Learn how to learn

published on 20 June 2022

As you learn more, you leave more books unfinished.

Naval Ravikant

What’s learning?

Learning is a process of keeping abreast of change. It’s turning chaos into order. Learning is more important than ever; it's also gotten more abstract.

Learning is what moves you from where you are to where you want to be. In a world where all the information is just a few clicks away, knowing how to learn from that effectively is an extraordinary power that can help you achieve any goal. 

Learning can only happen when you have a well-defined goal and a well-defined plan.

Misconceptions about learning

Here are a few misconceptions that you might have about learning:

  • You need more information. You probably need to consume less but more targeted information. 
  • You need to learn faster. Increasing your reading speed won’t make you a faster learner.
  • Your memory sucks. You don’t struggle with learning because you have poor memory, you struggle with learning because you have an ineffective approach to learning.
  • You must remember as much as possible. The key question is what you should strive to remember and what you can forget. Some information is critical while others are irrelevant. 
  • You need to learn X, Y, or Z. Don’t learn what you need to learn. Only learn what you want to learn.

Common learning issues

Here are a some common learning issues:

  • Trying to learn too much. Take on only what you can handle.
  • Taking a passive approach to learning. Learning is an active process that requires effort.
  • No clear purpose behind your learning. If you have a strong purpose behind your learning, you will learn better. 
  • Lack of confidence. Let go of any assumption about what you can and can’t learn.

Developing a learning mindset

Your first step is to develop a learning mindset:

  • Shift your identity. Believe that you’re a highly efficient learner and act like one. Your identity often becomes your reality, especially over a long period of time.
  • Adopt a growth mindset. Realize that your capacities are not fixed and that you can get better and act accordingly.
  • Understand the power of Neuroplasticity. The brain is surprisingly malleable. As you learn, your brain creates new neural connections.
  • Adopt empowering beliefs about learning. Repeat this affirmation: I can learn anything as fast as anybody else.

The learning cycle

As you learn, you tend to go through these distinctive phases:

  • Phase 1: Initial excitement. You feel good starting to learn something new. 
  • Phase 2: 1st roadblock. After making rapid progress in phase 1, learning begins to slow. Your initial excitement wears off. You feel like giving up. 
  • Phase 3: Breakthrough. As you keep going through phase 2, you you realize that you’ve made a lot of progress. You feel good. You keep learning and return to phase 1. In turn, you become an expert.

Here are some tips for getting through the Phase 2:

  • Celebrate little wins. Give yourself a little treat for every spark of understanding. 
  • Visualize the outcome. When you hit a roadblock, visualize yourself in a few months or years when you’ve reached your learning goals.
  • Accept the way you feel. When you feel demotivated be ok with it. Know that it’s part of the learning process.
  • Make your subconscious work for you. Your conscious mind is the goal setter. Your subconscious mind is the goal getter. To use your subconscious, set clear goals. Think about goals often. Make it your focal point. Your subconscious will look for all possible ways to help you reach it.

You'll sometimes still doubt yourself. When this happens remember that learning is a chaotic process with peaks and valleys. 

Come up with learning goals

Time is the scarcest resource you have. You can do a lot of things with the time you have. So choose to learn something that you won't regret.

Here a few criteria that you should keep in mind before picking out any new topic to learn:

  • Genuine interest. Are you passionate about the skill you want to learn?
  • Usefulness. Does learning that skill help you reach goals that excite you? 
  • Timeliness. Is right now the best time to learn this skill?

A good learning goal would be just beyond your current range of understanding. 

The more specific you are with your learning goals, the easier it’ll be to create an action plan to achieve them. 

Create an action plan

Break up your learning goals into byte-sized pieces. You would need to learn each piece separately and then put everything back together. 

A starting point is to find the most renowned expert in that field. Get your hands on books that they have written or watch their lectures online. This initial research will help you get to action plan more quickly. 

Plan the logistics

After you have your action plan, it's time to plan the logistics.

  • Dedicate time. You need to decide how much time you want to dedicate to your learning. In most cases, you need to carve out 3 hours a week. Blocking time in your calendar is highly effective. What gets scheduled usually gets done.
  • Establish routines. Implement routines and slowly build consistency. A quote from ‘Atomic Habits,’ “You don’t rise to the levels of your goals. You fall to the levels of your systems.” 

The Tree Analogy

The learning process is like the life of a tree. 

Remember what you need is a powerful and healthy tree, including the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves.

  • Roots. Understanding what learning is. Developing a powerful learning attitude, identify learning goals, and creating an action plan. 
  • Trunk. The trunk consists of the main points of the subject that you’re trying to learn. It’s usually made of core concepts, laws, and theories. After you master these, you have a solid foundation to build more knowledge.
  • Branches and leaves. These represent subconcepts, facts, stories, anecdotes, or statistics that you add to expand your fundamental knowledge.
  • Watering the tree. You need to constantly water your tree by actively trying to recall what you’ve learned. You can do this with learning techniques such as recalling, summarizing, or teaching. 
  • Pruning the tree. You need to avoid information overload. To improve your learning, you must prune your tree by removing any irrelevant information, useless statistics, random facts, meaningless examples, and so on. 

The Mist Analogy

Learning is like looking out at a landscape that’s full of mist.

All you see are a few mountain peaks. There’s a mountain peak of storytelling, medicine, law, agriculture, and so on.

As you keep learning, this mist lowers and lowers and you start seeing valleys, maybe you see a connection between medicine and agriculture, the more and more valleys appear and the more advanced your research is, you see deeper and deeper connections. Then you start seeing the cities and highways.

The more you learn, the clearer the landscape becomes. 

Before learning

Practice recalling what you’ve studied previously before starting a new learning session.

While learning

You can use the following techniques while learning:

Mind mapping

Take a sheet of paper or text editor or any mind mapping app and write the main concept in the middle. Create different ideas for related ideas or concepts. For each idea add more branches to include sub ideas. It can be chronological or spatial or logical. 

Summarize

Write down a summary of what you've learned from memory on your own. Summarizing helps you pinpoint the key points that you need to learn. 

You can also create flashcards with key bullet points.

Notes

Take notes on things that resonate with you. Make sure you paraphrase what you find interesting in your own words. 

Draw a vertical line one third of the way across your page. Write the main ideas on the right hand column and summarize them in a few words in the left hand column. 

You can also use the capture and create method for note taking. Where on the right hand side you’re taking notes – capturing – on the left hand side you write your impressions (why it matters, how you can use it, what it reminds you of, and so on).

Review your notes periodically. 

Develop metaphors and analogies

Metaphors and analogies are anchors to which we can attach any new concept. A good sign that you understand a concept is the ability to provide specific examples, metaphors, or analogies.

For example, learning is like growing a tree. Or learning a new concept is akin to an unstable stool: as you come up with one specific example, it becomes a one-legged stool; as you come up with one more example, it becomes a two-legged stool. As you add a couple of more examples, the stool becomes stable as the concept becomes clear in our minds. 

Take action

In many cases, what you need to do is to implement what you’ve learnt. You can put yourself in real-life situations that require what you’re learning. For example, if you're learning public speaking, you can schedule a speech in front of a live audience. Want to become a writer, start writing a book or a blog post. 

General to specific

When we learn we often get lost in some part of the process. Overwhelmed by too much information we lose track of key ideas while remembering small details of little importance. Train yourself to prioritize the information. 

Zoom out of the detail and ask yourself what’s truly important. 

After learning

Recall whatever you’ve learnt multiple times at set intervals. When you recall what you’ve learnt multiple times over spaced time periods, you’ll learn better and remember things for longer. 

General guidance: revise what you’ve learnt with a gap of: 1 day, 2 days, 1 week, 2 weeks, 1 month, 2 months, 6 months, and 1 year. You can use flash cards for spaced repetition. 

Forgetting is an important part of learning. By forgetting and then revising you end up building knowledge that’s engraved in memory.

Feynman technique for learning

Teaching what you’ve learned to someone is the most powerful way to learn.

You can teach it to a friend or colleague. Create an online course, video, or article. Put together content and publish it online.  

While teaching, you’ll also come up with concrete examples, useful metaphors, interesting analogies, and practical exercises. This helps reinforce your learning. 

Students asking you questions puts your knowledge to the test. The more you interact with students the more you deepen your understanding of the topic. 

The Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman developed his own method of learning topics. Now known as the Feynman technique, it’s a simple process, containing 5 repeatable steps:

  • Choose a concept. Select a concept that you want to learn. Take a sheet of paper and write the name of the topic at the top. 
  • Explain it. Explain it as though you need to teach it to someone else. Make sure you use your own words. Write simply. Challenge yourself to come up with a couple of examples. You can imagine yourself teaching it to a kid. Because writing requires you to sharpen your thinking, it helps you become a better learner. 
  • Identify the gaps in your understanding. As you strive to explain the concept in your own words, you’ll notice where you fall short. That’s the main benefit of this method: it instantly throws light on things you don’t understand. 
  • Revisit the learning material. Now that you have noticed your gaps in knowledge, review the learning material again. 
  • Simplify. Finally, explain the concept one more time in the simplest way possible. Writing down key concepts using this method is a great way to learn. 

Additional tools for learning

Building blocks. Concepts are meaningful chunks of information that help you organize new information more effectively and as a result facilitate learning. Learning requires you to build a library of concepts. The more concepts you know the more nuances you can understand. By building a vast library of concepts, you can make connections with new concepts more easily. You break key concepts into subconcepts and as you grasp these subconcepts deeply they allow you to grasp even more granular concepts. For instance, if you can’t perform basic calculations, you won’t be able to understand advanced calculus. 

Mental models. Mental models are cognitive tools that help us sort out information and make sense of the world. They enable us to make better decisions. A few examples of mental models:

  •  80/20 principle. 20% of the information you consume contains 80% of what you need to learn. 
  • Parkinson’s law. The amount of work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Which means that the more time you have the longer you'll take to complete a task. That’s why deadlines are powerful tools. 

Learn from articles

First skim through an article. Read the heading and subheading carefully. Read the table of contents and try to understand what the article is about and how it's structured. What is covered, what is left out, and why.

Next, read the introduction and understand the main thesis. Then, read the conclusion and identify the key lessons. Articles are learning tools, don’t feel obligated to read the entire article, just read the parts that interest you. 

Ask yourself questions to extract key points from the article. 

What’s the main thesis stated by the author in the introduction. How’s the article structured and why? Is the article relevant to you and your learning goals? 

Conclusion

As the world becomes more and more complex, your ability to learn faster and better than other people will give you an incredible advantage. It’ll allow you to reach almost any goal you set. 

When you assume the identity of a learner and define what you want to learn and why and use effective learning techniques, you’ll inevitably move closer to your goals. 

Once you reach one of your learning goals, you’ll be able to replicate the process over and over again for anything else you desire to learn.  

The deeper you dive into anything in your life, the more you will discover and learn.

 



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