Learning On The Fast Lane

Learning On The Fast Lane

As an Instructional Designer, I am very curious about how people are learning, and what are the methods that make learning faster and more efficient. As long as I can enable learners to gain skills faster in a measurable way, I know I’ve done my job. Many years ago, back in 1999, I first saw The Matrix movie when it first came out, and I was utterly blown away. Out of the many epic scenes in the moivie, one particular scene always came back to my mind in the context of learning…

 

I thought, how crazy would it be if we could plug something into our brain and BOOM, we know Kung-Fu like Bruce Lee, play the guitar like Hendrix or surf like Kelly Slater?!

Well, for better or for worse we’re not quite there yet, but since I have been so fascinated with this idea, I decided to explore deeper and study the latest research, books on memory, tools, and strategies that can potentially accelerate our learning processes. More importantly, I was curious to know who are the master-learners, the outliers that are able to hack learning processes and accelerate their learning abilities and learn new skills at a super-human speed. So I started digging deep, I came across quite a few people with extraordinary abilities that really drew my attention. People like Tim Ferriss, Scott H. Young, Jim Kwik, Barbara Oakley, Josh Kaufman and more. Although different people approach learning from a different angle, I started seeing some common patterns in their approach towards learning and skill mastery. This post will bring the top 5 strategies that I think are the most essential to set yourself up for success in learning any new skill. Each one of these strategies can potentially be of use both for your personal learning projects, as well as your learning solution designs.

1. Set (most) Learning Goals First

The literature is fairly unanimous that goal-setting improves performance and dramatically increases the chances for success in every aspect of life, and learning is no exception. That is why it is so crucial to define Why you want to learn before jumping into the How. However, there is a caveat: How do you set goals for, say, learning a new language or becoming a programmer?
How will you know when you are fluent, or qualified to take on a programming project?
Will you take a certification exam? An informal conversation? How does success look like to You?
Not all skills are created equal, and some may take many months or even years to master. Setting goals like “I want to become fluent in Spanish” often result in big frustration and abandonment of learning projects due to underestimation of the time and effort required to achieve mastery.
I recently came across the idea of picking the right goals to set up front and pursuing other goals later in the learning process. The initial goals you set should set you up for success, meaning they should be relatively quick and easy to attain. The reason for this is to create a positive reward mechanism that will condition your mind to associate the learning process with success and positive emotions of empowerment. As you proceed in the learning process, you gain more information about the time and the effort required to take you from where you are to where you want to go. Then and only then you will be adequate to make adjustments to your bigger learning goals.

So how should I know which goals to set up front and which to save up for later?

A possible rule of thumb suggests that when a goal has a high level of uncertainty as to what is achievable to reach within a particular time-frame, it’s better off to postpone the specifics for later on in the process. If you can’t come up with smaller and attainable goals and you want to avoid procrastination, focus your goals on the process rather than on the results. For example, commit to dedicating 20 minutes each day for two weeks to learn and practice your new skill. The results at the end of this period don’t matter at this point. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld was known for his own productivity “hack” of process-oriented goals. To improve as a comedian, Seinfeld committed himself to write jokes every day, without worrying about the quality nor the quantity. So he bought a big wall calendar that had the entire year on one page and hanged it on a visible spot that he will see every day. Each time he would finish the task of writing jokes, he would mark a big fat X over that day. After a few days, he’d get a chain of red Xs, and his goal was simply “not to break the chain” as he put it. His reward system was simply seeing this chain growing longer, and after a while, it became a habit.

“Just don’t break the chain” J.Seinfeld

 

2. Set Up Your Learning Framework

Learning on your own without anyone holding you accountable for your results can be challenging. Persisting all the way through the process will require you to set up a framework around your learning that will ensure you are on track and keeping progress. This framework should take into account the following aspects:

Accountability

What will hold you accountable for keeping up the work, even when times get tough? Is your internal motivation strong enough to keep up with the goals you set for yourself, or do you need some external incentives like public affirmations when reaching a milestone, or someone to smack you on the head for not keeping up? For me, I found the latter works better, and I discovered an excellent little app called BeeMinder, which keeps track on my progress and “stings” me in $5 whenever I give myself too much slack. If you want to go more extreme, you can use a different commitment device called Stikk (disclaimer: I’m not a user). Stikk claims to allow you to sign a commitment contract with yourself, define your goals and set up the stakes so if you don’t accomplish your goals, you will donate the money you’ve put at stake to a charity or worse yet – an anti-charity such as an organization you despise or completely disagree with its agenda. Choose whichever device that works best for you, but make sure that your framework holds you accountable for the process.

Allocation

How much time and resources are required to complete this project? The one thing I learned is I need to allocate enough time to do my most important work by blocking it on my calendar. Not surprisingly, the name of the book I took the idea from is called “The One Thing”. Blocking time on the calendar is not enough though. To maximize your results, you will need to allocate the right time blocks in the day, when you are most focused and productive. Eran Katz, author of ”Secrets of The Super Memory”, calls this idea The Green Time Vs. The Red Time. The Green Time is like driving on the main road in the city when all the traffic lights turn green, and you’re riding on the green “wave”. The Red Time is the time when you’re stuck on all the red traffic lights, moving slowly and struggling to get anywhere. I discovered that I’m more of an “early bird” type of guy and most of my productive time is in the mornings. Therefore I try to allocate time blocks for my most important things first thing in the morning and try to ride the “green wave” for as long as I can before moving on to different tasks of my day. Keep in mind that allocation isn’t only about time, it’s also about allocating the right resources needed for your success, whether it’s the right gear, the right people to support you, the right environment that will enable you to progress, and so forth. Don’t start your process without making sure you allocated all things required for your learning first.

Selection

Before you jump in head first into learning everything, try to identify the core set of skills, that by mastering them, learning other skills will become easier or even obsolete. You are most likely to discover that 20% of the skills account for 80% of the results you wish to accomplish. This principle is called the Pareto Principle, or simply the 20/80 rule, and it applies to almost all aspects of life. While the actual percentage is not always accurate, the principle stays the same – You don’t need to learn everything about your desired topic if you want to achieve good results fast. If you can focus only on the crucial building blocks and knock them down one step at a time, you are well on your way to success. There is an excellent TED talk by Josh Kaufman, author of “The First 20 Hours”. In his talk, Kaufman talks about what it takes to learn a new skill and argues that anyone can get to a reasonable level of competence in just 20 hours of deliberate practice, merely by focusing on the core skills. Another very appealing example is Tim Ferriss’ learning framework which he calls DiSSS, which stands for Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing, and Stakes. Ferris talks about it extensively in his book “The 4 Hour Chef”, which sounds like a cookbook, but it’s really about learning. Very much like Kaufman, Ferriss identifies the core skills required to be reasonably good by studying a master in his field, say a world-renowned chef, deconstructing and determining a set of skills they master. In the Selection phase, he narrows down and carefully selects the skills that are paramount to master – Pareto’s principle at its best. In the Sequencing phase, Ferriss orders these skills in a way that allows him to gradually progress to the more advanced skills without feeling overwhelmed or discouraged. In the Stakes phase, he sets up the conditions that will ensure he will stay committed and accountable to the process, for example, signing up for a contest in a few months from now, or even using commitment devices as mentioned earlier. In short, don’t get discouraged by the amount of material out there. Pick and choose the most critical topics to master, and knock them out of the park, one still at a time.

 

3. Optimize Your Body for Learning

Nutrition, Sleep, and Exercise – The holy trinity optimized body for learning. Improving these aspects of your body almost goes without saying, but some things are still worth mentioning around these topics.

Food for Thought

Giving your brain the energy it needs is essential for learning. Believe it or not, your brain, although just 2% of our total body weight, take about 20% of your body’s energy in “idle” mode, also known as Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) if you rather use the geeky academic term.
So now that we know that the brain is a huge energy consumer, you probably ask: Which energy sources are optimal for the brain?
Most experts agree on foods that are rich with omega-3 and healthy fats like Avocado and all sources of nuts, fiber-rich foods like green leafy vegetables, and other anti-oxidatives like blueberries and cocoa beans, which fits brilliantly in a smoothie! I’d love to elaborate more about this, but this calls for a separate blog post. I discovered that drinking a brain-boosting smoothie in the morning does wonders for me and getting me super concentrated for the day once I sit down to work. I have my own version of a brain-boosting smoothie which I promise to share on a future blog post, but if you are curious now, search for Brain Boosting Smoothies on YouTube and try some of the delicious recipes out there, they can do wonders.

Brain-Boosting Smoothie – My Morning Routine

Sleep On It

During sleep, your body moves through different cycles that revitalize the body, repair muscle tissue, cleanse toxins from the brain, consolidate memory, regulate hormone levels and so much more. Without enough sleep, I often find myself feeling groggy and grumpy throughout the day, and getting little to nothing done at work. After a good night’s sleep, I see my body energetic, focused and ready to jump into the daily challenges ahead.
A good healthy sleep for adults is around 7-8 hours, but if you’re not sure how much sleep is considered to be a healthy amount for you, I’d recommend taking a look at this infographic, taken from the National Sleep Foundation. If you are working from home or in an environment that can allow it, try taking a 30-minute power nap during the day, you’ll be amazed at your learning ability and productivity from doing just that. Here’s a disclaimer: I’m taking a 30-minute power-nap whenever I work from home. There, I said it!

Be a Productive Cat, Take Naps

 

Schedule Exercise in Your Learning Routine

Recent studies show that exercising on a regular basis is essential not only for the health of your body but also for the blood flow to your brain which contains the necessary nutrients critical for learning and memory.
Combining physical exercise in your learning routine will guarantee a more focused and productive learning session on the one hand, and better information processing outside the learning sessions.
Another fascinating study I recently stumbled upon suggests that learning during physical activity can improve learning performance and memory, compared to a static sitting position. I linked to the study in the Resources section below.
So whatever your favorite learning style may be, do your body a favor and schedule some outdoor exercise time in your routine, your body will thank you for it.

Food for Thought

Giving your brain the energy it needs is essential for learning. Believe it or not, your brain, although just 2% of our total body weight, take about 20% of your body’s energy in “idle” mode, also known as Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) if you rather use the geeky academic term.
So now that we know that the brain is a huge energy consumer, you probably ask: Which energy sources are optimal for the brain?
Most experts agree on foods that are rich with omega-3 and healthy fats like Avocado and all sources of nuts, fiber-rich foods like green leafy vegetables, and other anti-oxidatives like blueberries and cocoa beans, which fits brilliantly in a smoothie! I’d love to elaborate more about this, but this calls for a separate blog post. I discovered that drinking a brain-boosting smoothie in the morning does wonders for me and getting me super concentrated for the day once I sit down to work. I have my own version of a brain-boosting smoothie which I promise to share on a future blog post, but if you are curious now, search for Brain Boosting Smoothies on YouTube and try some of the delicious recipes out there, they can do wonders.

 

4. Schedule Time Away From The Material

Recent studies have shown that the brain has two separate modes of operation – a focused mode, and a diffused mode. In the focused mode, your brain uses the prefrontal cortex to solve a particular problem, in other words, it is putting all of its conscious resources into action to tackle the problem. When your mind is not focused on problem solving and is involved with more mundane and repetitive tasks like washing dishes, walking in the park or riding a bicycle, the diffused mode of thinking kicks into action – the brain keeps on processing information in the “back end”, involving more areas of the brain and keeps on trying to form new connections that will eventually lead to solving the problem. When coming back to focus on the problem, people often find it much easier to solve it from a fresh and new perspective. Albert Einstein intuitively knew this very well, when he often took time away from difficult problems to play the violin and ride his bicycle. He once was quoted that the theory of relativity came to him while riding his bike. Salvador Dali, the genius Spanish surrealist painter, took a slightly different approach for applying the focused and diffused modes. Dali­ would relax in a chair and let his mind go free while dangling a set of keys just above the floor. As he would fall asleep, the keys would fall from his hand, and the clatter would wake him up, just in time so he could gather up those diffuse mode ideas in his mind and off he’d go back into the focused mode. So whatever your preferred method is, make sure to take some time away from your studies for some diffused mode activities, and come back to the hard problems with a fresh perspective.

5. Get Engaged In the Material. It’s Not a Spectators Sport!

When you are trying to learn passively just by listening to a lecture, reading an article or watching a video, it’s very easy to lose attention and forget the subject after a very short while. If you want to learn things faster, you cannot be a spectator and watch the material from the sidelines. You have to engage yourself and take an active role in the learning process. One of my favorite techniques is what I call “The dinner table mindset”. To engage myself in the subject I’m learning about, I imagine myself sitting down at the dinner table and telling the people around me what I’ve learned today. Having this mindset during my learning time forces me to think of creative analogies and metaphors to explain to myself first, and then simplify these ideas for others. If you have a friend you can contact, call them and tell them what you learned. If you don’t have a friend within reach, you can even tell it to your pet or your plants, what’s important is that you take the knowledge you learned and make it your own.
Speaking of analogies and metaphors, it will help a great deal if you could make them as wild and ridiculous as possible. For example, to this day I cannot forget the day I was listening to this podcast called “Curious Minds”, in which the host explained about heat and how it is passed from one place to place. He was using a metaphor of party people at a nightclub dancing around, and turning up the energy, i.e., heating up the material is like turning the music on, so all the dancers start moving around like crazy. It was both amusing and unforgettable.

Learning Doesn’t Have to be an Excruciating Effort

Taking the right strategy to learn any skill you want can set you up for success. Difficulties will inevitably arise on the journey, and you may well find methods and procedures that don’t work for you. The key is to stay curious and keep exploring what works for you, focus on the process and take the time to celebrate your achievements and personal growth.

What is your favorite learning strategy?
Have a great strategy that wasn’t included?
I’d love to hear all about it in the comments section below.

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