The ability to learn things quickly is a tremendous asset. People who can rapidly grasp new concepts, learn and apply new and effective skills, and process new information in a short amount of time have a distinct advantage over those who struggle to learn.
Is speed learning reserved for a select minority, endowed with the gift of intellect that few possess? Is it only available to the “geniuses” among us? The answer is, “No.” Every one of us can learn to learn faster, and there are a few simple tools that can help us. If these tools are committed to mastery through habit they will produce massive results in our ability to learn concepts faster, process new information in a shorter amount of time, and rapidly expand our abilities and knowledge.
So, without delay, here are 5 hacks to speed up the learning process:
1. Focus on number of repetitions, not on the amount of time we practice.
When we say that we “studied for five hours straight,” we are often deceiving ourselves. How much of that five hours was spent in focused attention? How much time did we spend on distractions, like checking our email, or Facebook or Twitter? The key is not the length of time we spend when learning something. The key is the amount of learning repetitions that we engage in. Repetition is one of the most powerful levers we have because it wires our brain. The power of repetition is well known by top performers, athletes, musicians, and the military. Time spent is not nearly as important as the number of reps.
So here is the first step: get rid of the watch. Instead, focus your attention on completing repetitions. Instead of saying, “I’ll study my notes for two hours,” say, “I’ll read my notes through, line by line, three times from start to finish.” This causes you to focus your attention on results. It also eliminates the “illusion of effectiveness” because you can’t fool yourself. Either you completed the task, or you didn’t.
2. Break everything down into small chunks.
Author and talent expert Daniel Coyle, in his best-selling book, The Talent Code, says that “chunks are to skill what the letters of the alphabet are to language. Alone, each is nearly useless, but when combined into bigger chunks (words), and when those chunks are combined into still bigger things (sentences, paragraphs), they can build something complex and beautiful.” Chunking is important because it is the way that our brain learns. Every skill or piece of knowledge that we attain is comprised of many smaller pieces, or chunks, of information.
One of the first things that we should do when attempting to learn something new is to break the material or task down into many small chunks. Do it for the entire task or material. What we are left with then is a whole bunch of small chunks. Once this is done we proceed to step three.
3. Perfect each chunk and then create a “chunk chain.”
Now that we have a whole bunch of chunks we can then proceed to master each individual chunk on its own. This is what we focus our repetitions on (see step 1). The task or skill that we are trying to learn is comprised of a whole bunch of smaller parts. We have determined what those smaller parts consist of, now we just perfect each part on its own, and as we perfect the parts we form a chunk chain. This is where we start to build on each chunk with another chunk, and over time we will completely master the entire process.
Most importantly, by doing it this way, we will find that we master the process much quicker than if we tried to memorize the entire task on its own. Thus, since we have built a chunk chain, we can see how each individual piece is related to the other pieces. This gives us a complex understanding of the task or material and allows us quick recall ability in the future.
4. Turn the learning process into a game, with rules and rewards.
We like games and our brain likes games. When learning becomes an enjoyable game, time stands still, and we immerse ourselves in repetitions of the material. So if we are trying to learn something new, an effective strategy is to “game it.” Create a game that we can play. Set the rules to the game, and create a rewards systems (this is another very important thing as the brain loves rewards).
Rewards are at the foundation of habit formation, as noted by Charles Duhigg in his best-selling book, The Power of Habit. Once a behavior becomes a habit we perform it much easier and faster. If we can create a reward system based on a game from the learning process, then we can crystallize learning as a habit and we will learn faster. Daniel Coyle, concerning the importance of games in learning also notes:
The term “drill” evokes a sense of drudgery and meaninglessness. It’s mechanical, repetitive, and boring—as the saying goes, drill and kill. Games, on the other hand, are precisely the opposite. They mean fun, connectedness, and passion. And because of that, skills improve faster when they’re looked at this way.
5. Repeat “focus bursts,” where we give our very best effort for a short period of time, then take fulfilling and refreshing breaks.
There are multiple studies that confirm that proper rest increases brain functioning. The typical, caffeine-induced, late night cramming session that most students engage in at least once in their life is not the most effective way to learn. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that it is the least effective way. If we want to learn something quickly, we need to do it when our minds are fresh. We need to engage in “focus bursts” where, with fresh energy and a well-rested mind, we focus all our attention on learning, perfecting, and linking the chunks (see step 3). Then, when we start to feel our effectiveness dissipate, we take breaks to recharge.
Focus burst, recharge, focus burst, recharge. Over and over again. This is the way to speed up the learning process. Long study sessions are not as effective as short bursts. In long sessions we are prone to distraction, and we are also prone to focusing on time rather than repetitions. However, if we will train ourselves to learn like a top athlete trains (in smaller, high intensity chunks) we will be very happy with the results that we get.