As you know I'm obsessed with learning and about how to learn effectively. Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Charlie Munger is quoted as saying:
"Those who keep learning, will keep rising in life."
So being able to learn quickly and effectively around a busy schedule is really important. From my time in medical school to studying for surgical exams and learning how to scale a business I've picked up lots of ways to learn anything lightning fast.
This article covers nine evidence-based tips that I've found super useful to help you learn anything faster and more effectively.
Learn How To Learn
Tip number one is to learn how to learn and is really about preparation. No one ever really teaches you how to learn effectively and depending on what you are learning there may be many different techniques and options available. For example if you are learning a language you will want to follow the most effective programme possible. This might involve a mix of tutoring, using digital tools like Duolingo and even visiting the native country of the language you are learning. You will also want to know how hard the language is to learn and the time commitment and regularity of practise required to become fluent to manage your expectations and your time. To find out all these things you can research them online and dive into communities such as language learning forums and subreddits and you might also want to find someone who has been through the process before to help guide you on your learning journey and let you know what to expect.
I cover this concept of preparation in my video on using a process to hit your goals and taking the time to research and understand the best way to learn something applies to studying for exams, playing a new musical instrument, learning a new exercise and pretty much anything.
For example when learning how to do a hand stand press up for CrossFit I had researched the technique, joined a CrossFit gym, teamed up with someone who had been through the process before and understood what exercises I needed to master first well before I even attempted my first handstand.
Focus and Set Goals
Tip number two is to block out protected time for learning so that you avoid distractions and set yourself daily learning goals. Ensure that you learn productively and effectively in an environment that helps you to focus. If this is at home make sure that your study area is tidy, you know what you are going to be learning using a study schedule and you remove any distractions by switching off the TV and your phone.
Try to avoid procrastination by learning at the same time each day and ensuring that your overall learning goal, such as becoming fluent in a new language, is broken down into bite-size chunks and you celebrate the wins as you progress to avoid getting frustrated or losing momentum.
As I mention in my video on using Games Design for Learning setting goals and learning at a regular time will help to build a habit and get you into a flow state where you are lazer focused on studying. In the same video I also talk about the importance of ensuring that the difficulty of what you are studying is appropriate to your level. Whatever you are learning should be challenging enough to keep you interested but not so difficult that you get stuck. As you learn and your knowledge improves the challenge should match your proficiency to keep you motivated.
For me I have a set routine where I block an hour in the morning and in the evening for things like learning a new fitness skill or practising guitar and I set myself goals and deadlines to hold myself accountable. I'll also follow a schedule that begins with the basics and then challenges me to do increasingly difficult elements of the thing that I'm learning.
Use Social Accountability
Tip number three is to team up with a friend or form a learning group to support you through your learning journey and hold you accountable. When I was studying medicine it was much more fun to revise together with others than to sit alone in the library. Friends will hold you accountable and get you studying even if you feel tired and would prefer to watch Netflix.
If you don't have anyone who is studying for the same exam as you or learning the same instrument you can still tell your friends about what you are doing and involve them in the process to hold you accountable. For example you might give your friends a quick jam session if you're learning guitar or ask your parents to quiz you on a test you're studying for. All of this means that you are held accountable and also have support during the learning process to make things more fun and help you stay motivated.
Identify Your Weaknesses and Attack Them
Tip four is really important is to identify what you are weakest at in whatever you are learning and spend time focusing on improving that area. It can be easy to practise and learn things which you already know or are good at and then put off things you know you find more challenging.
When I was studying for my surgical exams I loved learning about anatomy but found modules on embryology less interesting and a bit harder. I therefore put off studying embryology and got lower practise test scores. Once I knew my scores were lower I planned a few days diving into the topic and doing focused practise questions. Amazingly not only did I realise that it wasn't that hard after all but I actually found it really interesting and it helped me to better understand certain diseases and how to manage them. My perception and bias that embryology was hard was a limiting belief and I should have attacked it head on earlier. If there are certain areas of whatever you are learning that you don't enjoy as much or you find hard challenge your assumptions and attack them first.
Use Active Recall to Test Yourself
Tip number five is to learn actively and test yourself rather than just reading or highlighting things. The concept of testing to learn things is called retrieval practise or active recall and it applies to learning anything from studying for exams to playing an instrument. I have a whole video and article about active recall and the science behind why it's so effective, which I've linked in the video and description.
The idea behind active recall is that we learn best when we are actively pulling information out of our brain. So testing ourselves actually strengthens our memory. This is also the reason why simply reading, watching or highlighting something means you'll probably forget it in a few days or weeks if you don't test yourself and make your brain retrieve the information. When studying for exams as a doctor I would routinely close my text book and try and recall specific facts from the book and I would also practise as many mock exam questions as possible.
Active recall isn't just for practising test questions ahead of an exam. If you are learning an instrument or a new fitness skill you need to test yourself without any video tutorials to challenge your understanding and put the skill into practise. Visualising your practise and testing yourself in your mind ahead of practising a skill is a great way to efficiently test yourself and visualisation has been shown to help athletes perform at their best.
Have A Growth Mindset
Tip number six is to ditch the ego and adopt a growth mindset when it comes to learning from feedback. When you start off learning a completely new thing you will naturally suck at it, and that's fine. Understanding that you are going to make mistakes and be pretty bad until you have mastered what you are learning is called having a growth mindset and is about not being afraid to fail.
When testing ourselves and practising getting instant feedback is vital for effective learning. This immediate feedback loop means you can improve quickly. If you are studying for an exam and doing practise questions whether you get a question right or wrong you will want to see an explanation and understand how you can improve. If you are learning a new skill having a tutor or coach critique your technique and provide you with ways to improve that you can put into practise immediately is one of the fastest ways to improve. When first learning CrossFit I had literally no clue about gymnastics and olympic weight-lifting technique and having a coach and trainer was vital to correct my form straight away and encourage and critique what I was doing in an instant feedback loop that kept me focused.
Despite this it can be difficult to hear that we are not good at something and if feedback isn't provided in a constructive and meaningful manner it can be a knock to the ego. This is especially true at the start of the learning journey where encouragement can help you to stay motivated and excite you about learning more while criticism can put you off. If you don't have a coach or learning partner you can encourage yourself by celebrating small wins and reward yourself for hitting learning goals.
Remember For Longer With Spaced Repetition
Tip seven is to space out your learning using a concept called spaced repetition. In the late 1800s German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus ran a experiment into how humans remember things. He discovered that whatever we learn we will gradually forget over time which he put into a graph known as the forgetting curve.
He also found that this memory decay can be reduced if we test ourselves at intervals which increase in length. The increasing spacing between these repeated tests gave the term spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition can be applied to anything and basically means that you should repeat what you have previously learned rather than just learning it once. This makes sense as if you don't practise a skill it will naturally fade.
In practical terms this means I might learn a skill on day one and then I might repeat it again tomorrow, then I might test myself on it again next week and then next month, and then six months from now. And if I've spaced my repetition of the skill enough eventually it will be part of my long-term memory and I won't need to practise it very much anymore to be able to do it whenever I want.
I've previously covered spacing in my video on how to learn things for longer using spaced repetition which dives into the science behind spaced repetition and looks at the optimum spacing intervals to use and some systems and digital tools you can use to help you automate spacing.
Read Around What You Are Learning
Tip number eight is to read around whatever you are learning and understand the underlying principles to help you learn faster. When I learned a new operation or technique as a surgeon a superficial way to learn would be to simply rote learn the steps involved. For surgery this might be memorising a step-by-step guide which would mean I technically knew how to do the procedure but I didn't necessarily know why I was doing it.
Reading around the topic in this case would be looking at the surgical research literature and revising operative anatomy so that I had a much deeper understanding of why each step was necessary. This would help me to more logically remember the steps and also to know what to do if something went wrong.
If you are learning a musical instrument it's very easy to learn hand position and play cords but learning deeper music theory and how to write songs gives you a much greater appreciation and depth of understanding to help you learn more effectively.
When reading around a topic you may naturally link it to other things you are learning and make connections which helps to solidify your learning further. This concept of mixing similar topics is know as interleaving and helps your memory make links between topics and form deeper connections.
Finally tip number nine is to teach others what you are trying to learn.
“The best thing a human being can do is to help another human being know more.” — Charlie Munger
The process of teaching what you are learning solidifies your own knowledge and helps you to check that you fully understand the concepts themselves so that you can effectively explain things to another person. Teaching is also fun and rewarding and provides you with feedback on whether you truly understand what you have learned as learners will ask questions.
When writing tutorials or coaching others you will naturally dive deeper into the topic and test your own understanding as you put concepts into your own words. The process also forces you to reflect on your own learning journey and identify what you perceive as hard and gain insight into your progress.