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Pragmatic Thinking and Learning Summary – Andy Hunt

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, Andy Hunt

“Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware”, Andy Hunt
252 pages – Paperback | eBook

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TYPE: Non-fiction (philosophy), practical.

SYNOPSIS: A practical and extensive collection of ideas, frameworks, tools and tips to supercharge your learning, ostensibly for programmers but relevant to anyone who plans on hacking their learning at school, home and work – by programmer and life-long learner, Andy Hunt of Pragmatic Programmers.

NOTE: Not all books are created equal. And Pragmatic Thinking and Learning is easily one of the most comprehensive and practical on learning I’ve yet read.

The publisher’s blurb promises that the reader will learn how to:

  • Use the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition to become more expert;
  • Leverage the architecture of the brain to strengthen different thinking modes;
  • Avoid common “known bugs” in your mind;
  • Learn more deliberately and more effectively; and
  • Manage knowledge more efficiently.

And you’ll find not only these but many (many) more ideas, frameworks and techniques inside.

In fact, the book’s astonishing breadth and scope are also its primary weakness, because: 

  1. The text can verge on reading like an ADHD glossary of cognitive psychology and behaviourism; and
  2. There’s so much in here it would be very hard to know where to practically (let alone pragmatically) begin.

That said, there is huge value here (far more than I could even begin to get to in 3 hours) and I definitely plan to come back for a couple of weeks of thorough crunching. 

Like The 7 Habits, Getting Things Done or How to Win FriendsPragmatic Thinking and Learning is the kind of book best kept on your shelf and revisited at least once every year for as long as it takes to internalise its thoughts. 

For now, I’ve pulled out the structure, “recipes”, end-of-section actions and a few frameworks to give you an overview (and remind me) of the ground the book covers.

If you’re looking for a solid, practical primer on Learning How to Learn – even if you never have or never plan to learn programming – this book is a great place to start.



An overview of the upcoming chapters:

  1. Journey from Novice to Expert – Exploring the Dreyfus Model and the keys to mastery (experience, context and intuition);
  2. This Is Your Brain – Understanding and taking advantage of the brain’s biology and the mind’s structure;
  3. Get In Your Right Mind – Understanding intuition and unlocking creativity and problem solving;
  4. Debug Your Mind – Learning to identify and mitigate cognitive biases;
  5. Learn Deliberately – Unlocking learning with techniques like planning, mind maps, SQ3R and writing;
  6. Gain Experience – Experimenting with mindset, environment and feedback to make experience effective;
  7. Manage Focus – Training attention, eliminating distractions, improving productivity and learning to let go; and
  8. Beyond Expertise – Unraveling change, its many obstacles, and how to get started tomorrow.


Recipe 1: Treat people according to their expertise.
Recipe 2: Use rules for novices, intuition for experts.
Recipe 3: Know what you don’t know.
Recipe 4: Learn by watching and imitating.
Recipe 5: Keep practising in order to remain expert.
Recipe 6: Avoid formal method if you need creativity, intuition or inventiveness.
Recipe 7: Learn the skill of learning.


  • Where do you see yourself in the Dreyfus method for your core skills?
  • And for your other skills? Be aware of metacognitive blindness.
  • What would it take to advance each skill to the next level?
  • Reflect on problems you’ve experienced in teams – how could the Dreyfus model help?
  • Where are your teammates on their own journey?


  1. Novices – need context-free, just-add-action recipes;
  2. Advanced Beginners – context-light experimentation;
  3. Competent – context-aware troubleshooters;
  4. Proficient – big-picture self-correctors; and
  5. Experts – targeted, intuitive actors.


  • A well-defined task;
  • Challenging but doable
  • Clear, immediate feedback
  • Opportunities for correction


  1. Imitate – watch and mimic;
  2. Assimilate – reflect and deepen understanding;
  3. Innovate – offer an original thought.


Recipe 8: Capture all ideas to get more of them.
Recipe 9: Learn by synthesis as well as by analysis.
Recipe 10: Strive for good design; it really works better.
Recipe 11: Rewire your brain with belief and constant practice.


  • List your favourite and least favourite apps. How important are aesthetics?
  • Are your L-mode (analytical) and R-mode (creative) in balance? If not, how can you balance them?
  • Keep doodle pads to hand wherever you spend time and use them.
  • Keep a note pad or note taking device with you 24 x 7 and use it.

N.B., for more on L-mode and R-mode (mentioned several times below), see this Wiki article on lateralisation of brain function.



Recipe 12: Add sensory experience to engage more of your brain.
Recipe 13: Lead with R-mode (creative); follow will L-mode (analytical).
Recipe 14: Use metaphor as the meeting place between L-mode and R-mode.
Recipe 15: Cultivate humour to build stronger metaphors.
Recipe 16: Step away from the keyboard to solve hard problems.
Recipe 17: Change your viewpoint to solve the problem.


  • Practice making more metaphors.
  • Use a thesaurus or WordNet to help make new metaphors.
  • Do morning pages for at least two weeks.
  • Look for connections and analogies between unrelated things.
  • Involve more senses when facing a tricky problem.
  • Try new things (book and movie genres, vacations, activities, foods etc…)
  • Invert problems for a fresh perspective.


Recipe 18: Watch the outliers: “rarely” doesn’t mean “never.”
Recipe 19: Be comfortable with uncertainty.
Recipe 20: Trust ink over memory; every mental read is a write.
Recipe 21: Hedge your bets with diversity (of people).
Recipe 22: Allow for different bugs in different people.
Recipe 23: Act like you’ve evolved: breathe, don’t hiss.
Recipe 24: Trust intuition but verify.


  • List the cognitive biases (see below) that you recognise in yourself.
  • How many very unlikely events have you noticed in your life? How unlikely were they with hindsight?
  • Start and maintain a log of notes from meetings.
  • Determine which generation you were born into and reflect on its implications.
  • Determine the generation your coworkers belong to. Do they coincide or conflict with yours?
  • Think about the way your industry has changed over time. How has that correlated with each generation’s values?
  • Take a personality test. How do your results compare with those around you?
  • Pretend your the complete opposite on each personality axis. What does the world look like from that side?
  • Hang out with people that have different personality types to you.
  • Notice your response and recovery from a perceived threat. How does this change when you “think about it”?
  • Act on impulse, but not immediately. Schedule it and reassess at the later time.
  • Take time to design and visualise alternative (preferred) responses to common emotional triggers.
  • Smile. Doing so may be as effective as antidepressants.
  • When in conflict, broaden your awareness and consider the full context to help find a solution.
  • Interrogate your own position. How do you know? Why do you think that?


  • Anchoring – a tendency to adjust estimates relative to a number with which we’ve been primed;
  • Fundamental attribution error – a tendency to overweight personality in other people’s actions (and underweight it in our own);
  • Self-serving bias – a tendency to ascribe success to personal qualities;
  • Need for closure – a desire to eliminate uncertainty, even when detrimental;
  • Confirmation bias – a bias towards things that confirm our existing beliefs;
  • Exposure effect – a bias towards familiar things;
  • Hawthorne effect – a tendency to adjust our behaviour when we know we’re being observed;
  • False memory – the risk of confusing imaginary events with real events through misremembering;
  • Symbolic reduction fallacy – the risk of oversimplification through early or inappropriate symbolism (“it’s like…”); and
  • Nominal fallacy – the tendency to think that because you can label a thing, you can explain it.


Recipe 25: Create SMART objectives to reach your goals.
Recipe 26: Plan your investment in learning deliberately.
Recipe 27: Discover how you learn best.
Recipe 28: Form study groups to learn and teach.
Recipe 29: Read deliberately.
Recipe 30: Take notes with both R-Mode and L-Mode (using e.g., mind maps).
Recipe 31: Write on: documenting is more important than documentation.
Recipe 32: See it. Do it. Teach it.


  • List your three most important goals and create SMART objectives for each.
  • Write concrete goals for now, the short-term and the long-term.
  • Identify two new skills that you haven’t explored to your learning list.
  • Block out time each week to devote to new learning.
  • Set up reminders to reevaluate and reflect on your skills portfolio.
  • Reflect on your strongest intelligences (see below) and those needed by your work and hobbies.
  • Identify ways to bring a strong but underused intelligence to your work and hobbies.
  • Come up with ways to compensate for any intelligence mismatches.
  • Make a mind map for the next book you read.
  • Make a mind map for your career, lifestyle plans or even your next vacation.
  • Experiment with using colour in your notes (e.g., to encode types of information).
  • Experiment with graphical annotations and doodles.
  • Keep iterating and improving your note-taking approach.
  • Take a new topic and teach it to someone you know.
  • Find and attend local learning groups in your area.
  • Listen carefully to speakers at the groups and mind map their talks.
  • Contact the organisers and offer to speak on a topic at an upcoming meeting.
  • Or write an article on your topic or blog about it.


  • Kinaesthetic (movement)
  • Linguistic
  • Logical/Mathematical
  • Visual/Spatial
  • Musical
  • Interpersonal (with other people)
  • Intrapersonal (with yourself)


Recipe 33: Play more in order to learn more.
Recipe 34: Learn from similarities; unlearn from differences.
Recipe 35: Explore, invent, and play in your environment – safely.
Recipe 36: See without judging and then act.
Recipe 37: Give yourself permission to fail; it’s the path to success.
Recipe 38: Prime your mind for the feeling of success.


  • On your next problem, put yourself in the picture. Anthropomorphism helps leverage experience.
  • Keep alternating between exploring a problem and diving into facts.
  • Play, in every sense of the word.
  • Set up safety nets in your work and personal projects to encourage experimentation and play.
  • Look things up as you go along, it’s ok not to know the answer.
  • Next time you’re stuck, don’t just do something, stand there – become fully aware of the problem.
  • Plan on failing. It will take the pressure off it actually happening.
  • Imagine that you were already an expert, act and think accordingly.


Recipe 39: Learn to pay attention.
Recipe 40: Make thinking time.
Recipe 41: Use a personal wiki to manage information and knowledge.
Recipe 42: Establish rules of engagement to manage interruptions.
Recipe 43: Send less email and you’ll receive less email.
Recipe 44: Choose your own tempo for an email conversation.
Recipe 45: Mask interrupts to maintain focus.
Recipe 46: Use multiple monitors to avoid context switching.
Recipe 47: Optimise your personal workflow to maximise context.


  • Experiment with meditation on a regular basis.
  • Try to build up to 20 minutes of meditation a day.
  • Learn the difference between marinating (intentionally releasing focus to trigger creative insight) and procrastinating (putting off what you know must be done).
  • Experiment with mental marinating, start noticing it (and stop criticising it) in other people.
  • Think of routine distractions and find a way to streamline them.
  • Figure out your most productive work time and make a plan to minimise distractions during this time.
  • Keep track of “down” vs. “thinking” time and don’t confuse the two.
  • Find ways to make it harder for your attention to be pulled away from your work.
  • Look at the experts on your team and copy their productivity habits.


Recipe 48: Grab the wheel. You can’t steer on autopilot.


  • Start taking responsibility.
  • Start doing two things that will help you maintain context and avoid interruption.
  • Create a Learning Investment Plan and set up SMART goals.
  • Work out where you are on the novice-expert spectrum and how to progress.
  • Practice.
  • Plan on and make more mistakes.
  • Keep a notebook and take lots of loose, flowing notes.
  • Pay more attention to aesthetics.
  • Start a personal wiki on things you find interesting.
  • Start blogging (e.g., about the books you’ve read)
  • Make thoughtful walking part of your day.
  • Start a book-reading group.
  • Get a second monitor and start using a virtual desktop.
  • Go through the next actions above and try them.

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