Learning how to learn is one of those meta skills that nobody ever really teaches us. But, it’s also the number one skill we should learn if we’re looking to significantly improve our life in basically every single way.
For example, when I was in med school, I spent some time learning how to learn. Which meant I could study more efficiently. This gave me more time to do the things I enjoyed, like setting up a business and my YouTube channel.
These days, even though I don’t have to sit exams, learning is still a huge part of my life. I’m trying to get better at making videos, learn how to write better articles, and create better systems for managing my team. All of this stuff involves learning.
So, in this article I wanted to share nine evidence-based tips that I’ve found really helpful. These work when we’re learning pretty much anything:
- Sharpen the Axe
- Use Crutches to Optimise Focus
- Find Opportunities for Immersion
- Figure Out Your Weak Links
- Test Yourself
- Get Regular intense feedback
- Use Spacing
- Teach What You’re Learning
🪓 1. Sharpen the Axe
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe“
This is a quote that’s attributed to Abraham Lincoln, and he’s talking about the power of preparation. And when it comes to learning, good preparation is essential.
Let’s say we’re trying to learn something, like the guitar or a new sport. We should spend a decent amount of time figuring out the meta learning behind what we’re actually going to learn before we do anything else. In other words, we need to work out how we’re actually going to learn the thing – seems obvious but we rarely consider it.
For example, when I was learning how to play the piano by ear, I spent a decent amount of time on the ‘Piano Learning’ subreddit, where I could read loads of interesting posts about how to play by ear. And by spending a little bit of time sharpening the axe before I actually sat down to learn the thing, my learning process accelerated.
If you’re interested in learning how to learn in a study-related context, I’d highly recommend you read the book “Make It Stick” – it’s brilliant. Or, you can check out my Skillshare class on evidence-based study techniques.
🦿 2. Use Crutches to Optimise Focus
Whenever we’re learning, it’s tempting to do it passively. I sometimes end up watching TV or something while practising the guitar.
But, by fully focusing on the thing we’re learning, our brains are able to pick things up much faster. And so I’ve found a few different ‘crutches’ or ‘hacks’ that have been particularly helpful in helping me to focus on what I’m supposed to be learning.
The first is the five minute rule. The idea is that if we want to do something and we’re finding it difficult to start, the five minute rule tells us to just work on the thing for 5 minutes. Then, after five minutes, we’re allowed to stop. We don’t have to continue if we don’t want to. But, more often than not, I find that if I’ve already started doing something, I do actually want to continue. The problem was just getting started.
The second ‘crutch’ I found useful is to chuck my phone away. I know it sounds simple but we’re so glued to our phones these days that by tossing our phone on the floor or leaving it in the kitchen, we can remove a key point of distraction and force ourselves to focus, free from distraction. And if there’s anything else we find particularly distracting – like tablets, TVs, or other interesting gadgets – it’s really helpful if we can place them as far as possible from our workspace.
🌊 3. Find Opportunities for Immersion
There’s a great book called Ultralearning by Scott Young, where he talks about his journey learning different languages in three months. His takeaway from this experience was that language learning is about immersion. If you can immerse yourself in a language as much as possible, it won’t be long before you’re fluent.
So the general principle here is that we learn best when we’re in the environment where we’re actually going to be using the skill.
For example, when I was learning how to become a close-up magician, a lot of my early practice was in front of my webcam or a mirror. But, my webcam/mirror wasn’t really the arena where I’d be performing my magic. So I made it a point to try to perform my magic for real people as much as possible. I’d take a deck of cards to school and constantly be showing my friends what I’d recently learnt.
Eventually I got pretty good at performing in front of friends and family, so I started reaching out to do paid gigs. Although, I probably wasn’t good enough to get paid for the magic I knew at the time (🤷♂️). But, that’s not the point. The point was that by performing magic at different gigs and parties, I significantly improved my abilities in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I stuck to performing in front of the mirror.
My advice: step out of your comfort zone and fully immerse yourself in the thing you want to learn. It can be scary, but it’s 100% worth it.
🔗 4. Figure Out Your Weak Links
At Med School I had a few subjects that I was pretty weak in. Like neurology. If you’d asked me what Guillain-Barré syndrome is, I’d have absolutely no idea. I didn’t even know where it would fit into the subject of neurology.
Tip number 4 therefore is to figure out what our weak links are and then focus on drills to improve them.
When it came to studying efficiently for my exams, I knew that I should probably focus on those areas that I don’t know that well. To find out my area of weakness (and, therefore, what I should be studying), I’d constantly ask myself the following questions:
If the exam were tomorrow, what topic would I be the least happy about?
I found this really useful because whenever we’re learning or studying anything, it’s very tempting to just do the stuff that seems familiar to us. If we’re studying for an exam, it’s very tempting to open the book to page one even though we already know that stuff. If we’re learning the guitar, it’s tempting to just play the songs we already know.
But, learning only really happens when we’re trying to fix our weaknesses and there’s a decent level of difficulty. If something’s too easy, we’re not going to learn anything.
So, if we want to maximise our learning and learn faster, we really want to focus on those areas of weakness. In essence, we need to find the weak links and use drills to improve them as quickly as possible.
🧪 5. Test Yourself
In the world of studying, there’s this thing called ‘active recall’, which applies to learning anything. I have a video about this. And I have a pretty awesome Skillshare course about how to study for exams.
The idea behind active recall (or retrieval practice) is that we don’t learn by trying to put stuff into our brains. We actually learn, counterintuitively, by trying to take stuff out of our brains.
And if you’ve had that experience where you’ve read something in a textbook or on a website and you’ve completely forgotten everything a few days later, that’s just because you haven’t repeatedly tested yourself on that knowledge (try to recall all 9 of these tips in a few days time to practice!).
Unfortunately, this word ‘testing’ has many negative connotations. Because we think of testing as a school thing where we’re going to receive a grade and get judged. But, if we move towards thinking of testing as a way to reinforce knowledge and as a strategy for learning, everything becomes easier.
Without self-testing we’ll just forget everything we’re trying to learn.
That’s why when learning to play the guitar there’s only so many tutorials we can watch before we actually have to start putting it into practice. Or, when we’re studying for exams there’s no point reading the textbook and just summarising what’s in the textbook, we have to actually answer questions and do past-papers.
The point is, we have to test ourselves so our brain has a chance to work to retrieve the information. And that’s what really drives learning.
In the field of learning, there’s this concept called ‘desirable difficulty’. What this means is that we don’t want things we’re trying to learn to be too hard either.
For example, if I were trying to play tennis against Roger Federer, it would be way too hard. But, equally, if I were playing tennis against a 10-year-old who hasn’t played tennis before, it wouldn’t be much fun. I probably wouldn’t learn anything. The difficulty is at two different extremes. Neither of which are optimal for learning.
Ideally, I want to be playing tennis against someone who’s at my level or just a little bit better than me. That’s the arena in which I’ll learn best. And, that’s why having a coach is a good idea. A good coach can moderate their game to be at my level. As a result, I’m more likely to learn as the difficulty is ‘desirable’.
So, whatever it is we’re trying to learn, try to apply this concept and make things only slightly harder than our current level. After all, learning isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be a little uncomfortable. And if it’s hard, then we know we’re doing something right.
🙉 6. Get Regular Intense Feedback
Feedback is one of those words that can cause instant anxiety. Especially if we’re starting something and we’re not too sure of our own abilities. Any feedback, constructive or critical, can be a real blow to our ego.
So, I think at the start of any learning journey, we need an injection of positivity and enthusiasm, rather than necessarily critical feedback.
But, if we do decide to switch gears and start taking our learning super seriously, we ought to avoid reaching for praise and focus on the critical and constructive feedback so we can discover what we need to do in order to improve.
Again, this is why having a coach for stuff is actually really, really helpful. Ever since getting a personal trainer, everything in the gym has improved for me: my biceps have gotten bigger (💪) and I’m one-step closer to becoming a Gymshark athlete (🦈). All because I have someone who’s with me giving me feedback on the things that I should do differently.
Before I’d probably train once in a blue moon and occasionally ask a friend to check my form. It wasn’t a particularly tight feedback loop. But, now I recognise that it’s these tight feedback loops that encourage learning, whether it’s for exams or for anything else in life.
📚 7. Overlearn
When we’re learning something we actually want to try and learn it in more depth than we necessarily need to. And the idea here is to continuously be asking why a thing works the way that it does.
For example, most of being a doctor is just following guidelines and a precise set of rules for everything we do. For some doctors, they think that as long as they memorise these guidelines they’re doing their job well. But, for other doctors, they take a first principles approach and actually try to figure out why those guidelines are in place and what the evidence is for following a certain series of rules & regulations.
In my experience, it’s hard to say that camp two is objectively a better doctor than camp one. But, certainly the sort of doctor that I want to be is the doctor who understands the stuff from first principles and has made an effort to understand the rationale for doing stuff, rather than just memorising the guidelines.
The concept of ‘overlearning’ also applies to learning the guitar. It’s very easy for us to learn a song by following a tutorial. However, the problem with following a tutorial is we’re just training our fingers to go to a particular position. Whereas if we understand music theory, we don’t just know where to put our fingers, we also understand why we’re putting our fingers there.
So, although the end result is the same and we play the same thing, we have a deeper appreciation as to why things are the way they are. And it makes learning anything else in that particular sphere so much easier and more efficient.
📏 8. Use Spacing
In the world of studying, there’s something called spaced repetition.
Basically, there’s this concept called the ‘forgetting curve’ that was discovered by a guy called Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 1800’s. And the forgetting curve tells us that when we learn something – whether it’s a fact, a skill, or whatever – we’re going to forget it after a certain period of time. In other words, our memory decays over time.
So, in order to retain that information, we have to keep testing ourselves on the thing for our brain to absorb the information fully. It’s like with our muscles: if we don’t use our muscles, they’ll atrophy and get smaller (☹️). Equally, with our brains, if we learn a language when we’re five years old and then don’t use it for the next 10 years, we’re going to forget most of it.
Thankfully we can combat the forgetting curve by using this concept of spaced repetition. This applies to learning anything.
The idea is that we need to learn the same thing at spaced intervals if we want to encode it into our long-term memory. For example, if I were learning a song on the guitar, I’d practice it on day one, the following day, one month later, and six months later. And by spacing out the practice of this thing, eventually it’s going to become muscle memory. So I won’t need to practice it very much anymore to be able to play it whenever I want.
If you want to use spaced repetition in your own learning – especially fact-based learning – there are some great apps you can use. I personally enjoy Anki. It’s an incredible app that completely revolutionised my experience of med school. It does have a bit of a learning curve though, so if you want to give it a go you can check out my Skillshare class, which teaches you some basics along with some advanced tips on how to use the app.
👨🏫 9. Teach What You’re Learning
Finally, teach what you’re trying to learn.
We often tell ourselves that we can’t teach someone something because we’re not an expert at it. But, for me, that’s not true. In fact, C.S Lewis talks about this thing called ‘the curse of knowledge’, which is that when we’re trying to learn something, we often don’t learn best from experts. Instead, we learn best from people who are just one step in front of us along the same journey.
It’s better to learn from a guide than a guru.
And, certainly for me, I found in med school that my favourite revision sessions or lectures were given by medical students in the year above me rather than the world-class, Nobel prize winning professor. The problem was that the ‘gurus’ (the professors) were old and really far removed from the things I needed at the time, whereas the ‘guides’ (the medical students) knew what level I was at and what I needed to learn next.
This is all to say, don’t be afraid to teach what you’re learning.
When I started teaching medical students, and teaching guitar/piano, and teaching YouTube with my part-time YouTuber academy, I found that it really solidified my own knowledge and understanding of that thing. So, as a general policy, whenever I’m learning something I’ll try to document the process. And that helps me to learn it better because I know that I’m possibly going to have to teach this thing a few months/years from now.
Learning how to learn is an incredible skill and spending just a couple of hours to understand these concepts can 10X your learning.If you enjoyed this article, I’d highly recommend you check out the books Make it Stick and Ultralearning. Or, if you prefer to watch videos, then check out this content on the science of effective learning: