The world is changing, advancing, and evolving at such an unprecedented pace that just staying competitive and ahead of the curve in the world of business has become a science of its own. For today’s high school and college grads to have to continuously invest in learning and perfecting new skills right from their early teens all throughout their career just to stay relevant has become the norm. Gone are the days that you could develop expertise in one specific area and continue to do that one thing all the way to retirement!
Learning new skills is such a hot topic that there are perhaps more methods out there for doing it than are humanly possible to adopt. With this in mind, I’ve chosen seven of my favourites – true and tested techniques that will help you learn things better, faster, and for longer, and that will help you make learning a lifelong habit.
1. Teach others. There is a saying that if you cannot explain a technical topic to someone in simple terms, then you probably don’t understand it well enough yourself. Just like writing and taking notes (explained in more detail below), when you go through the steps of explaining things to someone else, you end up stumbling upon facets of the topic that you yourself may not have been clear on. You’re also more likely to run into potential questions that your imaginary student may have, and in doing so, you’ll develop a more comprehensive understanding of your topic.
2. Timed bursts, and the 80/20 rule. The mind can only absorb so much in any given span of time. Think of a garden that you need to water: you can either give it its weekly supply of water in one go (resulting in a lot of waste of water that the garden simply cannot use right now) or you can pace things and give the garden water as and when it needs it. Experts suggest dividing your study hours into 50 minutes of intense learning, followed by 10 minutes of relaxation to allow the brain to cool down and churn over what it has taken in.
Further, productivity experts also say that if you focus on learning only the most critically important topics of the subject at hand (usually quantified as the 20% most important content), you’ll end up learning the other 80% automatically. Because everything about any given topic related, if you can develop a detailed-enough mental map of your study subject, your mind will make logical connections of its own and you’ll even end up augmenting your learning that way as well.
Pro-tip: No more multitasking! Studies have shown that working on multiple tasks at the same time ends up distracting you more than it helps. It has also been found that once you are distracted, it takes at least 25 minutes to return to your original task. Talk about a waste of time!
3. Take handwritten notes. Your laptop may be faster, but using a pencil and paper will help you learn things better and more comprehensively. The reason is simple: it all comes down to mental engagement. Taking notes on your laptop is more of an absent-minded transcription task than a learning task, and it is also prone to a higher incidence rate of distraction from, say, email, or other applications.
There is also the fact that on your laptop, you are more likely to take notes word for word (because the speed of note-taking allows you to do so) but with handwritten notes, you are more likely to be forced to reframe things in your mind and take notes in a different form from how the concepts are originally delivered to you. This means that right off the bat, you’ve thought of the same content in two different ways.
4. Develop healthy habits. You can prime your mind and make it a sharper, more analytical tool by living healthy. Regular exercise has countless benefits, the least of which is that it also improves learning and memory. In one study, it was found that memory and the ability to think clearly improved measurably after a single exercise session.
The same goes for meditation, avoiding too much junk food (and getting a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids that are crucial for brain function), getting enough sleep (different from study naps, which have benefits of their own), keeping yourself properly hydrated, and taking the time to relax. Sleep is required for basic brain function, maintaining good judgment, and keeping reaction times sharp, and is as important for memory as the basic study is, as explained in by the Harvard Medical School. A well-oiled machine is a high-performance machine, so be sure to keep your body as well as your mind in tip-top shape to be able to apply yourself to your fullest.
5. It pays to fail, and also to test yourself beforehand. It has been found that people who were given difficult problems to solve without any help or instructions were more likely to fail, but they were also more likely to come up with creative problem-solving techniques than the control group. They were also more likely to succeed when faced with similar problems later on. This learning phenomenon is called productive failure, and results in more creative and flexible thinking.
Also, be sure to test yourself regularly. Simulating a test environment or forcing yourself to perform under stressful situations will help you to perform better under the regular conditions that you may need to recall your study material in.
5. Have an agenda, and keep yourself pumped. Having goals is inextricably connected to success, so having goals and creating realistic study schedules is critical. Keeping your work hours and downtime spaced, taking only scheduled breaks, avoiding distractions, and continuously working towards your study goals will together help you to reach them. Also, realising that a dip in motivation is bound to come will better prepare you to overcome it once that period of demotivation sets in. It happens to the best of us: after some time, you start asking yourself why you’re even learning something, or you start wondering what it is even worth to you.
One way to structure things to overcome this dip in motivation is to give yourself rewards for every achievement reached, slotting away slabs of time to do what you need to do, and to develop habits that fall more or less in line with the seven points here. Once you’ve nailed down your approach to learning, you’ll start to reap the benefits of actual learning, and learning things (and remembering them!) will become second nature to you.
6. Change your learning methods. ‘Reconsolidation’ is the term given to the process by which memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge, and it plays an important role in strengthening skills and learning. Studies have found that if you perform slightly modified versions of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you simply practice the exact same thing several times in succession. Like taking notes by hand, reconsolidation allows you to approach the same material in a new way, and other examples might be using flashcards for one study session, then taking notes the next time, and then teaching someone what you’ve learned for the third session. Doing things this way will help your brain remember and recall information more efficiently and effectively.
In conclusion, keeping up to date in this fast-paced world is a challenge, and everyone is out to jump you for the lead. By staying on your toes with these effective approaches to learning, you’ll be in a better position to stay ahead of the pack and to continue to learn effectively throughout your life.