If you’re like most people, you suck at learning. Maybe you hate it. It’s not your fault. Here’s a little secret:Today's education systems weren't setup according to the science of optimal learning. Click To Tweet
You can become world-class.
At a language. An instrument. A skill, technology, or tool. A sport. A job.
Learning is the cornerstone 21st century skill.
Technology changes our lifestyle faster than ever:
- Today’s health and wellness “facts” are sometimes invalidated just years after they’re taught.
- Your favorite software gets an interface update and you’re stuck figuring it out yourself.
- Entire Industries are falling to their digital counterparts.
What can you do about it?
You learn. Specifically, you learn how to learn (called meta-learning).
In this post, you’ll understand what traditional classroom-based learning failed to teach. By the end, you’ll have everything you need to become a master learner capable of making information interesting, and accessible. You’ll leave knowing how to use your photographic memory.
How to Learn New Skills Fast (Summary)
- Healthy lifestyle.
Your brain needs raw materials to perform. Fuel it with sleep, clean food, proper breathing, meditation.
- Plan ahead.
Go in with a game-plan. “Absolute mastery” and “rough understanding” have different paths.
- Establish your baseline.
What do you already know about the subject? Take a thorough inventory. Existing knowledge anchors new material.
- Get visual.
The visual system is intricately linked to memory and learning. Convert text into mental images for easy recall.
- Teach someone.
Conveying the information to others (even if just pretending) solidifies your understanding and spotlights weak areas.
- Review and reflect.
Spend a few minutes reflecting before and after sessions to remember more.
- Hack learning.
Draw on ancient techniques and new methodologies to become an elite learner.
Meta-Learning is Life’s Most Important Skill
Learning is a meta-skill. One that makes everything else in life easier. The more you practice it—flexing the “learning muscle”—the easier it becomes.
Are you familiar with the concept of compounding interest?
Money invested today will be worth many multiples decades later. Start early and the profit compounds over your life. The same applies to the learning process.
Imagine the potential years of life saved by learning material ten percent faster, throughout an entire lifetime.
And it gets better.With the right tools, tricks, and systems, your knowledge can compound at a 10% rate every year for the rest of your life. Click To Tweet
I know what you’re thinking. Or at least my objection:
What if I’m terrible at learning?
Anyone Can Master Learning & Memorization
Maybe you can’t remember a stranger’s name for the life of you. Or you re-read the same page five times just to realize you still weren’t paying attention.
Each book I read on learning dedicated multiple sections to storytelling the transformation of ordinary folks. These people overcame average memory to compete in international memorization challenges.
In fact, some of the contestants initially self-described as having below-average memory.
If memory-impaired folks can make it to the big stages, you can improve by a modest ten percent.
The Learning Prerequisites
Before going on to the nuts and bolts of the learning process, you can’t skip the basics.
The brain is an energy hog. Two percent of your bodyweight consuming 25 percent of your energy.
I won’t dwell on specifics because they’re covered by every health and wellness resource. At a minimum:
- Sleep 7 hours, ideally 8-9.
- Eat clean, unprocessed whole foods.
- Exercise every day, even if it’s only a brief walk or micro-workout.
- Breathe properly through the nose as much as possible.
- Meditate or practice mindfulness to destress and upgrade your brain’s operating system.
Each pillar above supports the most powerful supercomputer ever discovered (your brain). Avoid the biological equivalent of breakdowns, lag, unresponsive applications, and corrupt files by taking care of your brain.
The 5-Step Process to Fast & Effective Learning (Information Alchemy)
When it comes to learning, mindset is everything. Your deeply held beliefs will determine your success.
If you consider yourself a bad learner, suspend that thought until you read my article on changing limiting beliefs. That’ll help you find, question, and overwrite the root of disempowered thinking.
Once you get your lifestyle and mindset right, you’re ready for the core process.
I read a lot on the art and science of learning, including:
- The Only Skill That Matters [Amazon]
- Limitless [Amazon]
- Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning [Amazon]
- 4 Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life [Amazon]
I’ve spotted some trends and commonalities between each of them. The below framework is a culmination of my findings.
I have a bad habit.
Left to my own devices, I skip the table of contents and get straight to the material.Planning is the most important (and often skipped) part of the learning process. Click To Tweet
I’d often get through an entire book and could hardly remember the top five ideas. I reconsidered my approach when I heard the popular old quote that goes something like:
“Five minutes spent sharpening the axe beforehand saves hours of chopping.”
Here are the considerations I take when approaching new information:
- Required depth of knowledge: if you only need a superficial understanding, you’ll be pickier over the material you study.
- Information retrieval: how you’ll need to access the material.
- Pareto principle (the select concepts that yield the greatest knowledge): avoid getting caught up on minutia.
- Optimal learning order: sometimes concepts build on each other. Establish a strong foundation first.
- Chunking: measuring progress is only possible if you break the material into units.
- Setback strategy: the path to mastery has ups and downs. Your progress inevitably stalls. You’ll be more successful if you decide how to recover in advance.
An example of how I planned approaching the Spanish language:
- I set my goal to conversational fluency.
- I focused on the most important verbs and tenses, and real everyday vocabulary.
- I learned the alphabet and sounds first. Then the simplest past, present, and future conjugations. Only then did I add nouns and vocab.
- I talked to a few others learning Spanish. They helped me choose learning blocks small enough to track weekly progress.
- I found a close friend willing to help when I had setbacks.
Never blindly accept new information.
If you build a weak foundation, how can the rest of the structure stand up when shaken?
New information only sticks when anchored to your existing knowledge. Questions get your brain to subconsciously ingetrate the two.
Whenever I’m working, I ask myself the following questions:
- How does this compare to what I already know about the material?
- When will I use this?
- Why do I want to learn this?
- What problem will it solve?
- Who can I share this with?
- Can I skip anything?
I also judge the heck out of it. The more emotion I can bring to the material, the more it will stick.
- Do I not believe the author?
- How are they wrong?
- Can I predict how they will back up their argument?
Want better memory?
You could take an adaptogenic nootropic. Or do something proven effective:
Active recall is the process of conjuring up all the ideas you recently ingested and then going back to spot check your memory for accuracy. The process has some neat benefits:
- Exposes inconsistencies and confusing topics before you cement them into memory.
- Gauges your interest in different subtopics.
- Attention-catching ideas, topics, or subsections get another chance.
- Clarifies which material you should review.
Without active review, you’ll simply forget 90% of the new information after a week.Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve
When I spent 10-30 seconds reviewing a chapter I read, I retain more. If I don’t remember much, I’ll spend two to three minutes scanning through the pages for keywords to jog my memory. Then I fill in the blanks by memory.
You can strategically review:
- Quiz yourself before and after you learn.
- At the end of every module, think of a two-sentence summary that a five-year-old would understand (ELI5).
- Before bed, reflect on what you learned throughout the day.
Next is a strategy of some of the world’s greatest polymaths.
Self-quizzing is a warmup, for…
If you want a huge shortcut, teach the information to someone else.
From ancient philosophers to the most highly respected professors, to the highly accomplished physicist Richard Feynman, all praised teaching for its unique benefits:
- Motivation to preapre thoroughly before session
- Uncover holes in your logic.
- Distill information into simple, easily understood language.
- Real stakes from learning engages your brain more.
- Deliver the material in various formats for audience’s different learning styles
It’s not all theoretical. Jonathan Levi states in The Only Skill That Matters,
“Studies have found that the act of teaching causes observable increases in both learning and IQ.”
Maybe you don’t have access to a willing friend. Part of Feynman’s technique involved teaching the topic to an imaginary classroom.
What’s important is to explain the topics in simple language, and revisit them until you’re clear.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”Richard Feynman
Your friends will appreciate your free class.
You’ve made it through one full loop.
But the learning isn’t over.
Next, keep repeating steps two through four as often as needed. Occasionally check on step one. Repeat the planning questions to gauge your progress.
Now that you’re familiar with the basic process, you can add the hacks.
How to Biohack Learning
The right techniques can be the gasoline to your learning fire. Unlike the basic framework, some of these strategies take time to learn and practice. But that time’s time well spent:
- The “nuclear” option helps quickly commit things to long-term memory.
- Effortlessly memorize long numbers (like phone or credit card numbers)
Each of the following deserves an entire post, or even book. I’ll give a brief summary to guide your research.
Memory Palace (Loci Method): Indelible Recall
The world’s best memorizers rely heavily on visualization. Usually, an ancient strategy called the memory palace. Historians believe they were used to pass along works of great philosophers at least 2500 years ago.
No matter your learning preference, humans have unparalleled visual processing. Without knowing it, you’re already using thousands of memory palaces throughout the day.
So what is it?
The memory palace is a system of pairing existing memories to new ones. To oversimplify the process:
- Think of a location that you know well. It could be a room, corridor, walk, park, you name it.
- Imagine all the nooks and crannies you’d notice as you walk through that space.
- Breakdown what you’re learning into small chunks.
- Come up with a visual representation of each chunk.
- Place the visual in a specific part of the room that matches your walking path.
- Continue “walking” through the room, placing visuals in the order you’d physically encounter them should you actually go through the room.
- Avoid crossing paths or putting multiple visuals in the same place.
Create a different memory palace for the different topics you want to master. Use them to store and retrieve complicated information, in perfect order.
The greatest strength of the memory palace it also its weakness.
Memory palaces last. Probably not the best idea to memorize a name, address, or other pieces of small information.
Why does it work so well?
- Your brain has limited storage space. A brain structure called the hippocampus constantly evaluates information, deciding what to erase. Novel, bizarre, vivid visualizations “trick” the hippocampi into prioritizing information in the memory palace.
- Memory palaces build strong connections between old and new memories. This makes them stick more effectively.
- Spatial memory is prioritized. Our ancestors had to remember where the nearest water sources were. Novel places trigger a release of the reward neurotransmitter dopamine into the hippocampi’s CA3 region, further cementing specific memories.
Major System: Instantly Memorize 10+ Numbers
The major system brings the power of visuals to numbers.
I’m still playing around with this one, and it takes memorization.
The Major System maps each number (from zero to nine) to a different sound. Different permutations of these sounds linked together can form words. Words are easier to remember than numbers.
A eleven digit number can become two words.Using the Major System, the number "37408194921" becomes the easily-remembered words "Microsoft Powerpoint". Click To Tweet
Pomodoro Technique: Mental Sprints
Pomodoro is a way to structure work and rest. It’s popular amongst the productivity crowd.
To “Pomodoro”, you completely focus on a task for 25-30 minutes, tuning out all distractions. At the end of that period, you take an intentional distraction break. Optimally between one and five minutes. Believe it or not, Pomodoro increases productivity while still allowing distraction and break throughout the day.
With a little modification, you can apply the Pomodoro technique to learning. In order to get the most out of sessions, keep the 25-30 minute focus period. But expand the distraction break.
Pomodoro takes advantage of two powerful learning techniques:
- Primacy effect: you’re more likely to remember learnings from the beginning of a session.
- Recency effect: you’re more likely to remember learnings from the end of a session.
Instead of slogging through monotonous material, little micro-breaks throughout the day keeps your mind fresh and sharp.
Spaced Repetition: Practice Makes Perfect
We only retain 10 percent of what we hear (according to the Ebbinghaus Learning Curve).
At least, the first time.
The more we repeat the material over time, the more it sticks. In other words, as students eventually learn,:
Cramming doesn’t work.
Our brains love repetition. The more times information comes up, the greater weight it carries.
Modern systems like the free Anki, and Brainscape use special algorithms to determine how often you should review particular topics.
Although you can utilize spaced repetition without technology. I review:
- Daily: the day’s most important concepts.
- Weekly: what I’ve changed my mind on.
Spaced repetition is intuitive enough.One memory improvement hack is to consistently review material at similar intervals. Even new topics that you already "know". Click To Tweet
Forced Recall: Put Yourself on the Spot
Do you ever catch yourself re-reading the same page? Three times? Four? The words just don’t stick.
Your brain closely scrutinizes new information.
The brain’s filter, called the reticular activating system (RAS), drowns out most sensory data overwhelming the brain. Including the hard work you’ve spent studying.
Bypass the RAS by asking yourself these three best questions before, during, and after a session:
- How can I use this?
- Why must I use this?
- When will I use this?
When you do, the new memory becomes more important. It gets by the gatekeeper, lodging deeper into the brain.Evade the brain's information filtration system by asking yourself "how", "why", and "when" you'll use new ideas. Click To Tweet
Mastering the Senses
Whether you realize it or not, two of your senses are especially potent learning and memory enhancers. Starting them today.
Greek scholars were known to wear rosemary in their hair. Why?
Scents, especially rosemary, passes from the nose directly to two parts of the brain responsible for emotion and memory: the hippocampus and amygdala. Of the senses, only smell triggers those areas.
You might remember the fragrance worn by your first love, but forget the first conversation or their outfit. A whiff of the same scent can instantly trigger memories from decades ago.
Try this to enhance recall:
- Next time you need your memory, learn the material wearing a certain scent.
- On the big day, reproduce the same scent.
Flip on Your “Photographic” Memory
Want to triple your memory?
Visuals don’t pass through the same brain areas as scents, but they are equally powerful.
You’re a visual learner whether you realize it.Learning science has identified the visual system as the fastest, most efficient, and most consistent of all the senses. Click To Tweet
Most modern learning tips, tricks, and methods rely heavily on the brain’s ability to efficiently store images. You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “a picture’s worth 1,000 words”. For memorization, that’s true.
Tripling your memory using visuals requires three things:
- An imagination capable of vivid, bizarre, and extraordinary pictures.
- Connection to existing knowledge.
- Practice. Lots of it.
Sometimes you’ll struggle with a word. It may sound weird, or be utterly unmemorable.Use the word substitution technique to lock in complicated names. Click To Tweet
Word substitution overcomes intangible information by converting it into, you guessed it, visual.
You break that word down into something easier. For example:
- Plutonium —> Pluto.
- Pharmaceuticals —> Farmers entering a lab while wearing suits.
- Mitochondria —> Mighty Andrea.
Word Substitution is great for learning new vocabulary or to add detail to existing knowledge.
The Benefits of Learning Compound Over Your Life
Think of an iceberg. If you haven’t actively focused on improving your abilities, I have good news. You’re currently only utilizing the above-water portion. Your full learning potential lies under the ice, awaiting use.
Anyone’s capable of going from the bottom to top one percent of expert learners. Like any skill, learning takes practice. But it’s well worth it.Mastering the art and science of learning is one of the few skills that compounds throughout your lifetime with everything you do. Click To Tweet
Along the way, you’ll forget things, and that’s actually good! The brain rewires for maximum efficiency by forgetting that which isn’t necessary. It also gives you the opportunity to unlearn bad info.
Becoming a better learner is the fastest way to rise above the crowd and become world-class at your trade. Biohack your learning strategy:
- Create a roadmap.
- Engage your senses, especially visual and smell for greater retention.
- Engrain sequential information with the powerful Memory Palace (Loci Method) technique.
- Quickly memorize long strings of numbers with the Major System.
- Optimize your sessions with self-quizzing, breaks every 30 minutes, and periodic review.
I hope this have provided an entry point into your meta-learning quest. I’ll write additional posts giving my take and the research behind each hack.
- Book: The Only Skill That Matters [Amazon]
- Book: Limitless [Amazon]
- Book: Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning [Amazon]
- Book: 4 Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life [Amazon]