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Silver Contributor
Read Fastlane!
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Jul 30, 2014
When learning a new skill, have you ever...

Had trouble retaining information?
Felt frustrated and lacked confidence due to knowledge gaps?
Struggled with procrastination?

There is one "meta-skill" which can mitigate all of these problems.

What is this magical "meta-skill"?

Well, for only $1997...

(sorry couldn't help myself lol)

The answer is: You must first learn... how to learn.

One month ago, I took this free course: Learning how to Learn.

The instructors are:
  • Dr. Barbara Oakley - Professor of Engineering at Oakley University. She was also a Captain in the US Army (recognized as a Distinguished Military Scholar), has worked as a communications expert at the South Pole, and served as a Russian translator on board Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea.
  • Dr. Terrence Sejnowski - Professor of Biology at University of California, San Diego. He is also President of the Neural Information Processing Systems Foundation, a pioneer in computational neuroscience, helped shape the BRAIN initiative (+ongoing list of impressive achievements)
So it's safe to assume they know what they're talking about when it comes to learning and how the brain works.

After using the methods taught by the instructors, I've increased memory retention at least threefold, reduced procrastination, and skyrocketed study efficiency.

If you don't want to spend 6+ hours going through the course yourself, here's a summary of my notes along with actionable tips:


There are two modes of thinking: focused mode and diffused mode.

Focused mode is what it sounds like; you're single minded and concentrating on the task at hand, like a laser pointer.

Diffuse mode can be thought of as a flashlight which casts its light very broadly, but not very strongly in one area.

Diffuse mode is the type of thinking you need to do when you are trying to understand something new.

To activate this mode of thinking:
  • Think in terms of metaphors and analogies (eg. How does this relate ideas in another field? How can you apply this in a completely different area of your life?)
  • Come up with creative models and visualizations (eg. Einstein imagined himself riding on a beam of light)
Einstellung is when your initial thought, an idea you've already had in mind, or a neural pattern you've already developed well and strengthened, prevents a better idea or solution from being found.

Diffuse mode can also help you avoid "einstellung."


Rereading and highlighting are very inefficient ways of learning new material.

Merely glancing at a solution and thinking you truly know it yourself is one of the most common illusions of competence in learning.

So what should you do instead?

Recall. After you've read the material, look away, and simply try to recall what you've learned.

Test yourself on what you're learning! (I personally use note cards and Anki.)

Avoid practicing only the easy stuff, which can bring the illusion that you've mastered the material. Deliberately practice what you find more difficult to gain full mastery of the material.

Mistakes are a good thing to make when you're learning. They allow you to catch illusions of competence.


Chunks are pieces of information that are bound together through use and often through meaning. In neuroscientific terms, you can think of a chunk as a scintillating network of neurons that compactly synthesizes key ideas or actions.

So how do you form a chunk?

Three steps:
1. Focused Attention. Focus your undivided attention of the information you want to chunk

2. Understanding. Understand the basic idea you're trying to chunk. (One exercise I find useful is to try to re-explain the material as simply as I can in my own words. "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." - Richard Feynman)

3. Practice. Gain context so you can understand how and also when to use this chunk.


The process of procrastination goes as follows:
1. Unhappy feeling
2. You funnel attention onto a more "pleasant" task
3. You feel happy (temporarily)

The key to avoid the unhappy feeling is to reframe the task at hand.

Focus on the PROCESS, not on the PRODUCT (aka outcome). The product is what triggers the pain that causes you to procrastinate.

Use a Pomodoro Timer. Set a timer for 25 minutes, no interruptions, and tell yourself "I'm just going to focus for 25 minutes". When the timer goes off, give yourself a reward!

4 Parts of a Habit (from Charles Duhigg):

1. The cue – the trigger that launches you into 'zombie mode' (some location, certain time, specific feeling, reaction to an event or person)

2. The routine – the habitual response your brain is used to falling into when it receives the cue

3. The reward – any habit develops and continues because it gives us a feeling of pleasure

4. The belief – habits have power because of your belief in them. To change a habit, you'll need to change your underlying belief

Arrange your work into a series of small challenges. Deliberately delay rewards until you've finished a task, but always make sure to reward yourself generously. Take a few minutes to savor the feelings of happiness and triumph, which also gives your brain a chance to temporarily change modes.

Watch for your procrastination cues. Try putting yourself in new surroundings away from procrastination cues, such as the quiet section of a library.

Keep a planner journal so you can easily track when you reach your goals and observe what does and doesn't work.

Also, write your planned tasks out the night before, so your brain has time to dwell on your goals and help ensure your success.


There are two main memory systems involved in your ability to chunk concepts:
  • Long term memory
  • Working memory

Long term memory works like a storage warehouse. Ideas, and memories in your long term memory are easily retrievable and hard to forget.

Working memory is like a fuzzy blackboard that quickly fades. You can only hold about four items in your working memory.

Practicing and repeating all in one day is a bad idea. It takes time and reps to move ideas in working memory to your long term memory. This is why tackling procrastination is important; it gives you a "head start" on building better memories.

Use Spaced Repetition! Which means: extend your practice over several days and weeks. Again, I personally use flashcards and the Anki app.

When you master a technique or concept, your brain compacts the ideas into chunks so they can occupy less space in your working memory when you do bring them to mind.

This frees your mental thinking space so that it can more easily grapple with other ideas.

As humans we have outstanding visual and spatial memory systems (a result of our evolutionary process) which you can tap into to help improve your memory.

To begin tapping into your visual memory system:
  • Try making a very memorable visual image representing one key item you want to remember.
  • Beyond merely seeing, try to feel, to hear and even to smell something you're trying to remember.
  • The funnier and more evocative the image is, the better!


During your waking hours, toxins slowly accumulate in your brain, which makes it harder to focus and learn new things.

Sleep is your brain's way of keeping itself clean and healthy by flushing out those toxins.

For a long time, it was believed that people were born with a fixed number of neurons (specialized cells which transmit nerve impulses).

It turns out that's not true. You can stimulate new neurons in your brain even if you're well past your childhood.

So what's the #1 most effective activity to stimulate new neurons?

(Hint: It's also one of MJ's three Fs of wealth)


So make sure you take care of your body - it has immense impact on your brain as well.


If you made it this far, congrats!

Now, without scrolling back up, can you recall a couple of the most useful tips you can implement immediately?
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New Contributor
Read Fastlane!
May 31, 2017
Awesome tips !

Reminds me of a great book I read called "How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens".

The general message is that in order to absorb new learnt information into long term memory; one would study the material in short intervals, spaced over the course of days, weeks or months. Rather than cramming all study material in one session. This is referred to as "disturbed learning" or the "spacing effect".

Not to say that cramming massive amounts of information into a single study session is all that bad - it can actually work great for last minute test preparation, however don't expect to retain that knowledge.


Bronze Contributor
Read Fastlane!
Read Unscripted!
Sep 9, 2012
Los Angeles/Tokyo
This is an awesome post, potentially game-changing for a chronic extreme procrastinator like myself. Thanks for taking the time to organize these notes.

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