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Published on December 14, 2020

12 Scientific Ways To Learn Anything Faster And Smarter

12 Scientific Ways To Learn Anything Faster And Smarter
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You may very well be reading this article because you’re struggling to learn something. Maybe you’re putting off studying for that exam or frustrated with how slowly you’re learning a new language. I’ve dug into a pile of scientific research to help you find ways to learn things efficiently and effectively.

You may not have a photographic memory, but at least you can take some actionable steps to speed up your learning and retain information better.

1. Try Mindfulness

Mindfulness isn’t just sitting on a yoga cushion with your eyes closed chanting “Om.” There is indeed scientific evidence that meditation improves learning outcomes.[1] It decreases anxiety levels and helps people experience the kind of clear-headedness necessary for effective learning.

But there are also other ways to experience mindfulness. You can also try mindfulness exercises that encourage you to open your eyes and see and hear the world in a non-judgmental way.

One of my favorite mindfulness exercises is called “Call It Like You Sees It” from Play Your Way Sane: 120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty. As you’re taking a walk, simply point to things you pass and call out what they are: “Tree, grass, frog, sidewalk.” By doing this, you’re practicing being open and present to the world around you instead of being stressed out, anxious, or self-absorbed.

You can also just close your eyes and listen carefully to try to identify as many sounds as possible. Slow down and deepen your breathing to try to hear as much as you can instead of getting carried away with your overthinking.

2. Get Some Sleep

Studies also show a link between sleep deprivation and compromised academic outcome.[2] Simply put, if you’re not getting enough sleep, your learning and retention are going to suffer.

So figure out how much sleep you need each night and stick to a consistent bedtime and wake-up times each day. Your grades and job performance will thank me.

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3. Eat Right

If you’re eating a diet that’s high in saturated fat and refined sugar—think processed foods instead of fresh fruits and veggies—you’re not doing your brain any favors. Diets heavy in processed food have been linked to poorer learning outcomes.[3] Researchers found that unhealthy diets filled with saturated fats and refined sugar negatively affect the hippocampus and memory formation, which is essential to fast and efficient learning.

So, if you’re looking for ways to learn faster and smarter, put the gas station snacks down and switch to a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats—fresh over frozen, natural over factory-made.

4. Exercise

Another way to learn better and faster is to make sure you’re getting some exercise throughout the week. Just like getting enough sleep, exercising is a hippocampus booster. That means your brain will be better able to retain information.

One study with mice showed that adding exercise after over a year of being sedentary reversed degeneration of the hippocampus by about 50%.[4] That means even if you haven’t been getting exercise lately, it’s not too late. Aim for at least three aerobic exercise sessions a week that last at least 30 minutes per session to keep your hippocampus healthy.

5. Focus on One Thing at a Time

A lot of people think they’re good at multi-tasking. I hear this a lot. People think they can listen to music and scroll through TikTok while listening to an online lecture on genetics. Turns out, this is wishful thinking. If you’re looking for ways to learn faster and smarter, one of the easiest is to close all your tabs and do one thing at a time.

One way to think about this is what’s known as the cognitive bottleneck theory, which states that we cannot attend to all of our sensory inputs at once.[5] We might have the TV on and that online lecture and be listening to music while talking to a friend, but not all of those inputs can be consciously attended to. There’s a bottleneck where some of the inputs just don’t make it through to conscious thought.

In one study, the cognitive bottleneck theory was confirmed, which means that students were not able to retain as much information or learn as efficiently when they were attempting to multi-task.[6] So, keep it simple, limit distractions, and learn one thing at a time.

6. Don’t Worry About Learning Styles

You may have read about learning styles and how knowing your learning style can help you learn better. Well, it turns out there isn’t actually any scientific evidence that confirms that learning styles improve learning outcomes.[7]

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Learning styles come from Neil Fleming in the 1990s and have gained in popularity in recent decades, but that doesn’t mean the theory actually improves learning. It’s fine to know whether you prefer visual, audio, kinesthetic, or reading/writing inputs, but don’t forget that learning styles are just that—preferences.

Instead of trying to force yourself to learn everything with your preferred style, you should focus more on matching the challenge with the learning style. If you’re trying to memorize vocabulary for a written quiz, it makes the most sense to mix reading/writing with visual learning. If you’re trying to learn how to have a conversation in a new language, you may want to stick with audio and kinesthetic styles.

Don’t be too worried about learning styles. Instead, mix it up and try all different styles.

7. Try Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition can help you learn better. Spaced repetition is a system where you quiz yourself to see if you know something or not. It works great as either a physical or digital set of flashcards—when you need to learn lots of small pieces of information.

All the information you get correct goes in one pile, and the information you don’t know goes in another. You quiz yourself on the information you got wrong more frequently than what you got right. Eventually, the information you keep getting correct is spaced out more and more until it is in long-term memory. At that point, you’ve truly learned it.

Spaced repetition has been proven effective in scientific studies. It helps with memory and problem-solving skills and leads to vast improvements in long-term learning.[8] One spaced repetition system is called Anki, and you can find information online about how to make your own physical Anki flashcard system or download an app that will create a digital Anki system for you.

8. Try Mnemonic Devices

Another trick to learning faster and smarter is to try mnemonic devices. This is simply the process of chunking information by using initials or acronyms.

The classic is ROYGBIV. If you can remember the mnemonic device ROYGBIV, it makes it much easier to recall the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The idea is that it’s easier to remember one thing than seven, and by using the first letter of all the colors, you give yourself a clue to then recall the colors.

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Research confirms that mnemonic devices help speed up retention and even improve formal reasoning—never a bad thing.[9]

9. Gamify Your Learning

Gamification is when you turn something that’s not a game into something that’s more like a game by adding game elements such as points, competition, and rewards or goals.[10]

One example of gamification is to turn a household chore into a game by racing against the clock or competing against someone to see who can clean a room faster.

You can also gamify learning. Turn it into a competition. Motivate yourself by adding a scoring system or a time limit. Studies show that gamifying learning boosts motivation and engagement, academic achievement, and social connectivity.[11]

10. Improvise

Next is improvisation. Now, I don’t just mean make stuff up as you go. Improvisation actually has principles to follow that help everyone be on the same page. By agreeing with each other’s ideas and adding to the reality that’s being established, improvisers build a level of trust with each other that has incredible benefits.

Improvising or just adding improv principles to your everyday life helps reduce anxiety and boost creativity and collaboration.[12][13] In one study, high school students wrote more after participating in an improv workshop[14]

So, you may want to try improv thinking to boost your learning, which means embracing mistakes, agreeing and adding onto ideas, and not being negative or judgmental.

11. Reflect

Another strategy to learn faster and smarter is to make reflecting part of your process. In one study, students who were prompted to reflect on their progress outperformed students who did not integrate reflection.[15]

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So, if you want to learn faster and more efficiently, make sure to reflect on your progress periodically. Ask yourself some questions and set some achievable goals. Is your current plan working? Why or why not? What are you still struggling with?

This way you won’t just keep repeating the same inefficient or ineffective habits. Instead, you’ll be able to make changes, so you can improve your learning outcomes.

12. Seek Feedback

If you want to boost the benefits to your learning more, incorporate other people’s feedback in addition to your own self-reflection. Research shows that when feedback is combined with reflection, students achieve even more pronounced benefits to their learning.[16]

So, seek out a mentor or advisor who can give you honest and productive feedback, so you can create the best plan to improve your learning.

Final Thoughts

Learning is a complex process that requires you to manage your stress, take care of your physical health, and create and refine learning plans to achieve an optimal amount of success.

Of course, there are tricks to help you speed up your learning like using mnemonic devices and spaced repetition. But at the end of the day, a more holistic approach to overall health and wellbeing will get you further than a hack here and a hack there.

More Tips to Learn More Effectively

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Sage Journals: Mindfulness Meditation May Lessen Anxiety, Promote Social Skills, and Improve Academic Performance Among Adolescents With Learning Disabilities
[2] Science Direct: Sleep loss, learning capacity and academic performance
[3] Science Direct: A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning
[4] JNeurosci: Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice
[5] PubMed.gov: The problem state: a cognitive bottleneck in multitasking
[6] Science Direct: Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning
[7] Wiley Online Library: Does learning style influence academic performance in different forms of assessment?
[8] Sage Journals: Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning: Policy Implications for Instruction
[9] Taylor & Francis Online: An Empirical Test of Mnemonic Devices to Improve Learning in Elementary Accounting
[10] Play Your Way Sane: How to be more Playful: Gamify your Life
[11] Science Direct: The impact of gamification on learning and instruction
[12] Psychology Today: The Improv Anxiety Treatment?
[13] SpringerLink: The Improv Paradigm: Three Principles that Spur Creativity in the Classroom
[14] International Journal of Education & the Arts: Improv and Ink: Increasing Individual Writing Fluency with Collaborative Improv
[15] Science Direct: Effects of elicited reflections combined with tutor or peer feedback on self-regulated learning and learning outcomes
[16] Science Direct: Effects of elicited reflections combined with tutor or peer feedback on self-regulated learning and learning outcomes

More by this author

Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

How to Stop Information Overload and Get More Done

How to Stop Information Overload and Get More Done
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Information overload is a creature that has been growing on the Internet’s back since its beginnings. The bigger the Internet gets, the more information there is. The more quality information we see, the more we want to consume it. The more we want to consume it, the more overloaded we feel.

This has to stop somewhere. And it can.

As the year comes to a close, there’s no time like the present to make the overloading stop.

But before I explain exactly what I mean, let’s discuss information overload in general.

How Serious Is Information Overload?

The sole fact that there’s more and more information published online every single day is not the actual problem. Only the quality information becomes the problem.

This sounds kind of strange…but bear with me.

When we see some half-baked blog posts we don’t even consider reading, we just skip to the next thing. But when we see something truly interesting — maybe even epic — we want to consume it.

We even feel like we have to consume it. And that’s the real problem.

No matter what topic we’re interested in, there are always hundreds of quality blogs publishing entries every single day (or every other day). Not to mention all the forums, message boards, social news sites, and so on.

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The amount of epic content on the Internet these days is so big that it’s virtually impossible for us to digest it all. But we try anyway.

That’s when we feel overloaded. If you’re not careful, one day you’ll find yourself reading the 15th blog post in a row on some nice WordPress tweaking techniques because you feel that for some reason, “you need to know this.”

Information overload is a plague. There’s no vaccine, there’s no cure. The only thing you have is self-control.

Luckily, you’re not on your own. There are some tips you can follow to protect yourself from information overload and, ultimately, fight it.

But first, admit that information overload is really bad for you.

Why Information Overload Is Bad for You

Information overload stops you from taking action. That’s the biggest problem here.

When you try to consume more and more information every day, you start to notice that even though you’ve been reading tons of articles, watching tons of videos and listening to tons of podcasts, the stream of incoming information seems to be infinite.

Therefore, you convince yourself that you need to be on a constant lookout for new information if you want to be able to accomplish anything in your life, work and/or passion. The final result is that you are consuming way too much information, and taking way too little action because you don’t have enough time for it.

The belief that you need to be on this constant lookout for information is just not true.

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You don’t need every piece of advice possible to live your life, do your work or enjoy your passion.

How to Stop Information Overload (And Start to Achieve More)

So how to recognize the portion of information that you really need? Start with setting goals.

1. Set Your Goals

If you don’t have your goals put in place, you’ll be just running around grabbing every possible advice and thinking that it’s “just what you’ve been looking for.”

Setting goals is a much more profound task than just a way to get rid of information overload. Now by “goals” I don’t mean things like “get rich, have kids, and live a good life”. I mean something much more within your immediate grasp. Something that can be achieved in the near future — like within a month (or a year) at most.

Basically, something that you want to attract to your life, and you already have some plan on how you’re going to make it happen. So no hopes and dreams, just actionable, precise goals.

Then once you have your goals, they become a set of strategies and tactics you need to act upon.

2. Know What to Skip When Facing New Information

Once you have your goals, plans, strategies and tasks, you can use them to decide what information is really crucial.

First of all, if the information you’re about to read has nothing to do with your current goals and plans, then skip it. You don’t need it.

If it does, then ask yourself these questions:

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  • Will you be able to put this information into action immediately?
  • Does it have the potential to maybe alter your nearest actions/tasks?
  • Is it so incredible that you absolutely need to take action on it right away?

If the information is not actionable in a day or two, then skip it.

(You’ll forget about it anyway.) And that’s basically it.

Digest only what can be used immediately. If you have a task that you need to do, consume only the information necessary for getting this one task done, nothing more.

You need to be focused in order to have clear judgment, and be able to decide whether some piece of information is mandatory or redundant.

Self-control comes handy too. It’s quite easy to convince yourself that you really need something just because of poor self-control. Try to fight this temptation, and be as ruthless about it as possible – if the information is not matching your goals and plans, and you can’t take action on it in the near future, then SKIP IT.

3. Be Aware of the Minimal Effective Dose

There’s a thing called the MED – Minimal Effective Dose. I was first introduced to this idea by Tim Ferriss. In his book The 4-Hour BodyTim illustrates the minimal effective dose by talking about medical drugs.

Everybody knows that every pill has a MED, and after that specific dose, no other positive effects occur, only some negative side effects if you overdose big.

Consuming information is somewhat similar. You need just a precise amount of it to help you to achieve your goals and put your plans into life.

Everything more than that amount won’t improve your results any further. And if you try to consume too much of it, it will eventually stop you from taking any action altogether.

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4. Don’t Procrastinate by Consuming More Information

Probably one of the most common causes of consuming ridiculous amounts of information is the need to procrastinate. By reading yet another article, we often feel that we are indeed working, and that we’re doing something good – we’re learning, which in result will make us a more complete and educated person.

This is just self-deception. The truth is we’re simply procrastinating. We don’t feel like doing what really needs to be done – the important stuff – so instead we find something else, and convince ourselves that “that thing” is equally important. Which is just not true.

Don’t consume information just for the sake of it. It gets you nowhere.

The focus of this article is not on how to stop procrastinating, but if you’re having such issue, I recommend you read this: Procrastination – A Step-By-Step Guide to Stop Procrastinating

Summing It Up

As you can see, information overload can be a real problem and it can have a sever impact on your productivity and overall performance.

I know I have had my share of problems with it (and probably still have from time to time). But creating this simple set of rules helps me to fight it, and to keep my lizard brain from taking over.

I hope it helps you too, especially as we head into a new year with a new chance at setting ourselves up for success.

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Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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