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Why is it that we often stop learning after leaving school? Why do we think about learning as something uncomfortable or even painful? In the ideal world, learning should be something we would want to pursue without anyone forcing us to do it. Today, in this post, I will share with you five tips or ways to increase your learning skills. Unfortunately, not all of these ways will be painless, but they will work. And, that’s what is important. These five tips will help you learn more and learn faster. Use all of them or chose your favorite. Then, test them to see the results.
Leave Your Comfort Zone
One of the best hacks to increase and strengthen your learning skills is actually very simple. It is simple, but also quite dangerous. This hack is all about leaving your comfort zone. Wait, let me rephrase it. The best way to improve your learning skills is to go all in. You have to put your bare skin into the game. Do you understand what I mean? To undergo a small risks is not enough. If you want to 10x your learning skills, you have to also 10x the risk. Think about it like learning to swim. You have two options. First, you can go safe and slow.
This basically means that you will start in shallow water and train in safe environment. Then, you can gradually progress towards deeper water. After some time spent on practice, your ability to swim will be good enough so you can swim regardless of the depth. The upside of this method is that it is safe. When something go wrong, you are not at risk of dying. The downside is that this method is painfully slow. It can take you couple days until you will learn to swim properly. We can call this methodology the 1x approach. For many people this is too slow. Fortunately, if you remember, I mentioned two methods. So, what is the second method?
Another way to tackle your swimming challenge and just any learning goal is to expose yourself to real danger. Before continuing, I want to warn you. This approach can have bad consequences if you screw it up. So, unless you are willing to take complete responsibility for your actions, don’t try this at home. Okay. Now, we can continue. To demonstrate this 10x approach, let’s get back to swimming. Instead of starting in shallow water and slowly progressing, you will immediately move to deeper water. By the way, you should have someone with you just for the case.
Remember, to increase your skills you have to put yourself in dangerous situation. This is the reason why you are starting in deeper water. You basically want to turn on your survival instincts and flood your body with adrenalin. Doing so will transition your brain into higher speed which will positively affect all its process. This includes memory, pattern recognition, recall and perception. In other words, everything your brain does will be improved. Have you seen the movie Limitless? Well, the effect will not be as significant as with NZT, but it will still be tangible. Why does this work? Again, the key to the whole thing is survival.
Your brain wants to prevent you from dying. In order to do so, it will turn on specific mechanism that will flood your body with various chemicals, like adrenalin, to boost its ability to fight the threat and survive. Another example how you can use this tip to improve your learning skills is by taking jobs you are not fully qualified or equipped to do. That being said, you should still stay away from jobs where lack of knowledge can seriously harm your health or even kill you. In those cases, either don’t do that before getting required theoretical knowledge or take responsibility for killing yourself in the process.
Anyway, for the rest of jobs, go all in. Have the courage to put your bare skin and reputation into the game. Let me give you a better real-life example to better illustrate this approach. Let’s suppose that someone will offer you a project about designing a web app. Unfortunately, you have no prior knowledge about such a discipline. In common situation, this would mean rejecting the offer and looking for another gig. This is not true when using the 10x approach. Instead of rejecting the offer, you will actually accept it. Then, you will work your ass off to learn everything necessary to get that job done before reaching the deadline.
This is exact what I mean by saying leaving your comfort zone. It doesn’t matter that you don’t poses the necessary skills. Your goal is to learn on the move. This is the meaning of going all in. Just like with swimming. You just jump and figure out how to swim on the way. Otherwise, you will go down. If you will use this tactic, your ability to absorb knowledge and sharpen your skills will skyrocket. Remember, it’s about surviving in the face of danger. Just keep in mind that using this technique is your decision. Meaning, when you screw something up, it is only your fault. So you had better suck it up or don’t do it at all.
Focus On (Deliberate) Practice
Okay, let’s say you followed previous tip and took a job you have no experience at. Now, you might feel excited (effect of adrenalin) or scared to death. Both of these emotions are totally normal and acceptable. In order to avoid falling flat on your face and not delivering on your promise, your next step should be to narrow your focus on practice. Better yet, aim for deliberate practice that meets all necessary conditions described and recommended by science. Don’t get me wrong here. I have nothing against books. Rather the opposite. I love reading. Reading is one of my hobbies.
In a fact, i have hundreds of books I cannot wait to read. However, when it comes to learning skills, nothing can beat good old practice. Meaning you can read as many books as you want. However, if someone will invest just half of the time you spend reading into deliberate practice, he will kick your ass every time. The only chance to turn the situation around is to adopt his approach – start learning by doing. What’s more, when you put together your survival instincts stimulated by moving from your comfort zone with learning by practice, your learning skills and abilities will go through the roof. If you’ve ever seen a child with new gadget, you know how fast they can learn.
On the other hand, place the same kid into the regular “modern” classroom and chances are you will need very patient teacher to “push” the knowledge into his head. On the best examples is teaching anyone mathematics. I guess that just mentioning the subject caused lose of enthusiasm from your side. Why? And, more important how to change this? When you take a look at the title f this section, there is a word “deliberate” in brackets. This is that magical trick that will help you improve your learning skills in shorter time than necessary.
Complete Guide to Deliberate Practice
That being said, there are some steps – six – you have to follow in order to turn your regular practice session into deliberate. The first step is to get motivated. Seriously. No matter how many sessions you will need, unless you are motivated to practice, you will have a hard time to stick to it. Although your learning skills and performance will improve you will still need some time. Having intrinsic motivation will work the best because it is much stronger than extrinsic.
Anyway, the second step is essential. Deliberate practice is about continually stretching yourself just beyond your current abilities. In other words, the task(s) should be on the edge of your skills – neither something you can get done easily nor something too difficult or impossible. Third step is about high repetition. You have to repeat the task(s) again and again until becomes natural. Fourth step is getting immediate feedback. Whatever you are learning, you should receive immediate informative feedback on your performance. The best kind of feedback is from another person.
Don’t trust your own opinion. It just doesn’t count. You need a neutral observer that will correct you every time you will make a mistake. Remember, feedback needs to be immediate. If you are practicing for days or weeks the wrong way, guess how much your skills will progress. Not so well. Take the best athletes as an example. These people always focus on practicing every move and its individual parts with absolute perfection. You need to do the same. There is no place for doubts. Whether you are practicing design or programming, your end goal should be perfect practice.
The fourth step is to focus on the task. In order to make your practice deliberate, you need to be completely focused and concentrated on the task. This is what makes deliberate practice different. You are not mindlessly going through the motion. Do you know the moments when you do something without recognizing it? How is it possible that I spent last twenty minutes on twitter? When did I eat that meal or drink that cup of tea? Or, where are the keys? If you are serious about improving your learning skills with deliberate practice or without, forget this way of “doing” things.
Next, fifth step, is practicing parts of the skill or knowledge you know you are not good at. Doing only things you are good, that are enjoyable, is exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. As previously mentioned, you have to keep challenging yourself. Your practice should be a hard work. It should be draining both, physically and mentally, and you should be able to perform it only for a short time. If you find yourself full of energy after hours spent in practice, that is a sign you are doing something wrong.
It is like a physical training. If you just spent hour in the gym or in the park training and you are able to hit another session, you trained poorly. The same thing applies to deliberate practice in any other area (training is practice as well).
The last step is about setting clear goals. What distinguishes the best performers from the rest is setting clear goals. That being said, don’t base these goals purely on desired outcome. Instead, focus on the process of reaching the desired outcome. Another reason for setting process-oriented goals is to be able to monitor your progress. That’s another part of deliberate practice. You have to monitor your performance and evaluate it constantly. Only then, you will be able to find the weak spots and make a progress.
Make Learning Fun
Let’s get back to the school class example for a moment. Why is it often so hard to learn something in the school while “learning” how to play Call of Duty so easy? The short answer is fun and engagement. This is what all successful games have in common. They are able to devour player in the moment and experience. During this time, player basically enters the state of flow. In other words, hours are going by without you noticing it and you are absorbing a huge amount of new information. When you get back to the real world, it is surprising how many information you are still able to recall. You can describe almost every second of your experience.
Try to do the same thing with some boring school subject. Sit down for forty five or ninety minutes and listen to some lecture. Unfortunately, you will remember the first and last five minutes at best. The rest is lost forever. Interestingly, there are rare moments when you can recall much more. Why is that? Again, it is due to your engagement. This can mean anything from active participation (the best) to using vivid images to imagine the material you are learning. This is also why we are often so good at remembering stories from books we liked. We were actively engage in reading – we used our imagination to imagine the story, characters, places, etc.
From the lines above, it is quite clear how to improve your learning skills. Whatever you are learning, make it fun and engaging. Find a way to use your imagination to increase the chance of remembering the knowledge. By the way, it is not a secret that the masters of memorization use this technique to achieve their feats. This method is better known as method of loci or memory palace. In the simplest terms, it’s about creating a mental map of well-known place and connecting individual things you want to remember to specific places on this map.
Quick Guide to Memory Palace
This map can be anything from your home to favorite place in the city to the route to your work. The only prerequisite is that you know that place very well, that it is one hundred percent imprinted in your mind. In other words, you can go through that map in your mind without any significant effort. The next step is to use your imagination to create images of the things to remember as vivid as possible. By the way, the more crazy these pictures are, the easier you will remember them. So, don’t settle with vague “normal” images.
I will give you an example. Let’s say you need to buy some food for dinner – some cabbage, fish, chilli spice, butter and onions. Normally, you would either create a list or trust yourself that you will remember it (without using memory palace). However, you are smarter now. You will create a mental map of a place of your choice. Remember, you have to know this place very well. Next, you will place all the items you want to buy on specific places. Again, use your fantasy to make the whole scenery a bit crazy to increase the chance of successful recall.
Let’s place the items from our shopping list on the map of a house for example. You wake up and there is a huge cabbage sitting on your chair typing on computer. Next, you will realize that there is chilli powder scattered all over the floor. When you open your closet to take the clothes, there is a giant onion in the corner. Then, you will go to the kitchen and from your fridge peeks smiling cube of butter. Can the day be even crazier?? Well, it can … You will feel the urge to go to the bathroom. There, a big fish having some intestinal problems is sitting on the toilet. It’s okay, you will wait.
Now, go through this scenery once or twice again and you will see how well will you remember it. The best thing on the memory palace method is that it works with anything. All you need is to use some kind of a mental map and use your imagination to create vivid images of the things you want to remember. Again, the crazier the images will be, the better.
Another tip or trick to improve your learning skills also stems from psychology and what you can observe on MMORPG and some websites oriented on learning. This trick is about making social interaction part of your learning process. Some of the examples are MOOC websites such as Coursera, Codecademy or platform for learning languages Duolingo. Although all of those sites and platforms heavily use gamification in sense of points and rewards, they also serve as communities where users can interact and help each other.
If you are familiar with fitness world, you can see some similarity with having a sparing partner. The lesson learned from these communities is simple … Learning anything can be much easier and more fun if you have someone alongside. So, the next time you will want to take on some new subject, take a look around and find some communities dedicated to this subject. Then, introduce yourself and become part of. In case you are shy, keep in mind that having someone who already poses the skills and knowledge you want to learn can significantly reduce the time to acquire it.
You will be able to stand on the shoulders of the giants, build on experiences of other people and avoid doing unnecessary mistakes. Shortcut your way to success and improve your learning skills by learning from mistakes and successes other people made. Remember, don’t waste your time if you don’t have to. Also, having people around you will help you stay motivated and keep you on the track in the moments of doubt. These people will basically hold you accountable.
Increase the Stakes
The last tip to improve your learning skills the less comfortable way is to increase the stakes by making it public. I first heard about this tip from Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Chef. It is as simple as it sounds. You commit to learning something – set a clear and testable goal – and then announce it publicly. Having said that, you don’t have to put it on a billboard on Times Square. Sharing your goal with couple friends will be enough. You can also use social media, blog or your website and put it out there so other people can see it and hold you accountable.
And, don’t stop just there. Include some kind of punishment for the case you will not meet your goal. This punishment should be something that you will definitely not enjoy. Remember, it is punishment. Make it work like that. For example, it can be doing something you consider embarrassing such as singing or playing on some musical instrument on the crowded street. Or, it can be doing something you are afraid to do, like bungee jumping. On the other hand, you can focus on monetary side commit to giving away some amount of money to specific cause.
What works quite well in this sense is choosing a cause, charity or political party you actually don’t like or even hate. Remember, it is punishment. The more painful and uncomfortable it will be, the more motivated you will be to learn that thing and reaching your goals. Otherwise, you might argue that you are giving money on some good helpful thing. Doing so may even lower your motivation in the end. So, instead of giving money to your favorite charity if you fail, commit to give those to your enemy, some person you can’t stand.
Closing Thoughts on Improving Your Learning Skills
Here you have it, five simple ways to increase your learning skills. With the information and tips described in this post I hope you will learn whatever you want in much shorter time and with less pain. In the end, remember that just having a positive mindset and view on learning will increase your learning skills significantly. Meaning, never approach any subject with doubt or grudgingly. Instead, focus on the benefits it will bring.
Do you have any questions, recommendations, thoughts, advice or tip you would like to share with other readers of this blog, and me? Please share it in a comment. You can also send me a mail. I would love to hear from you.
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