These 4 steps will help you learn quicker and retain more

Published 5 August 2022

“We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.” – Peter Drucker (Founder of modern management)

The highest leverage skill is learning how to learn. ‎

Lifelong learning helps you stay on top of your game, and adapt in an ever-changing environment. ‎ Learning how to learn means finding and following the optimal learning path. ‎


But school never teaches us how to learn, it teaches us how to pass tests. That soon becomes our main focus, and we lose our child-like curiosity and learning drive. ‎

As soon as there are no more tests to pass, 90% of adults stop learning, and stagnate. The 10% that continue to learn grow to be successful leaders, creators and entrepreneurs. ‎


However, they often feel overwhelmed or get stuck when learning something new. ‎


The goal, then, is learning how to learn. What would it feel like to have a clear and vivid mental picture of the path ahead? To have the confidence that you can master anything? ‎


You will be able to choose what to remember, and win back the child-like joy of learning. What could you achieve with that sort of power? ‎


This short article will introduce the key principles that learning science has identified over the past 150 years - tried and tested methods used by the world’s smartest people to learn as efficiently as possible. ‎ I’ve distilled them for you into a 4-step process, which you can use to become the shaper of your unique skill set. ‎ ‎


1 - Draw a map

”If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Isaac Newton

The quickest learners don’t dive straight into a new subject. ‎ Instead, they sit back and reflect. ‎

How? ‎

Do a brain dump: write down everything you already know about the subject. Even better: draw a mindmap. ‎


Drawing a map builds initial comprehension, and helps identify existing knowledge to hang future insights onto. ‎ Learning doesn’t happen in isolation. New information needs to be connected to what we already know in order to stick. ‎


Elon Musk (paraphrased here by Spotify-founder Daniel Ek) likens this process to a tree of knowledge: ‎

“When I set out to tackle something – to solve some problem or create something new – first, it just seems insurmountable. When you enter a new field, you don't know anything; you don't even know what people are talking about! But, if I just persevere, if I keep going in this direction, eventually I'll start seeing what resembles a branch or a trunk, and then a leaf or two, and then I can start putting them together. Eventually, I'll see the whole tree.”

To start building your tree of knowledge, trigger your memory with questions like:

  • How does this relate to topics you’re already familiar with?

  • How does this tie into your personal experiences?

  • What challenges you?

As you draw, patterns start to emerge and you make new connections. You can literally see your knowledge growing. ‎ ‎


2 - Fail and feed back

“Errors are the basis for neuroplasticity and learning… Humans do not like this feeling of frustration and making errors. The few that do, do exceedingly well… The ones that don’t generally don’t learn much.” - Dr. Andrew Huberman (Neuroscientist at Stanford)

Learning requires rewiring your brain. ‎

Research shows that the primary driver for rewiring your brain is failure. Your brain detects failure and makes a change in the wiring. You retry and see if it was successful. ‎


Creating feedback loops is essential for detecting failure and making improvements. ‎


Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “If you want to master something, teach it”. Learning by teaching is an incredibly effective way of creating feedback loops. ‎


Here’s how it works:

  • Unlike most people who highlight or copy text, Feynman first writes down his understanding in his own words.

  • The initial feedback comes from re-reading his notes, and identifying gaps in his understanding.

  • He then does more exploration and practice to fill these gaps.

  • His final test of understanding is teaching a novice about the subject. Any questions they have serve as further feedback on what needs more study.

Using Feynman’s technique creates a feedback loop for deep understanding, and rewires your brain over time. ‎ ‎

3 - Revisit your AHA’s

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.” - Edgar Allan Poe

If done well, the Feynman technique generates many “AHA-moments”. ‎ Piotr Wozniak (creator of SuperMemo) explains: an AHA-moment is a reward signal! Your brain has found a new insight. It’s the joy of learning a child experiences as it learns about the world. ‎


But to make AHA-moments lasting, you need to capture and solidify them. Then they can form the basis for further discoveries. ‎


You need to “relive” your AHA’s periodically. ‎

Why? ‎


The “forgetting curve” shows that memories decay exponentially over time. Resurfacing an insight slows down the decay rate. The optimal schedule for resurfacing follows increasing intervals over time (like: 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, ...). ‎


With these spaced repetitions, 7 times at different intervals suffice to remember for life. ‎ For this incredibly efficient memorization to happen, your reviews need to be active. Psychologist William James: “It pays better to wait and recollect by an effort from within, than to look at the book again.” ‎


How this works in practice: rather than passively rereading the phrase “Memories decay exponentially over time according to the forgetting curve”, you review the question “How do memories decay over time?”. ‎ This prompts your brain to actively recall exponential decay and visualize the forgetting curve. ‎ ‎


4 - Deliberate action

“One hour per day of study in your chosen field is all it takes. One hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years. In seven years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.” – Earl Nightingale

The end goal of learning is bringing insights into action - whether that’s getting better at your job, improving your business, or practical wisdom. ‎


To do this, identify and formulate action items as you learn. ‎

Like the AHA-moments, periodically revisit the action items. ‎


The main purpose of these revisits is reflection:

  • What went well?

  • Where did you struggle?

This helps to identify your weak points. You can then deliberately drill down on those. ‎


Example: if you read a book about copywriting, your action item might be: ‎ “Use the P-A-S formula to write a sales page for my product.” ‎


On every review, you reflect on how well you’ve brought it into practice. Maybe after a few reviews it turns out you struggle with writing attention-grabbing headlines. You can then create a deliberate practice around writing headlines (like: analyzing headlines that caught your own attention). ‎ ‎


Conclusion

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” – Henry Ford

Right now, your capacity to learn, memorize, act and adapt is limited by your learning method. ‎


At around the age of 12, our natural curiosity starts to wane and we go into reactive mode, passing tests and jumping hoops. ‎

Take back control, stir up your curiosity, and create a joyful learning habit! ‎

Become epic at building an ever-growing tree of knowledge, and painting a vivid mental picture as you learn a new topic. That way, you can shape yourself into your unique collection of skills and mental models. ‎


This is how the most successful people achieve their dreams and overcome getting stuck. ‎


I’ve been using this method myself for the past 5 years. I’ve learned skills from speaking Chinese to data science and entrepreneurship. ‎ Which skills will you build?


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Dominic Zijlstra

6x polyglot, ex-spacecraft engineer, and founder of Traverse.link

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