How to be a Learning Machine

Rui Zhi Dong
My most used apps
My most used apps
My most used apps

The Benchmark

Warren Buffett once mentioned in a TV interview that he doesn’t listen to podcasts because he can’t consume the content as fast as he can read. He reads 20–25 books a week. Imagine that. That’s more than what most people read in a year. But then again, Warren is not like most people. Charlie Munger, his business partner at Berkshire and who reads equally voraciously, once quipped that his grandchildren called him a book with a couple of legs sticking out.

They value tremendously the time to just sit, read and think all day.

We both insist on a lot of time being available almost every day to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. We read and think.

I like to think about the number of books they both read as a reminder that I can always do better and to inspire me. They are the ultimate example of learning machines.

Priorities

The first thing is to make a conscious choice to prioritize learning and finding ways to make as much time available for reading and learning as possible. I’ll show you some cool hacks to take advantage of your idle time.

The reason Warren and Charlie read so much is because they prioritize this above all else and keep their calendars clear so that they can focus on just this one activity of sitting and reading instead of having every minute jam packed with meetings.

Once you’ve chosen to make learning a priority, it’s a good idea to remind yourself about this in the mornings until it becomes more habitual. You’ll be more mindful about your time. This can come in handy when you start spending time mindlessly on an activity.

I’ve seen hours disappear when I’m playing PS4 games. While I do enjoy playing games, I don’t value it so much that I’d want to consciously spend 3+ hours straight on it compared to reading/writing, dinner out with friends or just going for a walk in the park.

You can figure out how much of a priority reading is for you relative to your other activities and commitments. You may value cooking and spending time with loved ones much more than reading, for instance, and so you should spend your time accordingly.

Daily Routine

In my own daily routines, I read the FT, WSJ, the Economist, a bunch of blogs plus a few different books (I start my day with Meditations by Marcus Aurelius). At the moment, I’m reading around 2–3 books a week, cover to cover. I’ll read the FT and WSJ while I’m on the bike machine (I prefer the bike machine over treadmills since it’s harder for me to focus on listening and I can also read). These papers are published Monday to Saturday so for Sunday, I’ll read the Economist (a weekly paper).

However, being the Asian that I am, I felt there was some room for improvement. Especially if I’m going to get anywhere near where Buffett’s at, I’ll need to literally 10x the amount I’m learning.

So I started thinking carefully about all the time that I spend elsewhere, the time that I doesn’t seem very significant. For instance, the time spent waiting in line, in the toilet, on a Lime scooter, biking, in an Uber, while waiting at a cafe for a friend to arrive.

Instead of just mindlessly scrolling Facebook or Instagram during these short time gaps, this is a great period to listen to audio books, podcasts, read an article or just meditate.

We all have the same 24 hours in a day. Take stock of how you’re spending time on a day to day basis. I’m not saying to stop watching Netflix or social media. It’s equally important to be able to unwind and spend quality time with friends and family. What I am saying is to take note when you start doing things mindlessly.

One of my favourite learning hacks is to listen to audio at 3x speed. This has been an absolute game changer in terms of my overall learning progress.

Audio Hack

The 4 reasons why I love audio:

  1. It’s easily accessible. You don’t need to carry a book and you have a whole world of content that you can listen to with just a tap. I like reading multiple books at the same time instead of one at a time. What I listen to will depend on my mood, since sometimes I’d prefer biography and other times, business or history. For me to take advantage of the gap times (e.g. waiting in line), I only need to whip out my iPhone from my pocket, instead of a kindle or multiple books from my backpack, and I can start immediately. Since I’ve usually got my earphones in, it takes me only a few seconds to resume whatever I was listening to.
  2. Takes the strain off your eyes. If you spend a lot of time working on the computer and reading generally, then you can give your eyes a much needed break by going for a nice walk in the park while listening to a book instead and appreciating nature while also learning at the same time. During walks in the park, I like to start with classical music and then move on to audiobooks.
  3. Unlock more learning time. Related to the above, you can listen to a book while you’re washing the dishes, doing the laundry, buying groceries, commuting, or other activities that doesn’t require much thinking.
  4. It feels more intimate when you’re listening to people say the content and more connected to the thoughts and ideas they’re trying to convey.

3x speed might sound daunting at first. But the brain is truly magical in how it works. If your regular listening speed is 1x, your brain gets use to this speed. Try listening at 2x for a while, even if the audio is incomprehensible. Then after a while, slow it down to 1.5x. You’ll find suddenly that you can understand everything. Now you can consume content 50% faster! If you keep doing this, you can work your way up and at a surprisingly rapid pace.

The key is consistency. Do this regularly and you’ll work your brain muscle for speed listening and keep it flexed.

My favourite tools for listening to audio (ordered in the amount of usage) are Audible, YouTube and Podcasts.

Audible (Max 3x Speed)

With Audible, I have a subscription and love listening to books. Especially when they’re narrated by the author since I feel like I get a better sense of the message they’re trying to convey by the way they express themselves. The format that I enjoyed the most is David Goggins’ book, Can’t Hurt Me. At the end of each chapter, the narrator/co-author interviews David and they explore the contents of the chapter.

If it’s a book that’s especially packed with useful information that I want to remember, then I’d prefer to read it in book form so that I can highlight and type up summary notes.

But I’ll do the same with Audible, especially if I’ve already started the book on Audible and just type up my summary on the iPhone Notes app if I’m outside. The great thing about the Notes app is that it’s synced across Apple devices so that I can continue typing up the summary on my MacBook. Evernote works well in such cases too. The only thing that’s annoying with this approach is that because the audio is so fast, I can’t type fast enough on the iPhone to keep up so I constantly have to rewind, listen again, then continue typing.

YouTube (Max 2x Speed)

YouTube has an amazing amount of great content. I like listening to interviews, documentaries, how to tutorials, and pretty much anything that looks interesting. Also, after finishing a great book, I like to search for the author on YouTube and see if they’ve done any book interviews which helps me to internalize more of what I’ve just read. I also have a subscription to YouTube so that I can download content to watch when I’m on a plane and to be able to keep YouTube playing even with the phone locked so that I can keep listening when I’m out and about. I find for a lot of YouTube content, I don’t need to watch, just listening is fine.

Podcast (Max 2x Speed)

Finally there’s Podcasts. Most of my subscriptions are related to business or life hacks. I get a lot of ideas for more books to read or from authors whose books I’ve already read. I find Podcasts to be easier in terms of information digestion and doesn’t require as much brain processing power. I’m more likely to listen to Podcasts when I’m on a Lime scooter for instance since I also need to pay attention to the road (!).

So in summary:

  1. Prioritize your learning
  2. Be mindful about your time
  3. Master speed listening
  4. Unlock more learning time by speed listening during gap times and activities that don’t require much thinking

Sometimes when I’m listening to an audio book, I think only 100 years back how difficult it was simply to get access to one book and how lucky we are today to have so much knowledge accessible at the tap of a finger. To have this possibility, think what needs to have happened. We need the smartphone, fast and cheap internet, someone to make all of the books available in audio, and for this abundance of content to be easily accessible and affordable.

That is something truly remarkable and I hope you take advantage of it! :)

Rui Zhi Dong

Written by

Curious About Things http://ruizhidong.com/

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