How to Learn Faster

My good friend works full time for a nice little financial planning and tax advice business.  He also loves going to football and basketball games, traveling, hanging out with friends, taking care of his mom, and drinking.  He’s a busy guy.  Oh, and he also just finished his first semester at law school.  With straight A’s.  How?

Reading is Terrible

I read a lot of books, articles and blogs about everything from law, to photography, to history, to philosophy.  I mean a stupid amount of reading. I could, and on my worst days do, spend 6 hours just reading.

That last sentence is key. On my worst days, I spend 6 hours just reading.

The problem is that reading alone is about the worst way to learn something. I’ve got a pretty good memory. I’ll read something that strikes me as interesting or useful and I’ll be able to remember it and even explain it to somebody six months later. But that’s about it.

If I don’t find something particularly interesting, the details get muddy.  I won’t be able to remember it later.  Even if it is interesting, and I can remember it, that doesn’t always mean I’ll be able to recall it when it would be most useful.

On my best days, I may spend only 30 minutes reading, but I may master a new subject.

The key is to not just read.  If nothing else, reading something aloud will do a much better job of cementing something in your brain.  Explaining something, out loud, after you’ve read it is even better.  If you do nothing else, explaining what you’ve just read, out loud, will increase your long term retention by nearly 7 times. For some people, writing up an explanation will do the same, but I’ve found the out-loud explanation is even more beneficial. YMMV.  The reason explaining something is so powerful is because it first requires you to break it down.

Break It Down

To adequately explain something, you’ve got to understand all parts of it.  This requires breaking down a concept or a skill into its distinct parts.  This is true for everything from a new language to a backhand slice. Tim Ferriss has a great article about how he breaks down new languages. Here’s how I would explain how to hit a backhand slice:

  1. how to hold the racket in a continental grip,
  2. how to stagger your feet properly,
  3. how to bend your knees so your elbow is near the height of the contact point
  4. how much backswing to take
  5. the angle of the racket face
  6. the angle to strike the ball at
  7. the follow through
  8. the pop up to drive the ball deeper

I could certainly learn how to hit a backhand slice without doing this breakdown.  I could just go out and swing at the ball, trying different things, until I get a reasonably consistent result.  But that would take forever.  I would have to hit literally thousands of balls, trying various combinations of these 8 variables until I stumbled upon one that sort of, half-way worked.  This obviously isn’t an effective or efficient.  By breaking it down, I can understand exactly what my body is supposed to do before I ever get near a tennis ball.

After you’ve broken the information down, after you can explain it to someone else, you’re done studying.  Use Pareto’s Law: 20% of the effort for 80% of the results.  More time spent at this stage will garner you smaller and smaller returns.  Instead, now’s the time to practice.

Just Do It

No matter what you’re reading about, whether it’s law or history or a technique or a language, or how to play a blues riff or hit a tennis ball, the absolute best way to learn it is to do it.  Learn enough so that you understand the basics and then go do it.

You can read about how to use Photoshop’s Pen Tool for days, literally, or you can read about it for 5 minutes to understand the basics, play with it for 30 minutes, and you’ll be proficient.  You can spend days reading through the entirety of Canyon Conundrum by Dan Margulis to learn all about the LAB color mode, or you can read a few paragraphs, play around for 5 minutes, and have pretty much mastered a kick ass technique. (I highly recommend the book by the way).  Once you do a color separation via LAB 2 or 3 times, you’ll never forget how to do it.  It’s fantastic.

Plugging Holes

You will enivitably fail when using this technique.  That’s by design.  If you don’t fail at first, you’re putting in way too much time in the study/break down department.  If used effectively, you’re starting to practice when you’ve only put in 20% of the work, but getting 80% of the result.  That means you’re still missing 20%.  (That may be fine for some things, but if you need to get more, you’re going to have to plug holes.)

Study Federer’s slice, break it down, explain what he’s doing, then go try it.  What’s the worst that could happen?  If you fail miserably, you go back, revise your break down, and then try again.  Practice quickly identifies the holes in your understanding so you can plug them.  Mastering something in the abstract is a huge waste of effort.  Understand the basics of what’s required ahead of time, then try to execute.

This applies to every area of your life.  In law school, your finals count for 100% of your grade and cover everything you learned during the semester.  Most people study by just pouring over the books and notes they took.  Most people also suck at law school.  I told my good friend to create his own outline of each course (step one, break it down) and then to take practice tests under simulated test conditions (step two, actually do it).  Once you start taking the practice tests, you can immediately identify the areas you don’t fully understand.  At that point you go back, revise your break down, and take another test.

My friend didn’t have the time to spend pouring over the texts like his competition did, but he still smoked them because he learns faster and performs better using this technique.

Summary

  1. Reading, by itself, is a terrible way to retain information.
  2. Instead, break down the information, technique, or skill into its component parts
  3. Explain that information, technique, or skill out loud, as if teaching someone else
  4. Once you have a basic understanding of the information, technique, or skill, go practice it
  5. Once you fail, go back, revise your break down, and practice again
  6. Repeat step 5 until you’ve reached an acceptable level of skill
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8 Responses to How to Learn Faster

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Mastery | The Blog of A.J. Kessler

  2. You might say that reading then blogging about the subject and your struggle to master that subject could provide a great feedback mechanism. Nice post. “Fail often, fail early” removes your ego and centers you in the problem. I call this zone the ActiveEngine where you tune the results.

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  6. Tessa says:

    I found this article really interesting. I have always thought to myself that I never really understand anything unless I can imgaine myself confidently teaching it to someone else who doesn’t know anything about the subject. By doing this, it helps you to realise how much you understand it – by breaking down each of the components and recognizing which bits you struggle with. If you can’t imagine the other person understanding what you are saying, or if you can’t pretend to teach someone in a fluent and clear manner (like your point 3 above), it is hard to believe you fully understand it yourself.

    I think this is a great way of learning; thanks for the post!

  7. Wan says:

    Great post!

    It’s something I’ve been thinking for awhile because I see that most people read without having a strategy to retain what they read. Applying it and sharing it are two great ways to strengthen our memory of the things we learn.

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