Principles of Learning

How to Learn Effectively

If you’re learning a new topic, you owe it to yourself to have an efficient and effective learning process. Thankfully, you can teach yourself how to learn without investing a lot of time or wasting a lot of energy identifying what learning tactics work and which ones don’t.

You don’t need another article that summarizes recent research. You do need a practical guide that simplifies the learning process.

You want answers to these questions:

  • What topics should I learn first?
  • What learning tactics should I use, and how do I apply them?
  • How do I retain everything I’ve learned, so I don’t forget it all?

This guide is our attempt to answer these questions.

Principles of Learning is a three-part framework:

1. Understand the Terrain

Get a general scope of a topic before you set out to learn it. Doing so will make your learning process efficient because you know what to focus on.

2. Learn It

Once you know what topics you need to learn, then you can focus on learning them effectively. There are many tactics offered—for both learning and retaining information—to accommodate a variety of learning styles.

3. Retain It

Be ready, not rusty, when the day comes to recall previously learned material.

Try a few of the tactics in our framework, and find the ones that work for you. Then, revisit this list as you learn new topics. The tactics you need may vary by the topic you’re learning.

Learning Tactic Description Why use it?
Get the Big Picture Get a general understanding of a topic by identifying core concepts before you try to learn the material. Learn efficiently.
Cross-Train Regularly incorporate a related skill or task in your learning routine. Improve your overall (cardiovascular or intellectual) foundation; see things from another perspective; prevent burnout; think differently and strategically; and get outside of your comfort zone, which is where you learn and grow the most.
Study Experts “First you imitate, then you innovate," Miles Davis said. Do this by applying a learning tactic that Benjamin Franklin used to become a better writer, which can be modified and applied to nearly any skill. Get into the mind of an expert (or at least someone who's better than you and can teach you somthing); get practice teaching yourself; develop your ability to self-assess; and take your knowlege to the next level.
Teach It Test your understanding by teaching a concept or topic to yourself or others. Teaching is a knowledge test to see if you can clearly articulate your understanding. It'll also force you to clarify your thoughts, identify areas of improvement, and solidify your knowledge.
Apply First, Study Second The quicker you get to doing, the better the learning. So make your learning active first, before you turn to passive modes of learning. Learn and retain information quicker and better.
Build Mental Models Systematically organize your knowledge. Make the abstract concrete; make the complex simple.
Focus on the Fundamentals What you focus on matters most. If you’re learning the wrong things, you’re not going to get where you want to go. The fundamentals are the building blocks of whatever you're learning about. If you bypass the fundamentals, you bypass a solid foundation of knowledge.
Accelerate your Learning with Multiple Streams of Learning Actively build a skill or study a field from multiple perspectives, instead of a single one. Make connections; solidify concepts; accelerate your rate of learning; foster an open mind; and pick up on the details.
Look Back Before you move on to the next article, problem, or design, for example, look back at your work: learn from it, improve it, and consolidate your knoweldge. Look back in order to move forward.
Spot Check Randomly pause and test your knowledge as you read a book or watch a lecture. Did you really understand what you just read or heard? Find out what you don't know, or what needs some work, before moving on.
Space It Out Instead of a long slog, break your practice up. Retain it for the long term.
Mix It Up As you learn new material, revisit previously learned material. Be ready, not rusty, when you need to recall previously learned material.

Understand the Terrain

1. Get the Big Picture

You’re going to put together a 1,000-piece puzzle. But, before you begin, you take a long look at the box, since it contains an image of what the puzzle looks like when complete. You mentally note its major features: a bridge, several skyscrapers, a river, and a sky at sunset.

You’ve just made solving the puzzle easier because you get the big picture: you have a high-level view of your task and what to focus on. Instead of dealing with 1,000 random pieces, your mind is primed to think about the major components that you’ll have to put together.

Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you're willing to practice, you can do.
-Bob Ross

When you get the big picture, you move from disorder to order; complex to simple; difficult to manageable. As a result, you’ll work with purpose because you know what to focus on.

Mastery by Robert Greene
-Robert Greene

And that’s why getting the big picture is essential when it comes to learning something new. Unfortunately, most people neglect this step.

Typically, when learning a new topic people dive into the details—all of the details—from the start. They sink a ton of time and effort learning everything only to realize after the fact that they only needed a fraction of what they learned.

Enter getting the big picture. It’s when you get a general understanding of a topic—a lay of the land—by identifying core concepts you need to learn before you try to learn the material. In the process, you identify what topics matter most and where you ought to focus your time and attention. It’s a simple way to make learning something new much more efficient.

It’s not to say that the details don’t matter. They do. But—and this is the key point—you don’t need to know everything right now. Getting the big picture is like a filter: it’ll help you distinguish between the nice to know from the have to know.

Here are some ways to get the big picture.

  • Talk to someone who already knows the material. Identify one to three people who’ve already learned the material you’re trying to learn. Contact them, and ask if they’d be willing to talk to you about their learning journey. Ask which concepts they focused on; how they determined their learning sequence; and what they’d do differently if they were to start over again. You’ll start to see patterns after you talk to a few people. Use this information to inform your own learning journey.
  • Watch a lecture on fast speed. Undoubtedly, you’ll miss most of the details. That’s fine, because your aim is to identify the core concepts discussed. Then, decide whether or not they’re relevant to the overall subject that you’re trying to learn. Oftentimes, an instructor will spend a lot of time discussing important concepts or they’ll repeat important concepts multiple times. These may be components to add to the big picture of whatever you’re learning about.
  • Skim chapter headers. The headings of a chapter or article often give away a lot of information. If you find a relevant header, skim the passage under that header.
  • Read the chapter summary. The end of a book chapter often contains a section that summarizes key points. Read this first to understand the main ideas that are discussed. If an idea seems important, then skim the relevant section.

Think of the 80/20 rule when you get the big picture. This rule states that roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts. So, for our purposes, identify the topics that’ll give you the biggest return for your time and effort.

Getting the big picture will help you train your brain to hone in on the topics that matter most, and filter out the lesser ones. It'll also help you focus on the right things at the right time, while realizing that you can always circle back in the future to some nuance when you need it.

Learn It

1. Cross-Train

Many athletes cross-train by regularly incorporating a related skill or task into their workout routine. A swimmer completes a run or two each week; a runner completes one or more bike workouts each week.

By cross-training, athletes push their cardiovascular fitness in a different way. This adds to their overall fitness. It also keeps things fresh and prevents burnout. In short, cross-training complements the skill you’re building.

And it’s not just for athletes.

Cross-training is useful for intellectual pursuits as well. Cross-train your brain to improve your mental fitness by regularly incorporating a related skill or task in your learning routine.

Winners don't do different things, they do things differently.
-Shiv Khera

The cross-training methods you incorporate vary from field to field. A programmer, for example, can cross-train by solving math problems or working through a logic course. These are useful activities because both involve logical thinking, and so does programming. By cross-training, a programmer gets practice thinking logically in a different context. That’s a key point.

Changing contexts forces you to think differently, use a variety of tactics, and see things from another perspective. It also forces you outside of your comfort zone, which is where you’ll learn and grow the most.

Once you identify a cross-training method, apply it at least one time each week. Consistency is critical to reap the best results.

2. Study Experts

“First you imitate, then you innovate,” Miles Davis once said. Athletes, musicians, writers, and artists, among many others, have put this idea into action—and for good reason. It works.

If you’re trying to learn a new skill, then you ought to give it a try. Do so by studying the work of others using a learning tactic Benjamin Franklin applied to become a better writer. Below is a summary of Franklin’s process, as explained in his autobiography.

Franklin would choose an article from The Spectator—a publication he admired and wanted to emulate—and study it by making hints of the “sentiment” in each sentence. After a few days passed, Franklin used the hints to replicate the article.

Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.
-Michael Jordan

This wasn’t a process in memorization; he wasn’t trying to memorize the article word for word. Rather, he aimed to capture the same expression and completeness as the original—using his own words.

Franklin concluded the process by comparing his version of the article to the one he studied: he identified his mistakes and corrected them.

This tactic can be molded to fit nearly any skill you’re working on. The recipe is nearly the same.

Step 1. Find someone in your field who does the thing you want to do and does it well.

This should be someone whose skills you admire and want to emulate. Ideally, this is someone who’s better than you. Think of the experts in your field for ideas.

Even someone who’s a step or two ahead of your current skill level can work for this practice. For example, a high school basketball player may think of an advanced high school or college player.

Step 2. Study this person’s skill—their outcome or performance—by making hints.

Perhaps, like Franklin, you want to become a better writer. You’ve identified a publication you admire and want to emulate; from this publication, you’ve selected an article to study. Now you’re going to study the article by making hints by capturing the overall ideas and expression in each sentence.

                      Champions Think
How Champions Think
-Dr. Bob Rotella

You can easily apply this hint-making process to any other skill, from programming to shooting free throws. Take the finished outcome or performance—a solution to a problem or completed meal—and work backwards. Explain what the person did each step of the way to get to this final outcome. Go beyond surface level and fully understand what’s happening and why.

Explaining is different than describing.

To describe Claude Monet’s painting, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, you may say a train billows smoke as it enters a train station. By contrast, if you explain this painting, you would go beyond surface level and speculate why Monet painted a train; why did he use quick brushstrokes of paint?; why did he include the glass-and-iron train shed?

When you explain a concept, you’ll find that the learning process is far more meaningful. Plus, this is a great way to test your knowledge. If you can’t wrap a simple explanation around a concept or step, then that’s a sign you have some learning to do. Pause and learn it.

It’s better to find out about a trouble spot now—and do something about it—than to let it fester. It’s likely that you’ll run into the same concept or a related one in a few weeks or months. In short, your future self will appreciate the time you spend now learning what’s new or unfamiliar to you.

Step 3. Replicate.

Let some time pass, as Franklin did, then use the hints you created as a guide and replicate the skill that you studied. For example, re-write the article or re-solve the problem.

The key to this step is to let enough time pass so you forget the details that you studied. You’re not trying to memorize; you’re trying to learn. Let a few days pass before you replicate the skill that you studied. That way, you’re forced to muscle through the process on your own.

This step sounds easy. After all, you’ve got your hints. But in practice it can be hard to do, even with the hints. So you may not re-solve the problem or re-write the article perfectly, if at all.

Don’t get frustrated. Instead, take it as a sign that you’re learning and that you chose a good person to study from in step 1. Then, review the work you studied, update your hints, and try replicating the work once again.

Step 4. Study your outcome.

Compare your outcome—the thing you just replicated—to the one you studied. As you compare, identify your mistakes and make the changes.

Don’t bypass this step.

It’s an important one to take in order to build a critical skill: self-assessment. Train your mind and eye to identify your mistakes and correct them.

Apply this learning tactic as often as possible, especially if you’re just starting out. It’s time well-spent. That’s because you’ll hit several core competencies of skill-building:

  • Understand the details and nuances of how an expert in your field works.
  • Practice doing the thing you want to improve—at the level you aim to be at.
  • Get practice teaching yourself.
  • Develop your ability to self-assess your own work.
  • Build good habits from the start.
  • See patterns in your craft.

3. Teach It

“If you want to master something,” Yogi Bhajan once said, “teach it.” Whether you aim to master a topic or want to get better at it, then you ought to heed Bhajan’s advice. Fortunately, there are simple ways to go about it.

The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.
-Will Smith

Help Yourself as You Help Others

First, teach others. Sure, you could teach a class or author a course. But there are less time intensive ways to go about it.

One way is to give a short speech or presentation at a Meetup group or Toastmasters club. Many of these organizations are virtual, which makes teaching others even more convenient. Or create a few YouTube videos.

Peak: Secrets
          From the New Science of Expertise
Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise
-Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

Writing is another means of teaching to consider. Submit an article or blog post to one of the many publications that take submissions.

And if you think you don’t have anything to say or write about because you’re new to the field, think again. Whether you've been working on your skill for months or years, you’ve got something to offer and your field could benefit from a range of voices.

Despite the medium, teaching others will force you to solidify your ideas and test your understanding of a topic. Besides, when you set out to help others by teaching, you also help yourself.

Can You Explain It to Yourself?

Second, teach yourself.

Once you have a concrete outcome—a painting, an article, a crafted piece of wood—walk yourself through the process of how you got there. You can also apply this technique to performance-related skills, like shooting free throws. Record yourself shooting; then, watch yourself and detail the process along the way.

In either case, explain—don’t describe—what you did and why you did it.

Swirls and strokes of color—black, white, and beige—fill a large horizontal canvas. This statement describes Jackson Pollock’s painting, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). It’s very basic. It’s surface level. It doesn’t tell you a whole lot.

Don’t describe when you teach yourself. Instead, aim to explain.

If you explain this artwork, you would pull back the covers and dig into the deeper meaning of this piece. You may explain answers to these questions: Why did Pollock use swirls, strokes, and drops of paint?; what do they mean or represent?; how did Pollock work to achieve a painting like this?

You dig deeper—moving beyond surface level—when you explain. That’s the goal.

Teaching yourself is a great way to test your knowledge, solidify your understanding, find areas of improvement, and clarify your thinking.

4. Apply First, Study Second

One of the best ways to learn—and actually retain your knowledge—is to use an approach we call Apply First, Study Second.

The idea is to actively apply your existing knowledge first. Attempt the problem; attempt the article; attempt the design. Then, turn to passive modes of learning, such as referencing books or watching tutorials, when you get stuck.

You don’t learn, then start. You start, then learn.
-Sahil Lavingia

Say you want to become a better programmer. Instead of watching hours of online tutorials, you do something different: you pick a practice project and attempt the project yourself first.

          Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden's Teaching Principles and Practices
You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned:
John Wooden's Teaching Principles and Practices

-Swen Nater and Ronald Gallimore

Then, when you get stuck, turn to passive modes of learning like watching a tutorial. But—and this is the important point—instead of cycling through a bunch of tutorials, you’ll focus on the one that’ll help you push through the roadblock. Simply put, you’ll reference the resource with purpose. Once you have the information that you need, it’s back to the project at hand.

Apply First, Study Second stresses the importance of the attempt.

You don’t need to draw the perfect picture or create an award-winning design. Attempt the picture; attempt the design. There’s value in the attempt.

Find the Roadblock

Applying your existing knowledge first draws awareness to the roadblock—the thing you don’t know or need to get better at. You’ll think to yourself: How do I do X?

Now that you’re aware of the roadblock, you know where to focus your time and attention. Instead of trying to learn everything about cooking, for instance, or re-learning concepts you already know, zone in on the one thing that’s going to get you past your roadblock. That way, you can move along in the cooking process.

Once you have what you need, then apply it. If you get stuck again, follow the same iterative process: determine the roadblock; identify a resource that’ll help you get past it; apply your newfound knowledge.

Go Against the Grain

This approach runs counter to how most of us got through school. It also runs counter to how many popular learning platforms operate.

That’s because passive modes of learning are often easier to create for the masses than active ones. It’s far easier to watch a math wiz solve problems than to solve them yourself.

But easier isn’t better when it comes to learning.

“We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier,” explain the authors of the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, “but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.”

If you’re looking for an efficient and effective way to learn a topic or build a skill, you ought to give Apply First, Study Second a try.

5. Build Mental Models

A mental model is an explanation about how something works in the world. You use mental models in daily life to help you think, decide, and understand the world around you.

They’re also useful when learning new things.

Organize your learning into mental models: patterns or frameworks that help explain something in the real world. Mental models can help make the abstract concrete; and the complex simple, or at least a bit easier to think about.

You just keep pushing. You just keep pushing. I made every mistake that could be made. But I just kept pushing.
-René Descartes

One of the best ways to build mental models comes from a familiar, but underutilized, learning tactic: get feedback from others.

You may be thinking: That’s so obvious!

Make It Stick: The Science of
          Successful Learning
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
-Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel

Well, getting feedback may seem obvious. But few people take advantage of this learning opportunity—and it is an opportunity. After all, most of us are surrounded by bright people who are often more than willing to help. We just need to simply ask for it.

Those who seek feedback usually do so in order to draw awareness to their blindspots. What you may overlook, someone else can point out. Admittedly, this is an obvious reason to get feedback.

But what’s far less talked about are the mental models you can build.

Many times when a person provides feedback they also share their mental models: how they think about a particular topic or concept. In doing so, they may draw a diagram to illustrate their thinking; or they may verbally walk you through their thought process. Oftentimes, this is all you need to wrap your mind around a challenging topic.

If the person doesn’t proactively share their mental models, then ask: How did you know to think about X in this way? This will prompt them to take a step back and clearly articulate their thinking.

Learning something new—especially complex and abstract concepts—can be hard and time-consuming. Lighten your load by regularly asking for feedback. Surely, you’ll get feedback in the traditional sense and often a lot more. Just ask.

6. Focus on the Fundamentals

There’s an essential question to ask when you set out to learn a new topic or build a new skill: What to focus on first?

The answer is simple: the fundamentals. They’re the building blocks of whatever you’re learning about. If you bypass the fundamentals, you bypass a solid foundation of knowledge.

No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.
-Julia Child

What you focus on matters most. If you’re learning the wrong things, you’re not going to get where you want to go. You’ll also waste a lot of time and energy in the process.

Now, you may be wondering: How do you determine what the fundamentals are?

Apply the 80/20 Rule

The answer is the result of applying the 80/20 rule: about 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts.

Here’s how you can apply this rule to learning. First, break down the topic you’re learning into smaller parts. The broad topic of prealgebra, for example, includes exponents, fractions, and decimals.

The 80/20 Principle: The
                                                 Secret to Achieving More With
The 80/20 Principle:
The Secret to Achieving More With Less

-Richard Koch

If you struggle trying to figure out the parts of a topic, then talk to a few people who've learned it already. You’ll start to see patterns for concepts to learn and ones to avoid, at least initially.

Second, examine each part and ask yourself: Which part will give me the biggest improvement for my efforts?

This is not to advocate for shallow or surface-level learning. Rather, this process champions focusing your time and attention on the things that’ll move the needle the most and get you up and running with the overall concept the quickest. Then, if needed, you can move on to the fine details.

Too often people get stuck on the details, which you may need to be an industry expert down the road. But more often than not you don’t need the fine details immediately. It’s far better to spend your time on fundamental concepts first.

It’s a point made clear by Elon Musk:

“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.”

Besides, the details are much more meaningful when there's something to “hang onto.”

7. Accelerate your Learning with Multiple Streams of Learning

Financial gurus tell us to have multiple streams of income. Instead of relying on a single source of income you have many, so the thinking goes.

This financial advice is also applicable to learning: actively build a skill or study a field from multiple perspectives—not a single one.

I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.
-Thomas Jefferson

Most take a siloed approach to learning. They focus on a single form of learning—a course or project, for example, and only that course or project. This approach can be tedious and time-consuming.

Single Stream of Learning

Multiple Streams of Learning (MSL) is different. It champions attacking a topic from multiple perspectives.

Single Stream of Learning

Consider a programmer who’s learning computer science. He’s enrolled in an online course that includes lectures and assignments. The learning would stop there for most people.

But not this programmer.

Instead, he applies MSL. The course is one avenue for learning computer science, but not the only one. He spends a lot of time learning the field of computer science in different ways with a variety of resources.

The Art of Learning: An
                                                 Inner Journey to Optimal
The Art of Learning:
An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

-Josh Waitzkin
  • He works on related projects and problems, outside of the ones he does for class.
  • He meets virtually with classmates to talk about computer science topics.
  • And, until recently, he led a reading group that discussed technical programming books.

MSL is helping this programmer make connections and solidify concepts. It’s also accelerating his rate of learning.

What he overlooks in one context, he’ll pick up in another. He’s also seeing the field of computer science from a variety of perspectives—the course instructors, classmates, peers, and authors of technical books—rather than a single one. This helps to foster an open mind.

So the next time you set out to learn something new, create a plan that’ll have you attack the topic in multiple ways. MSL is not only an efficient and effective way to learn.

It’s also a lot of fun because there’s variety. There’s something to be said for that. Learning something new is often a challenge, but it should also be fun and interesting. MSL can help make that happen.

8. Look Back

A piece of learning advice comes from an unlikely source.

In his book How to Solve It, mathematician George Pólya outlines a four-step problem-solving process. The last step is most relevant to our purposes here: “looking back at the completed solution.”

You look back, according to Pólya, “by re-considering and re-examining the result and the path that led to it.” You can solidify your knowledge in the process, as Pólya rightly points out.

You can also learn from your solution (or outcome) and understand how to improve it. Ultimately, it’s the way to produce quality work.

Pólya writes about looking back through a mathematical perspective. But this idea can be widely applied across fields—and it often is.

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.
-Winston Churchill

Consider a chef. A chef constantly looks back during the cooking process: assessing their work, critiquing it, learning from others, and getting feedback. Why does a chef do such things?

In order to make the end product better.

The Golden Rules
The Golden Rules: Finding World-Class
Excellence in Your Life and Work

-Bob Bowman

That’s why you’ll see a chef taste the tomato sauce before serving it. If it needs more salt or a few more herbs, they’ll add it. If the salad looks soggy or the taste of the dressing is off, then they’ll toss it out and start again. Why?

In order to make the end product better.

A chef doesn’t want to pump out any meal. They want to produce a quality one, which is why looking back is part of their cooking process. Doing so enhances the quality of their work.

Athletes share the same mentality.

Kobe Bryant, for example, was notorious for watching game films from a young age. He studied the greats of basketball so he could mimic their moves on the court; he also studied his opponents so he’d know how to handle them come game time. In short, Bryant, as well as chefs, writers, programmers, and mathematicians, among many others, look back in order to move forward.

And so should you.

So after you solve a problem, write a program, play a song on the piano, or write an article, take time to look back—before you move on to the next problem, program, or song. Study your process by applying Pólya’s advice: “reconside[r] and re-examin[e] the result and the path that led to it.” Doing so will help you better your skills, enhance your knowledge, and ultimately produce quality work.

Retain It

1. Spot Check

You probably recall the pang of angst in your stomach when your teacher announced a pop quiz.

Maybe your teacher was in a bad mood and wanted to call you out for not completing last night’s homework. Most likely, however, your teacher was testing you to see if you were retaining the information being taught.

Testing is useful for learning because it involves retrieval. And retrieval is behind what psychologists call the “testing effect” (also known as “retrieval practice”).

The idea is that you’ll retain previously learned information better if you get tested on it, according to American Psychological Association, rather than restudying the material "for an equivalent amount of time." Put another way, you're better off actively testing yourself than passively reviewing your notes.

For that reason, you ought to try the Spot Check retrieval practice. Randomly check (think: test) your knowledge as you learn new material. Similar to a pop quiz, the aim is to see if you can recall recently learned material on the spot.

Believe you can and you're halfway there.
-Theodore Roosevelt

Cruising through a lecture from start to finish—without stopping to check your knowledge—often ends with disappointment.

You think you’re making progress because you zoomed through the lecture on 1.5x speed. You think you’re adding to your knowledge base because an expert made the process look so easy. You think you’ve got it.

A Mathematician's
                                                     Lament: How School Cheats
                                                     Us Out of Our Most
                                                     Fascinating and Imaginative
                                                     Art Form
A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out
of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form

-Paul Lockhart

But it’s often an illusion.

You don’t realize it’s an illusion until you’re forced to apply your knowledge. This is precisely why the Spot Check technique is useful: it’ll show you what you don’t know.

As you work through the lecture, pause and test your knowledge. For example, watch two or three minutes of a lecture or read a page in a book test yourself:

  • Can you explain the concept covered?
  • Can you replicate the program yourself?

If the answer is no, then there’s more work to do before you continue along in the book or course. Randomness matters with this tactic because you want to catch yourself off-guard, like a pop quiz.

Cranking through material without fully understanding it is like building a house on a shaky foundation. The result is unstable. Instead, build a solid foundation of knowledge, and use the Spot Check technique to help you get there.

2. Space It Out

Most of us recall toiling away in the library cramming for an exam the next day.

This cramming strategy seems effective, “and it may get you through the next day’s midterm,” explain the authors of the book, Make It Stick. “[B]ut most of the material will be long forgotten by the time you sit down for the final.”

In other words, spending a big chunk of time learning or practicing a skill over a short period of time may help you in the near term. But if you’re looking for longer-term retention, you’re better off spacing out your practice over a period of time.

Unfortunately, many of us are guilty of taking this cramming habit from our school days and applying it to topics we learn about in our personal and professional lives. Products, companies, books, and platforms promise us to “get rich quick”; speak a foreign language in a weekend; or learn to program in 24 hours.

Such promises are enticing. So we fall victim to this cramming model, only to find ourselves frustrated at little we’ve retained over time. Consequently, we pour more time and effort re-learning previously learned concepts.

Trying to learn to program overnight is an example of massed practice. It's when you practice in a single, long session or several consecutive sessions.

A far more effective approach is to space out your practice. Break up your practice sessions over a longer period of time, such as a period of weeks or months.

Instead of practicing math for five hours on Monday, space your practice time out over the work week: one hour each day. Instead of a long, killer workout on Saturday, you space out several shorter workouts during the course of the week.

Many athletes realize the benefits of spaced practice. Say you’re preparing for a marathon. Do you think you’ll be in better cardiovascular shape if you run 20-plus miles the weekend before the race? Or do you think you’ll be better off running a much smaller amount several days each week for several months leading up to the race?

When it comes to learning, we ought to practice like athletes and space it out. A little each day goes a long way.

Make It Happen

This sounds good in theory. But how do you make it a reality?

The answer is simple: identify your weekly mileage. This is the number of hours you can spend learning or skill-building each week.

Think of runners. They often talk about their running mileage: this is the number of miles they run each and every week. They’ll talk about their 20-mile weeks; 40-mile weeks; 100-mile weeks. That means they run 20, 40, or 100 miles each and every week.

To be clear, they’re not setting out to run 20, 40, or 100 miles in a single day. Rather, this is the total number of miles they’ll run each week. Each day, they’ll chip away at this larger weekly goal.

This is an effective tactic to hold yourself accountable and be consistent. That’s why, as learners, we need to take note and create our own weekly mileage.

Create your Weekly Mileage

Now, we’re not going to pull this number out of thin air. Spending 14 hours per week learning, or 2 hours each day, may sound good in the moment. But it may not be reasonable for your schedule. That’s why it’s important to create a customized number that best fits your needs.

To do this, you first need to understand what’s on your plate before adding anything more to it. Gain this understanding by creating a time log: an inventory of the things you do during the day and when you do them.

Then, question if you're spending your time on the right things. Review each activity on your time log. Then, eliminate or reduce time spent toward unproductive or unimportant activities in order to make room for more important ones, like learning.

Say you keep a time log for a few days and find that you scroll the internet for an hour each night. You reason that you can cut this time in half each day, and put the remaining time toward learning. That means your weekly mileage is 3.5 hours. And you’ll hit that number by devoting 30 minutes to learning each day.

A benefit of creating your weekly mileage is this: you don’t have to “find” the time. The time is there; you’ve made room for it. Now it’s just a matter of showing up and implementing your learning plan.

3. Mix It Up

It’s a common trap. We’re driven to learn more and more, but fail to take time to review and practice what we’ve already learned.

That’s a problem.

Soon comes the day when we’re asked to recall previously learned concepts—and we can’t, at least not easily. We’ve forgotten what we’ve learned last week or last month. We’ve lost our edge. Then, we spend even more time re-learning previously learned concepts. It’s a time-consuming and frustrating cycle.

Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.
-Thomas A. Edison

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

You want to be ready, not rusty, when you need to recall previously learned material. And you can by interleaving your learning.

The Need to Interleave

Interleaving means to practice two or more topics or skills during a practice session. A basketball player, for example, alternates among different shots in basketball: free throws, three-point shots, and right-handed and left-handed layups.

This is in contrast to sequentially working on each type of shot, one at a time. For example, shoot 15 free throws, then 15 three-point shots, then 15 right-handed layups, and finally left-handed layups.

You can also apply this interleaving technique to intellectual pursuits.

Say you’re learning prealgebra, and specifically you’re learning about square roots. As you set out to practice today, you mix it up.

Begin your practice by solving several fraction, inequality, and percent problems—topics you’ve previously learned about. Then, work through a few square root problems. Conclude your practice with a decimal and ratio problem, which are two other topics you’ve previously learned about.

Make It a Reality

The key to making interleaving a reality is to decide what topics or skills you’ll interleave and how you’ll interleave them in advance of your practice session.

A good way to go about this is to make a weekly plan. In this plan, you outline the new topics or skills you want to work on during the week ahead. You also identify what topics or skills you’ll interleave during your practice sessions. Identify these topics or skills by asking yourself:

  • What topics or skills am I struggling with?; what needs more practice?
  • What are topics or skills that I learned several weeks or months ago that I should revisit?

Once you know what topics or skills to interleave, then consider how you’ll interleave them. Select a few problems, drills, or exercises and include this information in your weekly plan.

A programmer, for example, sets out to build a “todo list” app this week. But she won’t work on the app exclusively. Rather, she’ll also spend time interleaving previously learned topics and skills: solving problems in Python and JavaScript and writing SQL queries. She selects some problems and exercises to help her stay sharp with Python, JavaScript, and SQL.

Importantly, she notes what topics she’ll interleave and how she’ll interleave them in her weekly plan. This is useful to do for accountability reasons. So on Monday when she sets out to practice, it’s never a question of what to work on or if she wants to work on it; rather, she just has to implement the plan: work through a Python-related problem and write several SQL queries before she turns her attention to the app.

Life Isn’t Linear

Sure, interleaving your practice takes a bit of planning at the outset. But the benefits are worth it.

First, you’ll stay sharp with previously learned material as you learn new things. Plus, in our experience, it’s a great way to pick up on the details as you revisit previously learned content or skills.

This makes sense because you know more now than you did three weeks ago. You’ll also see things differently, and probably better, than you did before when you set out to learn the topic initially.

Second, interleaving can keep you prepared for the unexpected. Rarely does life come at you predictably in sequential order. Rather, you have to be ready for anything. Interleaving can help prepare yourself for this very real-world scenario.

Besides, it’s better to have a variety of tools in your toolbox, and to pick the best tool to do the job. A way to have a reliable set of tools is to stay sharp with previously learned material and skills by interleaving.

You’ve already sunk a lot of time and effort into learning something. Staying sharp with previously learned material is a small investment in your future self. Not only will you feel prepared when the day comes to recall previously learned concepts. But you’ll also be happy that you don’t have to re-learn a topic all over again.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Who should use this guide?

We imagine you’re a working professional, student, athlete, or lifelong learner of any age. The commonality is this: you’re looking for practical ways to learn a topic efficiently and effectively.

2. What about reading X book on learning, instead of using the tactics you provide?

Reading is a fantastic way to build a storehouse of knowledge, and we highly recommend reading on a variety of topics—including learning. Contextual information is useful, as is keeping abreast with current research.

But what’s needed are concrete and practical ways for anyone to learn more efficiently and effectively from the learner’s perspective. This was the motivation behind this guide. In short, it’s important to have both theory and practicality. We hope this guide provides the latter.

3. What are some books on learning that you recommend?

Below are some books we recommend:

  • You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden's Teaching Principles and Practices by Swen Nater and Ronald Gallimore
  • The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin
  • Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel
  • A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form by Paul Lockhart
  • Mastery by Robert Greene

3. How strict is the sequence of the learning tactics?

If you’re learning something new, we highly recommend that you begin learning a topic by applying the tactic: Get the Big Picture.

Then, it’s up to you. We realize that different topics and learning styles influence the tactics that’ll be most relevant to you. So we aim to provide options, and leave it to you to decide which option is best based on your needs.

4. Who created this guide?

This guide was written by Amy and Paul Haddad. It’s based on our own experience learning a variety of topics and building a range of skills, which collectively include: programming, writing, computer science, art history, productivity, cooking, and entrepreneurship.

We’re confident that you can teach yourself to learn efficiently and effectively. If you prefer a structured, hands-on guide to learning and skill-building, then you may be interested in our Daily Skill Planner.