Learning to Learn and Learn and Learn

This article largely paraphrases Ultralearning, an incredible book by Scott H. Young that prescribes a powerful recipe for expanding your mind. I’ve always been generally curious, but this book gave me direction and tools that have focused my learning and allowed me to leverage my brain like never before (cliché but true). I’ve found myself in a virtuous cycle of ingesting and retaining much more information, getting really excited about the new knowledge, and so throwing myself into more learning. The key steps I now use are taken directly from the book and are written below for two reasons, firstly just to spread the knowledge, and secondly because one of the tools involves writing articles to solidify knowledge and so I’m practicing what I preach!

Steps 1 and 2 look at defining your learning project and then creating focus to sustain motivation. Steps 3 to 7 look closer at the types of techniques that accelerate and solidify learning. Finally, steps 8 and 9 look at taking your learnings further and becoming an expert.

Step 1: Meta-learn Planning out your learning

Meta-learning is about making sure you are learning the right stuff before you get started. In fact, the first 10% of any learning project should be spent on making sure you are learning right. This relatively small up-front investment pays huge dividends across the length of a learning project and in day-to-day life. Meta-learning can be broken down into four key areas:

  • Why: Knowing why you want to learn something is absolutely key for motivation and successful learning. The “why” can be to achieve a specific goal or just to meet an intrinsic curiosity. If you have written down a clear “why” (actually write it down!), you have a clear reason that will keep you motivated for the length of your project. Additionally, if the “why” of your learning is a tangible goal, you can first validate if your learning will actually get you to your goal. (Validation generally needs to be through talking to people who have already achieved the goal.)
  • What: Break down your learning goal into specific topics, concepts, facts, and procedures. Then organise these into a clear roadmap that will allow you to progress from where you are now to your goal.
  • How: For your overall learning goal find a benchmark that demonstrates how to learn what you want to learn. The best places to start for this are usually university or online courses that describe a curriculum. Although, understand that you should only copy parts of these curricula that directly relate to your why. Then you can map specific learning material to each of the topics you need to learn. Learning material can include articles, online courses, books, videos, challenges…. Etc. Doing this will allow you to learn much faster and more specifically than the courses.
  • When: Set clear regular times to learn and put them in your calendar, in your phone, and on your wall. This makes you commit to spending time on your learning and helps you stay on track. The schedule has to work for you though, so make sure you are learning at a pace and schedule that you can sustain. Additionally, run your first couple of weeks as a trial and adjust up or down depending on how it feels. If you are time-pressured (eg. by a deadline), put these topics into a high-level schedule to give yourself an impression of where everything will fit in.

Step 2: Focus — Sustaining deep focus on command

Focusing is a skill that gets practices alongside all learning. Ideally focussing should be easy if you have a strong “why”, but a prerequisite for any learning goal should be to practice focusing quickly and sustainably.

  • Quick Focus: Just starting is often the hardest bit, you end up worried about how much you have to do or external distractions and end up doing nothing. The easiest way to get through this is to set a 1-minute timer and just commit to your learning plan for 1-minute. Usually once you’ve started, it’s easier to keep going. Additionally, understanding the feelings that are halting your progress, acknowledging them, and looking at strategies to manage them can be really useful. Lastly, take breaks if it’s going to help you be more productive in the long term.
  • Sustained focus: getting into a state of sustained focus or flow can actually feel amazing. The best way to sustain focus is to stick to one task at a time, give yourself a great environment that is free of distractions, and start with reasonable chunks of time. Then you can build up your focus as you are learning. Additionally, try alternating between chunks of different learning material so that you avoid monotony.

Step 3: Directness — Do the thing you want to learn

As much as possible you should try to do things you are trying to learn. If that’s coding then code, if it’s speaking a foreign language then speak it a lot, if it’s a difficult job then offer to do that job for free. Learning this way means you are going to start reaching your goal faster by creating a breadth of transferrable skills. Some useful ways to learn directly include:

  • Projects — Give yourself projects that line up to your goals so that you can directly apply your knowledge.
  • Immersion — Surround yourself with opportunities to learn — Scott learnt languages by going to countries and refusing to speak anything but the local language for 3 months.
  • Simulation — Find ways to simulate all or part of your learning goal.
  • Overkill — Learn way more than you need to so that your actual learning goal is deeply cemented in your mind.

Step 4: Drill — Dive into problem areas to increase your overall pace

Identify sub-elements or skills in your learning project that are slowing you down and spend time just working on those things. This can be done through the repetition of smaller pieces, copying existing examples, or working through a chain of pre-requisite skills. Doing this will strengthen the weakest link in your learning project and so improve the entire process. However, you need to make sure your drills are practicing exactly the thing you find difficult in the higher-level process, otherwise it won’t transfer. Also, alternate between drills and directness to ensure continuing progress toward your goal.

Step 5: Retrieval — Most of learning is the reinforcement of memory or skill

This book made me think of memory as a huge bookshelf in which it is very easy to lose books. The way you keep more in your mind-shelf is by regularly accessing the memories and reinforcing the mental pathways you have to the knowledge. To be effective, information retrieval practice should be difficult. If you can regularly practice testing yourself in a manner that forces you to struggle to remember information, this information will be much better retained. The best ways to practice retrieval are:

  • Flashcards: Very simple but these are an incredibly powerful tool for retrieval. If you are looking for a technical solution try Anki, it helped me remember every world capital in 3 weeks.
  • Free Recall: This is just writing from memory, such as writing an instructive article (very meta) for others to read.
  • Questions Notes: This is a really cool technique for note-taking wherein you take notes as questions to be answered at a later date. In this way, you end up writing pop quizzes for yourself and cementing your knowledge far better than with regular notes.

Step 6: Feedback — Understand how well you are tracking to your goals

After you practice retrieving information, it’s important to get fast and regular feedback from experts and examples of best practice. The feedback is often uncomfortable (it can be difficult to find out you’re doing badly), however it is the best way to make sure you are going in the right direction. There are 3 levels of feedback that I will order from least to most useful:

  • Outcome-Based: This is feedback that just tells you if you are right or wrong.
  • Informational: This is feedback that tells you exactly what caused you to be wrong.
  • Corrective: This is feedback that tells you how to fix what went wrong and improve. Usually, this comes from a coach or teacher.

One pitfall of feedback though is inconsistency. If you end up with conflicting feedback from different sources, you have to make a judgement call on what is useful for your goals.

Step 7: Retention — Expanding on retrieval

Retention is the product of hours of retrieval — the more you retrieve memories, the more you retain them. There are a few tricks that can be used to increase retention. I see these as ways to systematise the search through the mind-shelves in the retrieval metaphor from step 5. These tricks act as shortcuts to memory and can include:

  • Spacing: Cramming information is useful in the short term, but true retention only comes from revisiting knowledge across larger time gaps. You can implement spacing through Anki, revision, or setting yourself refresher projects.
  • Proceduralisation: This involves turning knowledge into “muscle memory”. Generally, this means practicing a skill so regularly that you don’t have to consciously remember it, you can just do it.
  • Over-learning: This builds into the overkill method of directness in step 3 and involves learning past your goal so that your actual goal is relatively easy to retain.
  • Pneumonic: These are generally only good for specific situations of bulk memorisation and memory tricks, not so much for creating understanding. However, they can be an incredibly useful way to retain a large set of facts based on a small set of information.

Step 8: Intuition — Focus on the deeper principles

To become an expert in an area you have to intuitively understand it. This involves being able to see what patterns exist in an area and finding joy in the nuance of advanced topics, rather than the novelty of beginner topics. This is a harder step to make tangible, but generally speaking, if you can explain the ideas and themes within your learning area, this is evidence of intuition. Additionally, doing really difficult things within your learning topic and forcing yourself to push through struggles will grow your knowledge exponentially. (Try setting a “struggle timer” once you start struggling to force yourself to work on a problem for an extra few minutes).

Step 9: Experimentation — Make your learning your own

You have to experiment with both the learning techniques you use and the application of your learning. When you are learning, it’s important to iterate through the steps above, picking the ones that work best initially, and then continuing to improve your own learning experience as you go. This will keep things fresh, keep you motivated, and help you achieve your goals. Going on to achieve expertise involves making your learning area your own. This might be composing your own music, writing your own code, or just doing something to make your work definitively yours. You can develop this personal style through a few methods:

  • Copy Create: Start by copying the work of the highest achievers in your chosen field and then adapting to your own style.
  • Constraining: Try and do problems with artificial constraints on yourself, this will force you to think in new ways.
  • Explore Extremes: Often the most interesting areas of topics are at the extremes, so push yourself to explore the extremes of your learnings and see what is out there.
  • Combine Learnings: Take learnings from multiple areas of your life and see if you can apply them to each other. Repurposing conventional wisdom can bring great insight.

I have used these steps extensively over the past few months to dive into basic web development, policy, strategy, and innovation. Learning each of these topics has fed my own curiosity, however I have found a real joy in developing my own learning experience and starting to realise the full possibility of human potential…



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