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Tricks for Learning Smarter

I like learning. In fact, I crave learning. There’s an itch in me to dig into that next skill, that next project, that next person and play around in their little world for a while. When it comes to learning, I am a bit like a kid in a ball pit.

And like a kid in a ball pit, I find myself easily distracted by the many things around me. So many colours. So shiny. Oh look a reflection! For those of you not following my analogy (and I don’t blame you!), what I’m trying to say is that often, we set out to learn new things, but along the way, we get distracted or bored or restless. We jump from one unfinished project to the next and in the end we’re left with a pile of half-started projects and only a handful of things we actually achieved.

There is a vagueness in saying “I’m going to learn something” and this can be a problem. It is too unclear. Too ambiguous. Too uncommitted.

Instead, I prefer to speak in figures, dates, measurable outcomes, a start date and an end date, broken down bite-size goals, timelines and (sometimes) a person to hold me accountable.

So saying “I’m going to learn computer programing” does not get the same results as saying “I’m going to learn HTML this week, and then CSS in the next three weeks, and attempt to build a simple website by the end of the month, and John Smith over here is going to hold me accountable if I don’t”.

In other words, how you word your goal matters.

Here are some numbers about learning:
  • Dr. Anders Ericsson’s famous (and much cited) 10,000 hour rule: It takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice for a person to excel in a highly competitive professional field. This is equivalent to about 5 years of full-time work. Yikes!
  • Josh Kaufman’s (awesome) 20 hour rule: However, it only takes 20 hours of deliberate learning to acquire a new skill and be able to use it in a practical way. This works out to be about 45 minutes a day for a month (plus off-days). Much better!
  • Tony Schwartz’s 90 minute productivity cycle: Based on Dr. Ericsson’s 10,000 hour study, it turns out that people concentrate best in 90 minute blocks and the longest anyone should focus for, on any one task, is 4 hours a day. Anything beyond this, is well, simply wasting your time.
Need convincing? Here are some inspiring stories:
  • Scott Young learned and passed the whole MIT Computer Science degree, by himself, in just under 12 months. It usually takes 4 years of full time study at university with support to get this degree.
  • Benny Lewis, at the age of 21, only knew English and was utterly convinced that he was rubbish at all languages (including English). After traveling and meeting multiple polyglots, he has now learned 12 languages, maybe 13, at a fluency level within 3 months each. In his blog, Benny dispels many of the excuses we hide behind for not learning a new language.

So, what are you waiting for?

We can do it! All we need is the right motivation, the commitment and some good old learning hacks.

Here are some of my tricks:
  • To-do notes. For everything. Because crossing out completed tasks is fun and builds your sense of achievement.
  • Synced notes, memos, reminder lists, calendar events.Because sometimes I’ll get an idea on the go or when I’m in the middle of another task, and I’ll need to jot it down quick-fast but don’t want to be juggling between devices to find that note again when I need it. Syncing means less time spent finding the right note on the right device.
  • Breaking down a task into smaller tasks. Because nobody wants to feel overwhelmed. Breaking down one big task into bite-sized smaller tasks means that you can complete these little tasks within 90 minute blocks. It also means that there’s a clear deadline to keep you on track. This is how I got through Specialist Mathematics in high school.
  • Most Important Tasks or MITs. Something I learnt from Leo Babauta. Because MITs are a great way to prioritise your three most important tasks for the day and then get them done. I have three lists: A menial but must complete list (grocery shopping, house cleaning, washing), a professional development list (application writing, following up on meetings, law) and a personal development list (new skills I want to learn, healthy habits I’d like to develop) and I take one from each list to create my MIT each day.
  • Do difficult tasks in the morning. Because we’re all prone to procrastination and dread. If we attempt difficult tasks in the morning, when our energy levels are high and when we’re too delirious from sleep to procrastinate, then we have a much better chance of getting our most difficult tasks done. We also gain a sense of achievement that fuels us towards the end the day when our energy levels are down.

I’m still learning about learning. And there are times when I revert back to my old unproductive ways. But with figures, stories and little learning hacks, hopefully we can learn things smarter and learn them a lot better!


Shimeng Zhang

Type in Shimeng on an iPhone and you get Shipment. Somewhat appropriate, she’s a traveller and often gets lost along the way. When she’s not writing, she’s practising law in Melbourne and Hong Kong, learning to say “cheers” in as many languages as possible and doing some startup things on the side.