The Explosion of Information Overload
Whereas it used to be only doctors and programmers who struggled to keep up with the pace of their field, today, it’s almost everybody. Marketing managers who aren’t caught up on all the latest consumer psychology research. Sales professionals who haven’t learned the latest features of their software of choice. Professionals in every industry who want to take their career to the next level but are struggling to keep up with the work they already have—much less make time for leisure learning.
Fortunately, there’s a better way. A way to not only choose the right things to learn, but to absorb them with relative ease—and actually remember them! Fortunately, you can become a super learner.
The Only Skill That Matters
‘Learning’ is the only skill that matters. After all, if you can learn effectively, you can learn—or become—anything you want. With these skills, you can go from being a depressed social outcast to a happy and successful entrepreneur. You can go from being a struggling young professional to a leader in the company of your dreams. Most of all, you can go from wherever you are today to wherever it is you aspire to go. And that’s why, now, it’s your turn to learn
Learn like a Caveman
You see, the types of information that gave our Paleolithic ancestors a survival advantage didn’t come from textbooks or Bible verses. It was olfactory, gustatory, and visual information—in other words, smell, taste, and sight
The most innovative schools, from the established Montessori to the new-age MUSE, know this and have modeled themselves accordingly. Students in these schools don’t learn geometry from a textbook; they learn it by building real structures and observing real phenomena. They don’t study biology by listening to a teacher drone on; they learn it by cultivating gardens that feed the entire school. Fortunately, it is not too late for you to claim your birthright as a super learner. You just need to return to the basics. To learn like a caveman. But first, let’s examine what it actually takes for your brain to learn something
10X Your Memory: The Power of Visualization
If you want to improve your memory tenfold, create novel visualizations, called “markers,” for everything you wish to remember. As a general rule, the markers you come up with should abide by the following rules.
Rule #1 Create Highly Detailed Visualizations
First, picture as much detail as possible. By creating a high level of detail, you ensure that you are adequately visualizing a vivid, memorable image in your mind’s eye.
Rule #2 Opt for the “Out There”
Next, wherever possible, your visualizations should include absurd, bizarre, violent, or sexual imagery. Though it might make you blush, the truth is, our brains crave the novel.
Rule #3 Leverage Your Existing Knowledge
The next important principle in developing our visual markers comes from our dear old friend Dr. Knowles. Wherever possible, you should make use of images, ideas, or memories you already have.
Rule #4 Connect It Back
Finally, it’s important that as you create visualizations, you also create logical connections to what you’re trying to remember. Obviously, a visual marker is no good if you can’t remember what it stands for.
For example: instead of trying to memorize the word caber, or “to fit” in Spanish, we can come up with a visualization of a taxi cab trying to fit a bear inside.
This is an example of a truly perfect marker. First, it has the sounds: “cab” and “bear,” which allows us to work our way back to the sound of the word. Second, it’s ridiculous! If you saw a bear hanging out of the window of a taxi cab, you’d remember it—wouldn’t you? Finally, what’s so clever about this marker is that it has the meaning, “to fit,” baked right in.
Never Forget Again: The Power of Spaced Repetition
Spacing effect states that things become infinitely more memorable if we repeatedly encounter them. You should also meet its supportive cousin, the lag effect. It states that the spacing effect is compounded when encounters are spaced out for extended periods of time. Learning something once, no matter how well you do it, just isn’t enough. In his early work, Herman Ebbinghaus found that there were tremendous benefits to continued review—even if he believed he “knew” the material. He called this technique overlearning, and it’s an essential part of creating memories that stick. Fortunately, there’s a smart way to do this—a way that minimizes wasted time and cuts things down to the minimum effective dose.
Today, there are a range of spaced repetition systems (SRS) out there. These include the completely free Anki, the former memory champion Ed Cooke’s Memrise, and even new upstarts, such as Brainscape.
The idea behind digital SRSs is quite simple. Create flashcards—or download someone else’s—complete with audio, video, pictures, and text. Then, start reviewing. For each piece of information, tell the software how difficult it was to answer, on a scale of one to four. The algorithm then considers your answers and reaction times and predicts when you’re likely to forget that card. If you answer “easy” within a few seconds, you’re unlikely to see that flashcard again for weeks—or months! If you struggle before admitting defeat, the flashcard will come up again during that study session. In fact, you’ll see it again and again, until it’s easy. Then, it will come up again tomorrow, and the day after that, until you can consistently answer quickly and confidently.
The end result is a whittling down of the amount of review necessary to learn large amounts of information. This allows you to either save time, if the amount of information you need to learn is fixed, or to pile on new information sooner
Use Both Visualization & Spaced Repetition
Visual mnemonics are not enough without spaced repetition. Well, it turns out, the converse is also true. Always create visual markers—even if you don’t add pictures to your flashcards. Where appropriate, remember to place those markers into a memory palace. This will supercharge your spaced repetition and save you even more review time.
Priming Your Brain: The Power of Pre-Reading
The skill we call pre-reading is actually two processes in one: Surveying and Questioning
Pre-Reading: Surveying the Situation
When we pre-read a text, we’re essentially skimming. But not your normal type of skimming. Instead, we’re spending a couple of seconds per page, skimming at a speed of about five to eight times our current reading speed. We are not reading the text—or even trying to. Instead, we’re looking for titles, subheadings, proper nouns, numbers, words, or anything that doesn’t seem to fit in. When we pre-read, we gain an understanding of the structure of the text, and we build a sort of mental map. If there are cutaways, or terms that jump out at us as unfamiliar, we stop our pre-reading and gain a better understanding before resuming.
This means that when you actually read the text, all you have to do is fill in the rest of the details. This skill takes time to fully develop, but it’s a pivotal one in speed-reading—or reading in general. Practice it diligently, and it will make you a much more effective and focused reader.
Pre-Reading: Question Everything
How will I use this information? As you pre-read the text and begin to get a feel for its contents, try to envision scenarios in which it could affect your life. Imagine how you could benefit from having that knowledge. How could you use this knowledge in your day-to-day life? Who are some people in your life with whom you could share it? When might it be useful for sparking up a conversation? It sounds basic, but simply giving your brain this “why” is often the difference between intently focusing and feeling your eyes glaze over.
Dr. Malcolm Knowles, adults learn much more effectively when we have an immediate application and a pressing need for whatever it is we’re learning. This, more than the actual format of the test, is probably why studies show testing to be such a boon to learning. After all, as the saying goes, “Learning is not a spectator sport.” So why not develop our own “tests” in ways that are fast, fun, and effective.
Let’s say you’re learning a musical instrument, and you wish to improve by a certain amount. You could always hire a private tutor to “test” your knowledge of the piano. But in reality, this will be much less rigorous than a form of testing that requires analysis, critical thinking, or even your own creation. What if you instead committed to testing your skills by learning a friend’s favorite song for their birthday? Better yet, what if you committed to composing an original piece for them? Now that would be a powerful test of everything you’ve learned, from key signatures to tempo, and it’s bound to be more rewarding than some boring online quiz.
Done this way, “testing” yourself can not only be fast but also fun. It need not feel like a waste of time; it can be practical and useful. Sure, subjecting yourself to a more traditional form of testing is certainly advisable and is definitely worth doing, if you can bear it. With that said, to truly become a super learner, you need to take a broader view of what “testing” means.