How To Learn Anything

How To Learn Anything

Disclosure: some of the links in this article are affiliate links.

Learning a new skill is exciting. But learning how to learn is a skill that we're never really taught. This is a real tragedy and one that hasn't gone unnoticed.

There are plenty of self-help gurus with courses designed to help you learn how to learn. But there's a lot of noise in this space, in my opinion. A lot of fluff. I want to cut through that noise.

There's really only one thing you need to know.

The Key To Learning Anything: The Repetition–Refinement Feedback Loop

One of the biggest myths about learning is the so-called 10,000-hour rule. This "rule" states that you need to accumulate approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in something. The idea is based on research by Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who found that top performers — think chess grandmasters and musical virtuosos — trained for at least 10,000 hours before winning their first international competition.

The 10,000-hour rule was popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his 2007 book Outliers: The Story of Success. Author and business coach Josh Kaufman observed that a "society-wide game of telephone" began with this book. What started as a statement about top performers morphed into a "rule" about learning in general. And it's patently untrue.

What the 10,000-hour rule gets right, though, is the importance of practice. But you don't need to practice for 10,000 hours to learn something new. Even K. Anders Ericsson observed that it takes a surprisingly short amount of time to become reasonably good at something:

Let's imagine you are learning to play golf for the first time. In the early phases, you try to understand the basic strokes and focus on avoiding gross mistakes (like driving the ball into another player). You practice on the putting green, hit balls at a driving range, and play rounds with others who are most likely novices like you. In a surprisingly short time (perhaps 50 hours), you will develop better control and your game will improve. (Source)

When you start to learn something new, you tend to improve exponentially. But, eventually, your improvement levels off, and even though you are still practicing, you aren't improving. This frustrating improvement plateau happens because you aren't practicing deliberately.

To keep improving, you need to develop the ability to self-edit. This requires repeating a task over and over again, recognizing small mistakes, and adjusting to correct them. Here's how K. Anders Ericsson, continuing the golf analogy, describes deliberate practice:

Your golf game now is a social outing, in which you occasionally concentrate on your shot. From this point on, additional time on the course will not substantially improve your performance, which may remain at the same level for decades.

Why does this happen? You don't improve because when you are playing a game, you get only a single chance to make a shot from any given location. You don't get to figure out how you can correct mistakes. If you were allowed to take five to ten shots from the exact same location on the course, you would get more feedback on your technique and start to adjust your playing style to improve your control. (Source)

I call this the repetition-refinement feedback loop, and I've experienced its power in my own life. Learn enough to recognize errors, repeat a task until mistakes become apparent, adjust performance to correct the mistakes. Rinse and repeat.

Five Steps To Learn Anything

I firmly believe the repetition-refinement loop is the key to learning anything — and to continue to learn over a lifetime. So how do you do it? Throughout my years of learning, I've narrowed it down to five steps:

  1. Break the skill into smaller subskills
  2. Learn the fundamentals
  3. Practice for at least fifteen hours
  4. Remove learning barriers
  5. Teach what you learn

Let's pick apart each of the five steps in more depth.

Step 1: Break The Skill Into Smaller Subskills

No matter how large the task seems, every skill I've ever learned only required learning three to five things to get started. The trick is knowing what those subskills are. Do a bit of research and break the skill down into smaller subskills. Go as deep as you can and try to identify the essential skills you need to learn before starting your learning journey.

This isn't as easy as it sounds. Many skills are much easier to deconstruct with guidance from someone who knows more than you do. Find someone ahead of you on their learning path to help you identify the key things to focus on as a novice.

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Tip: Expert advice is helpful, but experts are sometimes too far removed from the plight of a novice to offer the most valuable help. The best guide is just a few steps ahead of you, preferably someone in your situation no more than one year ago, who has successfully advanced in their learning.

A great tool for deconstructing a skill is a mind map. A mind map is a visual way of organizing skills, topics, and ideas around a central concept. You only need some paper and a pencil to make one. If you like apps, I highly recommend MindNode.

Step 2: Learn The Fundamentals

Find two or three resources covering the subskills you identified in step one. These could be blog posts, books, online courses, notes from a class — anything that contains the fundamentals of the skill you want to learn.

The goal here is to learn just enough to self-edit. You need to be able to recognize when you're making a mistake. Don't get caught in tutorial hell. Learn a few things, then start practicing.

Take notes while you're learning the fundamentals. All you need is a pen and paper, but it's best if your notes are searchable so you can find what you're looking for in the future. If you have a smartphone, you might be able to take pictures of your notes and use text recognition to search them. Personally, I use the GoodNotes app on my iPad to take handwritten notes with the Apple pencil.

Test yourself often. Flashcards are a good way to create little quizzes that you can reuse. I use old-fashioned paper cards for this, but I know many people that prefer Anki.

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Tip: While self-testing, avoid memorization. Instead, focus on making connections between the concepts you're learning. Ask yourself open-ended questions and revisit them often as you learn more.

Once you've learned a few fundamentals, it's time to get your hands dirty. Make some mistakes and break some things. It's all a normal part of the learning process!

Step 3: Practice For Atleast Fifteen Hours

The goal here is to become reasonably good at the skill. It's difficult to define what "reasonably good" means. In my experience, it boils down to being able to perform the skill without overthinking it. It does not mean performing the skill perfectly. Making mistakes at this point is perfectly OK.

Why fifteen hours? That's roughly 30 minutes a day for one month. Of course, the time it takes to be reasonably good at something will vary, but fifteen hours is usually enough time.

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Tip: When you start to practice, don't worry too much about being deliberate. Repetition is essential for improvement, but too much repetition is tedious and breeds apathy, especially when you're a novice. Don't kill your enthusiasm. Have fun.

Don't cram your practice into long sessions. Instead, split it up across multiple days. Studies have shown that spaced practice leads to better long-term memory. On days that you aren't practicing one skill, practice another. Interleaving small, related skills improves your overall understanding by strengthening connections between the skills.

Keep a practice log and treat it like a journal. Record what you practiced, how you felt about it, what you did well and what you struggled with. I use Notion to log things like this, but good ol' paper and pencil work just as well.

Step 4: Remove Learning Barriers

A learning barrier is anything that keeps you from learning as efficiently as possible. Use your practice log to identify and track learning barriers. Make a note of anything that causes friction and experiment with ways to eliminate the problem.

There are four types of learning barriers:

  1. Physical
  2. Emotional
  3. Psychological
  4. Physiological

Physical barriers include your location and your environment. Of course, the ideal location depends on the skill you're learning. For example, if you're training to become a competitive swimmer, you won't get far if you train in your bathtub.

Most of the skills I've learned involve a computer and require deep focus and concentration. I have difficulty concentrating with background noise, but a quiet location isn't always available to me. A good pair of noise-canceling headphones can transform a noisy environment into a calm, peaceful learning sanctuary.

Physical learning barriers are, in theory, the most manageable. Just change your location and environment. Finding what works best for you, though, requires experimentation.

Emotional barriers involve fears and anxieties you may have about learning. Learning exposes you to the unknown, and the unknown is scary. Everyone I know that took on learning something new was anxious about it, so if you experience anxiety, you're in good company.

Seek out a support group. They could be classmates or an online community. Despite its general tilt towards toxicity, even social media can provide a network of supporters.

Psychological barriers are things like ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, or autism. These are significant barriers to learning and the most difficult to control. The first step is to be aware of them. Talk to a medical professional if you believe you suffer from a psychological condition.

Physiological barriers, such as getting enough sleep and eating well, are, in my experience, easy to ignore. For example, if I don't set reminders for myself, I can easily skip a meal when caught up with a task.

Sleep is probably the most critical physiological barrier to control. When you sleep, your brain process everything you've learned that day and makes new connections in your brain. Studies have shown that exercise also plays a role in memory. I like to walk. Walking boosts my mood and improves my focus. It's also a great way to deal with frustration.

Step 5: Teach What You've Learned

As soon as you know one thing about whatever you're learning, you know more than someone else who wants to learn but hasn't started. When you share this with someone else, you solidify your own knowledge. Teaching also exposes gaps in your understanding and helps you identify areas that need improvement.

Teaching is scary. I know because I've done it. A lot. When you teach, you are vulnerable. But you don't have to teach in-person in front of hundreds of people. You can teach via email or Twitter DMs. Join a community centered around whatever you're learning and help others.

Now Go Learn Something

I've shared my framework for learning. But a framework, however nice it looks on paper, is only worth its salt if it works in practice. So get to it, and let me know how it works for you!


Are you interested in learning something new? I offer private one-on-one coaching for Python programming and technical writing. Click here for more information.

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