Today We're talking about learning. Now, learning has been probably one of my main superpowers since I was very young. And learning how to learn is one of those meta skills that no one ever really teaches us, but that can have an enormous impact on our life in basically everything that we do.
For example, when I was in med school, I learned how to learn, and therefore I could study for everything that I was doing more efficiently, and that freed up my own time to do things like set up a YouTube Channel and set up this Blog. And these days, even though I don't have many more exams to prepare for, learning is still a huge part of my life. Trying to get better at making these articles, trying to make better website articles. All of this stuff involves learning.
And so in this article, I'm gonna share nine tips that I found really helpful that are evidence-based about how we can learn anything we want faster, let's go.
Number 1: Tip number one is to sharpen the axe. Now this is from a quote that's attributed to Abraham Lincoln, where he famously said that
if you gave me six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four sharpening the axeAnd he's really talking here about the power of preparation. And this definitely applies to learning anything as well. Let's say we are studying for an exam and we wanna learn it a little bit better, reading a great book called "Make It Stick" would be a great way of learning how to learn..
Equally, let's say we're trying to learn something like the guitar or chess or anything like that. Something that's not related to studying. We should still spend a decent amount of time figuring out the meta learning behind what we're actually gonna learn like how we are going to learn the thing. For example, when I was learning how to play the piano by ear, I spent a decent amount of time on the learn piano subreddit where people were explaining how to learn how to play piano by ear and just spending a little bit of time sharpening the axe before I actually sat down to learn the thing really helped accelerate my learning process.
Number 2: Tip number two is to use crutches to optimize our focus. Now, whenever we're learning anything it's really tempting to kind of learn it in the background like practicing the guitar while watching TV or something like that. But obviously, when we're fully focused on the thing that we're learning, our brain learns the thing a lot better. And so I found a few different crutches or hacks that have been particularly helpful in helping me focus on things. One is the five minute rule which is a general tip for productivity as well, which is that if we wanna do something and we're finding ourselves having difficulty in starting out doing the thing, like actually getting started, overcoming the activation energy.
The five minute rule says that, we just have to convince ourselves that we're just gonna do the thing for five minutes. And then after we've done it for five minutes we're allowed to just not do it, but more often than not I find that if I've been practicing the guitar, or playing the piano for five minutes, I do then want to actually continue to practice.
The other thing that's really helpful is to just chuck my phone away. I literally take my phone and I toss it onto the sofa or on the floor like a good tosser. And then I'm ready to focus and not be distracted with the thing that I'm trying to learn, all right?
Number 3: Tip number three is to find opportunities for immersion. So there's a great book called "Ultralearning" by a chap called Scott Young where he talks about his journey through learning languages in like three months at a time and becoming fluent in a language in three months. And the key to that as all language learners say is immersion. Just being as immersed in the language as possible. And the general principle here is that we learn best when we're in the environment where we're actually gonna be using the skill.
So for example, when I was learning how to do magic to become a close-up magician, yes I was doing some practice in front of my webcam and in front of my mirror just to get the slight of hand down. But really my webcam or mirror is not the arena in which I'm gonna be performing in.
And so I made it a point to try and perform magic for real people, as much as possible. I would take a deck of cards to school and I'd have cards in my room at all times, and so friends would come over, I'd kind of, hey, be like, hey do you wanna see a magic trick? And eventually once I got okay at performing for friends and family, I started then reaching out and doing paid gigs, even though I was nowhere near good enough in my head to get paid to do magic.
Eventually, I did end up getting paid to do magic. And those walk around to gigs at balls and parties helped improve my abilities in a way that just doing it in front of the mirror really wouldn't have done .
Number 4: Tip number 4 is to figure out what are our weak links and then use lots of drills and stuff to improve them. So if we use med school as an example, I had a few subjects that I was pretty weak in. Neurology was one of them. If you'd asked me what is Guillain-Barré syndrome I'd have been like, oh God, I have absolutely no idea. I didn't even have a mental module for where it would fit into the subject of neurology.
And so when it came to studying efficiently for my exams, I knew that, okay, I have to drill the things that I'm weakest on. And I spent just a whole day basically creating a one-page syllabus of just neurology, just focusing on that one subject. And just because I spent like eight to 12 hours that day they're doing it, I basically plugged it as an area of weakness, and that it was no longer an area of weakness. And the question I would keep on asking myself every day when I was sitting down to study was, if the exam were tomorrow, what topic would I be the least happy, or the most pissed off about? And then I would just study that topic.
And this is really good because whenever we're learning or whenever we're studying or anything like that, it's very tempting to just do the stuff that seems familiar to us. If we're studying for an exam, it's very tempting to open up the book to page one even though we already know what's on page one. If we're learning the guitar, it's very tempting to just play through songs that we've already played before.
But really the learning only happens when we're trying to fix our weaknesses and we're trying to operate at a decent level of difficulty. If something is too easy, we're not gonna learn anything at all.
And so if we wanna maximize the learning and learn anything faster, we wanna really hone down on what are these areas of weakness, what are these weak links, and how do we use drills to improve those as quickly as we can?
Number 5: Tip number five is to test ourselves. Now, this is a thing that in the world of studying is called active recall but it also applies to the world of learning anything in general. The idea behind active recall or retrieval practice is that we don't learn by trying to put stuff into our brains, we actually learn counter-intuitively by trying to take stuff out of our brains.
And so if you've had that experience where you've read something in a textbook or on a website and someone asks you about it a few days later and you've completely forgotten about it, that's just because you haven't tested yourself on that knowledge. And the word testing has all these negative connotations because we think of testing as like a school thing and we get graded and we get judged.
But if we move towards thinking of testing ourselves as being a strategy for learning, everything becomes so much easier. That's why when learning play the guitar there's only so many tutorials you can watch before you actually start having to put it into practice.
When you're studying for exams, there's no point reading the textbook and just summarizing what's in the textbook, the point is you have to test yourself so that your brain has a chance to work to retrieve the information. And that is what really drives learning.
And in the field of learning, there is this concept called the desirable difficulty concept. Which basically just means some things shouldn't be too hard, where for example if I were to try playing tennis against Roger Federer, it would just be too hard. I wouldn't really learn anything.
But equally, if I were to try playing tennis against a 10 year old who doesn't know how to play, it wouldn't be fun, I wouldn't learn anything because the difficulty is at two different extremes. I wanna be playing tennis against someone who is at my level or a little bit better than me, because that is the real arena in which I'm gonna be learning. And that's why having a coach for example, is really good because a coach can moderate their play style to be at my level and therefore I'm more likely to learn as desirable difficulty.
And so whatever we wanna learn efficiently, we wanna apply this concept to try and make it a little bit more difficult. Learning is not supposed to be easy, it is supposed to be hard. And if it's hard, then it means we're doing something right.
Number 6: Tip number six is to get intense feedback as often and as quickly as possible. So feedback obviously is how we learn. We do something, we see that we're doing it wrong and then we improve the thing. And again, feedback is one of those words that can seem a little bit like dirty at times, especially if we're starting something out where we're not sure of our own abilities.
If we get constructive or critical feedback, that can really be a blow to our ego. If you're that sort of person that needs the ego massage then at the start of learning something, what you need is praise and encouragement.
For example, if I was just starting to learn how to sing, and people would just give me critical feedback immediately, I'd probably feel a little bit like, oh, okay I don't really wanna sing. I'm one of those people who just can't sing, Equally if I were to start drawing, and people would be like, oh, ha! Ha! that's really crap you should do this instead. I'd probably feel pretty bad about it and therefore it wouldn't help me continue on the journey.
So I think at the start of a journey for most of us we need that injection of positivity and enthusiasm rather than necessarily critical feedback. But if we do decide to switch gears and to start taking learning something super seriously, we wanna kind of avoid the praise and recognition aspect of it, which is kind of unhelpful, and instead focus on the critical, constructive feedback.
What can we do differently? Again, this is why having a coach for stuff is actually really, really helpful. Ever since getting a personal trainer, everything in the gym has improved, my biceps has gotten bigger. I'm at one-step close to becoming a gym shark athlete because now I have someone who is like there and then giving me feedback on the things that I should do differently.
Whereas before maybe once in a blue moon, I'd film a article of myself, send it to a friend, they'd reply a few days later. It's not really a tight feedback loop. And really it's the tight feedback loops that encourage learning whether it's for exams or whether it's for anything else in life.
Number 7: Tip number seven is the concept of overlearning which is that when we're learning something we actually wanna try and understand or learn it in more depth than we necessarily need to. And the idea here is to continuously be asking why a thing works the way that it does.
So for example, when I'm working as a doctor and I see senior doctors who, you know, most of being a doctor, admittedly, is about following guidelines and following a prescribed set of rules and basically a flow chart for everything that we do.
And so there are some doctors who have that view of, all I have to do is memorize the guidelines, and look them up but then there are other doctors who have a more first principles understanding approach to medicine which is that, okay, I know what the guidelines are, that I should prescribe this drug but I'm actually gonna take a step to figure out why that's the guideline and why do they do that? What's the paper, what's the evidence around this. And, you know, in my experience, it's hard to say that camp two is objectively a better doctor than camp one, but certainly the sort of doctor that I want to be is the doctor who understands stuff from first principles and understands the rationale for doing stuff rather than just memorizing the guidelines.
This applies to music theory in the guitar as well. I had a guitar lesson this morning, and we were talking about how it's very easy to learn how to play anything by just following a tutorial. But when you follow a tutorial, the thing that you're learning is, my fingers are going in this particular position. Whereas what we wanna try and get to, and John Mayer talks about this a lot on his Instagram, what we wanna be getting to is just an understanding of music theory.
So that instead of, I put my fingers in A, B and C positions, we think, okay, I'm playing a C7 chord and the reason I'm playing a C7 chord is because of this. And therefore my fingers are gonna go in A, B and C position. And so the end result is the same. We're still playing that chord and we could still probably just play the song.
But when you have that deeper appreciation of the the reasons behind why things are the way that they are, it just makes learning anything else in that particular sphere, much easier and much more efficient.
Number 8: Tip number eight is all about spacing. This is something in the world of studying we call spaced repetition. Basically there's a concept called the forgetting curve that was discovered by a chap called Ebbinghaus in like the 1800's.
And the forgetting curve is that whenever we learn anything, whether it's like a fact or a skill or whatever. We're just gonna forget it. And our memory for the thing is gonna decay over time. And so we have to keep on practicing or testing ourselves on the thing to actually continue to have our brain kinda use up space for that kinda thing, because it's like with our muscles, when we don't use our muscles, our muscles are gonna atrophy and they're gonna get smaller, and we're gonna get less Hench. Equally with our brain.
If we learn let's say a language when we were five years old and then we don't use it for the next 10 years, we're actually gonna forget most of the language 'cause our brain doesn't need to have that information in it anymore. But thankfully we can combat the forgetting curve by using this concept of spaced repetition, this applies not just to exams, but to any other skill as well. Which is that if we kinda repeat the thing at spaced intervals, so let's say I might learn a song on the guitar on day one, and then I might repeat it again tomorrow. And 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 this thing enough eventually playing that song is gonna go into my muscle memory, it's gonna go into my long-term memory and I won't need to practice it very much anymore to be able to play it whenever I want. Now, if you're trying to learn something that has specific facts, there's all sorts of different apps that you can use to help with spacing. The one that I personally enjoy the most, it's free and it's called Anki, after the Japanese for Ankishimmers which I think is to memorize.
And Anki is just like an incredible app that completely revolutionized my experience of med school. It does have a bit of a learning curve...
Number 9: And finally tip number nine is to teach what you are trying to learn. We often have this thing of like, oh I'm not allowed to teach something until I become an expert at it. But there's this concept that C.S Lewis talks about that I talk about a lot called the curse of knowledge.
Which is that, when we're trying to learn something, often we don't learn best from experts, we learn best from people who are just one step in front of us along that same journey. And so the way I think of it is that I would rather learn from a guide, than learn from a guru. Guide versus guru. And I would rather be a guide than try and be a guru.
And so now I have a general policy that whenever I'm learning anything, I'm documenting my process while learning it. And that helps me learn better because I know that I'm possibly gonna be teaching this thing a few months or years from now.
So thank you so much for reading this article and I'll see you in the next article, bye-bye and Happy Learning..
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