Juggler and the Well-Lit Storage Facility!

  • This is all about how to get the Juggler and the Storage Facility to work together!
  • The Discerning Juggler

The Juggler really has one job..  Knowing what information is important and what isn't important!

There is bound to be some things you read, listen to or watch that you won't need again..  Good!  Let The Juggler drop those balls.. 

But we need to train this Juggler that if something is important he needs to send it to the warehouse..  

Even just knowing this analogy is a great way to stay mindful of this!

The Storage Facility

The number one way to light up your warehouse is Recall!  

This is where you shut the book, stop the video or leave the class and ask your mind to Recall what it learned..  

Doing this directly after you learn something will place it in the storage Facility.. 

Doing this multiple times after learning something will make sure the path to that file is well lit!


"We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable." 

"Medical imaging studies have shown that mathphobes, for example, appear to avoid math because even just thinking about it seems to hurt. The pain centers of their brains light up when they contemplate working on math."

"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.’"

"Avoiding something painful seems sensible. But sadly, the long-term effects of habitual avoidance can be nasty... Procrastination is a single, monumentally important ‘keystone’ bad habit. A habit, in other words, that influences many important areas of your life. Change it, and a myriad of other positive changes will gradually begin to unfold.”

The worst habit you can have?  Procrastination. 

Not only does procrastination ruin your changes of learning and growing..

  • But once you start procrastinating, often it leads to more procrastination!
  • It's like an addiction procrastination makes us feel good in the moment but long term it's destructive! 
  • While the pile of things you have to do pile up your resistance to doing them piles up even higher!

So how can we overcome procrastination?

  • Piers Steele PhD says that his number one tip to overcome procrastination is just to 'Get Started' 
  • Though it might seem 'easier said than done' it really is all about getting past the 'dread of doing the task' because the task itself is much easier!

Try This: 

  • Step One: Notice yourself procrastinating?
  • Step Two: Commit to work for 2 minutes. 
  • Step Three: Often after those 2 minutes you'll notice that it wasn't as bad as you thought!


“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."

"Warning: When you first sit down to try this, some of your zombies will scream as if they want to eat your brain. Tune them out! Part of the point of this exercise is learning to laugh at your zombies’ antics as they predictably tell you, ‘Just this once it’s okay to check Facebook right now.’”

How to stop Zombies from eating your brain?

First thing..  Shut off the phone!

  • Barbara and I agree on not looking at our phones right away..  And if 10 minutes is all you can do that's alright!
  • For me I prefer to get 1-2 hours of deep work done before looking at any email, social media or text messages..

One reason is because I know it will actually get done..

  • The other reason is because it sets me up to fight off the Zombies all day long!
  • If you take the hit of dopamine your phone gives you first thing in the morning it's very hard not to be addicted to that all day long..

Here is a hack:

  • 1: Plug your phone in as your alarm in your bedroom on Airplane mode. 
  • 2: Wakeup on the first alarm and don't look back!
  • 3: Do the human stuff you need to do and immediately get into your morning ritual without your phone.


“If you find yourself avoiding certain tasks because they make you uncomfortable, there is a great way to reframe things: Learn to focus on process, not product."

"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."

"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.”

Need a sure way to get nothing done?  Focus on outcome.

The outcome is the final product that we want to have after all the work is done..

  • This is the finished video!
  • The final page of a book!
  • The new business off the ground!

The product is a product of the process!

  • Process leads to product and not the other way around..  
  • Focusing too much on the product can cause us to feel uncomfortable for many reasons:

It brings up fear of not being good enough.

It shows you how far you have left to go.

It gives you the excuse of not having enough time. 

But when we focus on the process it allows us to forget a lot of those things and just get to work!

What does process look like?

Well for me it looks like:

Starting the timer to Mind Map a book.

Showing up and being present while recording a video.

Listening and connecting with coaching clients.

What it doesn't look like:

How many books I read this week.

How many subscribers or views I get.

How many Mind Mapping courses or coaching calls I sell from the channel.


“The ‘Pomodoro’ is a technique that’s been developed to help you focus your attention over a short period of time."

"Pomodoro is Italian for ‘tomato’—Francesco Cirillo, who originally developed this time-management system in the 1980s, used a tomato-shaped timer. In the Pomodoro technique, you set a timer for twenty-five minutes... Once the timer starts ticking, you’re on the clock. No sneaking off to web surf, chat on the phone, or instant message your buddies."

"What’s nice about doing a Pomodoro is that if you’re working around friends or family, you can tell them about the technique. Then, if they happen to interrupt you, all you need to do is mention that you’re ‘doing a Pomodoro’ or ‘on the clock,’ and it gives a friendly reason for them to leave you alone.”

Tomatoes changes my life!

Remember focusing on process vs product?

  • Pomodoro timer not only helps you focus in short burst but it's also a practical way to focus on process..
  • Instead of 'finish mind map' I only need to do 3 Pomodoro sessions..  
  • Instead of 'read this book' I only need to do 5 Pomodoro sessions..

Pomodoro is about reducing friction!

  • Turning the timer and getting started is easier than just getting started.. 
  • Why?  Because you know exactly how much time you're asking yourself to dedicate..
  • Instead of having an open ended study session where you might try and force yourself to go for hours..  Pick a dedicated (short) amount of time.

But it's also about deep focus..

  • Remember focused mode and diffuse mode?
  • Pomodoro is perfect for this!  25 - 45 minutes of focused attention mixed with 5-15 minutes of diffuse mode..  


“The legendary Charles Darwin would do much the same thing. When trying to explain a concept, he imagined someone had just walked into his study." 

"He would put his pen down and try to explain the idea in the simplest terms. That helped him figure out how he would describe the concept in print. Along those lines, the website Reddit.com has a section called ‘Explain like I’m 5’ where anyone can make a post asking for a simple explanation of a complex topic."

"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.”

Understanding arrives as a consequence of explaining..

Often we think the opposite don't we?

  • Teachers should know everything about a topic before they even start teaching!  
  • Actually..  This way makes more sense!  Only by teaching do they uncover what they don't know.
  • When you know a lot about a topic it's easy to take pieces of it for granted instead of knowing everything from first principles..

So why explain like they are five?

  • The more complex an idea is the easier it is to memorize something and not truly understand it..
  • But if you want to build a truly steady base of knowledge in everything you have to start from the base!
  • If you had to explain it to a five year old you would be forced to start from first principles vs taking memorized information for granted!

What is a five year old's favorite word?

  • WHY
  • A great exercise to do when learning something is to ask yourself WHY 5 times in a row.. 
  • This makes sure you know the topic from first principles vs a memorization.
Back to blog