How to Accelerate Your Learning in 10 Steps

2017 will be my year of learning. I’m committing 12 months to deconstruct and master one learning per month, and I’m going to share the results with you here.

Stop, reflect, raise your standards and act.

The first challenge for the year is to master how to learn — to build a framework of accelerated learning.

Why is the ability to learn so important?

  • The ability to learn, master, and teach is a huge part of what makes us uniquely human.
  • It’s the gateway to knowledge, success, and a better life.

But not all approaches to learning are equal. How easy the brain can learn depends on how fast neural activity patterns are created in our brains. The greater number of references you have to call on in your brain, the more able you are to create and identify patterns. That’s why it is so important to build a habit of lifetime learning and why I’m committing to this path.

But where to start?

I compiled a list of questions about learning and set out to answer them through interviews with a few experts and friends, reading a handful of books, studies, and blogs, and listening to a series of podcasts. When interviewing for HotelQuickly, I slipped in questions about learning. Anyone who’s thinking of joining us should be ready to answer questions like: “If you were to learn how to ride a unicycle in a week and teach it to a class, how would you go about it?”

Yup, that’s me in Basel, Switzerland, trying to learn how to ride a unicycle á 20 years ago. I wish i knew how to accelerate my learning back then :)

Here are the key learnings that I’ve compiled about learning over the past month. I’ve summarized them in a convenient ten steps.

10 Steps to Accelerate Your Learning

1. Ask the right questions

Write down at least ten open-ended questions that you want to answer with your learning. Refer to them regularly and iterate based on the input you receive along the way.

These are the questions I asked as part of my challenge to master how to learn anything:

  • How does one become an expert in learning?
  • What are the most efficient frameworks? What are the best books? What are the best tools?
  • How can I apply different mental models for learning?
  • When should I go deeper? How to avoid paralysis by analysis?
  • Where can I find the best coaches/experts on the topic? How do I connect with them?
  • How can I increase skill retention?

2. Apply constraints

Constraints make you better because they provide the additional focus of time. I gave myself one month to master how to learn. I could ponder the topic for a year, but the time limit helps me prioritize. If you only have 30 minutes to fit a workout into your day, how would you do it? It’s important to block out time for learning within your daily agenda, e.g. I listen to podcasts during my morning routine.

Timers definitely help to speed up your learning. Macgyver endorse this message.

3. Be clear on your motivation

To quote Simon Sinek, “start with why”. Understanding and leveraging what drives you will be the most important arsenal on your learning journey. Your purpose and passion with eat “willpower” for breakfast. Since I wanted to master 12 things this year, I knew that mastering how to learn fast would be key to my success.

4. Set well-defined, specific goals

I’ve shared in detail about goal-setting, but I can’t emphasize how important it is to clearly define what you want to achieve. Specific goals give you a way to evaluate your progress and ultimately your success.

“Goals become the compass that guide you in the right direction; goals speed you up.”

Ensure that any goal you set is within your zone of proximal development. It can’t be too easy (not motivating) or too hard (puts you off), and you should be able to wipe away any barriers blocking access to the information you need to learn.

Goals should be ambitions, but achievable. Once set, just grab the first task and go! (IG: tl4b, Singapore)

What I find particularly helpful for mastering a topic is the process of “chunking”, i.e. slicing a big hairy audacious goal into smaller sub-goals. In learning, this is related to “mastering fundamental principles” or deconstructing of the learning. It means you master the key bits of a certain subject, then add them together and increase the level of complexity. This leads to great success across industries, including a field I have no clue about — football.

Once you have the goals set, share them with like-minded people (hello dear reader:). This will keep you accountable and help you maintain, and maybe even raise, your standards. You’re going to need all the support you can get.

5. Widen your horizons and emulate the experts

To truly understand something, we need to be able to see the topic from multiple different perspectives. Just watch Roger Antonsen’s TED Talk on how math can help us gain greater empathy and understand the world! Approaching a subject from various angles and sources will give you a richer and deeper insight into whatever you are trying to learn.

Where to start?

  • Search out best practices at crowd-sourced platforms like Quora, Medium, or more specialized forums (Google is your friend)
  • Turn the pages of highly rated books and authors
  • Subscribe to online courses and webinars on e.g. Coursera and Udemy; identify the best offline events and get yourself there
  • Approach top experts, your peers, your team
  • Go ahead and ask people who have no clue about what you’re learning as their questions will sharpen your perspective
  • Find the best person in the respective field, deconstruct what led them to the top of the class, and emulate it.
Emulating the experts can really help your learning to take off. (IG: tl4b, above Japan)

6. Deep and conscious practice

Throw out your bias about talent. Not having the natural inclination to do something is not an excuse for why you can’t learn it. Becoming an expert has more to do with how one practices than one’s genes or even how one repeats a task many times. Train your mental muscles to have laser focus.

A few tools that I find helpful to get in the zone and focus:

  • Blocking online distractions — Offftime app for Android, StayFocusd for Chrome, or a similar app for Safari
  • Timer app for tasks in line with the Pomodoro technique and step 4
  • Tuning into the right brain wavelength with white or brown noise. What seems to work well for me is to dive into the learning and completely zone out the rest. It takes about 10–15 minutes for me to reach a state of “flow”.
  • Keeping a “distraction list” to write down tasks or thoughts that are distracting me while I’m focused on the task in question. I use Evernote in a separate screen and clean the list up regularly.

7. Get feedback

I have sporadically used a few coaches to help me achieve my physical goals but I haven’t used them in other areas of my life. When is “self-feedback” enough and when is it time to call in the experts?

Identify the moments when you need expert feedback to help you progress (IG: tl4b, Krabi, Thailand)

Virtually all high achievers use coaches to provide feedback and get an objective view on their performance. If you decide to go with a coach, choose one carefully. Check their credentials, ask for references (WoM will serve you well). Ultimately try them out but drop out if you are not getting what you are after. A few sites where you can find coaches are Thrive15, Coach.me, ExpertFile, Zintro, and DIYGenius. It’s important to remember that when you looking for a coach you’re not looking for “teachers”, but for someone who has been there, done that, and can give you helpful, practical guidance.

8. Test and benchmark

How do you know that you are on your way to mastery? You measure and you test. Assessments are a way to discover your weaknesses and gain clarity on what needs more practice. Once you figure out where you stand, record it so you can track your progress.

Video seems to be a great tool for many topics you want to learn. Just take a simple camera (read: your smartphone) and a tripod and take a video of whatever you are trying to practice. Then grab a notebook and review your session. You will be surprised at what you can learn just from one session. And there is proof that it works! One example is of high school teacher Sarah Brown Wessling. She takes videos of every lesson she teaches, every day. It got her the title of 2010’s National Teacher of the Year.

Key tools I find useful for tracking the progress of my learning:

  • In the early stage of building a new learning practice, LoopHabit (for Android) works well for me
  • For analysis of my time spent on devices, I use RescueTime
  • For the recording of my progress, I have a specific tracking sheet close to hand. It can be a shortcut launcher on your smartphone from Quip or Evernote, or you can go analog with a Moleskin notebook. I use a combination of Evernote & g-sheet and experimented with “See-how-you-eat” app for my nutrition.

Build in the testing and tracking into you daily and weekly retrospectives. I find it invaluable. Don’t rely on your memory. Being able to chart incremental progress is key to making greater gains.

With every incremental progress you will ultimately climb up to your goals. (IG: tl4b, Thailand)

9. Review and repeat

Excellence is not a single act, it’s a habit. It’s the result of your repeated conscious practice, day in, day out. Regular repetition is critical for the maximizing of retention. Repeating your learning at least once a day and then within one week increases the retention of the acquired knowledge by 78%.

Build the process of learning into your schedule to avoid “laziness”. Fight the tendency to get complacent. The feedback you get from coaches and your peers will help you keep momentum, and tracking your progress will show you where you can raise the bar. Continuity is important. That means sticking with the practice through highs and lows. Doing this reinforce your grit and will ultimately lead to the mastery you are seeking. Don’t quit!

10. Raise the bar

When starting with a new learning, don’t rush into things too quickly. Start slow, understand the fundamental principles of your chosen subject, but then speed up once you make gains.

From experience, once you can hit your goal 3 times in a row without any problem, it is time to raise the bar. Practice the skill at more challenging levels with the intention of achieving mastery. Put yourself in challenging situations. Work against the resistance. Don’t worry about the uncertainty you will feel. We learn and benefit from living under pressure, from living in the anti-fragile world.

Let discomfort be your new friend

To raise the bar, I try to regularly expose myself to situations where “I know that I don’t know”. This means exposing myself to higher standards in anything I want to achieve. Plunging into the unknown helps me identify areas of my weaknesses and teaches me to embrace the uncertainty.

Summary checklist

There are ten steps to rapidly speed up your learning. In order to accelerate, tick the boxes on the following list:

Where am I on my challenge to learn how to learn anything?

While I have learned quite a bit over the past month, there are some steps I will definitely practice a bit more:

  • I’ll start asking better questions about what it takes to master that goal (step 3).
  • I’ll review what and who can help me achieve my targets, and maybe try out some interesting mainstream sites like masterclass.com or creativelive.com (step 5).
  • I will test my levels of mastery across the board of my skills (step 8) in all areas of my life that are important to me, including leadership, entrepreneurship, relationships, physical fitness, and even learning Japanese. I am yet to determine what are the best assessment tools in some of those areas, though.
  • I’ll use tools like video for self-feedback, analysis, and tracking (step 8 again).
  • I will build in the 10 steps into my planning and daily habits and I will demonstrate my mastery by teaching the skills I’ve learned, perhaps in some of the upcoming monthly challenges. (bonus step:)
The past month indeed helped me to map out where I need to focus to improve my learning. (IG: tl4b, Mt.Fuji, Japan)

I’ve learned a lot about learning through this process, yet I feel that I am only at the beginning.

If you have any additional hacks or suggestions on how better to learn anything, please leave a comment or drop me an email. If there’s anything that I am sure of after my first challenge, it’s that there is still a lot to learn!

Here’s to a fun year ahead, here’s to a life of learning!

(IG: tl4b, Hoi An, Vietnam)