I came across a site where a guy was promoting his steps for how to learn anything more quickly. You had to pay for his materials (which isn’t necessarily wrong or bad). It got me wondering, though, what science has to say about learning rapidly or more effectively.

Of the nine (and more) articles I read, there was probably 30-40% of the advice that seemed to have scientific backing. I decided to “normalize” the advice and see which bits were most repeated. My goal was to extract a “best” system from the available information.

This is by no means complete, or particularly scientific. There are tons of resources on this subject. It’s a first attempt, and sort of a statistical sampling approach. Basically: is there common advice that also has science behind it?

Why is this important to me? Because my field, software programming, changes rapidly. I’m always having to learn something new. I can’t become an expert at any of it. I literally don’t have enough time. But, I can become productive with new technologies. And that’s where rapid learning matters.

Rapid Has its Limits

In general, the articles imply (or state) there’s only so fast people generally learn and retain new information. So, “rapid learning” is somewhat misleading.

  1. What’s important to me is effective learning.
  2. And, becoming good, not an expert.

The Articles

At the end of this post I include all my notes on the articles, but some people just like lists. So, here’s the list.

Other Articles

My Plan - Taking the Best Bits

Based on my research so far, here’s my approach/process to rapid learning that I’m going to test.

  1. What do I want to become good at or learn?
  2. Define success and goal, be specific.
  3. Gather resources.
  4. Create a plan. The plan will change.
  5. Commit to 20 hours before allowed to quit.
  6. Get started, do something small and useful first, and focus on important parts of resources, the parts that achieve the goal and definition of success.
  7. Build on prior knowledge.
  8. (Prepare to) Teach (this could be actual teaching, or more likely blog posts)

Effective behaviors/practices

  • Initially get praise for committment and for the process
  • Adjust the process as needed
  • Learn enough to self-correct
  • Practice/play deliberately: with intensity and on what you don’t know how to do. Remove distractions.
  • Work through the slump
  • Later, get critiques
  • Determine how late in the day I can learn, and also first thing in the morning
  • Demonstrate (journal) that effort => improvement

Common Advice

From most to least, the repeated advice.

Number of repetitions in parenthesis. Science-backed advice is in bold.

  1. Take breaks (sleep)(space the learning)(learn in short bursts of time) (5)
  2. Practice effectively (Learn from multiple sources)(Vary the exercise)(Do not multitask)(method matters)(learn enough to self-correct) (5)
  3. Learn by doing (4)
  4. Find resources (3)
  5. Focus on most important parts (3)
  6. Value process over performance (effective feedback)(process praise)(effort) (3)
  7. Teach (3)
  8. Define success/commit to a goal (2)
  9. Find teacher/coach/model (2)
  10. Big picture research/decide what to learn (2)
  11. Create a learning plan (2)
  12. Be persistent and patient (1)
  13. Connect new ideas to prior knowledge (1)
  14. Deadlines (1)
  15. Don’t find out if there’s lots of competition (except in exercise) (1)
  16. Don’t initially share goal if tied to identity (1)
  17. Examples (help transfer learning to new situations) (1)
  18. Filter resources (focus on most important parts) (1)
  19. Initially value performance (immediate feedback) (1)
  20. Motivation comes from belief that effort => improvement (1)
  21. Only make yourself accountable to people you trust (1)
  22. Take notes by hand (1)
  23. Beginners are more concernd with their committment to the goal (positive feedback) (1)
  24. Experts are more concerned with their progress toward the goal (critical feedback) (1)

Conflicting Advice

One article said that “Nothing is more motivating than making a public commitment to others. They will pick you up when you are down and hold you accountable if you fail.” However, the article on goals says that research shows the oppositive is more often true. A public commitment, especially on goals tied to identity, decreases the chances of success.


5 Powerful Steps to Learn Anything Faster

  1. Method beats hours - Choose an effective method (but isn’t that what this article should be about?)
  2. Apply the 80/20 rule - Pareto’s Law, 80% of outputs will come from 20% of inputs. Decide what you want to achieve and focus on the information that leads to that.
  3. Learn by doing - Immersion is by far the best way to learn anything. And as research shows, it turns out that humans retain:
  • 5% of what they learn when they’ve learned from a lecture.
  • 10% of what they learn when they’ve learned from reading.
  • 20% of what they learn from audio-visual.
  • 30% of what they learn when they see a demonstration
  • 50% of what they learn when engaged in a group discussion.
  • 75% of what they learn when they practice what they learned.
  • 90% of what they learn when they use it immediately.
  1. Find a coach - Having a coach helps you not quit (for one thing). Seth Godin says there are five reasons you might quit anything you do:
  • You run out of time (and quit)
  • You run out of money (and quit)
  • You get scared (and quit)
  • You’re not serious about it (and quit)
  • You lose interest (and quit)
  1. Process over performance - Especially initially, don’t worry about what your achieving. Focus on the steps (the process)

The System that I use to learn quickly

Tips taken from John Z. Sonmez’s Soft Skills- The software developer’s life manual

  1. Get the Big Picture - Do basic research on the topic. Maybe there’s something else you’re going to need to know.
  2. Determine Scope - Narrow the big picture and determine exactly what you want to learn. Break down the abstract goal to some specific outcomes.
  3. Define Success - A clear, concise, measurable statement. E.g. “Be able to present An introduction of Qt effectively”
  4. Find Resources - Gather/find as many resources as you can.
  5. Create a learning plan - After reviewing the resources, plan what to learn. Don’t read cover-to-cover. Pick according to your focus and success definition.
  6. Filter Resources - Remove unneeded resources.
  7. Learn Enough to Get [Started] - Don’t consume the resources profoundly. Just enough to start playing.
  8. Play Around - Prototype, start developing questions. Don’t worry about outcomes.
  9. Learn Enough to Do Something Useful - Answer questions, drive toward success.
  10. Teach - Don’t skip this step. Teach what you’ve learned, even if you teach it imperfectly.

10 Steps to Learn Any Skill (and Why They Will Change Your Life)

  1. Decide What to Learn - When prioritizing projects, think in terms of utility and excitement. Go with your gut.
  2. Get Started Right Away - What’s the very next action you can take? Do it right away. Build momentum.
  3. Read the Manual - “Drinking deeply from the experiences of others will save you years of future dead ends and frustrations.”
  4. Make a List - List everything you’ve collected that might help achieve your goal.
  5. Commit to a Goal - Write it down. Positive, present, first person, is if you already achievd it. SMART: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time Bound. (But note the wrong advice on making goals public)
  6. Make a Plan -
  7. Practice - Practice little, often, and purposefully.
  8. Teach - Even if you don’t actually teach, prepare is if you’re going to.
  9. Take Breaks - Not just daily, but after long efforts. Take days or a week off.
  10. Be Persistent and Patient -

How to Learn Anything Faster

  1. Break the skill into parts, and practice the most important parts first - Deconstruction helps determine importance.
  2. Learn from an actual expert -
  3. Learn from multiple sources - Studies show that the more different ways you experience a piece of information, the more likely you are to retain it.
  4. Spend one-third of your time researching, and two-thirds of your time practicing - “Our brains evolved to learn by doing things, not by hearing about them,” Dan Coyle told TIME Magazine.
  5. Pre-commit to practicing for at least 20 hours - 20 hours before thinking of quitting.
  6. Get immediate feedback on your performance - (Note the contrast to method vs performance, though)
  7. Give yourself deadlines - Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
  8. Focus, focus, focus - No multitasking, makes you 40% less productive and 50% more mistakes.
  9. Get enough sleep -
  10. Don’t quit after the honeymoon phase - This is why committing to 20 hour is valuable.

New Way to Bulk Up Your Brain: Learn Like a Baby

The scientists unexpectedly discovered that adult brains can grow after less than two hours of tasks, imitating the rapid learning that occurs during early childhood.

Report reveals ‘The Science of Learning’

  1. How do learners understand new ideas? - “Students learn new concepts by connecting them to information they already know. To help learners transfer new information into long-term memory, researchers suggest relating new ideas to learners’ prior knowledge.”
  2. How do learners retain new information? - “Reinforcement, particularly in the form of practice, is essential to retaining new information. But not all practice is created equal. For effective practice, it should be spaced over weeks and months, to aid long-term retention. This can be accomplished through practice sessions, quizzes or teaching students to test themselves. To maximize effectiveness, consider interleaving – or alternating – the practice of different skills during a single session.”
  3. How do learners solve problems? - Effective feedback is essential. A) Specific/clear, B) Focus on approach, not learner’s proficiency, C) Guide learner through improved approach, not just a performance assessment.
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations? - “Examples help learners understand new ideas in different contexts. Instructors should provide both concrete and abstract examples that highlight the concept or underlying principle.”

  5. What motivates people to learn? - “Learners are more motivated when they believe that they can improve their skills through hard work. Also, if students can self-monitor their progress, they will be able to accurately gauge their understanding, target weak points and move forward.”

Six Brain Hacks To Learn Anything Faster

  1. Teach Someone Else (Or Just Pretend To) - “When teachers prepare to teach, they tend to seek out key points and organize information into a coherent structure,…”
  2. Learn In Short Bursts Of Time - “Experts at the Louisiana State University’s Center for Academic Success suggest dedicating 30-50 minutes to learning new material. “Anything less than 30 is just not enough, but anything more than 50 is too much information for your brain to take in at one time,” writes learning strategies graduate assistant Ellen Dunn. Once you’re done, take a five to 10 minute break before you start another session.”
  3. Take Notes By Hand - “In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand,…”
  4. Use The Power Of Mental Spacing - To retain material, Carey said it’s best to review the information one to two days after first studying it.
  5. Take A Study Nap - “Previous research suggested that sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but now we show that sleeping between two learning sessions greatly improves such a strategy.”
  6. Change It Up - “What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master,” he writes, “you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row.”

The Science-Backed Reasons You Shouldn’t Share Your Goals

  1. Receiving premature praise for a goal makes follow through less likely - “the simple act of sharing your goal publicly can make you less likely to do the work to achieve it…if your goal is closely tied to your identity, it might be best to keep it to yourself. This way, premature praise won’t fool you into feeling like you’ve already achieved your aim.”
  2. Receiving “person praise” versus “process praise” could decrease your motivation - Researchers inferred that “all age groups beyond preschool appear to be more positively affected by process praise than person praise after encountering failure.”
  3. If you’re a beginner, getting negative feedback could stop you - “If you’re a beginner, you’ll need positive feedback, but if you’re an expert, the opposite is true. It may help to tell the person exactly what kind of feedback you need at this stage.”
  4. Accountability doesn’t always work - “Is this person a friend I can trust to hold me accountable? If so, they might be a better accountability partner than an acquaintance or stranger you don’t trust.”
  5. Hearing about competition might make you back off - People who are told there’s lots of competition (for a goal) will back off, “win by not losing”. However, in exercise it’s the opposite, where competition helps people succeed.