How To Learn

by Emil Wallner
first appeared on
Myelin’s weekly digest.

Illustration by Rozalina Burkova

Learning is when you use something from your memory. It’s not when you read a non-fiction book, attend a lecture, or watch a documentary. It’s when you use knowledge.

Your working memory encodes and consolidates new knowledge. Then it stores the new knowledge for a brief moment. It’s not until you use that information from working memory that you transfer it into your long-term memory. That’s when you are learning. [1]

Re-reading a book is not just a waste of time. You deceive yourself because you don’t improve your memory. Instead, you familiarize yourself with the text and fool yourself that you are learning. [2]

To improve your knowledge you need to recall information from memory. Use spaced intervals. Take short breaks before you recall the information, then increase the intervals. This is the most important discovery in learning psychology. [3]

“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” — Elon Musk

Sugata Mitra is a brilliant education leader, but he got one thing wrong. He claims that we don’t need to memorize facts since we can Google what we need. That is incorrect, it’s critical to memorize facts. Your memorized facts are what enable you to solve problems. [4]

Aim to remember information throughout your life. Memorize things for which you may have a direct and long-term use. Don’t learn something you can’t understand the value of and which is not directly useful. Otherwise, you will be learning new things while forgetting your past knowledge; fooling yourself that you are increasing your knowledge base.

[5] Studies prove that the more knowledge you have, the faster you acquire it. If you build on your existing knowledge, you also retain more. But the kicker is the compounding effect: if you gain more knowledge and increase your ability to combine it, the value of the knowledge grows exponentially. That’s what creates the difference between amateurs, experts, and Elon Musks.

Many have a misconception of the value of knowledge.

Knowledge does not have an inherent value. You can’t increase your general intelligence with knowledge. If you engage in mathematical or logical challenges you don’t become smarter. You only become better at the specific things you are practicing. [6]

The value knowledge has is the value you create by using it. If you learn things and forget them, the value is close to nothing. Use your knowledge to solve novel problems. This could either be personal development challenges, consumer problems, or societal problems. Avoid learning for the sake of learning.

This takes us to problem solving.

[7] Problem solving is a function of your knowledge and what you choose to process. On average, people process ~35 billion billion bits of information during their lives. What they achieve is a result of what they choose to process, the problems they are emotionally invested in.

There are two thresholds for adding significant value with your knowledge. Getting over yourself and having enough cash to pay your bills. These hurdles will free up your processing capacity. It will enable you to choose which problems to process.

If 95% of your mental chatter relates to your self identity and paying your bills, you have five percent of your capacity left to process novel problems. People who have come to terms with this can achieve in one day what would take you 20.

The final piece is motivation. An obsession. A reality distortion field. The best of psychology points to three activities: Improving your skills, doing what you want to do, and having a sense of purpose. It’s that simple — the trick is to do it every day. [8]

The reality of those three things is messy. Don’t like school or your job? Grow the guts to quit. Not excited about your 127th skill that you are trying? Try again with a new one. Stopped feeling like you are doing something larger than yourself? Figure it out. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Most people can’t take this endless, tiresome process.

[9] People that quit those three activities become dependent on extrinsic motivation. They become reactive instead of proactive. They end up carrying a mindless, biological processing machine on their shoulders, processing whatever problem comes their way. There is no hack for becoming motivated. Just do those three activities. Every day.

Let’s sum it up.

  • To learn something new, retrieve information from your working memory.
  • Retain your knowledge by recalling information at spaced intervals.
  • Structure your knowledge.
  • Learn things that will help you to solve current, real world problems.
  • Free up processing capacity by getting over yourself and by having enough cash to pay your bills.
  • Increase your motivation by doing something that you want to do, by improving your skills, and by having a sense of purpose larger than yourself.
  • Don’t learn things you cant see the value of and which are not directly useful.
  • Avoid learning for the sake of learning.

These principles form the 80–20 rule for learning. You can boost it with Tim Ferriss’ DiSSS, Reddit’s GOAT ME, The Feynman Technique, the LessWrong guide, and the Science of Learning guide. But the above principles form the core for being an effective learner.

Pattern by Gustav Karlsson


  1. “To learn, students must transfer information from working memory (where it is consciously processed) to long-term memory (where it can be stored and later retrieved).” Source
  2. “Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content.” Source
  3. “The spacing effect is “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning,” the psychologist Frank Dempster wrote in 1988.” Source
  4. “Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set varies by subject matter.” Source
  5. a ) Students learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know. Source b) When you retrieve the details in a concept you have also retrieve the prerequisites. Thereby you can retain more knowledge with less effort. c) If you have 10 ideas and can combine them in 10 different ways, you can form 5 X 10⁸ new ideas. If you 10X your ideas, and your ability to combine them you can form 100¹⁸⁹ times the amount of ideas. Hence, it increases exponentially. Play with it here
  6. Referred to as Fluid intelligence in psychology. Source
  7. a) “Cortical neurons are estimated to spike around 0.16 times per second, based on the amount of energy consumed by the human neocortex. They seem unlikely to spike much more than once per second on average, based on this analysis.” Source b) Assuming that we have on average 86 billion neurons, live until 80, and that every neuron firing is binary. The calculation
  8. Source
  9. “External rewards extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, crowd out good behavior, encourage cheating, become addictive, and foster short-term thinking.” Source

First appeared on Myelin’s weekly digest.