How to Learn Anything More Effectively | Hacker Noon

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@seabassedSébastien Wylleman

Infosec professional in permanent beta.

Throughout our education, we’re told what to learn. We’re given charts and tables, textbooks and manuals, even the odd lecture. We get buried under books. Yet, rarely do we consider how to learn. Too often do we spend hours poring over the material only for a fraction to have gone in. What a waste of time!

To help out, I’ve collated my best productivity tips that helped me master the art of learning. I collected these tips and techniques as I trained to become a software developer. Now I want to share what I discovered on my journey so that you can avoid the same pitfalls and traps.

However, remember: everyone is different. What worked for me won’t necessarily work for you. So, try stuff out, experiment. Tailor the techniques to your learning style. Be it visual or auditory.

Also, I’d like to thank Andrei over at ‘Zero to Mastery.’ He was pivotal in improving my productivity and inspired me to want to teach you all how to learn effectively.

1. Time is of the Essence

It’s easy to leave everything to the last minute. But cramming won’t get you anywhere, no matter what you think. In 2009, one study found that spacing out learning was more effective than cramming for 90% of participants. Strangely, 72% thought it was more beneficial.

Compound learning relies on a simple principle: little but often. Spending time every day going over a topic will lead to a much higher recall. Repetition is key. By taking small incremental steps, we avoid burnout the night before an exam.

It can be challenging to work consistently. Work seems boring compared with the world of distraction at our fingertips. So, re-frame your work. Create games to help you learn. Develop reward systems to keep you motivated. Be curious and set yourself challenges.

Most importantly, stay positive. Negative thoughts won’t help you achieve anything. You need to decide, is work a choice or a chore.

Don’t panic if you feel like you’re not getting enough done. Remember the Pareto Principle: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Instead, ask yourself, ‘is this the best use of my time?’ If it’s not, do something else. The aim is to learn, not to just look like you’re learning. So, look out for any critical skills which can help you achieve your goal.

2. Combine for Creativity

Originality is hard. Impossible even. All we can do is mix up whatever we have to hand. But don’t despair, some of life’s wonders come from a mash-up: mint and ice-cream, chilli and chocolate, or controversially ham and pineapple.

Find your niche by combining talents. Are you a whiz at programming but with a knack for business and communication? Or are you a video editor with a passion for medicine? By skill stacking, we create new opportunities from what we love. It gives us goals and aspirations. It provides motivation.

If you’re still struggling for inspiration, jump out your comfort zone. Hunt for viewpoints you’ve not heard before. Always make sure you’ve got multiple mentors and teachers. Though don’t take everything your teacher says as the gospel truth. Question, how do I know this is true? Even if you disagree, it’s still essential to draw upon different perspectives. It helps spark ideas and teaches us to think critically.

But, stay open-minded as you explore. Everything has upsides and downsides, balances, and trade-offs. Nothing is ever black and white. Don’t dismiss a resource simply because you disagree with it – embrace the disagreement.

3. Keep it Simple

When we learn, there is a tendency to overcomplicate things, to try to sound smart. But we’re not after appearances. We want the real deal. Albert Einstein best captured the thought: ‘If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.’ Another physicist Robert Feynman expanded the concept into a technique he used to help him learn.

The Feynman Technique involves distilling a topic down into a brief and accurate explanation. Give it a try. If you struggle, go back and practice active learning, rather than passively consuming content. We’re after quality, not quantity. Think about the topic, set yourself problems, discuss the ideas with a colleague. Then write out a summary of what you learned. Try to do this without looking at your notes.

Once confident, try out this classic saying for learning new skills: see one, do one, teach one. Find a practical way you can apply the knowledge you’ve gained, solidifying the concepts in your mind.

4. Never Skip Leg Day

If you’ve ever been to the gym, you’ll have seen the guys walking around, giant chest, arms like tree trunks, but they’re legs are scrawny. They look like a triangle. Completely unbalanced. As if one push would send them toppling over. They’ve been skipping leg day.

Learning is no different. Try running before you can walk, and you’ll end up going nowhere. Focus on the fundamental ideas, and you’ll build a foundation of understanding which will unlock concepts moving forward. You’ll be able to work out why, as opposed to rote learning the information.

To do this, you’ll need a plan – a learning roadmap. Burning through the hours without any idea of where you are going is not a recipe for success. Work out what you need to learn and when you need to learn it. As people say: work smart, not hard. Efficiency always beats grit.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, chunk the subject up, divide, and conquer! After all, a problem solved is a problem halved. By breaking down a topic into manageable bits, we can work our way through a subject from fundamental to advanced—each step leading to the next.

5. Learning is a State of Mind

To achieve a big task, our brains employ two radically different modes of thinking. Each will serve you well, but master them both, and learning becomes a breeze.

During the focused mode, we apply ourselves to a task intently. Most learning occurs at this point. These are the sessions we hunt for, the times when we get stuff done. While the diffuse mode lets our minds wander. Take a walk, relax, don’t fixate on the problem at hand. It’s not just daydreaming. Inside your mind, your brain is forming connections between ideas and creating new solutions. Just make sure you’ve got a notebook to hand!

Let your mind wander. Avoid phones and distractions, as this will only drain your brain of concentration. Distraction is bad for our brains. Shortening our attention spans and overstimulating us with information.
Use the diffuse mode to unwind – to scout out the road ahead like a hunter scanning for food. Then, when you’ve honed in on an idea, switch to focused mode to master the details. But remember, you can’t spend too long in a focused mode without your thinking becoming stale.

You can try out the Pomodoro Technique to keep your mind from stagnating. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, he broke work down into intervals of 25 minutes, separated by short breaks, to help maintain focus for longer.

Sometimes focus comes as naturally as breathing. Have you ever become utterly engrossed in a task and lost all track of time? You’ve likely experienced flow. The term was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe a period of hyperfocus when an activity completely absorbs a person. They’re ‘in the zone.’ Every action leads to the next, like music. It is action without thought.

How do you achieve such a wondrous state? Don’t make things too easy. The task needs to challenge your skills enough to maintain concentration, but not be too easy that it’s boring. Get it just right, and you’ll… go with the flow.

6. Space it Out

We’ve discussed the dangers of cramming, but be careful of overlearning too. Overlearning refers to continually practising a task after a certain level of mastery has been achieved. Over-learners tend to work every hour of the day. But that leads to burnout. You’re not a robot. Space out your studying with time intervals between sessions. Even if you study less, you’ll remember more.

Spaced repetition involves repeating new and more difficult information more frequently. In contrast, older and less difficult information is shown less frequently. Often this is achieved with flashcards. The technique uses the spacing effect, whereby our brain learns more effectively when we space our learning over time.

Imagine your goal like a brick wall. Each brick laid is a step towards the goal. But stack too quickly, and the mortar cannot dry. Your brain is the same. It takes time for the information to sink in. To stick. So, space it out. It’ll also help tap your diffuse thinking mode.

7. Keep an Open Mind

Spend too long in a certain frame of mind, and you’ll become like the hammer – every problem will be a nail. This is called the Einstellung effect. It’s mechanized thinking, which leaves you unable to imagine new solutions due to prior assumptions and rigid thought patterns. Snap out of it. Ask yourself, what am I doing wrong?

Reach out to others for feedback. Understand their experience, and see how they apply to your own. By empathizing with others, we think like them, offering an entirely new perspective.

Be adventurous. Don’t fall into the same routine over and over. Mix things up. You never know where the next idea will come from, so take a chance. All while your brain whirs in the background, accessing the diffuse mode, and strengthening neural-pathways. It can be as simple as taking a different route to work or studying in a new location.

These novel experiences will become tied to the information you’re trying to remember. Think of them like hooks to hang the information on. Humans are fantastic at recalling stories and emotions but awful with facts. Combine a story or an event with a subject, and you’ll create another route to remembering. Metaphors and analogies work too and can be a great way to use the Feynman Technique. Try explaining a topic using a story or example. If you can do that, think of the story next time you need to remember the topic.

Use your senses too! Hearing, feeling, smelling are great tools for learning as well as sight. Learning in a garden or office full of art stimulates your senses, and improves memory. For instance, studies have found peppermint, rosemary, and lavender oils can boost memory, alertness and accuracy.

If you genuinely like learning by sight, make maps and diagrams, charts and tables, to help explore the information from a fresh perspective.

After all that hard work, you also need to relax. Learning is supposed to be fun. Set a goal, and once you’ve reached it reward yourself, and if you don’t hold yourself accountable. Only you can make sure you learn. The future is in your hands. So put some skin in the game. Put yourself on the line. With practice comes mastery, independence, purpose, freedom, and opportunities. And if that doesn’t motivate you, nothing will. Good luck!

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