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10 Tips to Study Smart and Save Time

10 Tips to Study Smart and Save Time

I recently got my marks back from University. My grade point average was a 4.2 out of a possible 4.5, resting between an A and a perfect A+. In itself, this isn’t an incredible achievement. But I managed to do this while spending only a fraction of the time studying than many of the people I knew.

Is it just natural talent? Perhaps. I’ve always had a knack for understanding concepts and learning new ideas. But I also believe the way I learned the information played a role. Instead of cramming last minute or memorizing details, I try to organize information in a way that makes it easier to recall.

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This strategy of organization I label holistic learning. Holistic learning is simply the process of organizing information into webs, that interconnect ideas. Instead of forcing ideas into your skull, you focus on the relationships between information. Linking ideas together to see the whole, instead of just the parts.

Building an Understanding

Learning is a process similar to building a house. You aren’t fed the complete picture. Limitations on communication prevent the instantaneous transmission of knowledge. Instead you listen to lectures, read textbooks and take painstaking notes to try and comprehend a subject.

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You are fed building supplies, bricks, mortar and glass. It is up to you to assemble the building. Unfortunately, most learning strategies fall into two basic types:

  1. Memorization – Instead of building anything you simply stare at each brick for several minutes trying to record its position.
  2. Formulas – This is the equivalent to being blind, fumbling around a new house. You can’t see the building itself but you learn to come up with simple rules to avoid walking into walls.

There is nothing particularly wrong with either of these strategies, assuming they aren’t your entire strategy. The human brain isn’t a computer so it can’t memorize infinite sums of knowledge without some form of structure. And formulas no longer work if the questions they are designed to solve change scope.

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Learning Holistically

The alternative strategy is to focus on actually using the information you have to build something. This involves linking concepts together and compressing information so it fits in the bigger picture. Here are some ideas to get started:

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  1. Metaphor – Metaphors can allow you to quickly organize information by comparing a complex idea to a simple one. When you find relationships between information, come up with analogies to increase your understanding. Compare neurons with waves on a string. Make metaphors comparing parts of a brain with sections of your computer.
  2. Use All Your Senses – Abstract ideas are difficult to memorize because they are far removed from our senses. Shift them closer by coming up with vivid pictures, feelings and images that relate information together. When I learned how to do a determinant of a matrix, I remembered the pattern by visualizing my hands moving through the numbers, one adding and one subtracting.
  3. Teach It – Find someone who doesn’t understand the topic and teach it to them. This exercise forces you to organize. Spending five minutes explaining a concept can save you an hour of combined studying for the same effect.
  4. Leave No Islands – When you read through a textbook, every piece of information should connect with something else you have learned. Fast learners do this automatically, but if you leave islands of information, you won’t be able to reach them during a test.
  5. Test Your Mobility – A good way to know you haven’t linked enough is that you can’t move between concepts. Open up a word document and start explaining the subject you are working with. If you can’t jump between sections, referencing one idea to help explain another, you won’t be able to think through the connections during a test.
  6. Find Patterns – Look for patterns in information. Information becomes easier to organize if you can identify broader patterns that are similar across different topics. The way a neuron fires has similarities to “if” statements in programming languages.
  7. Build a Large Foundation – Reading lots and having a general understanding of many topics gives you a lot more flexibility in finding patterns and metaphors in new topics. The more you already know, the easier it is to learn.
  8. Don’t Force – I don’t spend much time studying before exams. Forcing information during the last few days is incredibly inefficient. Instead try to slowly interlink ideas as they come to you so studying becomes a quick recap rather than a first attempt at learning.
  9. Build Models – Models are simple concepts that aren’t true by themselves, but are useful for describing abstract ideas. Crystallizing one particular mental image or experience can create a model you can reference when trying to understand. When I was trying to tackle the concept of subspaces, I visualized a blue background with a red plane going through it. This isn’t an entirely accurate representation of what a subspace is, but it created a workable image for future ideas.
  10. Learning is in Your Head – Having beautiful notes and a perfectly highlighted textbook doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the information in it. Your only goal is to understand the information so it will stick with you for assignments, tests and life. Don’t be afraid to get messy when scrawling out ideas on paper and connecting them in your head. Use notes and books as a medium for learning rather than an end result.

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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The power of habit

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to make a reminder works for you

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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