FUNDAMENTALS: LEARNING HOW TO LEARN
THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF LEARNING
In my previous article about why learning is so hard for our brain, I left off on how to learn new things easier and faster.
What is learning actually?
It’s the process of building more and bigger chunks, by storing and further connecting information in long-term memory, essentially passing of tasks from System 2 to System 1 of the brain.
(You can read more about System 1 and System 2 in this article.)
In order for this to happen, System 2 first has to engage with the information actively and effort-fully multiple times.
Musicians and sports stars refer to this as muscle memory. This actually applies to your muscles as well, but in this particular case, we are only referring to the brain.
That is how a pianist can move his fingers so fast, because of slow, deliberate, conscious practice repeated over and over again.
99% of the time, what we think is talent or superhuman ability, usually comes down to the incredible automation skills of your “Fast” System 1, developed through the painstaking deliberate practice of the “Slow” System 2.
Try playing a game you enjoy with the mouse direction inverted.
Many of us have actually done it in our childhood, and it became easy after a few tries.
Because we were paying attention to it and using the Slow Brain to help the Fast Brain react faster in the future, by going on autopilot.
When you pay more attention to something and the more effort you put into it, the easier it becomes to remember the experience.
Gail Lynne Goodwin quote
What is meta-learning?
Here is a short explanation of how it started and what it is.
Meta learning is originally described by Donald B. Maudsley (1979) as “the process by which learners become aware of and increasingly in control of habits of perception, inquiry, learning, and growth that they have internalized”.
You can become world class at almost anything in 6 months or less.
However, it is important to first understand what you are learning and being aware that there is always an easier way if you look for it.
Let me tell you a joke.
What happens when Bill Gates enters a bar with over 50 people?
Giving everyone a free drink doesn’t count.
The average net worth jumps to over $1 billion.
Funny? Not really.
But it shows how important it is to look at the extremes, and not so much at the averages.
Dixie Lee Ray quote
YOU DON’T ASK ARNOLD HOW TO BUILD MUSCLES
If you want to have muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you don’t ask Arnold what he does.
Doesn’t it seem like the best choice?
Yes, it seems, but it isn’t.
Arnold did train hard, but he wasn’t Mr Olympia only because of how he trained and ate. Almost every bodybuilder at that time was doing the exact same things.
When you want to learn something, you don’t always look at the cream of the crop.
You’re probably thinking, didn’t you tell me to look at the extremes?
Exactly, look at the extremes. Look at both sides.
The reason is that you weren’t probably lucky enough to be Michael Phelps, Serena Williams or Usain Bolt.
They are all great athletes, but they aren’t at that level just because they trained hard. They were born or developed very early some qualities that gave them an unfair advantage as some might say.
Now, if you look at the other extreme, you will probably find people who are great at what they do, but there’s a catch. They are at a high level, even if they aren’t genetically or mentally gifted from birth or childhood.
They weren’t born in the golden boat, they built it.
These type of people are most of us.
Martha Burgess quote
MATERIAL OVER METHOD
Now let’s get back to learning.
We need 2 things to learn.
What’s the main difference?
Let’s get back to our top athlete’s example. It wouldn’t really matter the method they would be using to train, because they already have the material (their body) that gives them an advantage.
Sorry for my technical terms, probably only gym enthusiasts will understand, but it wouldn’t matter if Arnold did 5x5 or 5x3x1, he would still be huge.
But how does this work in learning you might think?
Easy, let me give you a perfect example.
You and your friend want to learn to speak Spanish.
You both select the same method. 4 hours a week with around 1 hour split into 4 days.
Time to start learning some new words, right?
Here’s the catch.
Your material gives you 1000 words to learn.
Your friend? 5000 words to learn,
Can you guess which will be able to have a conversation in Spanish earlier?
The reason is that you don’t need to know the whole vocabulary to have a basic conversation, Many words are repeating themselves so often that if you learn 1000 words you can understand 90% of a language.
By having better material, you can learn what is more important and this will greatly simplify your learning process.
Are you ready for the secret technique?
D.i.S.S.S. and C.A.F.E. method
THE D.i.S.S.S METHOD
To simplify learning, we’ll use the D.i.S.S.S. acronym.
D.i.S.S.S stands for:
You are absolutely right, the i doesn’t mean anything, it’s just to remember the acronym easier.
I found this method extremely efficient for learning anything new in the fastest way possible.
I will also add some bonus tips and tricks at the end of the post to supercharge this method even more.
Now let me tell you how this method works and how you can apply it.
This is the 1st step and the most important one since you need to start with it to make all the other work properly in order.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
– Mark Twain
This is exactly where we are at this point.
Almost no one is deconstructing the skill they want to learn, and that’s why learning is so inefficient.
This step is easy, especially if you’re interested in what you want to learn.
Let me tell you how to do it.
Want to learn how to X?
Ok, search on google for “basic principles of X”.
Find out what everyone with a good knowledge of the subject keeps on repeating about that thing.
Don’t use one source, use at least 10. Look on websites like Reddit where there are actually real people who want to share their knowledge. Websites might want you to keep on reading article after article or might be trying to sell you a product by telling you how that is the best solution for what you want.
Now you are gathering the LEGO blocks. You will probably not need all of them, but better to have a little more than you might need, that not having enough.
Did you finish gathering the LEGO blocks? Ok, then it’s time to move on to the next step.
For this step, we want to select the best material that can help us learn that new thing.
Heard of the Pareto 80/20 principle?
This is where we’re going to apply it.
The principle says that 80% of the results come from 20% of our actions.
Here we want to select the 20% of the LEGO blocks that will help us the most.
We don’t want the extra fluff, we don’t want the tiny details, we don’t want the small tweaks.
We want the big blocks to create a strong foundation.
Remove 80% of the material you gathered that is not critical.
Cut out anything that doesn’t seem necessary.
Can you lose weight without counting every gram of fat, protein, carb and without looking at your daily magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin K and all the other vitamins and minerals?
Of course you can.
Make it simple.
Want to learn how to write a book?
Don’t learn all the 100 techniques that you need for writing every word out of each paragraph, from each page of each chapter.
Again, make it simple.
Peter Drucker said it best about people who want to be leaders in what they are doing.
Peter Drucker quote
The 3rd step is sequencing, which means you have to put things in order.
You collected all the LEGO blocks and you selected the most important ones. Now it’s time to put them in a relevant order so you can have an easier path.
To learn how to run, you first need to know how to walk.
It’s exactly the same principle.
Start with the most important element.
When you learn the alphabet, you start with the letter A and finish with the letter Z.
To help you during this step, I recommend using a visual drawing or a mindmap.
If you’ve already checked different books and courses while researching the subject, you should have a basic idea of what a structure could look like.
Google and Youtube are your best friends.
Bonus tip: look at books on the subject on Amazon. Check the table of contents and find out how most of the books are structured.
No, we’re not talking about food right now.
Here is the definition of our stakes:
A sum of money or something else of value gambled on the outcome of a risky game or venture.
You’ve heard the word money and right now you’re probably already panicking.
Well, that’s the point.
Most of us don’t give full attention to something unless there’s something on the line.
There are many studies, especially this one, but since it’s 30 pages long, let me tell you the conclusion.
Most people fear losing more than they enjoy winning.
This is the reason why we procrastinate. If there’s no deadline, if there’s nothing we can lose, then we’ll not really hurry or be resourceful enough.
Remember the comfort zone? It’s exactly the reason why we don’t go out of it.
But what if you forced your future self to take everything more seriously?
You’re probably thinking how you could do that?
Simple. Other people have already figured it out. Here are 2 ways you can do it:
- Get an accountability partner
- Donate to a charity you don’t like.
Does that seem a little uncomfortable?
Good, you’re on the right track.
For donating to a charity you wouldn’t give any penny otherwise, use a service like Stickk. You set up a goal, you set the stake and if you don’t follow-up on it, you can watch your money burn. Not literally, but that’s exactly how you’ll feel knowing where the money goes.
Winston Churchill quote
We’ve learned the D.i.S.S.S. method and now you can tackle learning new subjects easier.
But what if I told you there’s one more tool we can use to further enhance learning easier?
The C.F.E acronym stands for:
- C = compression
- F = frequency
- E = encoding
We are using the term CAFE to make it easier to remember.
Remember what I said earlier?
Always make it simple for your mind.
Now let me show you how these 3 bonus items can help us.
In this step, we are again looking at the 80/20 principle.
However, this is a bonus step, so we are actually enhancing our fundamentals.
We are going beyond 80/20.
Do you know what’s the 80/20 of 80/20?
Which means 64% of your results come from 4% of your actions.
Less work, more results.
How can we do that? Simple.
Use cheat sheets for everything.
What is a cheat sheet?
It’s basically all the information you might need to know, compressed into 1 page.
Do a simple google search with “[skill you want to learn] cheat sheet” and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Ever heard of ABC? Yes, we all did, but here’s an acronym we can get out of it.
ABC = always be compressing
Does this sound like something we would want? Definitely.
Creating simplicity out of complexity is not an easy task.
I will end this first bonus step with a relevant quote from French mathematician Blaise Pascal.
E.F. Schumacher quote
We’ve learned a lot of new things already.
There’s still one thing that you probably knew before reading this article.
Repetition is the mother of all learning.
This won’t ever change.
You can shorten the learning curve, but you still have to actually practice.
Michael Jordan didn’t become the best NBA player by just learning how to play.
To win, you have to actually put in the playing time.
Remember “the more you learn, the more you earn” phrase?
It’s not exactly a straight line, but we’ve talked about the 80/20 principle. You don’t necessarily have to do a lot of things, but you have to do the right things.
By constantly learning, you will find those right things to do.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
– Bruce Lee
For this reason, my recommendation is to take a constant, repeated approach to a subject.
If you follow these 2 rules, your learning will be much easier:
- Spaced repetition
Combining these 2 can almost give you superhuman learning abilities.
You can understand why from the image below.
The Learning and Forgetting Curve
Encoding is a simple concept to understand.
That’s because we’ve already used it through this article several times.
Remember D.i.S.S.S. and C.F.E?
Encodings are just shortcuts to make it easier for us to remember.
Encoding is the step in which you help yourself with mental anchors or any type of trick, to make sure you remember what you are learning easier.
Don’t make it harder on yourself, make it easier.
That is why planning before-hand is so important.
You can make it easy before you start, or you can start before you make it easy. The later is the hard way. (not recommended if you want more efficiency out of your time)
David Lodge Quote
As always, I’ve tried to compress information can take up to a whole book in a blog post.
However, because it is so compressed, almost every sentence is critical in understanding the concepts and being able to apply them efficiently, just like the best top performers in the world are doing, no matter the subject or field of interest.
That is why I usually recommend going over great content a couple of times. You can always find new golden nuggets that you might not have understood at first.
Now, as I always do, I will give a short summary. So here are the 4 basic principles + 3 extra power-ups.
#1 DECONSTRUCTION → gather all the LEGO blocks.
#2 SELECTION → select the most important LEGO blocks.
#3 SEQUENCiNG → put the LEGO blocks in order.
#4 STAKES → make your LEGO blocks creation important.
#5 COMPRESSION → find cheat sheets.
#6 FREQUENCY → constant spaced repetition.
#7 ENCODING → mindmaps and visual tricks to help you remember.
This information is all that I’d suggest using when learning anything new.
More information and you’re over-complicating, less information and you’re skipping the important steps.
I’m telling you this because I’ve experienced it myself and it’s better to learn from other peoples mistakes.
How else would have we survived if we all ate poisoned mushrooms and didn’t learn from our ancestors?
Use these technique to maximize learning, be it a new skill for your current job, for a future job, for your college class or just learning something new that you enjoy but are not yet particularly good at.
You can make more money, but you can’t make more time.
That’s why using your time efficiently is extremely important.
This is all for this blog post. As always, thank you for taking your time to read and hope you found it useful.
Benjamin Franklin Quote