To learn faster: Sprint, Reflect, and Recharge.

Mauricio Martell
12 min readNov 9, 2020

Three essential tips to reduce learning time and retain knowledge

Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

We live in an age of data, and we’re hardly making full use of everything that circulates our area of expertise.

Better nutrition and medical advances to combat diseases place us in a more privileged position than our counterparts from 100 years ago; however, learning remains a struggle we face daily.

And I get it.

We’re busy; we’re no longer five-year-old sponges absorbing everything that happens around us; we come with responsibilities, wallets, cellphones, families, and all sorts of handicaps.

That’s why I share today three essential tips to make your learning experience faster and more effective, no matter your current situation:

  1. Time and space your sessions.
  2. Digest and produce content.
  3. Detoxify from dopamine and replenish your energy.

Tip 1: Time and space your sessions

Break things into smaller parts.

The more complex a skill or task is, the more reward we get from converting the actions to perform and knowledge to assimilate into digestible bits of information.

At first, dense content may represent an insurmountable amount of effort to understand, and that might prevent us from initiating any action. To avoid demotivation, we make our lives simpler by decomposing the material into smaller pieces easier to assimilate.

Even when we’re writing, in order not to overwhelm readers, diluting content into smaller paragraphs makes things better for everyone. It gives writers a more manageable time editing and delivers users a more pleasant reading experience.

For example, if we want to understand what building a web page entails, we start with two simple processes: Front-End development and Back-End development.

Front-End development, the process of visualizing the page and its content, will lead to a series of tasks, languages, and techniques to create the visual output users will interact.

Meanwhile, Back-End will teach us all the inner components that make websites tick, components users never notice but make pages functional.

Further than that, the process of actually learning to make websites will take us beyond mere concepts to practical skills that differentiate professionals from students and curious bystanders.

With the right focus, time investment, and approach, people claim one can learn web development in 6 months; this is only attainable if we can commit enough resources to the goal, with the principal being time.

If you’ve ever experienced building any complex skill from scratch, you might be aware of the many more nuisances it also comes with, and the only reason we would put up with such obstacles is the expected reward.

When putting all of that time and effort into perspective, anything from 6 months to a year, enough can happen to put into question any significant resolve.

Breaking things into smaller parts also adds the benefit of establishing milestones to keep us in check. Achieving these personal mental goals is vital to maintain momentum; it also allows us to ask for help more quickly since we’re focusing on specific issues. Not the whole ordeal of, let’s say, building a website, but rather, how to sort a couple of pictures using CSS.

Once you decompose learning into smaller parts, you realize it won’t come in one go. Instead, you’ll need to dedicate a certain amount of time, scattered through different sessions, to attain the desired level of expertise.

If you’re in a hurry, ask someone for help to decompose what you wish to know. An excellent platform to ask is Quora. Save yourself a college degree equivalent of knowledge might be beyond a simple question, but for more straightforward requests like

  1. How can you migrate to Canada,
  2. How to open a can,
  3. How to learn AWS,

You might be glad you did it.

Schedule your practices to make things easier.

We may have transformed the task into digestible pieces, but we don’t have to swallow it all in one go. Otherwise, we’d all be bodybuilders by performing exercises non-stop for 48 hours straight.

Our bodies need to adapt. In the case of intellectual matters, we must give our neurons time to recover and create paths.

The act of creating neuronal paths means repetition. The more we do something, the clearer the message for our brain to forge neuronal connections. However, this needs to happen over a reasonable amount of time. One that lets our bodies recover, assimilate, and rebuild. Because of this, learning needs to occur over several sessions.

The sessions need not be of the same length, though. At first, alien material and new skills consume more time to sink in; subsequent practices last less.

Besides the time required for dumping information into our brains, we have to consider a necessary amount of study for the knowledge to consolidate.

Ideally, for every 15-minutes of new knowledge we input into our brain, we can start with a 20-minute deliberate practice session, repeat the next day for 5 to 10 minutes and revisit the content for another 5 to 10 minutes a week later.

Furthermore, in some cases, new knowledge stacks over previous knowledge. The act of working over new concepts will tell us when to revisit past learnings to complement or modify what we’d already assimilated.

An added benefit of scheduling our session is we can seclude ourselves easier. Interruptions distort our concentration and force us to reenter the flow-state; sometimes, it is inevitable. A child crying demands immediate action; my energy bars refilling in Candy Crush is a notification I can very well ignore.

We can reduce the number of disruptions during our learning sessions if we set a proper schedule. If my wife knows I’m studying, she’s less likely to interrupt unless the matter is urgent. I can safely turn off my phone and work around my body clock and other major distractions if I set timing beforehand.

Let your body talk.

I mention the body clock because I’m mainly a Nite-Owl; under normal circumstances, I have an easier time studying later at night than very early in the morning. But I also know my job will likely keep me pre-occupied enough to have not much energy when I want to study at ten o’clock.

There are some topics I also feel more manageable to immerse myself in than others; chemistry is something I don’t attempt. I listen to soft classical music while studying; my teenage daughter uses Bachata to finish her homework, and my son asks her sister to keep it down when he must focus. People’s bodies and interests differ.

While it is vital to maintain a schedule, you don’t set it in stone. You adjust practices to your convenience and monitor your advances to change course if needed.

What matters is to keep it going.

Foresee steep learning curves.

The best reward comes when we complete tasks hardly anybody is capable (or allowed) to perform. As expected, the entry difficulty helps keep the path uncrowded of competition. As a consequence, a steep learning curve comes up ahead.

I’ve already advised you to break things into smaller parts; now, I emphasize these pieces must be small enough to be digestible. Everyone can drive, provided their senses and movements are operational; hardly anyone does so in one go after reading a booklet.

Some things can prove more difficult than others. If we foresee it might happen, we should also change our plans accordingly.

Lucky for us, there are several turnarounds when things become difficult to assimilate. One of them is to rest, ignore the issue, and let your brain do its work.

Transforming the problem into a question makes it easier to identify what you need help with and whom you might ask about it.

Alternatively, googling the topic may provide some light into how others dealt with the problem.

Even if the topic is not that hard, our mental supplies are finite. It’s better to approach the task with regular, timed sessions. Depending on your current level of attention, you can accompany a 20-minute intense focus study session with a 5-minute break, followed by another 20-minute intense session.

Space your repetitions.

Spread your learning sessions at strategic intervals to build an optimal mental infrastructure. As I said before, give your brain time to upgrade; information needs to move from your working memory to your long-term memory, but it won’t happen unless the brain acknowledges it’s required.

We accomplish this by revisiting studied topics, repeating exercises, teaching, answering questions, and undertaking projects that apply that knowledge.

Tip 2: Digest and produce content

Learning isn’t a passive activity. We informed ourselves by watching videos or reading books, but that doesn’t necessarily allow us to adapt that knowledge into practical use.

We can engage with the stuff we learn by discussing, solving problems, roleplaying, drawing mental maps, taking notes, and applying several other methods.

At this stage, our knowledge may well be internal; we need to bring it outside to test in reality what we think we’ve assimilated.

For this reason, my tip consists of producing all forms of content with the information you’re digesting.

What’s in it for you?

Externalizing our perception of reality makes us vulnerable as we get exposed to critique, but it is an excellent way to test what we think we’ve learned.

A very effective way of active learning is teaching; psychologists call it the protege effect. When we teach someone, we force ourselves to be more accurate and dig more in-depth on the content we’re studying.

However, this added effort doesn’t necessarily consume more time. By reaching deep thinking, we focus better on what matters or we need to correct.

Exploring something from various angles broadens our perception, something useful when we move to the stage of applying what we learned.

Thus, we end up saving time we’d have to use revisiting the material or making more serious mistakes.

Be an output person.

As you sit to watch a video passively, you’re feeding your brain with information, explained Nishant Kasibhatla; what we must do next to digest it is to engage with the data to produce practical experiences.

It is those practical experiences that lead us to grow.

Keep asking yourself questions.

We ease our way into knowledge by asking questions, suggested Jim Kiwik in his video How To Double Your Learning Speed; he stated three questions he always asks himself:

“How can I use this?”

“Why must I use this?”

“What did I gain?”

We can do more when watching videos or attending lectures than simply listening; we can ask questions. We can engage with the message in more proactive ways so that, as we consume knowledge, we begin to expand our view of reality.

When we read, we ask ourselves questions to increase comprehension and discover what the lecture brings to the table. “If you get to the end of a page in a book and you didn’t get anything out of it, it’s because you’re not asking questions,” said Jim Kiwik.

We learn by doing, build on what you know.

Teaching isn’t the only active exercise to work with the content you learn. We all take notes. I couldn’t survive at the office if I didn’t.

Expand on your notes, find missing pieces. Explore your previous notes, link them with your new knowledge.

Much of what you will come across will expand things you already know. Take advantage of that. Explore how the new data fits with your pre-existent knowledge.

Find commonalities, discrepancies.

Most importantly, learning comes with intention. Thus you might have your ideas of how you wanted to apply your new skills.

Test your growth.

Engage in projects that challenge you to apply your newly earned expertise in ways similar to what you sought to accomplish.

Tip 3: Detoxify your thoughts and replenish your energy.

You’ll wish to start your study sessions with the right state of mind. That will not always be possible. When you sit down, you may come charged with sensory overloading, low motivation levels, lack of focus, and you might appreciate having simple routines to get rid of all that mental baggage.

Don’t take things personally.

Starting a session with charged emotions handicaps our focus.

There are some techniques we can practice to regain our balance faster.

For starters, learn to let go and not let things in. Most of the time, things are hardly about us. Someone yelling at the office, a driver intruding in your lane, a passive-aggressive comment landing in your feed, all those things tend to happen.

What most humans do in these situations is rationalize.

He had an insufficient sleep; she was in a hurry; he’s scared his rights are under attack. This way, we rationalize from our perspective: in their shoes, I might act similarly.

Sometimes it’s something personal. If it hurts, Frederik Imbo says, chances are it is rooted in your childhood. What he suggests is to give yourself empathy.

Another technique is mindfulness. Or the simple act of focusing on our breath and watch ourselves from above.

Keeping an uncluttered desk within a clean and private area facilitates our mind to recognize the issue exists outside, and we’ve entered a safe place.

Good stress.

As an evolutionary legacy, it served its purpose. It still does provide us with boosts of energy and triggered focus.

In her 2013 Ted Talk speech, Kelly McGonigal proposes to shift the way we view stress. I will not say I welcome it now, but I recognize the importance of moderate stress levels in improving our lives, primarily because of the rat-utopia experiment.

I also recognize that the way we see problems may sometimes be a problem itself.

If you’re about to sit down to study, think a little regarding your emotional situation. Think of those you’ll benefit by learning new skills. Think of the times you’ve helped others with what you’ve learned.

Bringing those thoughts might trigger your resilience and redirect your focus.

Prevent your senses from overloading.

A cluttered desk may distract most people’s focus, but some thrive in what others perceive as chaotic. You can quickly find out what category you align with by removing every distractable object within your study zone and evaluate the difference.

However, our attention span is limited. Unlike playing videogames, an activity we can endure for several uninterrupted hours, learning depletes our attention a lot faster. If we keep our phones nearby all the time, we might interrupt ourselves every five minutes.

It’s better to remove all distractions from our safe space so that learning takes all of our focus.

Just as the sleep foundation suggests to turn devices off one hour before going to sleep, you might experience the benefits of not stimulating your senses an hour before a study session.

Fast from Dopamine

From time to time, you might reap the benefits of uncluttering your mind.

If you pay too much attention to your phone and that causes uncomfortable distractions, subtly increase your time away from it until you normalize the urges of checking it.

At first glance, this might look daunting. Brandon Nankivell from the One Percent Better channel suggests beginning by identifying the behavior one wants to change, like constantly checking your phone throughout the day.

Next, identify what reward you’re craving. Why is it important to keep checking the phone at all times? It could be social media addiction, yearning for social interaction, or merely the need to distract from your work.

Follow up by identifying the trigger. At what times does the problem occur the most, under which circumstances, which people are involved, what happens afterward.

Finally, make a plan. Opt for a healthy behavior to replace the negative one. Should you fail at replacing the bad habit, iterate. Try around some alternatives until you nail one that frees you.

All of that said, the idea is to induce a calmer state of mind for learning, not negating dopamine consumption.

Final words

Remember, learning and mastery aren’t the same.

Coming back to the website analogy, learning to build a simple website consumes relatively little time; creating a Netflix clone might require some experience and patience.

It all depends on your goals, the resources you’re able to consume, and the challenges you decide to tackle. More demanding challenges make us grow faster, but they are also more likely to have us ragequit if we see no progress.

In many cases, when we want to expand our employability, our skill levels will be superficial. The real test will occur in practice, facing actual Business projects, but then we’ll have tools and assistance we won’t encounter in a vacuum. Therefore, make sure to prosecute reasonable and meaningful goals.

The confidence competence loop.

The confidence-competence loop is a psychological concept opposite of the Dunning Krugger effect. The loop occurs because the more competent we are at something, the more confident we feel about doing it, and the more we practice.

Furthermore, the lack of confidence decelerates our growth because it tricks us into procrastination. No practice, no change.

Achieve results with fewer efforts.

The state we’d all love to achieve is mastery. The stage in which we execute a task with minimal effort. The transition needs effort, consistency, and a sound learning system.

But just like driving becomes a lot less demanding with experience, any task, when performed adequately and with intent, approach us to that stage.

If someone asked me if we all can learn to play golf at the same level as Tiger Woods, my answer would be negative. However, everyone can learn to play and enjoy golf.