This guide will provide you with the most valuable techniques and tricks for learning anything as quickly as possible.
The information here is ideal for you if you have any of the following goals:
This guide is full of details and descriptions for each of these tips and tricks. It’s not intended to be consumed in one sitting. Rather it is meant to be used as a reference source to meet you wherever you are on this journey to mastery.
Some of the most common questions I get asked revolve around the topic of learning: how can I study more efficiently? What can I do to learn faster, remember longer, pick up skills more easily? How can I get more benefits in less time? And so it’s time to put it all down in one place.
*The majority of quick tips can be found in Section IV. The Mind, but to learn as quickly as possible requires that we create alignment between all the pertinent factors from the Environment through the Mind*
So buckle up and get ready for the ride. If you apply these techniques, your learning universe may never be the same. With the Core Four as our guide, we’re going to comb through the most important, and often overlooked, factors that lead to our success in accelerated learning.
Learning takes place in the mind. But to learn as quickly as possible, we need to get all the obstacles out of our way. Doing so will help us drop into Flow States. So these study hacks start with the most external factors and work their way to the center of our minds.
This guide is organized around The Core Four. If you want to get straight to mind hacks, then skip on down to The Mind Section. But I recommend clearing the runway before digging into the nitty gritty. This guide is organized as follows:
I. Environment & Resources
II. Social Community
These four domains make up all that we do and alignment between them allows for flow. Flow is a state of optimum experience. Such experiences are often the most enjoyable times of our lives. Furthermore, flow is essential to peak performance. Regardless of how creative, intelligent, and hardworking any one of us may be, or not be, we will be more creative, more intelligent, more focused, and more efficient in a state of flow.
That’s why it’s important to consider this process holistically and remove all impediments in our way. Without further adieu, let’s get learning. We’ll start with the outer rings and work our way in.
Some things here will sound obvious, yet I often see people condemning themselves to slave away for minimal gains by making big mistakes right out of the gate. Optimal learning requires a good environment. And a good environment for our learning will depend on the task at hand.
Overview of Environmental Factors:
First and foremost, you need the space to practice your craft. The amount and type of space you need depends on what you’re doing. Playing basketball will require lots of space and one with a hoop. Writing or meditating, by contrast, doesn’t require much room at all.
You need to match your space to your learning preferences and goals. Some people focus very well in a crowded place with a lot of background noise. They say they find it nice to be in public where, if they get restless, they can look up and just people watch for a few minutes. This allows them to come back to the work clear again.
Many others need privacy and quiet. What qualities do you need for accelerated learning?
We simply feel different when in a high quality environment compared to a low quality space. And quality will depend on many factors: Comfort, available resources, inspiration, and more.
Auras may not be real in the sense that we can measure the “energy” put off by a certain place, but psychologically speaking, places matter.
In Buenos Aires, there are cafes that mark out the very table where the prolific writer Jorge Luis Borges would come, take breakfast, and often write. While sitting at that table, one can almost feel the energy from his shadow. Whether this is real or not does not matter. What matters is that different places can leave us feeling like “here is a place where I get work done.”
Finding a place that elicits that feeling is a big factor in determining what “quality” means for you.
For whatever you’re doing and whatever your style of learning is, you have to remove the distractions. Every distraction is an impediment to flow. Personally, I could never work at the Borges table mentioned above because I need peace and quite to study or write. People distract me from what I’m doing and cut heavily into my writing word counts. John Green, however, claims that Starbucks was central to his writing of The Fault in Our Stars.
So to each his own. Just recognize and be honest with yourself about what constitutes a distraction free area. The better you can focus, the better the study. And environment will play a big role on this factor depending on where you are and your style of learning.
Some people cannot work in their home. They have too many distractions, access to internet, tv, games, books, toys, family and more. Maybe your internet is off but your spouse or parents are watching tv in the living room and now that’s a distraction. If this sounds like you, you might need to get out of the house. Find a quiet space outside of the home (like a library).
One consideration for public spaces is that things can feel rushed. If you’re at a coffee shop, you may not be able to occupy a table for 3 or more hours to work on your manifesto or the calculus homework to end all problems. So just as you start to reach your flow, you might feel rushed. Just notice how you feel wherever you study and make sure it helps your accelerated learning.
Public or private, you need to find an area where you can work for as long as you need to. And once you find your zone, you need to rinse that opportunity for all its worth. If your environment is forcing you out of flow, this is no bueno.
One of the biggest benefits from having a regular practice area is that, after a while, the place will condition you to enter the practicing state of mind simply by arriving. Ask anyone who has studied martial arts, yoga, or music intensively just how they feel as they enter the space.
Walking into a familiar work zone can feel like stepping into a new state of mind. For example, going back to my old band room, where I studied music for 7 years through grade school, feels like returning home. Not much has changed in the passing decade, and I can’t enter the room without an undeniable urge to put that old sax together and work on a new piece.
If you only have one place where you can work, you run the risk of becoming too dependent on that space. For example: if you can only work at home, but now you’re entertaining the in-laws for the holidays, their presence will likely interfere with your ability to get things done. Now what are you going to do?
Even if people don’t come in and occupy your territory, just the regular presence of others might disrupt your regular flow. So you need an alternative environment where you can retreat when you’re in a pinch. A local library might be ideal, or perhaps this is where a coffee shop comes into play.
Either way, if you’re too dependent on any single thing, you’re setting yourself up for disaster when conditions inevitably change. Agility is more than a feather in your cap, it’s an essential tool for ongoing success.
After space, resources are the next most important factor. If you don’t have the tools for the job, you just make the work harder for yourself. Subpar tools = diminished progress. So do what you have to do in order to get the right tools for the job.
Research of high productivity at work has shown that one of the biggest factors for predicting employee productivity was an answer of 5 on the following question: On scale of 1-5, do you have the tools you need to do your job well?
This is obvious but many people aren’t willing to invest in the right tools. If a good tool saves you tens, hundreds, or even thousands of hours… just get the damn thing already.
There is a trap here, so be wary. Many people love to buy gear. They get all the expensive gadgets, practice for a week, and then never pick it up again. Don’t buy things unnecessarily. The whole world is ready to manipulate your opinion into convincing you to buy, buy, BUY!
Be honest with yourself. But if you’re really committed to doing the work for years to come, make sure you have the tools to make your work flow.
And if you get a new toy, make sure you invest time and energy into that activity so that you reap the benefits of your expenses.
If there is a special tool that will really help you do what you love to do, this is not the place in your life to cut costs. However, low tech gear often works just as well as high tech, and sometimes better. Many people trick themselves into getting new items like expensive smart phones because “it’s a tool”. And then they use their new gadget for little more than social media and crushing candy.
This is why low tech is often superior to high tech in many cases.
For example, having good pens can motivate you to write more. For me, yes, I do most of my writing on a computer (one that I really enjoy). But I outline on pads of paper, take many handwritten notes, and then keep those notes around me as I refine hard drafts. I love the feeling of filling up a notebook with ideas and outlines. It’s personally validating for me to create hard artifacts that are evidence of my thinking process.
So handle the basics. Nothing stops flow more quickly than a splotchy pen that skips and bleeds. Have notebooks around you, pens to do the job, or whatever materials you need for your respective craft.
Again, there is so much garbage out there. Most of the world’s technology is designed to distract us. But there is also a beautiful synergy that happens when we can use tech resources to enhance our flow.
This dichotomy between trash entertainment and limitless access to resources has lead to the biggest disparity in human history. Never has the gap been bigger between every human’s potential and what most people are actually doing.
We have never had the opportunity to learn so much so easily, yet neither have we ever spent so much time pissing our energy away on stupid games, mindless cat pictures, social media, and VINE compilation videos.
Here are a few aps and resources to help leverage your productivity:
So when it comes to technology, be wise with it’s use. Stick to the basics when possible, and look for ways for technology to enhance, not hinder, your accelerated learning.
Seek out environments that are central to your area of learning or craft.
Some places encourage work and growth more than others. In these special places, many of the resources we need might be provided for us. Thus, we can’t overlook the significance of finding hotbeds where we can go to practice and learn from others.
We’ve all been there, for better or worse. Formal education works better for some more than others. Either way, we can’t ignore that these institutions can be a source of knowledge, resources, and inspiration.
If you need a certification to practice your craft, or if it’s simply difficult to get access to the materials outside of a university setting, you may want to register and pursue this course of action.
Even if you don’t sign up formally, university campuses are often a hotbed of free lectures, information, and they are places where dedicated students and teachers gather. That means they offer us resources for our own learning and growth as well.
Many businesses offer teaching, coaching, or learning services that we can use to our advantage. Maybe even your own place of employment will offer you resources to pay for advanced qualifications or ongoing professional development.
Businesses leaders may also be a good place to start if you’re looking to find a mentor or would like to ask someone their professional opinion about where you might go from here.
For most all activities, there are multitudes of people around the world who are learning or practicing the same things. Seek out clubs that meet and discuss your topic, or join leagues that compete in your activity or sport.
Of course the internet allows us to connect with people from all over the world. PrecisionPrinciple.com is just such a community and right now I’m lucky enough to be working with people ranging from the US, England, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, India, and Tibet.
Take advantage of the resources you find online, join communities where people meet, and you’ll be entering an online environment that helps you do what you need to do to survive.
With this in mind, it’s time to build your own workspace that fits your needs and your activity. You might just need a quiet corner of your house for a desk, you might construct an entire office with library, or maybe even set up a home gym or art studio in the garage. Here are some tips for creating your own space.
It’s important that whatever you need to do your work, you can reach it from your work station. Every time you have to get up, you likely interrupting your flow. So make sure the key ingredients are at arms length. Any tools, notebooks, writing utensils, paints, rulers, whatever it is. Create a space where it’s all there. Including any necessary…
Books, articles, outlines, study guides, syllabus, working goals, or an outline of the finished product of your vision can all be helpful tools to keep you moving. The point is to have tools and totems that can help you break through your psychological inertia.
Having these around you at arms length can help you get some more ideas flowing at just those moments when you start to slow down.
Keep things around your work station that inspire you. Einstein kept portraits of Isaac Newton, Micheal Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell in his work station while he was working on his general theory of relativity. They were his predecessors whose work was seminal to his own discovery.
Who or what inspires you? Symbolic images? Examples of excellent work? A gift from a mentor or the image of an idol who captures the essence of what you’re going for? A gift from a loved one or friend that shows their emotional support? A “lucky” item that helps you clear your mind and get to work?
As I write this now, I have a clear view of Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity, Stages of Meditation by the Dalai Lama, and a wood carved mask that my fiance made during 40+ hours of work while on a trip in Bali. These help me push through my creative blocks, stay focused, and remind me that everything I do is a labor of love.
Figure out what symbols and totems inspire you to keep going and you’ll keep up the pace even when things get rough
Now we move 1 big step inward regarding the Core Four.
Inside the environment, we find people. People play a huge role in everything we do, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. If we are easily distracted, it may not be helpful to have other people around. But other people are also a rich source of knowledge, experience, and inspiration.
Some people encourage us towards greatness; others tempt us into distraction at every turn. Helpful or harmful to our progress, 1 thing is certain -> Social community plays a major role in everything we do.
It must be noted that in The Little Book of Talent Daniel Coyle explains why it’s essential to learn how to practice alone:
There he cited a study comparing world class musicians to amateurs which revealed the main difference between them – the world class musicians spent on average 5x as much time practicing alone compared to the amateurs.
He added a quote from Anson Doris (North Carolina women’s soccer coach):
“The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, to the point of exhaustion when no one else is looking.”
Nevertheless, there are distinct relationships that enhance our ability to learn. And some activities simply require others in the form of teammates, coworkers, or competitors.
We can roughly consider these different relationships on four levels:
Let’s consider these different groups individually.
There ain’t much new under the sun, unless of course we are in a cutting edge technological field, AND we’re at the forefront of that field. So if that sounds like you, congratulations, and go ahead and skip to the section on competitors. But if you’re like most of us, then there are people up ahead who can help direct our efforts towards accelerated learning.
Coaches, teachers, mentors, or old pros who have simply been in the game for a long time are all serious resources. Furthermore, people who have spent years in the struggle usually enjoy passing on the nuggets of hard won wisdom they’ve gleaned over the years.
Imagine entering a mountainous forest that you’ve never seen before. I’m talking Lord of the Rings style with any assortment of terrible monsters, poisonous traps, and wrong turns along the way. If we enter that forest by ourselves, yes, we might be able to explore the territory over time and figure out how to get where we want to go.
However, if we know someone who has already been there, they can show us around. Of course they can’t impart all the details of their knowledge in a single passing. But what they can do is point out the major contours and landmarks. In a fraction of the time, they can advise us on where to start, what to avoid, and the various traps and advantages along the way.
Even a brief introduction by someone who already knows can take years off the learning curve.
**If an old pro says, “Trust me kid, start here,” then you best take that advice, because that’s literally the voice of experience talking.
A better idea still is to make solid contact with someone who’s ahead of you, and who agrees to advise and challenge you over the long-run. They can provide both an immediate orientation to the territory of your practice, and they can take it a step further by helping you stay on course along the way.
The advantages of having coaches and teachers is that there tend to be few people who directly challenge us. How often do other people call us out, and make a specific request that we push ourselves, our learning, our creativity even farther? Who do we have to keep us accountable for the goals we commit to? This is the beauty of a coaching or teaching relationship.
Yes, you need to do the majority of practice on your own. The most important relationship, as we’ll see, is the one you have with yourself. But if you can touch base with a teacher or coach, let him/her know how it’s going, and then get feedback about how you’re doing, now you’re in the terrain of accelerated learning.
Next there are people who are right along side of us in this rat race. They might be our peers, teammates, or competitors, but all of these people can help us transform our practice and take our skills to the next level.
Sometimes we simply can’t practice on our own. In tennis, we need someone to hit the ball back. With math or science, it helps to have others with whom we can commiserate and compare notes. Even in the individual world of writing, we need people on our side who will read our work and be honest with where it needs help. People who don’t understand the struggle have a much harder time giving helpful advice.
So peers help us elevate our game. They are other points of reference to help us see how we’re doing. How can we know if we’re on track without others to compare to? How long should it take me to learn integral calculus? What’s a good time target for writing 2000 words in a day? Peers are an often overlooked resource for accelerated learning, but they can help us make quick gains.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of teammates and practice partners is that they can help keep us motivated to get back to work, even when we don’t feel like it. It’s not always easy to push our limits and advance our skills. Sometimes we need a partner who is there to say, “Are you ready to hit the gym?” or “Let’s write another song. I’ve got this chord progression I want to work on.”
The power of self-motivation is critical, but it’s good to have people there who support you and who are on the journey with us. At times we can ride their motivational curtails, and other times they can ride ours.
There is some real magic in competition. Nothing gets the juices flowing like looking across the way and seeing someone who wants to best you at your own game. Batman would be nothing without the Joker. And nothing pushes athletes and artists to the best of their game like a competitor who wants to take the title for best in show.
Even for those of us who aren’t looking to top the field but just want to be our personal best, we can all be inspired to step it up a notch when we see someone else do a damn good job. We can look to these people and say, “If he can do it than I can too.” Competition can help us tap into a deep reservoir of motivation and even innovation.
In any endeavor the game evolves over time. Someone invents a winning strategy, and then someone comes up with a better one. Then the other team adapts and overcomes them again, or someone new enters the scene and brings a completely novel idea altogether.
As the say, necessity is the mother of invention, and competition can be a well-spring of necessity.
Of course there comes a time when we ourselves look at how far we’ve come and realize that we have a nice wealth of knowledge ourselves. Even if we aren’t pros or coaches, there are some people who have yet to come as far as us and who would love to be where we are. Few things yield more benefits than teaching others who are on a similar path.
1) It’s simply good for the world to pass on solid information. If someone wants to learn, and you can help them, then you contribute to our collective well-being. But the benefits of teaching come back to help us as well.
2) If you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it well enough” – Einstein.
Sharing knowledge forces us think hard about what it is that we really know. We have to comb through the topic, and this inevitably helps us find our numerous blindspots. The problem with awareness is that we simply don’t imagine things that are outside of our awareness. So explaining things to another can quickly lead us to one of those shady areas. And this allows us to refine our own knowledge.
Everyone has different experiences and thus a unique perspective. It doesn’t take a master to ask a question that stumps us. Often times the most overlooked points are some of the simplest. When a novice asks, “how does that work?” or “why does that happen?” then we often find ourselves scratching our heads.
Even when we do know the answer, explaining it makes us step outside of our own head. It requires perspective taking so that we can imagine the activity from the other person’s point of view.
In the practice of Zen it’s often encouraged to develop a “beginner’s mind” – a point of view that is not jaded to those recurring things that we practice day in and day out. It’s about appreciating the practice and our activity in the same way we did when we first began, experiencing it with all of our senses, not glossing over any points.
Working with students or less developed practitioners gives us a new look at a familiar task, one that we may have grown accustomed to. Thus, our experience teaching can open our mind to new possibilities, deepen our understanding of things we already know, and point out the areas where we still have more to learn.
We all need emotional support: friends, family, fans of the trade. All of these people may not know a single thing about the activity we enjoy so much. But just having someone there to say, “good job” or “you know I love you even when things don’t go your way” makes life a lot easier.
Be mindful of those people who are on your side no matter how you do. Those are the ones who really care about you. Just knowing they exist makes the work a lot easier.
In Your Best Brain by The Great Courses, Professor Medina explains how having a rich social network has positive benefits for your memory throughout your lifetime.
There are many reasons for this. Social interaction can help reduce stress which preserves the brain’s health. Social ties also increase the amount of information that we deal with on a regular basis. Friendships and understanding the relationships among our various networks gives us a lot to keep track of.
But mostly it’s important to note that the research here does not support that it’s the total number of social ties that matter. It’s the richness of those ties.
The body is a temple, or at least so it’s said. Either way, we must take care of this vehicle because it’s the only place we will ever live. It’s our second greatest gift, following our brain and mind of course. So treating it with the respect of a temple, caring for it, and keeping it in tip-top shape lays the groundwork for accelerated learning
The body’s condition is the foundation of our lives. Whether that foundation is solid or flimsy makes a huge difference.
If we are serious about creating lives of mastery, of true thriving (which is of course the underlying reason we’re here discussing accelerated learning in the first place), then we must make special efforts to condition our bodies for peak performance.
Here we’ll consider both the negative and positive impacts the body can have on our learning and performance, even in intellectual or sedentary endeavors. Because the body is a source of pain, pleasure, inspiration, and distraction. When it is in our way, it’s an uphill battle; when we enjoy the benefits of energy and physical power, it feels like there’s not much that can stop us.
When our bodies have a physical problems, learning or just getting anything done, is impossible. Maslow places physiological needs on the base of his classic hierarchy for self-actualization. That’s because when things aren’t working right here, health consumes all of our attention and resources.
Sickness undermines our ability to learn. It can actually damage our brain if we push ourselves when we are ill. So staying healthy plays a major role in our long term growth. People who get sick more often simply have less time to learn and grow. So it’s important to keep ourselves healthy and firing on all cylinders if we aspire to do great things with our lives.
In the next section we’ll discuss some tips and tricks for staying healthy. But for now simply consider that living a healthy lifestyle (with adequate exercise, a solid diet, and lite on the major vices) is the best prevention for sickness.
Being injured is another obstacle that can simply undermine our development. Most of us don’t play professional sports where mobility is literally the name of the game. But sore hips, bad lower backs, injured knees, and the like can chop us down at the core. And this makes a big difference over time.
If you have a bad knee or back, then you will be reluctant to exercise or even do anything that requires movement. This sparks a negative feedback loop where you are encouraged to be sedentary. This strengthens over time and before long it may be difficult to move at all.
For anyone who has a significant injury that holds them back, I implore you to seek routes to rehabilitation. Physical therapy, yoga, basic strength training exercises, do whatever it takes to work through these difficulties and to get your body back on your side. An injured body undermines your success.
Even if you prefer activities that don’t require much movement, it’s difficult to concentrate if part of your body is in constant pain. We can, of course, practice focusing to look past the pain. And strength of will plays a role, but it’s just the case that it’s easier to focus and learn when we don’t have to contend with injuries. So do what you can to stay or get healthy.
Here, I’m speaking from experience having worked through a terrible condition of my lower back over the last 5 years through diligent training and attention. Thus I’ve seen first hand the transformation in my mind, body, and emotional spirit from when I could not engage in physical training to the point now where I’m a certified Ashtanga yoga instructor.
Learning takes effort which requires energy. So managing energy levels is key to ongoing success with accelerated learning.
Everyone has different sleep requirements, and our natural energy levels vary depending how much sleep we get on a daily basis. Some people can run on less than 6 hours of sleep and still wake feeling fresh. Others require 9-10 hours. It’s important to know where you fall on this spectrum, be honest with yourself though, and then make sure to get enough sleep to account for your needs.
There is a delicate balance here. Recognize the difference between how much sleep you need to wake feeling fresh and when you are just laying in bed for a couple extra hours because it’s warm and feels good.
But overall, you need your Z’s. If you are tired, you won’t be able to focus. Without focus, you can’t learn. Simple enough. So Here are two types of tired to consider: fatigue and generally low energy levels.
Fatigue is the feeling of being worn out. Think of performing a long day’s work followed by vigorous exercise. When we arrive home after such a day we feel fatigued, exhausted even. When our energy is low like this, we don’t have the resources for accelerated learning. That’s because the mind is like a muscle and gets tired.
Focus requires self-control, and we have a limited supply of that. Psychologists call this decision fatigue or (counter intuitively) ego-depletion. It should be called higher self-depletion in my opinion because when we experience “ego-depletion” these are the times that we tend to give-in to our instinctual urges (those desires that we tend to associate with the idea of ego as it’s generally used).
The point is this: Both work and exercise require will-power. Doing either one can deplete our energy reserves. So a long day’s work, exercise, or study all draw on similar resources. When we feel fatigued, learning is just more difficult. We all know this intuitively; it feels like not wanting to study when we’re tired.
However, going for a walk or a job after a long study session can sometimes get our blood pumping and the cognitive juices flowing as well.
So we really need to become mindful of fatigue so we can notice how it’s affecting our performance in the field of learning. Also we can take this into consideration for those times that we have an especially important task to master. Make sure you have the requisite energy for your upcoming study/practice session.
Energy levels depend on many factors. Some of them depend on our natural biology.
But many others have to do with lifestyle which we can control. Diet, exercise, and activity levels on a general basis affect how much energy we have on any given day. Furthermore attitude and a willingness to overcome a lack of energy can help us push past certain barriers, elevating our overall energy levels. But we’ll cover that in section IV on Mind.
If you experience generally low energy levels, this must be addressed. It’s impossible to go anywhere without the fuel to take you there. An energy abundance allows us to reinvest into our work, and this fosters a positive feedback loop. Feedback loops drive the long-term changes we seek so getting them going makes a big difference. (More on Feedback Loops under Mind)
Getting regular exercise makes all the difference. It doesn’t have to be anything especially rigorous either, though there is a dose/benefit correlation. More intense exercise, especially strength training, leads to an increase in lean body mass. Our basal metabolic rate is based on the percentage of lean mass we have in our body compared to fat, and muscle is the most dynamic lean mass to gain.
If we can put on some muscle, we burn more calories on a daily basis, and we tend to feel the difference in our basal energy levels as well. If you suffer from generally low energy levels, look to a cleaner diet plan (see more below) and a simple exercise routine to help get the wheels turning.
Modern luxuries are a double edge sword. Convenience frees up time for other endeavors including spending more time learning things we care about. However, many of the easier food options lead to more problems than they solve.
Everyone needs to find a diet that suits their needs. People who tell you that vegetarianism or gluten free is the only option are probably biased and stuck in their own perspective. These options are indeed ideal for many people but we all have to actively investigate and experiment with what works best for us.
That being said, here are some things that are almost certainly not helping you achieve your learning or performance goals:
This may be a cliche but it’s true: you are what you eat. Your brain is made of fat. So you need good fats like those found in fish oils and nuts (more on this below). But too much of anything is bad news. And some things are consistently unhealthy.
Processed foods tend to be low in nutrition, high in chemicals, and made primarily of white flour and simple carbohydrates.
We don’t have time to get into the intricacies of nutrition here, but if your energy levels aren’t where you would like them to be, do some experiments and just see how you feel. Exchanging more colorful vegetables for snacks, reducing the above list of items to moderate levels, while increasing lots of vegetables, lean proteins, and high quality fats is a clear cut way to increase the efficiency of your body in the way it processes food.
The main argument against eating too many simple carbohydrates is a chemical one. Simple carbohydrates can be broken down into sugars and absorbed into the blood stream very quickly.
So eating things like pasta, white rice, pastries, or sweets can cause a blood sugar spike. That is, the amount of sugar in our blood stream goes up quickly. Our body responds to this spike in blood sugar by releasing loads of insulin into the blood stream.
The body uses insulin to take these sugars (used for energy) to wherever they need to go. But if we have more sugar than we need, then the insulin stores that energy as fat.
The relevance of all this in terms of accelerated learning is the following:
When the body produces large quantities of insulin, it makes our energy crash. This is called an “insulin dump”. It’s that feeling of terrible sluggishness after a sugar high.
When it comes to learning, these energy peaks from sugar and troughs from insulin wreak havoc on our ability to produce high quality work throughout the day.
On the short term, these ups and downs undermine our overall ability to focus, study, practice, and produce work.
Over the long run they can cause us to store extra fats and reduce our long-term energy levels. Generally speaking, this is not conducive to accelerated learning. In the next section you’ll find diet tips that are more amenable to our aims here.
Now let’s consider how to take a solid baseline of health to the next level. Doing so will result in an energy abundance. This energy can be reinvested to increase focus, intensity, and duration of study/practice. You can transform your energy into problem solving, creativity, and accelerated learning so let’s take a look.
Perhaps most importantly, people who exercise simply have more energy. Energy is the golden resource in terms of learning or accomplishing anything at all. Without it, there is nothing we can do. We can leverage our energy even more by working during our cognitive peak, but we’ll discuss that more below under it’s own section.
With a regular exercise routine, we simply have more energy to reinvest into any other part of our lives. So whether we have a business venture, interesting hobby, or the desire to take our learning to the next level, exercise and energy are fundamental.
With more strenuous exercise, it takes discipline to stay with it. Activities such as strength training can make our muscles burn. We have a tendency to turn away from that pain and retreat to a mental “pain cave”. If we go against our natural instincts and actually turn towards the burn, a mindfulness based practice, then we can actually expand our abilities to focus and endure.
The burn of intense exercise does not have to be tortuous or a source of suffering. Pain and feelings of discomfort might be there, but suffering only happens when we constrict our mind around the pain or to try to escape from it. When we see these feelings for what they are, the path that takes us to where we want to be, then we can actually come to enjoy it. Schwarzenegger famously said that the experience of lifting weights was as pleasurable to him as a sexual orgasm, though that wasn’t his precise phrasing.
This ability to turn towards uncomfortable sensations is a gem for accelerated learning. Such concentration expands our mental abilities as well as bodily abilities. The struggle of staying put, that is focusing on learning a difficult subject such as a foreign language, computer programing, or developmental psychology, is much easier when we notice the tendency for our minds to turn away from difficulty.
Exercise builds our mental muscles as well, leaving us with the strength of mind to make the hard choices and stick to a practice, especially when things feel rough.
If a bad diet can undermine our energy levels, then a good diet can be the fuel to the fire we need. Generally speaking, our energy mirrors our digestive process. Foods that churn in our gut for long periods of time tend to make us feel sluggish and tired. Sluggishness is not our friend when we aim to learn quickly and efficiently.
Light foods that the body can process easily, such as vegetables, lean proteins, and high quality fats, help us feel lighter and more agile. This goes for our thinking as well.
I’m not here to tell anyone what they should eat or not. The point here is to explore options that are most likely to assist us in the task of accelerated learning. Generally speaking, healthy, natural, fresh food is more conducive to learning than processed, heavy, low quality foods. So take this section with a grain of salt ;).
The most sound dietary advice is to eat as many colorful vegetables as you can squeeze into your diet. The less you cook them, the more they will retain their nutritional integrity. Many vitamins and nutrients break down in the process of cooking them.
Here are some good general tips from TGC: Nutrition Made Clear
The benefits of these foods in terms of learning is that they keep you feeling fresh, light, healthy, and agile. They are high quality foods that your body can process easily. When you make these a staple of your diet, your energy levels will be generally higher and the task of learning will be easier.
Though we need to be wary of too much sugar (more on insulin dumps above), glucose is the fuel that our brain needs to thrive.
To concentrate requires energy. And glucose is what our brain uses for fuel. The problem is that the brain doesn’t store glucose so efficiently. In fact, the brain can only store about 15-20 minutes worth of glucose. After that, the brain needs to be refueled by our blood sugar. (Check out Thinking Fast and Slow for more on this topic).
This doesn’t mean you should go out and cram the chocolate during a study session. However, Daniel Kahneman does explain how snacking on fruit at the rate of about half a banana every 30 minutes during a study session can keep the brain supplied with enough glucose to kick those study sessions into overdrive.
Having a small snack to supply glucose can keep us rolling, but eating too much sugar (or other simple carbohydrates) can lead to a blood sugar spike. This is met by an insulin surge to drop our blood sugar levels. Then we end it with an insulin dump, where we feel sluggish. So the blood sugar balance can be precarious. However, a little fruit can go a long way with intense study sessions.
Lastly, here’s a life hack that’s good for maintaining brain health. Your brain is most made up of fats. You want high quality lipids (fats) as the building blocks for your brain. The better materials your brain is made if, the more smoothly it operates.
Fish oil is very good for your brain because it contains DHA and EPA. The research is not conclusive as to how much of each you need. But a good baseline is to start with at least 500 mg of each daily. Some estimates range as high as 1200 mg of each daily.
There doesn’t seem to be a danger in consuming too much of this, but as usual with supplements you should be sure to source them from a high quality provider. If you have any specific dietary restrictions or allergies, please consult your doctor before starting any plan of supplementation.
Walnuts also have high quality fats that are good for your brain. There is research to suggest that eating around 6 walnuts/day can help with memory. Careful here as walnuts are high in fat and so should be consumed in moderation for optimal holistic benefits.
When it comes to learning, the brain is the bodily organ that runs them all. So, as we’ll see, good brain health directly affects accelerated learning. Here are some physical and mental practices that are scientifically supported for keeping your brain healthy and firing on all cylinders.
For more in depth information on this section check out these titles by The Great Courses:
1) Your Best Brain
2) The Science of Mindfulness
3) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
4) Mind Body Medicine
First, the bad news.
One of the best predictors of a deteriorating brain throughout a lifetime is a sedentary lifestyle. That’s a big deal.
This one factor, whether we are active or not, can give an accurate prediction of how well we will perform on a wide array of cognitive and emotional tasks as we age.
The main point is this: not doing regular exercise is paramount to condemning ourselves to rapid deterioration as we age.
On the bright side, check out how an active lifestyle can preserve a healthy brain which ultimately preserves our ability for accelerated learning well into the golden years.
Now for the good news.
Our activity levels are squarely within our own control. We have the power to influence our exercise routine which means we have the power to maintain our brains in a healthy state that’s optimal for learning.
In Your Best Brain, professor Medina exclaimed how regular exercise was shown to “improve cognitive performance in virtually every way you can measure cognitive performance.”
That is a huge claim for anyone to make, especially a professor who conservatively reserves his conclusions to those things that can only be heavily supported by peer-reviewed scientific research.
Just a few of the benefits pertain to memory, focus, fluid intelligence, emotional regulation and this is just the beginning.
Especially relevant in terms of accelerated learning is memory. Aerobic exercise has ample evidence to support claims that physical activity increases our ability to remember.
Professor Medina went on to explain how regular exercise is especially important throughout the aging process. But even if we have not been active up to this point, it is not too late to start. The benefits form exercise will pick up from whenever you start. And there is no age limit. Whatever your age, exercise will help brain health throughout the entire lifetime.
Here’s what it can do for you.
Comparing groups of aging people who exercise to those who lived sedentary lifestyles has shown that regular exercise can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 60%. Wow…
Exercise has also been shown to reduce the rates of depression among those at risk. And we don’t have to look far or wide to see how movement and mood are intertwined.
The theoretical basis for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is that there is are relationships between what we think, what do, and how we feel.
Physical exercise can break us out of a negative mood spiral because it directs our attention on external goals. It gets us moving and the physical movement affects both what we’re thinking and how we’re feeling. This isn’t a cue-all for pathologies such as depression but it’s a power ally.
Moreover, we can use exercise anytime to inspire a change of mood, and thus put ourselves in a better place to accelerate our learning.
Daniel Goleman, Harvard psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence has discussed the phenomena of emotional hijacking (sometimes known as amygdala hijacking). It’s the process of becoming emotionally overwhelmed. It’s the end of rational thought and in those moments it’s our emotional body that is running the show.
You might think of it as emotional autopilot. It’s these times where we are especially likely to behave in ways we will soon come to regret.
It feels like being swept away by depression, rage, sorrow, excitement, apathy, or simply “losing control”.
Well, exercise helps us protect against emotional hijacking by improving our ability to regulate our emotions. Ultimately this means a healthy brain helps keep our higher thinking self, executive processing, in charge of this ship. Thus, with a healthy brain we are better able to keep our studies on track and our mind focused at the task at hand.
It doesn’t take much to start reaping the benefits from a regular exercise routine. In particular, 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each has been shown to be especially powerful. Exercise here is not even defined as anything especially rigorous. 2 and half hours of walking or gardening might be enough to do the trick.
Any activity that increases the heart rate by 10%, and then is maintained for a prolonged period of time will increase our brain health. This to work primarily through the cardiovascular system which is responsible for carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
This increase in blood flow helps keep the brain free of impediments and firing on all cylinders.
Point and case: if you’re not doing exercise on a regular basis yet, it’s time to start. This is especially true if you are dedicated to taking your learning to the next level.
The benefits of exercise are incredible. But the benefits of meditation and mindfulness are almost miraculous. The evidence for the transformative effects of a regular meditation practice is truly remarkable. And when we come combine a regular meditation habit with daily exercise, it’s like taking our total mind/body health to a level that you simply can’t fathom until you try it out for yourself.
Here, The Science of Mindfulness is just a gold mine of practices that have scientific support for their benefits.
If you don’t want to read through the nitty gritty of this section, here’s the main point:
*Meditation improves brain health, well-being, and (in terms of accelerated learning) enhances our abilities to remember, learn, think on our feet, and exhibit self-control.
In other words, meditation helps us develop countless skills of the mind and it literally grows parts of our physical brain. Meditation is so good for you that it’s practically a crime against yourself not to do it.
***If you haven’t already, I highly recommend beginning a daily meditation habit starting today.***
Resources on how to meditate
Now let’s consider some of the nearly miraculous findings of a daily meditation habit and how they relate to accelerated learning.
In as little as 8 weeks, regular mindfulness practice has been shown to measurably increase the gray matter of our brains.
Most importantly for fast learning, these practices particularly seem to affect the regions of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, learning, focus, attention, awareness, and self-control. These are all central abilities for peak performance, creativity, problem solving, and accelerated learning
Specific physiological changes include the following:
At the ends of every strand of DNA there is a little cap. This cap is called a telomere and it’s often compared to the small piece of plastic at the end of a shoe lace that keeps it from unraveling.
A regular meditation practice has been shown to maintain the length of these telomeres throughout the lifespan and even lengthen them. This is significant because aging seems to deteriorate these telomeres. And consequently it is believed that maintaining these telomeres is responsible for staving off many of the negative effects of aging.
The list below explains the significance to us (as learners) of maintaining the size of our left hippocampus. But just note that this is only one region of the brain, in particular, that is affected by a regular meditation practice:
As we age, many of our mental faculties tend to decline. A regular meditation practice has been shown to reduce the negative effects of aging in the following ways:
Overall, a regular meditation practice can improve almost all aspects of our mental faculties. It helps maintain our brain health which ultimately means it increases our ability to do the things we need to do. Focus, attention, solving novel problems, and taking perspectives are central to the process of accelerated learning.
And this is really just the beginning of the benefits of such a practice. Beyond that which is listed above, the habit of mindfulness can widen our awareness and ground ourselves in the present moment on an ongoing basis.
Ultimately this means we can direct our lives through our moment to moment actions. And it enhances our subjective well-being which is really what we’re all looking for on this path to mastery.
When it comes to learning, the mind takes center stage. Few people are concerned with the brain’s chemical changes or the physics of memory; what we really want is to be able to recall an idea when we need it.
Consequently we focused on environment, community, and body so that we can clear the way for the landing of knowledge and information. Such preparation is a powerful step indeed for the learning process. And once we remove the main obstacles, we have a straight shot to the goal.
The Mind is where the most powerful and diverse study tips and techniques exist for improving our learning. So we’ll start with an ideal orientation, get to some specific tricks, and take a tour of a multitude of ways that we can upload and use new information, skills, and techniques at the speed of thought.
…. Ladies and Gentlemen… it gives me great pleasure to introduce….
The way we think affects what we do. Optimism, focus, attention, and work ethic all come into play here.
Deciding to sail out towards to the horizon or stay safely on the shores will depend on how you look at things. Do you persevere when times get rough? Do you give up before the trials even begin? Do you look for answers or problems? And is the potential for gold at the end of this journey the only reason you’re setting sail in the first place?
Here we’ll discuss some advantageous ways of orienting ourselves in the process of accelerated learning.
For accelerated learning, we need to be goal oriented yet process driven. If we are purely goal oriented, then we set ourselves up for obsession and/or failure. However, without a goal, there’s no reason to take this learning voyage in the first place. We need to know where we want to go before we have a chance of getting there. So identifying a learning goal gets on the journey underway.
By identifying the objective of our learning, we target only the most relevant ideas. If we have an outcome in mind as we begin, we also have a mental model to which we can apply the ideas. As we study or practice we can reflect, “how would I use this in a game, or in my work, or in the field?”
Reflecting on these questions as we study/practice helps things stick in our mind (see Make It Stick down below for more on this).
However, if we focus purely on the results then we set ourselves up for failure. Big goals, those that most motivate our pursuits, tend to be far off. So if we focus exclusively on targets too far down the road, then we can burn ourselves out. Because big goals take time.
If attaining the goal is all that matters then we’re unhappy most of the time. Being process driven means learning to love the journey.
The feeling of a workout session, of creating, or learning something new can be inherently enjoyable. Only through the repetition of practice can we access flow states (more on that later).
So learn to love the process. The result will be a more enjoyable journey where you experience success with each and every practice session. This accelerates your learning, stokes your desire to keep going, and results in a positive feedback loop empowering your success.
The essence of being process driven is presence of mind. Learning (and everything else we’ll ever do) only happens in the ‘now’.
Being process driven mean being in the moment while we work and practice. As our mind wanders, we must come back to what we are doing. Don’t fret about the long-term goal, or how far you’ve come so far.
Maximum benefits in this practices session are only available if you are engaged with what’s happening right now. Come back to your body, root your focus in the task at hand, and watch the rate of your learning go through the roof.
In the above section (The Body) we discussed how the skills we develop through a formal meditation habit are central to focus, learning, and peak performance. We learned how meditation can actually grow and change the physical nature of our brain.
In terms of mind, meditation is an indispensable tool for self-awareness because we are the biggest obstacles to our own accelerated learning. Nothing can ever hinder our progress more than that voice in our own head and a heavy feeling of resistance.
Our minds tend to speak up just at those critical moments when we tell ourselves we are “ready to work”. When we sit down to read a book, what part of us keeps chatting away or fantasizing about those new gadgets and exciting new experiences we could have elsewhere? Why do we spend so much time thinking about what we’ll do after practice, or tomorrow, or this weekend? Why is it so hard to stay focused on what we’re doing?
The answers to these questions are complex and have to do with our past conditioning, underlying desires, and personal preferences.
Key Takeaway: Meditation helps us come to grips with that voice in our head (ego, instinct, the reptile brain). Emotional drives distract us whenever we make the decision to put in the work. When we sit to meditate, we have an ideal opportunity to refine our relationship to that voice.
We have a similar opportunity every time we start an internal debate regarding whether we should sit down and do the work on this next project (learning, creative, or otherwise).
A meditation habit gives us the tools to notice when that voice in our heads leads us astray. Thus it gives us the power to stay the course with focus and efficiency.
How we think and what we believe affects everything we do. When it comes to accelerated learning, there are several ways in which this plays out. Just know for now that you can learn anything if you apply your mind in the right way. Here are some attitudes and believes that are indispensable for owning your learning process.
This was first described by Stanford psychology Carol Dweck. Check out this infographic to get a fuller picture, but the basics are simple:
People who believe that intelligence is fluid (that it is something they can actively influence) actually learn more. The point is that we all have the power to learn. The knowledge that we have the capacity to influence our learning gives us both confidence that our time will not be wasted and the assurance that we can do it.
Become a life-long learner. Say it in your mind or out loud, “I am a life-long learner. I am committed to doing whatever it takes to learn those things that matter most to me.”
Tell yourself that you can learn anything and that the learning process is never finished. This is true, and internalizing this attitude is one of the strongest factors you have in your favor for accelerated learning.
People who believe they can achieve things are the ones who do. Our beliefs about ourselves influence everything we do, and we seek out ways to confirm our beliefs. If you know there is a way, yet you fail on the first attempt, then you will think to yourself, “I just missed my target, but now I have more experience that will help me on my next attempt.” Then you will keep going.
If you are pessimistic, and you fail at a first attempt then you might think, “I just failed and this proves that I can’t do it.”
Thomas Edison supposedly corrected a worker of his while on the long path to the invention of the light-bulb. The worker said something like, “we have failed 1000 times already, can’t we finally give up?” And Edison supposedly responded, “We haven’t failed 1000 times but rather have successfully found 1000 options that don’t work. We will find one.” And they did
True or not, that story points to the power of optimism. As Margaret Mead once said, “never doubt that a small committed group of citizens can change the world, for intact they are the only ones who ever have.” This attitude stands both for changing the world or changing our personal potential.
If optimism is the framing that there is a solution, “can do” confidence is the internal fire that drives us to find that solution. It’s the will to lay it all out there, face down our fears, and go for it.
Some people let self-doubt undermine their success. So I’m here to tell you that yes, you can do it. You can learn what you need to learn in order to achieve the results you desire. It may not be easy, but the answers are out there.
Can-do confidence might mean taking a leap of faith (an idea that’s unwisely looked down upon in a world that loves to see itself as hyper rational). But no one knows what’s going to happen in the future. We are people of the 21st century. We have greater access to resources, knowledge, and facilities than at any previous time in history.
If someone has achieved the outcomes you desire, then they are available to you. You can do it. So go find the solution to any problem that might plague you.
We all get tired. Any activity can become tedious after repeating it again and again. Even with activities that once fueled our inspiration require tedious and repetitive practice from time to time.
So mastery in any endeavor means getting over this hump that often stops most people in their tracks.
Those who really take things to the next level find a comfort and enjoyment in the repetition of old skills. In his book Mastery, George Leonard describes the feeling he would get from arriving at his dojo and returning to his aikido practice. At times he would feel strong resistance and not want to go, but the experience of putting his feet back on the matt would feel good and put him in the zone once he arrived.
Similarly, even Bruce Lee said “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced 1 kick 10,000 times.” That’s because he was a master and recognized the truth of learning. Those who persevere in the face of their own resistance are the one who overcome even the most daunting challenges.
Here’s a practical tip for how to persevere in the face of resistance.
Famed University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari encourages his players to “love the grind.” The ups and downs of practice can wear on all of us. If we are serious about a topic, there will come a time when the honeymoon period fades. Our pure passion won’t always inspire us to hop out of bed and hit the gym, get our fingers on the keys, pick up the paint brush, or run over our scales.
When this time comes, the only option is to learn to love the grind. Loving the grind is what transforms mere learning into an existential, even spiritual, experience. Here we come face to face with our inner demons, and we have a choice. Either face what Steven Pressfield describes as the the dragon of resistance or give up.
But for anyone interested in accelerated learning, giving up isn’t an option. Greatness isn’t about avoiding challenge but rather confronting it head on. Therefore we have to turn towards that dragon and learn to enjoy that battle. That’s loving the grind.
Is your mind a ground of fertile soil, ready to nurture the ideas you plant there? Or is your mind a hard barren land resistant to work and hostile to any new additions?
For peak performance in any endeavor, we need to cultivate the ideal state of mind for the task at hand. This applies for accelerated learning as much as anything else. If you’re practicing a high energy physical activity, you might need to take it up a notch. But even with high octane sports like a American Football, we can easily go to far.
When it comes to accelerated learning, putting ourselves in the following states is likely to lead to success.
No tool beats a clear and focused mind when it comes to performing or learning. Taoist philosophy calls this a “mind like water.” It’s ready, agile, and responds precisely to the situation as needed.
In this state of mind, we are ready. We have removed the mental obstacles that get between us and the material. This is the mental feeling of power and control. Here are techniques for cultivating this state of mind regularly.
Before hitting the gym, going for a run, practicing your golf swing, or cracking open those books, taking just three deep breaths with focused attention to set the intention of this next work session. It brings our energy down a notch and begins to focus our awareness on what’s immediately relevant.
Yet again, meditation is an intimate friend to our accelerated learning. By formally setting time aside in the morning to clear our minds and focus, we prime ourselves to reenter that state when we need it.
Here’s another practice to take focus and clarity to the next level. In a yoga practice we combine physical strength with mental focus for a prolonged period of time. This practice increases our baseline ability to focus when then time is right.
A morning routine including a short meditation followed by 20 minutes of light yoga can be an ideal start to the day. Such a habit can provide a baseline of clarity and focus for when we need it.
There’s a sweet spot for learning. Too relaxed we become loose and sloppy; too intense and we become high strung and rigid. The optimum state of learning will vary from person to person but somewhere in the middle is where accelerated learning lives. Thus a sense of relaxed intensity implies an agile mind with energy to spare.
You can’t force high performance. Even with intense activities, we have to remember to breathe, to be in the moment, but remember that relaxed doesn’t mean soft.
The ideal learning state is relaxed yet “on our toes.” Baseball offers a good example in athletics. Peak performance requires the defensive players to be in position, but no one can move until the ball is hit. At that moment, the players must be ready to spring into action, and the direction could equally be one way or the other. So they are intensely focused, but relaxed enough to respond as needed.
Even with more intellectual activities such as writing, painting, or studying, this flexibility of mind ensures we are ready and open to learning. It’s intense because it takes focused work and attention. But it’s relaxed because we we’re flexible and ready to respond.
Here are a few distractions that can take us out of that learning state of mind at a moments notice. The first has to do with the effects of emotionally laden situations, and the second is a habit that conditions us to be scattered throughout our day.
If we have just come out of an emotional situation like a fight with family, friends, or a partner, then we get emotionally hijacked. This can also happen if we feel intense pressure from other worldly situations (impending bills, overload at work, externally imposed time constraints, etc.).
Daniel Goleman describes this phenomena in his seminal book Emotional Intelligence.
In a nutshell, the amygdala kicks in and directs our focus with a wave of emotion that we can’t easily overcome. Thus our own minds undermine our ability to learn or perform effectively.
Accelerated learning is out of the questions because even regular focus is nearly impossible. Our attention is at the mercy of our emotional selves.
So broadly speaking it’s essential to conduct our lives in such a way that we have limited social conflict (a common catalyst for emotional hijacking). Focus can be difficult enough without the extra load of regular confrontation and it’s destabilizing influence.
On a more mellow note, even if we’re not in the midst of an emotional storm, being generally scattered also trips us up. Social media, stumbling through sensational blogposts or videos all encourage distraction.
Facebook gives us access to 1000’s of pieces of new, and potentially exciting, information all at once. If something doesn’t catch our eye in about .01 seconds, we’re off to the next thing. Flowing through our news feeds conditions our mind to maintain the attention span of a mosquito. Actually that’s not fair; most mosquitos are more persistent once they set their sights.
So avoid social media, email, or other activities that encourage constant clicking and stumbling through a plethora of information. This gets us scattered makes us unable, or unwilling, to focus for prolonged time.
The benefits of a clear and focused mind is also why meditation can be so helpful as a practice. It gives us tools to zone in before we get into a study or practice session. We’ll discuss some other techniques and tools to help this process along down below.
No Email, Social Media, or Web surfing before 4 pm – For maximum productivity, self-impose an internet, social media, and email restriction. High performers, creatives, and entrepreneurs alike, including Tim Ferris, recommend checking email only during specific windows. Ferris recommends limiting yourself to only an hour or so per week. But even a simple rule like “no email or social media before 4 pm” can help us keep a clear and focused state of mind throughout the day.
The renowned psychologist Csikszentmihalyi called Flow a state of optimal experience. In this state we lose our sense of self and time. Hours can pass without us noticing because we are engrossed in the activity. It’s in these states that we learn most efficiently, solve problems with grace and efficiency, and simply enjoy our lives.
In his book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi explains 9 factors that are central to a flow experience:
Some of these factors we can control while others are more a result from full engagement. So let’s distinguish which of these are directly in our control and which are byproducts of immersion into the flow state. Here’s how we can harness the research of flow to perform at our best and get into a state of accelerated learning.
Here we’ll start with those things that are within our influence. We set our sites to accomplish these tasks and the rest is more likely to fall in line.
Setting clear goals is well within our control. We can do this in a number of ways but a powerful technique is to visualize your ideal outcome. Why are you studying or practicing in the first place? Are you working towards proficiency in a skill or are you working towards passing a test or performing an action?
If you can’t imagine and describe the intended outcome of your learning then you are likely to meander during your practice. When you know what you’re going for, you can focus your attention and target your efforts.
Imagine walking on a balance beam. If your balance is spot on then you remain on top almost effortlessly. But if you lean too far one way or another, you fall. This is immediate feedback. Some activities, especially sports and arts, have immediate feedback built right into the situation. You hear when you play the wrong note. You can see when the ball doesn’t go in the hoop. Then you can adjust.
The quicker we can get feedback, the more effectively we can enter into states of optimal performance for accelerated learning.
When studying more intellectually based skills, immediate feedback is not inherent in the situation so you need to take it upon yourself to seek honest feedback however you can find it. This might require seeking out the opinion of others who also are in the field. Or you might check your answers against someone else’s online.
Either way, it’s essential to figure out if what you’re working on is actually working or not. If it’s not, then you might be wasting precious time and energy. The sooner you get results back, the sooner you can correct course.
The learning theorist Vygotsky coined the term “Zone of proximal development” for those tasks that are just beyond our current abilities yet within reach. Tasks in this area are what push us to take one more step forward.
If we take on challenges that are too difficult, we tend to get frustrated (and possibly quit). If things are too easy, then we tend to lose interest. So match the challenges of your learning to your current skill set.
Tip: Find a ladder of skills or challenges that encourage you to work towards increasingly more difficult goals as you get better and better. Some great examples of this are the body weight strength training program Convict Conditioning (here’s an overview but I recommend getting the book for better understanding), or the math learning program designed by Kahn Academy
To perform at our best we have to be focused. The challenge of the 21st century is that there are endless distractions that encourage us be anything but focused. Nevertheless, the ability to concentrate on a single task with intensity is something that can be developed.
Start by simply staying focused and becoming aware of those moments that you become distracted during your practice session. Don’t allow your attention to drift far from the task. Notice when an urge arises to check Facebook, or go to the bathroom, or step to the other room for whatever insignificant reason. Ask yourself if this impulse to break is valid or if your mind is seeking distraction.
To work directly on the skill of concentration, here are some meditative techniques that have been practiced for millennia. They were designed specifically with the intention of increasing our ability to focus.
Another trick is to join The Game. It can help you bring your attention back to the present, which is the only place accelerated learning can happen.
When we set up the first half of the Flow equation correctly, and we put ourselves into an ideal environment to do the work, then these following traits have the potential to emerge. This is where the whole of our practice or performance becomes more than the sum of the parts.
When we have a goal, we’re focused, and the challenge matches our skills, we can start to lose ourselves in the activity. We’re not thinking about what we’re doing; we’re simply doing it. Our awareness and actions are not separate. We’re in the present. Things are happening.
It’s a delicate balance. And the moment you think about what’s going on, you knock yourself out of that state. It’s not about thinking. It’s about just doing it.
And as we enter this state, we have….
Because failure or success are things that happen in the future. When we enter into flow, all that exists is what we’re doing. We just aren’t concerned with anything that happened earlier today or what will happen after we practice. We’re not thinking about our results and….
We actually lose our sense of self. Or at least the thought of “I, me, mine” simply isn’t there. All that exists are the sensations, motions, or possibly the ideas that we’re studying. It’s the feeling of becoming absorbed in a book, movie, game, work, or art.
There is no “I” and we drop back into a moving state of meditation that’s not so different from the Buddhist notions of the witnessing self.
In such a state, time has no bearing. Hours can go by in what seems like minutes.
Or time might seem to slow down. Some of the greatest hitters in baseball’s history talk about being able to see the seams of the ball rotating as if in slow motion when they are in their zone. This way they can identify what type of pitch is coming at them.
Thus they are able to excel to a level beyond the ordinary. And ultimately flow is about…
Lastly, flow is described as a state of optimal experience because it simply feels good to be at our best.
An Autotelic experience is one that is enjoyable for it’s own sake. It’s something that we do just because we like it. So to achieve accelerated learning on the highest level we have to learn to love the work. Enjoy the feeling of learning, the experience of expanding your awareness or refining you skills.
Get this one right and you’ll unlock a lifetime of accelerated learning.
Speaking of psychological research that can help accelerate our learning, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel gathered up a small treasure chest of invaluable information in their book Make it Stick. Here are 6 techniques that have significant empirical support for increasing our ability to remember.
If you just want 2 practices that use apply most of these principles, skip the next 6 points.
If you want to be able to remember something, you have to practice remembering it.
That is, you have to practice retrieving the idea from wherever you brain stores it. Doing so strengthens the neural pathways to that memory which in turn makes it easier to recall in the future.
The easiest way to practice this is to ask yourself: What did I just learn?
Ask yourself this question during study sessions, after study sessions, before bed, and the next day. If you can’t remember what you learned while you’re reading it, you won’t remember it tomorrow or any other time that you need the info.
This practice shows us what we’ve already learned, and it increases our ability to use that information later.
It’s more effective to practice a little each day than for extended sessions once in a while.
In a nutshell: 20 minutes of study 6 days per week is better than 3 hours of study every Wednesday.
When we come back to a topic, this forces us to practice retrieval; we have to remember where we left off. So we have more chances to practice remembering.
Also much of learning consolidates in our brains while we sleep. Daily practice gives our brain more opportunities to internalize the info and we remember it better.
While practicing a single activity, we learn faster if we mix up the practice styles. This goes against our intuition and it can be uncomfortable but here’s how it works.
Imagine you are learning to shoot baskets. If you practice by taking 10 shots from 1 spot, then 10 more from another, it will feel like you are improving quickly. This is because the quick feedback makes it easier to remember how to adjust the shot in the short term.
However, this style of practice is not very effective for remembering how to make the shots tomorrow.
By contrast, if you take the same 20 shots, but vary the practice between the two spaces (take one shot from here, then one from there) then you are more likely to perform the shots better tomorrow from both spots.
Another example is if you have a chemistry test and there are 3 problem types, you will do better by studying one type, then the next type, then the next type (1 at at time and changing after each problem).
***This feels counter-intuitive but it works***
People find this uncomfortable because they want to rep a single style until they get ahold of that question, then they want to move on to the next. But this natural style of studying is less effective in terms of actually putting our learning to use.
Mixing up your practice feels like more work, and it is. That’s precisely why it’s more effective for learning. Learning is a lot like exercise: if what you’re doing doesn’t feel like work, then it’s probably not working.
When we have to study multiple topics, it’s better to divide our time between the subjects than to focus on only 1.
For example if you have two different skills to learn for your business, say video editing and writing, you may feel inclined to focus on one today and the other tomorrow. But it’s better to split your time between the two skills each day.
That is, if you have one hour to study each day and two skills to learn, start with one for 30 minutes and then go to the other for the remaining 30 minutes (or better yet spend 25 minutes on each and take 5 minutes between to reflect on “what did I just learn?”).
It will take you longer to finish each book individually, but you will remember much more from each book once you complete them.
One reason for this has to do with spacing and retrieval. Another reason is because we tend to remember the first and last thing we hear in a string of information. By switching topics, we increase the starts and stops by 2x. Thus we can more easily remember the things we learned from each book. And we learn much more than if we would have focused on just one of those books for twice as long.
This is the practice of taking what we learn and applying the ideas to new situations. If I’m learning about psychology, I might think, “how can I use this idea in achieving my goals?”
If you’re practicing a skill for a sport or in music, you might think “when and where is a good place to use this skill during a performance or game?”
If you have a clear goal for doing your work, then this is much easier because you have a reason for learning the topic in the first place. You can think of your ideal outcome and find ways to apply your developing skills or knowledge to that situation.
Doing so will help solidify the ideas in your mind. And it will root them into your mind more firmly.
This is like elaboration but looking backwards instead of forwards. It means taking the ideas and trying to see how they have applied to your experiences in the past. “When did I see this idea in real life before?” Or “how did I use this in the past in such a way that worked or didn’t work?”
Finding real examples of how you found success from these ideas, or how you could have used them to your advantage will again help you lock them into your brain.
Here are two practices that you can use which incorporate multiple techniques to Make it Stick all at once.
One of the most effective strategies for combining these techniques is to do a “learning recall”. A learning recall is where you sit down with a writing device and try to remember everything you can from your previous learning session. You could do it with a word processor or pen and paper.
Writing is thinking.
So when you write those ideas down, you have to remember them. Via writing you can clearly see what topics stuck in your mind, making it obvious what you remember and what you don’t (retrieval).
You can write about how you would apply them (elaboration).
Or how they have worked for you in the past (reflection).
If you do this daily (spacing) then you will leverage your results for truly accelerated learning.
And writing these ideas down is a way of mixing up your practice habits (Variation).
Learning recalls don’t have to be restricted to linear, list building. Mind maps are a great tool for unbounding our thinking. Here you can expand your thoughts into pictures, or think of entire scenarios where they could apply.
If you are up for a challenge or are more creative you can incorporate the ideas into a story, a picture, song, or drawing. This takes more abstract thinking and is more challenging but will result in a memory that is hard to forget because you naturally incorporate what 7 time World Memory Champion, Dominique O’Brien, calls the the 3 greatest memory techniques of all time:
Association – Connecting new ideas with pre established knowledge.
Location – Relating lists of data to physical locations. This is the basis for creating a “memory palace”.
Imagination – Creating vivid images in your mind that are unique and unusual, thus memorable
Mostly, if your review session doesn’t feel like work, it’s probably not working. Stretching our limits is not an easy activity. So if what you’re doing feels to easy, then it’s probably not that effective either.
This study tip involves the use of mind maps and reflective writing to exercise your thinking, creativity, and memory.
Everything that we are doing here as we consider accelerated learning is an exercise in metacognition.
Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking. Its the ability to reflect on and direct our own thought processes. It’s about self-awareness, understanding our preferences, how we function best, how our mood influences our performance, and even how we can influence that mood so we can perform at our best more frequently.
Instead of just going about the learning process, we are thinking about how the mind works, how the conditions and people around us affect our ability to learn, and then we’re aiming to use those natural forces to our advantage.
For specific tips, consider the above section Making it Stick. Here we specifically examined how the mind works in terms of memory. Then we actively use these specific techniques, many of which require us to take action that doesn’t necessarily come natural to us:
I.e. it’s not natural to stop take a moment after studying and think “What did I just learn?” and then answer that question. But it is an effective learning technique. This is metacognition in use.
Let’s explore the general process of learning so that we can help it along.
There is a sequence with which we take in anything that can be learned.
In this first stage we don’t know even know what we don’t know. When people say ignorance is bliss, this is the stage of awareness they are talking about.
Consider the topic of accelerated learning. At some point, we simply don’t even know these ideas exist. They are outside of our awareness and they are completely unknown to us. But then we might stumble across an article like this and then we move to stage 2.
Once we become aware that an idea or tools exist, then the topic is consciously unknown to us. We know it’s there, and we know we don’t know how it works just yet. In terms of accelerated learning, it’s like recognizing that these ideas exist, but not yet having a firm grasp on how we can use them to our advantage. The “how” is still unknown to us.
When Socrates was recognized by the oracles of Delfi as the wisest man in the world, it was because he realized more than anyone else how much he still didn’t know.
But for many specific tasks he took it upon himself to develop proficiency. Thus he moved to stage 3.
Once we know something exists, we can start to work on it. With mindful practice we can use these techniques for accelerated learning even though they don’t come naturally. Thus when we consciously think about it, we know how to use these ideas.
The caveat in stage 3 is that it still takes overt work, extra energy, to put these ideas to use. We still have to think about it so we haven’t integrated the skills
But eventually they just start to come naturally. That is stage 4.
This forth stage is about intuition and mastery. Here we have the skills, have internalized them, and they come naturally to us. Consider the way you use language. It’s just a tool in your toolbox. Your rarely have to think hard to speak except for maybe those “tip of the tongue” moments when you can’t remember a word. Or if you’re a writer who is consciously refining your linguistic abilities.
Let’s come back to accelerated learning. In practice stage four looks like stopping a study session midway through and thinking “What did I just read? Do I remember any of that?” It’s about just noticing that your mind is wandering, and then getting back on track.
This is fluency and mastery in the task. We learn easily and can drop into flow states with ease and grace. This is what we strive for whenever we begin any path of learning.
(This is yet another reason why meditation is so helpful. A regular practice helps us become master’s of our own psychology or at least a lot more familiar with the feelings of distraction. Meditation is a way to develop meta-cognitive awareness which is a key study tip for accelerated learning)
Nietzche once said, “he who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.” In other words, we can get through just about anything if we know why we’re doing it. Purpose is a powerful motivator.
This is true for sports, arts, academic skills, work, or personal enjoyment. Failing to understand “why” can undermine our motivation for accelerated learning more quickly than anything.
If you do know why you are learning something then you can draw on that to overcome those dark times when the practice gets tough.
You don’t have to be working on your life’s purpose to find motivation for learning.
Even if you have to learn something you don’t like for work or school, so be it. You can take your learning to the next level by upping the stakes via a challenge to yourself.
Use this difficult learning situation to test your limits. Give yourself a secondary purpose of pushing your discipline and will-power to the next level. Ask yourself, “Is this task the task that brings me to the limits of my potential? Is learning this seriously beyond what I am capable of as a human being?”
If you have any sort of competitive drive within yourself, the likely answer is a resounding, “no.” And you’ll kick your focus up a notch to prove to yourself that this is just a small trial in the grand scheme of things.
Seeing the big picture means starting with “why” (as explained above). But it goes beyond that as well. Recognize how what you’re learning fits into the field you are studying. Then you can even step back again and notice how that field fits into the larger whole of society, the biosphere, or even the cosmos.
For example, imagine your studying psychology and how people are biased to favor groups they are part of. You might tie that into psychology as a whole by noting: people tend to value themselves and thus consider things that they are associated with (like groups) as being better. On the larger scale, this helps explain why there are so many conflicts between different groups around the world. Most people care more about themselves, thus more about their own group, and ultimately this is a factor in all the major conflicts throughout history including war, racism, genocide, and nationalism
When you make connections between new details and the bigger picture, you root your new learning into a vast network of knowledge that you already have. As a result you connect these new points to anchors in your mind. The more connections you can make, the better you will remember and see how this new idea applies throughout the rest of you life.
Thus, connecting ideas to your larger conception of the cosmos, and maybe even seeing how this fits inside your personal worldview, is a way of making learning last.
One way to make connections between new and old learning is through analogies. An analogy is where you describe how one thing works in terms of a totally different thing. In this way, you can take quite difficult concepts and convey the essence of the idea more simply. Ask yourself “how is this like something else”.
A popular example is explaining Einstein’s theory of space time and gravity:
The planets aren’t really moving in ellipses around the sun. They are moving straight, but space itself is curved by super massive objects like planets or the sun. Imagine a bowling ball sitting on a trampoline. The trampoline is space, and the weight of the ball is mass. So mass causes the space to bend and curve. The planets move straight through space but that space looks bent to us because we can’t see the warped effects of mass on spacetime.
Of course it’s way easier to study hard when a subject naturally appeals to your interests and curiosity. It’s fun and exciting to learn about things that interest us (see the above section on Flow – point 9 – Autotelic activities).
The many virtuosos throughout history may not have had any innate talents beyond an unusual passion for playing with their craft. People who love things and are curious about them will simply do them more. Mastery is primarily a result of consistent effort, learning the foundations, getting to the limits of the field, and then experimenting with what might lie ahead.
If you follow your strengths and curiosity you are like to accelerate your learning to another level.
Howard Garner changed how most of us conceptualize learning with the popular explosion of his theory of multiple intelligences. Simply put, not all learning is the same. Just because someone is “smart” with math doesn’t mean she will be great at music or social skills.
We can all expand our learning in any one of these areas, but most of us have natural abilities for some more than others. Identify which of these intelligences resonates with your natural abilities and you are likely to pick up these skills with ease and grace:
6) Interpersonal – Self Knowledge/Awareness
7) Intrapersonal – Social Skills
8) Naturalistic – Recognizing animals, plants, and skills pertaining to farming, hunting, and nature
If you can identify which intelligences come more natural for you, and then you use the accelerated learning techniques described here to take your abilities even further, then you have your best chance to become world-class in that activity and really contribute to the world.
It would be impossible to apply all the study tips suggested in this post at once. And some of them might simply not work for you. So you need to figure out your own learning preferences. What time of day is your cognitive peak? Do you work better alone or with people? What topics do you prefer? What materials do you need to do your best work? What specific things do you need to get motivated?
Basically, you have to recognize how you work. Don’t try to force this, just reflect and notice what does and doesn’t work for you. To help with this, apply the study tip of tracking your results (found below).
Humans have a natural bias to see things as all or nothing, black and white, left or right. Decisions where we can’t help but see only two options are sometimes called “A Sucker’s Choice.”
That’s why we need to be both honest and compassionate with ourselves throughout the learning process. Our human tendency is to go all out, sacrificing one for the other: either being too soft or too hard on ourselves.
On the one side we tend to protect ourselves from criticisms of our work. When people tell us we’ve done something wrong we often get defensive and allow good advice to roll off us like water on a raincoat. It doesn’t sink in. We’re not being honest with ourselves.
On the other hand, there are people who are hyper sensitive to criticism and take any advice as a wrecking ball that absolutely crushes them. They take things too seriously; they are not self-compassionate.
But there is a sweet spot in the middle where we are both honest with ourselves about what we do well and where we need to improve. We don’t shield ourselves from good constructive criticism; we are self-honest. But we are also fair to ourselves and realize that we have both positive qualities and things to work on; we are self-compassionate.
Metacognizers actually seek out criticism and constructive feedback. They look for ways they can improve while acknowledging how far they have come. This is healthy confidence with the open-minded honesty that allows them to keep growing and learning.
In this section, we’ll discuss some baseline abilities central to our potential as humans. These are not techniques that we simply apply to help us quicken our studies. Rather these are abilities that are useful for getting results in any area of our lives.
These are tools of the mind. By analogy think of a carpenter. The more carpentry skills he has, the wider variety of items the carpenter can make. But also the quality of all the items he makes will be better all of the time. Similarly, these tools of thought give us the power to solve problems, overcome challenges, and achieve goals that would otherwise seem impossible. And they will help us perform our regular tasks, including accelerated learning, to the highest level possible.
Nothing has changed the history of humanity and the planet itself more than our ability to critically, and skeptically, interrogate those things that seem obvious to us.
Critical thinking means asking questions. It means questioning our own thoughts, beliefs, ways of doing things, and reasons for behaving the way we do. It takes courage to engage in honest critical thinking because doing so can reveal the ways we make mistakes. Then it takes strength of character to actually enact those changes.
Critical thinking is about gathering data, analyzing that data, brainstorming possible courses of action, and then applying a plan to the situation. It is an essential skill that’s based in the process of digging deeper.
And it is a process. More than a system of beliefs itself, it’s a system for investigating and learning as much as possible. It’s about not being afraid of being wrong and asking the difficult questions.
Processes trump intelligence. Evolution is a process that, over billions of years, has crafted bodies and minds so subtle and dynamic as us. So we too must develop processes that continue to accelerate our growth and personal evolution.
What are your strongest beliefs? How do you evaluate “truth”? What are the most important values to be held? How can you tell if someone is a good or bad person? Where do your thinking patterns, values, and beliefs come from?
How similar or different are your beliefs from those of other people around you? How do other people, your culture, and your country influence what you think?
We all have hidden assumptions and beliefs that we’ve never thought about directly. By bringing them to the forefront of our attention we give ourselves the power to create the ideal life we want for ourselves.
This is important because we tend to seek out ideas that confirm those things we already think are true…
The bravest people are not afraid to consider the ways they might be wrong. Those braver still can admit their errors when there is enough support against their original position.
So if you hold a strong belief, look for evidence that contradicts your reasoning. Are there any facts of data that contradict what I think? Why do others who disagree with me believe what they believe? Can I understand why they think their position is correct?
The Confirmation Bias is a well documented phenomena of psychology. In a nutshell it’s the tendency for us to look for ideas that confirm our beliefs, or the beliefs that we want to have, while discounting data that contradicts our position.
In other words, we believe all the good things about the stuff we like, and we “know” that all the negative things must be biased attacks by others who couldn’t possibly know what they’re talking about. (Sarcasm intentional)
***Here is a resource that I highly recommend for every person on the planet: The Great Courses – Your Deceptive Mind
Creativity is a power that at times seems divine. Some ideas feel as though they could have only come from The Muses because they seem to transcend our human experience.
In fact, the ability to create something from nothing is one one of the only qualities that we attribute to “The Gods”. So by developing our ability to transform ideas in our minds into artifacts in reality, we are aspiring to our highest potential.
Furthermore, creativity is the basis for directing our own lives so that we can become who we want to be. This is the essence of self-authoring. It’s the process of mindfully forging ourselves into the people we want to be.
Whether we think about it or not, we create ourselves in every action we take. Whether we choose to hit the gym or watch a marathon of television, we condition who we are and who we will become with every passing action.
So creativity and learning are intimately connected. To create new things requires applying new information and skills that we’ve learned. In a sense, the creative act is the only true test of our knowledge. Can we use what we’ve learned or not? What else do we need to know in order to create our vision?
Perhaps most importantly, if we don’t actively create ourselves and our vision of what we hope for the world, then we must necessarily work to help others create their visions. This isn’t a problem if we agree with that other person’s vision and find it a noble cause worth building. But flexing this creative muscle is the necessary tool for us to create great lives for ourselves.
Here’s a free ebook for 12 ideas to take your Creativity and Productivity to the next level. For now, here are 6 ideas to get you rolling.
To have a good idea you first need to have many ideas. The process of having many ideas is called divergent thinking. It’s about coming up with as many ideas as possible, silly, random, pointed, or otherwise. During this session we leave the “inner editor” (that critical voice in our heads) out of the room. The motto here is “there are no bad ideas in a brainstorm.” Think a lot, flex that creative muscle, then move to step 2: convergent thinking.
Once we get the ideas out, we can then whittle them down to the best ones. In other words, we “converge” on the best ideas. And if we come up with many possibilities then there is a much greater chance that 1 or 2 of them will stand out among the rest.
After finding the best 1 or 2 ideas we can think different ways to make them even better. Thus we take the best ideas and use that as a starting point for even further refinement. We actively shape the best idea so that it fits our precise needs.
Next is the hardest step for many people. We have the best ideas, now all that’s left is to actually follow through. Figure out what “done” should look like. What is your ideal outcome? And what would it look like if your new idea was working perfectly?
Then take the steps to make that happen. We’ll discuss this more in the section below “Getting Things Done.”
Like so many tools of thought, creativity is like a mental muscle. The more you use it, the more you will see creative solutions everywhere you look.
Draw picture, take and edit a unique photo, create a video, give a speech, write down your thoughts, a poem, mind map what you’ve learned, start a new business or NGO, fill up notebooks with your ideas.
The more you create real artifacts (physical or digital) that can be seen and interacted with by others, the more you are flexing this creative muscle. So the more you create, the easier it gets.
All of the Great people throughout history have been great creators of some kind. Ghandi and MLK created civil rights movements. Einstein created a whole new conception of how the universe really is. Not to mention the technology visionaries of the 20th and 21st centuries like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. They have created new pictures of what’s possible and products that might help make those visions a reality.
There is no perfect creative process, but by studying the lives and processes of others we can get a sense of how prolific people find and express their unique vision and sense of self. As Austin Kleon said, “Steal like an Artist”. Take what works for you and make it your own. Because the ultimate goal is to….
The act of creation ultimately comes down to creating ourselves. It’s about mindfully deciding who we want to be and then taking the steps to actually get there. Be your greatest masterpiece by creating your self in every action. Make every day count.
Yet at the same time consider who the world needs you to be. Can you create a life for yourself that adds value to everyone around you? Can you be an inspiration and a pillar of your community? I am confident that you can. So make your life your greatest masterpiece, and make it one that benefits everyone.
Here we have the nexus between critical thinking, creative thinking, and making our visions a reality. As my dad once told me, “Most people know where they want to go, the problem is they don’t know how to get there.”
Strategic thinking is about finding a way to get there.It’s connecting the dots, getting from point A to point Z and figuring out all the steps in between.
Part of strategic thinking means understanding the whole situation. It starts by critially assessing what is helping and what is hindering our outcomes and then making changes that help us move towards the results we desire.
In other words, strategic thinking is the application of meta-awareness. By creating a system for accelerated learning, we are using strategic thinking right now.
Often times problems are the outcomes of a system that produced them. So are solutions. We have a tendency to look at a person who has produced an undesirable result and place the blame on that person. However, people tend to act rationally, at least from their perspective.
So we must ask ourselves if any problem is really due to the specific disposition of the individual, or due to the incentives and options that the system presents to the individual. Would we act any differently had we been in their shoes?
More practically speaking in terms of learning, if we’re not getting the results we want or if our motivation is not where we would like it to be, we may need to look at the whole system rather than get down on ourselves for being “stupid or lazy.”
That is precisely why we started this article with The Core Four above.
The Core Four is a tool to step back and look at the whole system and all the variables that influence it. When we create alignment among the environment, social community, our bodies, and mind in then we are set up for success.
When there are obstacles from
The combination of these potentially life changing skills (critical, creative, and strategic thinking) is creative problem solving. In essence, it’s the ability to critically assess the situation and figure out what is important and what is not.
Then we use creative thinking to brainstorm a vision of excellence. We think about all the individual moving pieces and how they fit together. Next, we figure out what needs to happen first.
Ultimately we use strategic thinking to outline the next steps leading to the desired outcome.
This is humanities super power. It’s how we take mere ideas and physically manifest them into actual reality. This is not some esoteric “secret”. This is the process for making any dream an actual reality.
This is how we put a man on the moon. This is how we invented computers, automobiles, and made it possible to have a face to face conversation with someone 10,000 miles away via a device we can carry in a pocket.
But it’s also how we unleashed the power of an atom to destroy entire cities. It’s how all the genocides that have ever existed came into fruition. And it’s how robberies and theft are conducted daily.
So the real question is what will you do with this incredible gift?
These days it seems like everyone is just looking for “life hacks”: tricks that work quick and don’t take that much effort. Of course we all want to be efficient, but the danger here is becoming addicted to tricks instead locking in the fundamentals of mastery. That’s why this section comes well after the deeper skills for the foundations of learning.
Nevertheless, these are powerful techniques for learning quickly. But they are more of the icing on the cake rather than the foundation of thriving. Used strategically, these skills can help us get to the top of our game.
Every whole is made up of parts. If something is made of low quality parts, then we shouldn’t expect the whole to be anything exceptional. So when it comes to specific skills or the learning process, the same thing goes.
Deconstruction means looking at the fundamental factors that make an activity what it is.
Combining deconstruction with variation (see Making it Stick above) is best practices fast learning here. In practice this means figuring out the core skills that make an activity what it is. Then we switch up our practice between these fundamentals in order to creating a rock solid foundation as quickly as possible.
For any activity, don’t guess about the core essentials. Find high quality info or someone who’s been in the field and ask them. What are the essential starting points? Then start from there.
Even pros practice the fundamentals. World-class guitarists often begin their study sessions with finger exercises and scales. Though the specific types of exercises and scales tend to be advanced compared to what a novice should do, this is where they start nonetheless.
Lebron James still works on footwork, free throws, and lay ins. Tom Brady warms up his shoulder by playing catch.
If you want to perform with flare and style, you have to have a foundation to build that style on. Otherwise you just have a gimmick.
There is a famous phrase in world of productivity, “that which gets measured gets monitored.”
The mechanics are easy to understand. When we track things, we pay more attention to them. Thus we can’t help but do those things more mindfully. If you start tracking every single calorie that you eat then you’ll start to eat less. Track every penny you spend and you’ll become more frugal in how you allocate your funds.
When I started tracking the number of words I write everyday and how much time it takes me to do it, I started writing faster. When I started tracking the number of books I read in a year, that number seemed to have increased (today I finished my 55th book in the last 6 months). Though I don’t yet have a baseline to compare that number to, it feels like I’ve ticked off more books this year than last.
So if you really want to take your learning or practice to the next level, start to track the most significant factors in your study:
Whatever matters most to your learning, track it. You’ll see improvements over time. Especially if you combine this practice with the Scrum Reflections found below.
We all know what it’s like to procrastinate. Regardless of how much time we have to accomplish a task, we tend to fill up that time and do most of the work just before the deadline.
So impose quicker deadlines on yourself so to create a natural current of productivity. Generally, most tasks take way less time and energy than we think. Once we sit down and get to work, we tend to finish before we even realize it. The hardest part is starting.
**Tips for Setting Deadlines:
Check out Getting Things Done below. Combining this system with Scrum style work sprints creates a 1, 2 punch that will get any project knocked out in no time.
There is a limit to how long we can focus at one time. If you try to push through these limits, you’ll just hit a wall. Overall productivity will fall, or worse, you’ll make errors that require even more time to fix.
Taking short breaks every hour or so can refresh your mind. When you return to the work you will feel energized and ready to forge on.
For example, consider strenuous exercise. There is of course benefits from moving straight from one exercise into another (depending on your specific goals). But generally speaking, if you do a set of pull-ups, then you’ll need to break for a minute or two before hopping up for another set. Muscles need time to recover or they are literally too tired to do a productive 2nd set.
Even for creative endeavors such as writing, it can be good to take a break for a minute. After 2 years of tracking my own results, I’ve found the following strategy is most efficient for quick writing of with quality results:
1) Brainstorm and mind map a topic
2) Note the exact minute that I start writing.
3) Write until I slow down.
4) Note the minute I stop and record how many words I produced during that session.
5) Repeat the above process in work sessions lasting from 20-60 minutes. Longer at first and getting shorter as I get deeper into the work session.
At the end of the session I will calculate the words per minute at the end of the session, as well as count the monthly total at the end of the month. This general pattern can be adopted for almost any any form of study, practice, productivity work, or athletics. Just substitute your activity of choice and substitute relevant practices
During the break between sessions it’s helpful to direct your attention to another project, to disengage from the heavy thinking for a minute. Whatever you do to unwind, you should get up and move a bit.
When you take a break in a study, work, or creative session, you can refresh your mind in several ways:
The point of these activities is to create a little distance from your activity so that you can come back to it with a fresh mind. If you are doing extended study sessions of multiple topics, after the break you might want to come back to a new topic. Or if you’re in the same subject, you might want to mix up the problem types that you are doing. This introduces variability to the practice.
Almost certainly you have not read this article straight through to here, but have probably jumped around to the parts most useful to you. That’s a speed reading technique.
Speed reading often gets a bad rep because people don’t understand it’s purpose. If you’re reading an epic novel series, this is not the time for speed reading. However, if you’re reading for research or how to solve a specific problem, then speed reading is your friend.
Think of speed reading as gold mining.
The point is to find those valuable little nuggets of information that perfectly help you in your present efforts. If you’re trying to figure out how SEO works for youtube videos, then you should skip over any article that discusses the specific use of microphones or video camera recording techniques. These are valuable to your youtube career, but are not relevant to your present problem.
Take a chopstick or the back end of a pen and run it under the line of text you’re reading. This helps your eyes pan the text more smoothly and more quickly
Mentally speaking the words we read is natural but it slows you down. Practice reading with your eyes without vocalizing the words in your mind and your rate will increase.
However, your comprehension will likely drop at first as well at first. Use the Make it Stick techniques to reflect: “What did I just read?” Doing so will help you lock in the info as well as move through the text quickly.
This techniques is especially good when you are cruising through sections that don’t seem as relevant to your learning but you want to check to make sure. If you find something more important, slow down and dive in.
Good writing should make the most important ideas obvious. Look for bullet points, headlines, and topic sentences to get to the gold quickly. Use the multiple passes technique to spend the right amount of time on the sections that matter most to you.
Every time you go over a text, it should be with a specific goal. Here’s a good general strategy to work with.
1st Pass – The first pass should give you an idea of the main ideas of the text and what sections are most relevant to your studies.
2nd Pass – The second pass should be more in-depth, maybe reading whole paragraphs that caught your attention before, but still moving quickly.
3rd Pass – The third pass is to really dig into the most valuable areas you identified in the first 2 passes. Here is where you will want to spend most of your time now that you have an idea of the big picture.
With every pass, stop periodically and ask yourself: what is this about? What did I just learn?
These questions keep you engaged with the text and help you recognize if you actually picked up anything of value or if your mind was wondering.
Without a doubt, one of the biggest transformations in my life has been the discovery of Audible.com and The Great Courses in particular. With this app, you can listen to audiobooks or courses on the go. Your transit time is transformed into a mobile university.
Brian Tracy has argued that the main difference between a CEO and the lowest paid employee at the same company is that the CEO on average will read 50+ books each year and attend 3-4 professional development conferences. This is how those with a lead break away from the pack even more. But you don’t have to be a CEO to make learning a priority. Using your transit time to learn will absolutely transform your life: imagine the difference in your learning if you read and extra 50 books every year for the next 50 years of your life.
Similarly, Tai Lopez (investor, entrepreneur, and business advisor) recommends investing no less than 1/3 of your disposable income on learning. We’re so easily enticed into spending money on our vices but become frugal (if not stingy) when it comes to shelling out 10-20$ on books, audio books, or online courses that have the chance to profoundly affect our lives and productivity.
Once you make the switch to feeling good about investing in books, you won’t look back. If you choose your information products wisely, then the money invested in your learning will come back 10 fold.
It’s no coincidence that both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (2 of the wealthiest people in the history of the planet) both agree on their preferred super power given the chance: They would both choose to be the fastest reader in the world.
Different information has different value. With most of what’s available on the internet, the most productive thing you could do is just close the window and get back to work.
That being said, most ideas when consumed via audio or video are presented very slowly. You can drastically increase your efficiency in learning from these sources, especially youtube or audio books with apps and add-ons that speed up your audio:
For internet tutorials and how-to’s, check out Video Speed Controller for Google chrome or a similar speed up app for whatever web browser you’re running. It allows you to increase the speed of most internet videos. This may not be ideal for an evening of Netflix, but if you want to learn the basics of podcasting and have 2-4 hours of videos to watch, then this is a good time to kick the speed up a notch.
You can watch most videos at 1.5-2x speed without losing much information. But more importantly, only a small fraction of any video is actually valuable to what you’re doing. Skip prolonged intros and the rest of the nonsense at 2-3x speed, then slow it down to a comfortable rate once they hit the topic you need. Then speed it up again to skim the rest incase there is something valuable.
Now your 2 hours of study time was just cut in half, and most of that time was focused on the most relevant info to you, while skipping the filler. Now that is literally accelerated learning.
We are drowning in information and most is a waste of time. Don’t allow nonsense to weigh you down. Find what best serves your needs. Ideally find key works that suit you perfectly or check out posts like this one that draw on a wide variety of high quality info and synthesize if for you.
Even if it’s for entertainment, books have been written in almost every genre for centuries. If you like mysteries, check out lists of the top 10 mystery books of all time. People’s opinions will vary but if you find 5 of these lists, there will be some agreement among at least 2 or 3 of these titles. Go read those because you’ll never exhaust even the top 1% of that genre anyway.
Accelerated learning and creative projects are the essence of productivity in the 21st century. These activities require full on engagement of mental resources to optimize results.
These following systems are masterpieces for increasing our productivity and creativity. They help us organize our thoughts and to-do’s in such a way that we don’t get distracted by the clutter and can focus on what matters most.
David Allen has devised a revolutionary system for personal productivity and self-management. For anyone interested I give my highest recommendation to check out his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity. But in the meantime, here are 2 deceptively simple questions from this system that can transform anyone’s productivity process:
It’s impossible to know what to do, how much work is left, or where to even start if we don’t know where we want to go. This echoes Steven Covey’s classic advice: Start with the end in mind.
Once we know what we’re going for, the whole process of learning becomes easier. Just ask this simple question before you start a study or practice session and you will focus in on the most important factors. This alone will increase your productivity by multiples if you aren’t using this technique already.
Start today by simply thinking of any goal or challenge you have, and think: What is the ideal outcome here? How would things be if they were perfect for me? What would have to be different in order for that to work?
Once you know the ideal outcome, you can start mapping out a path from where you are to where you want to go. This first question naturally leads to the 2nd.
Once we know where we want to go, it’s relatively simple to figure out the next step. And if we don’t know the next step already, then we still already know where to start: research the topic/problem and brainstorm some possibilities.
For most of what we want to do, someone has already done it AND documented the process along the way. Perhaps we just need to find and implement their plan. Or at a minimum we can start with their plan and deviate where it suits our needs. This is ideal for many learning situations.
This simple (metacognitive) question helps us find the next step, connecting all the dots along the way to our goal. We can identify skills and knowledge we have and figure out what we need. Then we don’t waste our time learning useless items. This is a practical way to implement strategic thinking starting now.
(This is only a tiny fraction of David Allen’s full system. For anyone interested, do yourself a favor and check it out. If it seems daunting to implement, I can help you get it up and running.)
Scrum is an organizational strategy for teams, designed to produce the highest quality usable outcomes as quickly as possible. Though it’s optimal for teams, there are elements that are very effective for individual productivity as well. Thus we can apply these techniques as study tips for accelerated learning.
One small fraction of the Scrum system is the review that takes place after every sprint (1-4 week period of intense focused work). This (usually team) review focuses is also effective for us individually. Reflecting on these questions at any time is a powerful technique for making constant improvements.
Such a review centers on the following questions:
1) What went well?
2) What were the biggest sticking points to effective work?
3) What can we change?
These three questions will get you results whether you are studying for chemistry, organizing a basketball practice, or producing complex code for high-end medical technology.
For peak productivity we want to figure out what works and do more of that. This is obvious but we shouldn’t turn away from things that are working unless there’s good reason to believe that a new approach may be significantly better.
Also it’s important to acknowledge and congratulate your strengths. Starting the reflective process by building up your self-worth via pointing out what’s going well can help give you the strength to take a critical look at what’s not going so well yet.
Flow is the name of the game. When we are in a flow state, we produce high quality work at the most efficient rates possible. So we need to identify which factors are getting in the way of our flow. The goal here is to remove impediments that disrupt our process.
This is one important reason for understanding the Core Four above. Impediments to flow can come from anywhere including the environment, our social community, our bodily health, or our mind. When we make the changes to get these in alignment, we’ve got a straight shot to excellence.
Find the greatest sticking points and then ask:
Some things simply have to be how they are and can’t be changed. So for improvements we have to look at what parts of the system are malleable and/or adaptable.
Find the pliable parts of your system or routine and start turning knobs. What happens when you adjust one? How does it affect other parts of the equation. Often, even our own systems don’t work quite as we think. Only through experimenting can we refine our process to the highest levels.
So keep trying out different things, track your results, and hone in your ideal process.
Asking these 3 questions and implementing the answers is a time-tested strategy for refining our performance. From accelerated learning, productivity, creativity, health, entrepreneurship, to anything else we might want to do, these questions will direct our focus and leverage our efforts.
They aren’t difficult to do; most people simply won’t take the time to put these strategies to use. And that’s sad because the evidence for their effectiveness is everywhere. These techniques work and you can use them all of the time.
Finally, here are some loose ends for accelerated learning and developing our skills to the highest degree.
One reason tracking our results works so well is because it makes the activity more fun. We have a baseline to compare ourselves to. And we just want to beat our previous efforts. So give yourself points even for meaningless things and you’ll find you’ll work harder to do better.
If you’re doing math problems or memorizing vocabulary in a foreign language, track how long it takes you to finish a set and track how many answers you get correct. Then try to beat that number on the next set. By doing this, you’re chunking your study down into parts which allows you to take mini breaks. And you have the increased motivation to beat the last session.
In athletics, see how many shots you can hit in a row, or how many times you can place a tennis serve in an even tighter area of the service court. The point is to challenge yourself and compete with your previous results.
An often overlooked benefit comes in the realm of self-awareness. You’ll start to notice the differences of state of mind between times your excel and times you’re out of whack. Then you can add the meta-strategies to get yourself in the zone more often.
We talked about the importance of feedback in flow. But the difference here is time. In a flow activity you need feedback almost as you are doing the task: I.e. the ball missed the hoop; I fell off the balance beam; this line of my painting is thicker than I intended.
Here we’re extending this idea to the bigger picture. If you do a project for work or school, ask the evaluator what went well or what could be improved? What did they like? What was off the mark?
This is like doing a Scrum review with a partner so you can hone in the next project for optimal results. Seek out feedback and you’ll have a better idea of what to try next.
In Scrum, Jeff Sutherland explains the importance of correcting mistakes when you notice them. In research on productivity for programmers in technology companies the following astounding results were found:
If programers noticed a problem with their code and they waited a week to fix it, it generally took 24x longer to correct the problem compared to when they fixed it the same day they noticed it. That is, a problem that would take 1 hour to fix if done today would take 24 hours to fix if they waited a week or more.
This is because we construct a whole mental vision of what we’re doing as we we work. It takes time to build this image in our mind. So if we fix a problem as we find it, then we’re still working with the same mental frame of mind. If we wait a week or more, we have to reconstruct our previous vision of the problem, figure out why we made all the decisions we made before, AND THEN we can start to fix the problem.
Fix problems as they arise and you can save yourself time and energy exponentially.
Our bodies have natural energy cycles. Generally, we have more energy in the morning. Energy drops after lunch, and then picks up again in the mid/late afternoon before trailing off until bed time.
Taking a short nap after lunch can recharge our battery and boost productivity in the afternoon. The point here is to work with the natural ebbs and flows of your biology. Go with the flow, don’t try to swim upstream. Accelerate when things are going well, and figure out how to create the conditions to make things flow in your way more frequently.
It doesn’t help to push yourself when you’re already exhausted. In fact it can do more harm than good. It’s more difficult to unlearn bad habits than to learn things well in the first place.
When you practice new skills when you’re already exhausted, then you tend not to use best practices. You’ll clip corners, not making the full range of motion, take short cuts, and more. These bad habits can get saved into your memory and they diminish your ability to perform in the future.
Furthermore, by practicing when you’re exhausted you risk creating the association in your mind that this activity is not enjoyable. It’s good to have the mental discipline to keep going when the time is right, but you also need the wisdom to know when to back off for the night.
When it comes to intense studies, some background music without words can help us zone in. The problem with music with words is that words direct our attention too easily. It takes energy to suppress the ideas that are thrust upon us with even simple words.
Funk instrumentals, beats, electronic, classic or any other genre without words tends to be ideal for long periods of study. Things that are upbeat tend to work better for me, but everyone has preferences. Below is a youtube playlist of some extended tracks that might help. The point is just to put on some noise that can drown out the background and let you focus on what’s important.
It takes real work to make real gains. We should certainly try to work efficiently as possible and there are many tricks for doing so. But if what you’re doing doesn’t feel like work (mental or physical), then it’s probably not working.
If a new exercise routine only takes 5 minutes and doesn’t even make you break a sweat, then don’t expect results. If learning a new concept doesn’t strain your thinking at least a little, it’s probably not pushing your abilities. That’s why we have the metacognitive technique of asking “what did I just learn?”
This questions causes us to flex that mental muscle and go back into the ideas we just covered. Reproducing them on our own is more difficult than passively letting the ideas run through us. This type of self questioning requires work. And our efforts are rewarded by locking the ideas into our minds more firmly.
Throughout life, we experience multiple psychological transformations. When we are young, we are identified with our selfish urges. We can’t imagine what it’s like to take on other people’s perspectives. As we age, our identity shifts. And this last tool for accelerated learning is actually a transition into our higher selves. It happens when we identify with something larger than our egoic drives and find meaning in something that we truly feel is bigger or more important than ourselves.
This is the paradigm shift. It happens when we look at a goal, see the work, and actually feel like the easiest thing is to face the challenge and do the work.
It’s the difference between thinking “damn… I have to work out today…” and “I love getting my workout in, and I hate it when I things come up and I can’t fit it in”.
As we get older our emotional body loosens it’s grip on our psyche and we start to identify with our dreams, our vision, and our higher self. This is the side of us that knows what’s best for us and feels good when we do the work. It’s that internal drive to be the best versions of us. The Greeks called this drive for evolution Eros.
It’s the energy of ascension. And when we identify with this side of ourselves, accelerated learning becomes an intrinsic part of our lives. We enjoy the work and feel pain or discomfort when we miss the opportunity to practice. This is the ultimate goal of anyone on the journey to mastery, and who intends to use accelerated learning as a vehicle to get there.
If you’ve made it this far then Congratulations! You are a dedicated sojourner on this path to self-mastery and thriving. If you have any questions regarding the information above or would like to discuss specific personalized strategies for implementing these ideas, get in touch and ask me directly right here.
If there are any tips here that have been helpful to you, tell me about it. If you have tips or suggestions to add to this guide, send them my way. This is meant to be a comprehensive resource for anyone seeking mastery. Together we can make it as good as possible and help others take control of their lives.
Thank you again for joining me here and make every day count. Find more information on how to thrive throughout this site or check out specific tips via my Youtube Channel here.