Learn Faster: Master any Skill with Effective Principles
When you commit to learning something, you have to dedicate time to it. But, dedicating more time doesn’t mean getting better results. Conventional wisdom, when it comes to learning, is wrong most of the times.
The key is to make the most out of your time. These principles are exactly what you need to become a learning machine!
Grab your favorite notebook and list all the skills you must acquire to be where you want to be. This is an exercise suggested by Twyla, the author of the book: The Creative Habit (read my summary here). Then, pick one skill and commit to learning it using these principles.
“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”
― Isaac Asimov
When you read a text, book or article, re-read it later and highlight pieces of information, you’re becoming familiar with the content. You acquire a certain level of fluency. But fluency is not the same thing as mastery. If you’re then tested on the material, you might remember a few things from what you read. But you have not mastered the material.
This happens because you’re taking a passive approach to learning. Fluency is the enemy of learning because it’s an illusion. It makes you believe you’ve mastered the material or the skill when, in reality, you’re just familiar with it.
Really, if you want to learn a skill or master a keynote presentation, ideally, you want to deeply learn it. And not just recognize how to do certain things.
If you want to write fiction, you might have studied all the great authors, and take courses on writing. You’re familiar and fluent in the matter. But if you don’t take the time and energy to practice, you’re not really learning how to write fiction better.
The most effective way to learn new skills or information is to do some active learning. Also called active retrieving. This basically means you’re going to put what you learned into practice.
Perhaps, picking up the guitar and playing the chords you’ve been looking for on the internet. Or, applying writing principles in your next blog post. Or, creating a logo for your company, to practice your Photoshop skills. Or, putting down the book on leadership and actually applying the information you absorbed.
It’s much easier to find information on the web, watch YouTube videos, read books than it is to practice. When I wanted to learn more about photography, I became obsessed with watching YouTube videos and online classes.
But I realized I was putting too much emphasis on the cognitive stage of learning. I was not applying any of the things I was learning. If I wanted to learn photography, I had to pick my camera and take photos. And that’s what I did.
I can tell you I learned way more in one afternoon than I did watching dozens of YouTube videos for weeks.
Learning the basics is important. In fact, it is crucial. Otherwise, you won’t really know where to start. But this will only give you a very basic understanding of a skill. In practical terms, you won’t be able to do much regarding the skill you want to learn if you don’t take the time to practice it.
If you want to learn chess, it is not enough to learn dozens of moves. You must put those moves into practice. You must play. You must test yourself and retrieve information from your brain. It is the only way you’re going to learn a new skill.
This is the same thing as doing practical tests or quizzes before an exam. You effortfully retrieve the information from your brain and test your knowledge in the subject. This is perhaps, the most effective way to learn anything. To expose yourself to the material and see how well you actually learned it.
Same with studying, you should close your notebook, and retrieve some of the information you studied. Try to put into your own words the material you learned. Say it out loud or write what you remember in a sheet of paper. This is not the same thing as re-reading your notes and highlights. It takes more effort, focus, and energy. But, in the end, you’ll acquire a deeper level of mastery instead of fluency.
When you test yourself, you immediately become exposed to your fragilities. You’ll find exactly which things you can’t perform. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s a mechanism that provides instant feedback. It tells you if you can or can’t do it. It’s effective because now you know exactly to which things you have to dedicate more time to.
If you want to start applying this practice right now, stop reading and retrieve some of the information you remember from previous paragraphs. It is an excellent way to test yourself on what you learned. And don’t forget to brainstorm a few ideas on how you’re going to apply this principle of active retrieval in the skill you’re learning.
Ideally, you want to practice outside of your comfort zone. That’s where you challenge yourself a bit, and you slowly level-up your skills to face the challenge. You don’t want to be in the panic zone, where the challenge is way too big for your level of skill and you’ll give up.
When you’re in the learning zone, practicing deliberately, you can’t practice for hours and hours and hours. It takes a lot of effort, energy, and focus. But 2 hours of deliberate practice outperform 5 hours of practice inside your comfort zone. If you keep practicing and doing the things you already know how to do, you’re not really learning anything new. Yes, you might be improving your technique.
Ideally, you want to spend most of your practice stretching yourself a bit. This is the most effective way to learn any skill or material.
A great tip is to dedicate time to practice deliberately when you have the most energy. Usually, in the morning. That’s why I choose to dedicate the first few hours of my day, to the things that are the most challenging. Usually, writing, studying or learning a skill. You can’t practice deliberately when you’re depleted of energy. Make sure you schedule well your practicing sessions to make the most out of them. By doing this, you can be sure you’ll be learning anything in a shorter period of time.
How can you practice deliberately? I want to bring the concept of Deep Work, that applies perfectly to the process of learning skills or new information. Deep work is the opposite of shallow work. Shallow work looks like this: you trying to learn a skill while checking your phone, eating a cookie, or talking on the phone.
Deep work, on the other hand, looks like deep work. You’re only performing one task, that is to learn or practice. No distractions. No social media. No emails. Just focus on one thing for a certain amount of time, and then take a break.
At a certain level, you might think: come on, it’s just a message. It’s not that replying to a message will suddenly waste all my energy and focus. Definitely not. But it becomes a bad habit. And soon, every 3 minutes, you’ll be stopping your practice to refresh Instagram and answer emails. I’m 100% aware of this terrible habit. I had this habit. Thankfully, it’s not difficult to get rid of it. You just have to put your phone away or turn off the Wi-Fi.
I’m assuming you want to improve and to continually make progress. So, you should be excited to dedicate your hours smartly to the skills you want to learn. You don’t want to waste countless hours and see no progress. What you really want is to make the most out of your time! That’s what matters.
“Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.”
— Cal Newport
Take a Break
When you’re learning or practicing, you’re using your focused mode of thinking - focus and energy.
But, when you take a break, you don’t stop using your brain, right? In fact, you enter into another mode of thinking. This is what Barbara Oakley calls the diffused mode of thinking.
The thinking mode comes when you’re not effortfully focusing on anything. It comes when you take a break from your work, to do something else. You can’t be always learning. You have to take breaks. And in fact, these breaks bring real value to the acquisition of any skill. When you move away from the learning experience, your brain will still be working subconsciously in those problems, bringing you insights the next time you practice.
When I’m studying and I can’t solve a problem, I take a break. When I come back to the same problem, I have a different idea or perspective to solve it and sometimes I’m able to solve it. By distancing yourself from a certain problem, leaving it unfinished, your brain will continue to work on it subconsciously, which gives you insights on how to solve it.
Well, sleep is perhaps the most valuable way of taking a break. During sleep science on sleeping and learning, and this strengthens the neural-connections and consolidates learning. Sleep!
But you can also enter the diffused mode by walking, meditating, exercising, showering, etc.
I implement breaks consistently on a daily basis. This means, studying for 45 minutes, then taking a 10-minute break. Practicing for 30 minutes, then a break. Reading for x minutes, break for y minutes. By doing this, I allow my brain to figure some things out for itself, and of course, I restore my levels of energy and focus.
I plan my learning sessions based on time of practice, and not the outcome. I don’t commit to learning an economics principle. Instead, I commit to spending 30 minutes learning economics. By doing this, I don’t create expectations and I don’t give myself the chance to feel miserable if I can’t actually learn everything in one day. What matters is dedicating time to it, and not really finishing it. You want to make progress because, in the long-run, that’s what matters the most.
You’re learning how to use Adobe Photoshop. You want to create a logo and a card for your business. You’ve been trying to design a logo for the past couple of hours. Should you continue doing it? Or should you move to design the card?
Well, science shows that learning is more effective when we interleave the process of learning. What does this mean? Instead of doing the same exact thing for hours, you should mix things up.
Don’t practice the same chord all afternoon. Practice 2 or 3 and intercalate them in your practicing sessions. Don’t solve the same type of math problems all morning. Interleave different topics within the same subject.
Again, this all comes down to being fluent or being a master. When you spend hours repeating the same move, you’ll eventually become familiar with it. But did you actually learn it?
It’s way more effective to interleave different moves during the practice. Is it more difficult and challenging? For sure. But it’s also more effective. And when it comes to learning, you don’t want it to be easy. You want to learn a skill and be able to apply it in your life.
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
― Lucius Seneca
Another great way to apply spaced repetition or interleaving your practice is to space out your practicing sessions. If you have 4 hours to practice in a week, you should not practice for 4 hours in one day. Instead, split those 4 hours into shorter sessions every day.
By practicing every day, even for just half an hour, you’re interrupting the forgetting curve, and so, creating a bigger level of mastery. Not only will you learn faster, but you’ll also remember things for a longer period of time. You’ll be transferring the information from short to long-term memory.
This advice can be applied to any skill or even habit. It’s better to exercise every day, for 30 minutes, than to exercise 3 hours in one day. Or, to meditate for 15 minutes every day, than to meditate one day for 1 hour. You should space out your learning and practicing sessions if you want better results.
Explain me like I’m 5
I love this principle because I understand the power that it has on learning any skill, topic or subject.
When you start seeing progress in the skill you’re learning or the material you’re mastering, you become really excited. I call it an ego booster. It’s so gratifying to feel the progress and being able to create something. This is a great moment and a big source of motivation to continuing practicing.
There’s an extra step I like to take to reinforce the learning in this phase of the process. I call it: explain me like I’m 5. What you simply do, is explain what you’ve been learning as if you were explaining it to a 5-year-old.
Explain it to a friend, to a family member or on social media. Break what you’ve been learning into small and easy steps that anyone could take.
This exercise is helpful in two different perspectives:
First, if you can’t break it into very simple steps, perhaps you still need to practice more. This tells you if you are only familiar with the skill or if you actually did learn it. It also makes you retrieve what you’ve been learning, which again, reinforces your level of mastery. Teaching is also a learning technique because it takes effort and mastery to break something complex into small steps.
Second, when you share with others the process of acquiring a skill, you inspire them to take action. You can be a positive motivator of their change and growth, as they too can immerse themselves in the process of learning a new skill or topic. Commit yourself to help others in the process and you’ll also be helping yourself without noticing.
“Is it ability or mindset? Was it Mozart’s musical ability or the fact that he worked till his hands were deformed? Was it Darwin’s scientific ability or the fact that he collected specimens non-stop from early childhood?”
— Carol Dweck
It’s easy to get lost in the details of the learning process. But, mastering a new skill, requires you to believe in your ability to figure things out and learn new lessons along the way. Your mindset affects the whole process of learning and really, your whole life.
Carol Dweck covers in her book Mindset, the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset. Having a fixed mindset, basically means you only have what you were born with. You only believe in talent and born geniuses, and not in hard-work.
When you have a growth mindset, you still believe that talent plays a role, but still, there’s a lot of room for improvement. You might not be the most talented at learning new languages, but you believe you can become better with practice and effort.
The importance of cultivating a growth mindset, which is the belief that with effort and practice, you can learn anything, will allow you to learn whatever you want to.
“Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”
— Henry Ford
On the other hand, the fixed mindset focuses on the idea that abilities are fixed, and there’s not much you can do to learn and improve. How is the fixed mindset going to help you? Exactly, it won’t. If you believe your abilities are fixed, there’s nothing you can do to improve.
If you find yourself giving up on learning every time you face a challenge, remember that every great person faced thousands of challenges during their process. Actually, those skill masters faced more challenges than anybody else. Because they put themselves into the position of failing, and so, they learned way more than most people.
It’s easy to believe that Mozart, Steve Jobs or Michael Jordan were born great at what they did. And look, they might be born with some natural talent. But without effort and daily practice, they would not be the legends they are today. Your first attempt won’t be the greatest thing you put out there. But your 100 attempt, will be better. And the 1000 attempt, even better. So, continue to learn and don’t give up when things don’t go as you planned.
“We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”
— Carol Dweck
It’s easier to think you were not born with it. It takes responsibility from your shoulders. But how much greater can you become if you give up that mentality? No matter how many times you fail, there’s always an opportunity for you to learn.
“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
— Thomas Edison
Anders Ericsson who is been conducting research in the science of top performers, for the past 30 years, says the only gift we all have is adaptability. We all have this gift. But the top performers chose to act on it by practicing deliberately every day. Notice it isn’t just about practice. It’s about going a step further and challenging yourself in your practicing sessions.
According to Geoff Colvin, in his book Talent is Overrated, hard work always beats talent in the long run. If you want to become an elite performer, you have to dedicate thousands of hours, no matter how talented you are.
This is not to say you have to be a master performer in every skill. I’m totally ok with being just a little bit good at most skills, as long as that’s my goal. The lesson is: you have to dedicate time to every skill you want to learn. Those great performers you admire, they dedicated thousands of hours. They were not born top performers. They did something to become that way. And that something is called hard-work.
It doesn’t matter if your goal is to become a master or just to acquire a certain level of proficiency, you still have to dedicate time and energy to anything you want to learn. Just because you’re not good at the beginning, doesn’t mean you should give up on it.
Maybe Mozart had a lot of talent and he was born in an environment that inspired him to be a musician, but, really, he practiced so much that his hands became deformed. There’s no question that hard-work is perhaps the most important factor, and the only variable you can control! So, take advantage, work hard and believe you can improve!
There’s something I want to bring that changed the way I approach learning and studying. It’s called creativity. I consider being something we all have the opportunity to explore and include in our daily lives.
When I’m learning something and I get frustrated, bored and annoyed for a not-so-short period of time, I know creativity is missing in the process. In fact, it’s not the lack of creativity in the process, but my lack of effort to bring creativity into the process. Learn how to exercise your creativity here!
I truly believe creativity is something you do. And when I stop bringing creative insights to my learning experience, my skills suffer, and I suffer too.
“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”
― Richard Feynmann
I want to challenge you to bring creativity into the learning process. There are thousands of ways to make it more fun and appealing! This includes traveling for a few weeks to a new country, to immerse yourself in a new language; or writing vocabulary words in your mirror, so you can learn them while brushing your teeth; playing guitar songs in a family dinner; or taking photos of your mum washing the car, just to practice shooting in manual mode.
These are all ways that enable you to practice the skill you want to develop while making the process interactive and memorable. There is no right or the wrong thing. What matters is finding new ways to develop skills or learn new information.
The most important thing is to continue practicing and putting the effort. But bringing creativity to the game is a way of feeling recharged and motivated to continue improving. Learning should not be boring at all! For me, it’s one of the most rewarding activities to spend my time on! Be excited about learning!
Twyla Tharp is a choreographer who wrote the book The Creative Habit, which taught me a lesson I’ve been applying in my life ever since. The lesson is exactly the title of the book. Creativity is a Habit!
“Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way.”
― Twyla Tharp
I would just add that creativity is also for learners and knowledge seekers. It will help you to understand and master concepts faster and more intelligently! But you have to make it a habit. Consciously and consistently, bring insights and ideas to implement when you’re learning anything, and you’ll see the progress you will make in a short period of time!
“Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous yet do it anyways because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable.”
— Twyla Tharp
You’re now able to apply these principles in your own life and learn new skills faster than ever. Learning new skills is a way of reaching your goals and making your life better!
Share which skills you want to learn! Name skills that spike your interest and ones that will help you to succeed!