How to become a more effective learner - the best way to learn

follow this strategy and master difficult skills with extraordinary speed

Disclaimer: The principles, ideas & examples quoted and explained in this blog post are snippets from the book Ultralearning: Accelerate your Career, Master Hard Skills and Outsmart the Competition. It's an amazing book and we highly encourage you to buy it and read it yourself.

Have you ever found yourself in one of these situations?

  • I have tried to learn a new skill but I got tired in the process and became discouraged.
  • I would love to learn a new skill but I don't think that I have enough time for it.
  • I would love to know how to learn more efficiently.

If so, you've come to the right place. This post summarizes techniques and strategies that allow ordinary people to master difficult skills much faster than usual. So if you want to know, how you too can learn a new skill as effective as possible, keep reading.

In this post, we are talking about a learning method called ultralearning. Summarized, ultralearning is a new, aggressive, self-motivated approach to learning that enables you to efficiently master difficult tasks in no time. Ultralearning will bring unrealistic dreams of yours, such as learning a new language or acquiring a new skill such as computer programming within reach.

Meta-learning. What it is and why it's so important.

Every learning project should start with meta-learning. In fact, the author even recommends using about 10% of your whole project-time for meta-learning.

But what is meta-learning?

The Idea of meta-learning is, that you shouldn't start your learning process by just randomly absorbing pieces of information. Instead, take some time first to establish how information is structured in your chosen field

For example, if you're trying to learn a new skill, let's say the Chinese writing system, you shouldn't start by memorizing each character individually. Instead, try to understand first how the Mandarin writing-system is organized and learn these principles first.

How can I start with meta-learning?

First, make sure to create a so-called "meta-learning map" by breaking your topic down into the following three categories:

  1. concepts (what do I need to understand first)
  2. facts (what do I need to learn)
  3. procedures (what needs to be done)

Of course, not every project uses all of the three categories. On the other hand, others use a mixture of all three.

Next, using this map, find out which aspects of learning might prove challenging to you and write them down. If you're trying to learn a new language, for instance, you might find out that your meta-learning map has a lot of facts, which need to be learned/memorized. You can now brainstorm techniques to overcome these obstacles. In our example, you could use flashcards or even online repetition software.

Lastly, establish how you're going to learn by benchmarking. Find people who've acquired similar skills that you're trying to learn and copy their methods. Maybe read an online blog or watch some youtube videos of people who have already achieved what you're trying to do.

How can I focus on learning and stop being distracted?

We've all gone through this: You come home late after work and you've decided that you want to spend some time working on your project. You sit down at your desk and all of a sudden your phone flashes and you've received a new text; now your focus is gone.

Most of us have a hard time even getting focused in the first place!

Luckily, this is quite easy to overcome using this simple strategy the author described:

Trick yourself into getting started by setting a timer for 3 minutes. Promise yourself that you can stop working when the timer goes off. If you're lucky, at the end of these 3 minutes you'll have found enough momentum to continue working on your project.

You could also use the Pomodoro technique. This is how it works:

  1. Choose a task you'd like to get done
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes
  3. Work focused on the task until your timer rings. Make sure not to get distracted, put your phone on airplane mode and make sure to not get interrupted during your work.
  4. Allow yourself a short break, go for a walk, grab a cup of coffee, do something not work-related.
  5. Repeat the process. After 4 sessions allow yourself a longer break.

Try to connect theory and practice.

You might have experienced this already yourself: Have you learned a foreign language, such as French or Spanish, in high school? And if so, do you think you could hold a conversation in said country? Most people, including myself, don't.

This is because our educational system fails to connect theory and practice. Most of us spend hours & hours learning french vocabulary and grammar rules, which is far away from doing actual small talk in Paris.

If you have to learn something, try learning-by-doing, or also called project-based learning. The most effective way to learn a new language is to speak it. The most efficient way to learn how to become a photographer is by taking pictures.

Especially when talking about learning languages, the most effective approach would be immersive learning. immersive learning means, getting fully immersed in the target environment. Meaning, that if you were to learn french, immersive learning would be to spend a few months in Paris and not using your native language.

Stop forgetting what you've just learned and retrieve it when you need it.

Learning grammar rules might come handy when trying to learn a new language. But I can promise you that they won't do you any good if you're holding a normal conversation and can't recall them in the blink of an eye.

Many of us fail to retrieve information quickly and efficiently when we need it. In fact, many of us forget most of the things we learn a few weeks after not using them.

The author names two strategies to improve your retrieval rate.

  1. Review (repeating what you've just learned)
  2. Recall (trying to recall what you've just learned)

Most of us prefer and use the review strategy regularly. Unfortunately, it is far less effective than the recall strategy.

Here's an example of how you could use the recall strategy:

After a study session, sit down with a piece of blank paper. Now challenge yourself to write down everything you can remember from what you have learned as detailed as possible. Maybe pose questions that force you to recall an answer, such as "When started World War 1?", instead of "World War 1 started 1914".

Understand basics, before proceeding to more complex concepts.

This might seem obvious but there is more to it than you might think.

Whatever you're trying to study, it takes time, energy and a lot of patience to have a deep understanding of all fundamental concepts. Also: don't just accept facts. Try to find out yourself why this fact stands as it is. The author has a nice example of this:

Imagine trying to master chess. You could learn a few classic chess moves and most likely win a few games in the short term. To improve your chess game in the long run, you'll have to start at the basics and deeply understand the games fundamentals.

Most of us try to take shortcuts when opposed to a problem instead of actively solving it. Try not to give up immediately when things get challenging. If you're having a hard time forcing you to continue looking for a solution, implement a struggle-timer. For instance, force yourself to sit with every challenge for at least 15 minutes. If you can't find a simple solution in that time, stick to an easier one.

Last but not least, copy people in the beginning to develop your own style.

This tip is especially great for people who try to learn things such as music, painting or writing.

Try different styles, techniques, and approaches to problems and develop a unique style. Let's say you try to become a graphics designer. Instead of just designing out of nowhere, start by trying to copy some other designers' work 1:1 as close as you can. This will pose challenges you'll have to overcome which prevents you to take a shortcut instead.

It might also be a great inspiration for you, like many artists before you have used this technique themselves. You might also try hybridizing your techniques or skills, even if they're seemingly disparate elements.