Learning How To Learn: 4 Ways To Learn Anything Faster

Learning how to learn can make a huge difference for you in 2017. Many simple strategies from neuroscience can transform learning from drudgery to delight.

learning how to learn

Now that it’s December, you may be thinking about the year ahead, trying to imagine what it will look like.

While life changes will occur, chances are pretty good that you’ll keep doing the same old things to get the same old results.

If you’ve had a good year, then you’re all set.

But, if it hasn’t been a good year, then you may be thinking about setting some New Year Resolutions.

You may want to gain muscle, burn fat. You may want to earn more, spend less. Or you may want to improve relationships, travel more, or achieve a burning desire.

And, if you’re seriously frustrated: you may even want to change everything beyond recognition.

Still, a few months into the new year, things will start to go back to the way they’ve always been.

The force of habits and the pressure of circumstances will recreate a familiar reality.

A Better Alternative to New Year Resolutions

A better way to manage your future is to take on a full-throttle goal-setting program.

This will force you to change your life for the better.

You’ll stop repeating history and create new experiences.

My Own Goal Setting Method

Over the past few years, I’ve tried many goal-setting methods. As a result, I’ve cobbled together a rudimentary system that appears to work well for me. SMART goals and long-term goals didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get any traction with them.

  1. Decide. Find your vision. What major goal do you want to achieve in 2017? Here’s a question Brian Tracy might ask you: “If you could wave a magic wand and have whatever you wished for in any part of your life, what would it be?”
  2. Chunk down. Break that big goal into smaller goals. Chunk it down into a series of goals arranged by priority.
  3. Schedule. Mark on a calendar the first step you’ll need to take within the next 90 days. If you don’t succeed after 90 days, then reschedule it again for another 90 days. Once you’ve achieved your first goal, then pick the next small goal to achieve within the next 90 days.
  4. Monitor. Keep track of what you’re doing throughout your 90-day goal sprints. Use daily, weekly, and monthly record-keeping. This is essential. Without monitoring your progress, you won’t make course corrections. You’re also more likely to be distracted by other things.
  5. Positive Self-Talk. Encourage yourself to win throughout your 90-day journey. Coach yourself to learn from feedback and make changes. The worse thing you could do is to try to use negative motivation to push yourself.

Give it a try, and adjust as needed.

Still, goals-setting is not the complete solution. You also have to get the winning edge by learning how to learn. Once you master learning how to learn, you’ll be able to learn those things that will make a big difference for you in 2017.

Why You Should Also Focus on Learning How to Learn

Launching a goal-setting program will steer you in the right direction.

But, if you want the winning edge, then you should learn how to learn. You should learn how to learn anything faster and easier than you do now.

The only reason you’re doing things a certain way is because that’s what you know how to do.

While you’re great at a few things, you’re getting less than desirable results with other things.

The way to put those distressing aspects of your life behind you is to get them up to par. And the way to do that is to learn how to do them better.

If, for instance, you’re earning less than you’d like, you’re missing a critical skillset. By learning that skillset, you’ll raise your economic value and begin to earn more.

For your life to change for the better, you need to stop doing some things and start doing other things. Since you don’t know how to do things you’re not good at any better, you’ll keep repeating the same things.

The way to break out of this limiting loop is to learn something new.

And the best way to learn something new is to get good at learning how to learn.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a few ideas I’ve learned about learning how to learn. As a result of improving my learning skills, I’m learning things quicker and better. I’m also enjoying the process.

Learning How to Learn Strategy #1:

Pay Rapt Attention

In Rapt Attention and the Focused Life, Winifred Gallagher, offers a simple, startling idea:

We’re all trying out private experiments on how to live our best life.

Some people are learning how to get good at relationships.

Others are exploring the world of work and how to increase their productivity and value.

Still others are asking the big questions, researching philosophy, religion, or science.

By learning how to pay rapt attention, everyone has more success with their experiment.

They learn at a much faster rate because they’re engaged in what they’re doing. Their emotional and logical experience helps them understand things faster and easier.

Attention optimizes your life because it affects everything that you do.

What you focus on determines the quality of your life. You can choose to focus on one thing at a time or move your focus around and lose track of your goals.

Rapt attention gives you control over your experience. It engages you. It satisfies you. It puts you into a flow state.

Learning How to Learn Strategy #2:

Apply Principles of Neuroscience

I’ve been reading Barbara Oakley’s book, A Mind for Numbers. I’ve also taken her “Learning How to Learn” online course.

A Mind for Numbers is about learning how to love math, but it goes way beyond that theme. It’s actually a review of some quintessential principles in neuroscience.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned from her book and course:

1. Focused vs. Diffused Mode.

You need to fluctuate between a study session with free time. This free, unstructured time allows your mind to sort out and file what you’ve just studied.

Think of it liking going to the gym. After you train, you need time to recover before you hit the gym again.

When you study, you enter the focused mode. When you do nothing important, letting your mind wander, you enter the diffused mode.

The diffused mode is a deliberate activity. It’s doing something mentally undemanding. Going for a walk or doing chores is an example of using the diffused mode. Visiting Facebook isn’t because you’re engaging your mind again.

2. Procrastination.

If you procrastinate over studying something it’s because you’ve made a negative association. You’re trying to avoid some type of discomfort. This is a no-win situation because you’re also feeling emotional pain over avoiding the work.

Find out what it is that’s bothering you and resolve it.

If you can’t figure it out, then just jump straight into the task. You’ll find your fears dissolve. It won’t be as bad as you imagined.

3. Process vs. Product.

Don’t focus on what you’ll get out of something (the product) but focus on doing the task (the process). If you do enough of the process, the desired end result will usually take care of itself.

If, for example, you’re studying for an exam, don’t fret over what grade you might get. Instead focus on scheduling time for regular studies.   If you study enough, you will get a good grade.

4. Explain Like I’m 5-years-old.

If you want to learn something, teach it to someone. Explain your idea to them as if they were 5-years-old. Reddit even has a section to honor this idea.

The idea may have originated from Charles Darwin. He would imagine someone walking into his study when he was writing out his radical theory of evolution. Putting down his pen, he would explain his idea to this imaginary person in the simplest possible way.

5. Use Spaced Repetition.

When studying something, you may fall into the illusion that you know it well. This is known as the fluency illusion.

The only way to make sure that you know the information is to go over it in scheduled reviews. Make sure you transfer the information from working memory to long-term memory.

In Succeed, Heidi Grant Havorson offers this insight:

“Metaphorically speaking, if your unconscious mind can hold information comparable to a NASA supercomputer, your conscious mind can hold roughly the equivalent of a Post-It Note.

Learning How to Learn Strategy #3:

Do Deep Work

In Deep Work Cal Newport proposes the deep work hypothesis:

“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

Here are some takeaways from Deep Work:

1. Buildup Your Myelin.

When you work out in a gym, you stimulate the growth of muscle cells. When you study something, you stimulate the growth of neurons.

As you study, you build a neuronet of connections around an idea.

Myelin is the fatty sheath around a neuron that protects the strength of the nerve signal.

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle explains the essential value of myelination:

“Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuit in the right way—when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note—our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around the neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become.”

2. Attention Residue.

After you get done with one task, you still have some attention from that task carry over to your next task. If you’re reading a book, then take a 15 minute break and go on to Facebook, you’ll have scattered your focus. When you get back to your book again, your mind will still be reflecting on some of the Facebook posts you read. It will take some effort getting engaged in the book again.

So, when you do take a study break, don’t preoccupy your mind with another mental task. Stick with Barbara Oakley’s recommendation and pursue a diffused mode activity.

3. Establish a Routine.

The best way to study something is to establish a routine. Do the same thing at the same time. Set a schedule and stick to it. Cal Newport studied less than other students when he was in college, but graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He attributes much of his success to his scheduled studying.

Learning How to Learn Strategy #4:

Design a Study Algorithm

I’m currently taking a course from Scott Young called Learning on Steroids.

He has one lesson that I’ve found invaluable about how to create a study algorithm.

It’s one of the methods that he used to teach himself the entire MIT Computer Science curriculum.

Here are the basic steps:

  • First, speed read through the material.
  • Second, go over the material a second time with a highlighter.
  • Third, go over the material a third time, making annotations in the margins.

This method works well because it forces you to be an active, engaged learner.

I’ve added a fourth step, which is the 5-year-old method.

This is now my favorite study method.

Make 2017 Your Favorite Year

It’s a long post, but here are three main ideas, I’d like you to walk away with today:

  1. If you want next year to be better than this year, don’t set New Year Resolutions but use a goal-setting method.
  2. The best way to make a huge leap is to get good at something that you’re not doing well right now because there is something you haven’t learned yet.
  3. Try out some of the ideas I’ve outlined here on learning how to learn. Become an excellent student and build up that myelin sheath!

If you want to do well in life, you have to stop doing what 80% of people do and start doing what the 20% do. What do the 20% do? They learn to master a few key skills to improve the major aspects of their lives.

Setting goals is far more effective than declaring New Years Resolutions. And talking about New Year’s Resolutions is better then settling for apathy. But if you want 2017 to be your favorite year, then also spend some time learning how to learn. Use this skill to master something important in your life. In Cal Newport’s words, be “so good that they can’t ignore you.”


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