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Six tips for effective learning
22 Jul 2018 · 2037 words

Want to squeeze the most out of each hour studying? Want to make your learning time as efficient as possible?

The first thing is to use good study methods. They will give you the biggest opportunities for improvement.

The second thing is to read this article. Here are six ways to get the most from your learning time.

1.Alternate between focused and diffuse thinking

Trying to solve a problem? Use both your modes of thinking: focused and diffuse.

Focused thinking is when we direct our attention onto a subject, using hard concentration to figure it out. Focused thinking is solving a mathematics problem, taking a free-kick, or learning a new piece on the piano.

When the mind wanders without direction, connecting ideas and seeing the big picture - that’s diffuse thinking. Diffuse thinking will connect seemingly unrelated concepts together, which in turn sparks ideas and creative solutions for your problems.

Focused thinking creates mental chunks of knowledge, and diffuse thinking fits the chunks together. If focused thinking is a concentrated laser, then diffuse thinking is a dispersed light beam. So what’s the best strategy for problem solving? Interleave the two.

  1. Give a problem focused attention until you are stuck
  2. Do some diffuse thinking for a while (walk, jog, meditate)
  3. Attack the problem again, perhaps from a new angle identified in (2)
  4. More diffuse thinking
  5. More focused attention

Exercising, daydreaming, or sleeping all count as diffuse thinking, and they all let your subconscious solve your problems.  Some other good diffuse-thinking activities are walking, napping, chores, washing up, or basically anything that lets you daydream. Diffuse thinking should feel like you’re not working.

Activities like watching TV, reading fiction, and using your phone aren’t diffuse thinking. The mind isn’t able to wander and connect ideas, but rather is focused on your task.  Diffuse thinking needs attentional space.

This tip is easily summarised: work hard, and take good breaks. Also…

2. Keep going when you get stuck

Many academic classes have exercises, assignments or problem sets. You could do these and learn a heap, or do these and learn nothing, and it all depends on how you do them.

Bad methods rely on shortcuts. Shortcuts are when you give up too quickly on a problem without letting yourself be stuck. Shortcuts are where a friend generates the solutions, and you just try to understand them after. For effective learning your brain has to struggle, and if you avoid this what you’re learning won’t stick.

Here’s some advice from Cal Newport on the right way to do a problem set:

  1. Make an first attempt. Do all the questions that you find easy. Have a crack at two of the harder problems, aiming for some partial progress towards the solution.
  2. Put the problem set to the back of your mind for a day or two. Mull over the difficult questions. Your brain will be figuring out why it got stuck and how to get unstuck.
  3. Have another go at the problem set, using the new approaches you found in (2)
  4. Repeat (2) and (3) a few times.
  5. Still stuck? Time to get help. Look at the solutions to get a hint, post for help on a forum, talk to a classmate, or chat to a lecturer.

Don’t shortcut the process. Getting help too soon won’t engrave the concepts in your mind - you’ll only learn long-term if you’ve made a good effort at the problem. That’s the benefit of perseverance: you learn to push through difficulty and resistance, and when you keep pushing when stuck, you learn the deepest.

Give yourself enough time to go through the process! The approach above means you’ll make many attempts at the problem. For each one you’ll be fresh, focused and doing great work. But when you’re out of time, you only get one attempt, and you’ll be rushed and unfocused. This leads to low-quality work. The process only works if you save enough time for it.

Further reading

Solve problem sets over time

Keep working when you get stuck

Placing a high value on partial progress

3. Change your location regularly

There’s power in changing your work location.

New stimuli around you gives you more motivation, energy and focus. This keeps you producing high quality work.

It’s also fun. It’s fun to enjoy a coffee while working through a problem set. It’s fun to find a quiet, undiscovered corner of your office. And when you’re doing brain-melting work, you need all the fun and motivation you can get.

This tip is an easy one to incorporate. Do your work from differing locations: coffee shops, libraries, parks, benches, even boulders. Preference those locations that won’t distract you over those that do, and even choose a location that inspires you. You want to make it as easy as possible for to work on your value-producing tasks.

One method using this principle is the concentration circuitIt’s simple:

This method will keep you working longer than you would have otherwise. The new environment gives you an energy boost right when you need it the most.

A second method to use the power of location-changing is to work while walking. The environment is constantly changing, the distractions are limited and -  if you don’t take your phone - you’re unaccessible to others. It’s also straightforward: all you do is think through a problem in depth, and write down your conclusions when you stop walking.

Mastery of this technique can transform your daily walks into productive periods. But be careful to keep your focus. The mind has a tendency to drift and circle. Walking is also a great place for diffuse thinking.

You’re looking for a flash of insight - a eureka moment - and it’s amazing how often diffuse thinking will trigger one. But remember, diffuse thinking will work only after you’ve first done a focused session. It’s not a substitute for deep work.

Further reading

Connect ideas on walks

Outdoor office

The office in the woods

The concentration circuit

NY Times article

Deep work for inspiration

4. Focus on developing insight

It’s easy to read a textbook and to not ‘get’ the material. This can be when you keep rereading until the material sounds familiar, but you never stop to check your understanding.

Maybe it’s okay for classes that only need rote learning to succeed, like selecting facts from a multiple-choice list, or using formulas from a formula sheet. Yet a year later, how much from those classes do you remember? What about five years later?

There’s no consolidation of the concepts. There’s no ‘aha’ moment, no insight. And for real knowledge that sticks - we need insight.

Some subjects seem to rely more on intuition than others. Many mathematical and technical subjects seem to be about moving symbols and calculating values, Where’s the need for insight there?

Yet equations represent quantities and the relations between them, and as such every equation has insight behind it. Without the intuition for the equations you’re using, you can’t use them outside of a narrow context. You won’t grasp the essence of the subject and you’ll remember very little later on.

How do you generate insight? Use the ADEPT method and in particular look for analogies for the technical concepts.  Then to check your level of insight on a topic, ask yourself these questions:

In the short-term developing insight takes time, but long-term it’s a huge time-saver. This is because the more things you understand deeply, the more ‘chunks’ of knowledge you can refer to,  the faster and easier you learn new concepts. It’s a force-multiplier for your learning ability.

Further reading

The need for insight

Idea connection

Intuition isn’t optional

Intuition behind Euler’s formula

Intuition behind linear algebra

Intuition-based calculus guide

5. Follow strict working hours

It’s easy to have enough work to fill up all your waking moments, and more hours you work, the more you get done. You might feel like a productivity god, if you’re not completely burnt out.

Yet even if you feel more productive, you can’t trust that feeling. Odds are you’re doing more, but not creating more value, and the two are not the same concept at all.

For a professional, it usually doesn’t matter how many powerpoint slides you create, or how many emails you’ve written. There’s only a few activities that deliver the value you were hired to generate, and email probably isn’t one of them.

For a student, the equivalent here is late-night cramming. These sessions are more stressful, less effective and longer than by following a regular study schedule. You’ll be busier when you’re re-highlighting your notes, but will it really help you learn the material? The concept of fixed-schedule productivity fixes these problems, and it’s simple:

The key idea is that by strictly defining the hours you work, you

In essence, by following this strategy you’ll have more time, be more productive, and produce work of higher-quality. It lowers the risk of burnout and you can enjoy a work-life balance.

That’s a lot of benefits!

Further reading

Original source

Example in academia

More examples

6. Reflect

We’ve all reflected on our lives, perhaps after a bad decision. Where did it all go wrong?

Reflection is an excellent tool for improving your working habits. Use it to generate insights, optimisations, improvements and awareness about what’s going well and not so well. Reflection is what keeps you on track to achieve your goals and make positive changes in your life.

Reflection aligns your internal compass. It ensures your habits and priorities are what you want them to be, and that you’re moving in the right direction.

Reflection can be done either structured or unstructured. Writing out your thoughts as they come is unstructured reflection, while structured reflection usually follows a template of sorts.

Here’s an example of a structured reflection session for the end of the working day:

Reflection could also be included in an end-of-day ritual:

Reflection keeps you moving in the right direction. It’s also relaxing, enjoyable, and sometimes even therapeutic!

Further reading

Double-loop learning

The ‘Orient’ step in the OODA loop 

Reflective pomodoro method


Think of the above techniques as an introduction to this fascinating field. If you’d like to know about further concepts a place to start could be to check out  ‘interleaving’, ‘playing the whole game’ or ‘spaced repetition’. There are also many different memorisation techniques that you could find useful.

There are many excellent books covering these topics.  Two of my favourites are A Mind for Numbers and Make it Stick.


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