Learn how to learn

“What you don’t remember, you might as well not have learned” – Harry Lorayne

From the day you were born, you have been learning. Some of it was done via school or other formalized education, but most of it was done organically – you just kept picking up stuff along the way.

Two things I’ve concluded about learning. First, no one else truly knows what you need to learn. This goes back to the idea that your reality is your own and that it is also unpredictable. Therefore, the skills and knowledge you need to be successful in your life are uniquely your own and you should take charge of building them appropriately. Second, learning is a skill and can be improved just like any other.

To get started, let’s talk about what learning is, which requires that you understand a little about how your brain works. As far as we are aware, the brain is the most complex object in the universe. This means we don’t fully understand how it works. However, we do have some pretty good ideas. The main idea you need to know for learning is that your brain contains tens of billions of cells called neurons that are connected to thousands of others through structures called dendrites. Scientists estimate that there are 100 trillion connections, or circuits, in the brain.

Any input received to your brain through your senses causes a response. Which response? Whichever circuit is the strongest and most deeply grooved. Some are so deep, like your heart rate or body temperature, that we don’t have any meaningful control over them, and they operate independently. 

Why does that matter to learning? Because learning is the act of creating new neural circuits and strengthening them over time. To learn better, you need to get better at creating those circuits.

Here are the best tips that I’ve picked up:

Step 1: Link the concept, idea or task to something you already know

It’s much faster to copy a circuit than to create a new one. Anytime you are faced with a new task or concept, find an analogy to something you already understand to get a jump start. This is a particularly useful skill across disciplines, as many of the same models will apply. I suggest you think of an analog scenario and start by asking “How is A like B?” Once you understand how the two scenarios are alike, then ask the question “How is A different from B?”

Let’s take an example from science, and say you want to understand the structure of an atom. A good starting analogy is the solar system.  Most people are aware of how the planets orbit around the sun. So first, how are they alike? As a first pass, you can think of an atom as a mini solar system, with the protons and neutrons bundled in the center as the sun, and the electrons orbiting around as planets. And how are they different? In this case, it’s mostly the electrons that are different, and they are different in a couple of major ways. One is that their orbits are not circles like the planets, but rather 3-d shapes that vary from simple spheres, to much more complicated objects like donuts and barbell shapes.

In just a few simple sentences you can get the gist of how something new works if you base it on something you already know.

Step 2: Groove the neural pattern

Once you have laid down an initial pattern of understanding or skill, you need to strengthen it. Here are a few ideas for how to do that:

  • Practice for what you want to do: Understanding is different than action. If you want to play the piano, you can’t just read about it, you must play. This means that you often need to build multiple circuits – first an understanding circuit and then an action circuit. The same applies if you want to become a better public speaker or anything else that requires action.
  • Recognize you have two modes of learning and both are important: Most people think of focused learning as “the” way to learn. Diffuse, or unfocused time, where you let the concepts float around your brain while relaxing or being otherwise engaged, is just as important. One of the more common methods to do this is the Pomodoro Technique, which formalizes this by breaking up a session into a 25-minute focused time followed by a 5-minute break, repeated for as long as you are working.
  • Practice spaced repetition: Neural circuits fade over time. The best way to convince your brain that a circuit is important and should be kept is to use that circuit right before it is discarded. Flash cards have been around a long time, but now there are more sophisticated ways. There are formal “spaced recognition systems”, such as Anki, that use a scientifically determined reminder period based on how well you remember each piece of information. Tools like these can greatly accelerate knowledge learning.
  • Use Deliberate Practice: Practicing a very specific aspect of what you are trying to learn enables focused learning. The more specific the better. Learning tennis? Once you have the basic serve down, get more specific – practice just the toss. Or even more specific, practice the toss height. This deliberate practice also gives you something very measurable to see if you are making improvements.
  • Practice to make bigger circuits: Once you have the basic parts of a concept down, work at grouping them into larger and larger chucks. Taking the piano example, once you learn the keys, practice chords, once you practice cords, practice sections of a piece. You keep making the chucks larger and larger until you can play a whole piece as a single circuit.
  • Sleep: One of the core functions of sleep is to take short term memories and turn them into long term memories – in effect, build the stronger neural circuits that will last. Don’t short your sleep.

Given memory is the basis of knowledge, I have also learned several memory techniques that I’ve found very useful. You can check these out under the extended toolkit.

Once you have the tools and approach down, you can apply this to your life in general. Here’s the general approach I use:

  • Pick a broad topic that I think will contribute to my life
  • Find a knowledge source (book, article, person, etc – Google works wonders here)
  • Digest that knowledge source into an easily consumable form such as a mind map
  • Categorize each piece of information and store it based on how I’m going to use it:
    • For frequently used information, my goal is to keep it in my head, at which point I generally use memory techniques as noted above.
    • If it’s something I want to do (versus just know), I then create a practice schedule to get it up to my desired level of competence.
    • For concepts that I might come back to later, I make sure I have the general idea in my memory and then store the mind map or other material in a central place (I have found Evernote to be a great tool for this purpose).

It’s safe to assume that at least one thing that you want out of life requires new knowledge or a new skill to get it. Learning how to learn is the first step in that process.

12th Piece of Advice: Get better at learning. It’s a skill just like any other.

Want to learn more?

Here are a few resources you can check out if you want to explore this idea further:

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