Learn to Learn, better (Part I)

A quick internet search reveals that there’s no shortage of interesting tactics, hacks, and techniques that you can try to learn better, faster, and more easily.

We looked through a lot of blogs and articles and found a couple of interesting ones you should try.


Tim Ferriss (famous for 4 hour workweek, body, and chef) professes that anyone can become world class in a new skill in 6 months by following what he calls a D.S.S.S framework (Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing and Stakes).

Deconstruction is the phase where you break down something into its parts or components.  If you’re trying to learn web programming, for example, this might break down into Front End, Back End, Version Control, and Deployment.  This could probably be broken down further into HTML, Git, Ruby, Django, etc.  Deconstruction is the phase where you simply take a new skill apart into its smaller parts.

Selection is where you use the 80-20 Pareto Principle to figure out which of the pieces matter more than others.  If you’re trying to learn Excel, for example, you could learn all 343 formulas in the program, or you could learn the 30 that are used in 80-90% of the work you’ll be doing.  Getting great at those 30 formulas would likely make you better at Excel than having a rough knowledge of 300+ formulas.

Sequencing is where you determine which order to learn or do things in.  Finding the right order is key because some things build upon others.  If you’re learning Spanish, as an example, you’d want to learn the basic sentence structure and pronunciation before delving into something a little harder like the Subjunctive.

Stakes is where you make commitments to your learning goals.  “I will learn X piece in the next 2 weeks.”  Here you’ll have to figure out how to make yourself accountable.

D.S.S.S (for skill learning) can be briefly summarized as “Determine the absolutely essential parts of a new skill and find a logical and helpful order to learn them in.  Then find a way to make yourself do it.”


The Feynman Technique

Richard Feynman received the Nobel prize in Physics in 1965.  Feynman was famous for his ability to find insights and conclusions in fields/areas outside of his research/expertise.  He knew how to learn.

Feynman would learn new things quickly by pretending he had to teach the concept to someone else who had no understanding of it.  This would force him to break down jargon or complex ideas into more easily understood or analogies.  Doing this helps to both understand something new and find holes in your understanding (areas that you’re struggling to explain).

Blogger Scott H. Young breaks down the Feynman technique steps well in this blog post:

1. Choose your concept.

2. Pretend You’re Teaching the Idea to a New Student.

3. Whenever You Get Stuck, Go Back to the Book.

4. Simplify and Create Analogies.


Deliberate Practice

Cal Newport (author of the excellent blog Study Hacks) explains how deliberate practice is what separates average performers from elite performers.  You can apply deliberate practice to your own learning/studying.

Elite performers are no more talented than average performers in most fields.  However, elite performers practice differently, in a way that allows them to become elite.  Elite performers dedicate more of their practice time to what is called Deliberate Practice.  Deliberate Practice is when a student or learner deliberately works on areas that stretch their abilities (vs. working on things they already know).  Practicing things that you’re not good at is hard work but it is the work that actually improves your ability.  It is meant to be done in short intense periods and if done right, allows you to become better, fast.

How could you apply this to your learning?  When you’re trying to learn or become better at something new, focus on working hard (for short bursts) on the areas that are outside of your current ability.  Don’t just run through and repeat what you already know or are good at (even though it’s easier).

If you’re learning web development and are already already good at building a certain type of website, push yourself to go build something harder and more complicated.  If you’re learning to use your new DSLR Camera, push yourself to take better or different photos in a new type of light or settings.  Pushing yourself to the limits of your ability is what will make you great.


Tiger Woods is known for practicing rare difficult shots so that he’s ready to dominate on those when he comes across them. He’ll even step on a ball in a sandtrap to make practice that much harder. His deliberate practice is what makes him elite. (Photo by Keith Allison)

Tried any of these? Thoughts?

We’d love to hear if you have.  Please comment in the comments section below.



Further Reading

Part II covers a sample learning strategies that our most active Udemy students use.

Part III features Udemy staff telling what helps them learn best.

Tim Ferriss: Accelerated Learning in Accelerated Times

Learn Faster with The Feynman Technique

How I Used Deliberate Practice to Destroy my Computer Science Final

Why talent is overrated