How I Learned to Learn (or how to learn effectively as an adult)

For those with a shorter attention span, you might want to scroll to the end of the article for a tl;dr version.


Would you be surprised to learn that acquiring new knowledge becomes much harder once you go past your mid-20s? Specifically, the number seems to reside around 25th mark.

Nobody has a definite WHY, but there seem to be multiple factors at play. One, which is rather obvious, is a life situation. Namely, an average person is usually starting a family around this time, probably having a full-time job as well, simply leaving you with less time to engage in learning and acquiring new skills.

Second one is less obvious but definitely more critical – evolution doesn’t really benefit from having you learn more past your late 20s. As harsh as it may sound, but, evolution favors you learning whatever you need to learn in order to survive and reproduce, and given that it USUALLY happens around 20s, no benefit in spending energy on doing so afterwards.

It’s a tough game. Really. Being in your late 30s, 40s or 50s, you are pretty much competing against yourself. It’s not impossible, but the odds are generally against you.

What does that mean? Does that mean that we should just give up and not try improving our skills or knowledge past the quarter mark?

Absolutely not. Quite the contrary. But, you need to know that it becomes HARDER, and in order to be successful you’ll need to employ some tricks of the trade. And those tricks of the trade are exactly what I’ll be writing about.

My Story

Shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was never good at learning stuff; at least stuff that I wasn’t obsessed with.

Heck, if you don’t believe me, just take the fact that I went through electro-engineering high-school, department for telecommunications and … let me just tell you that I have ZERO clue about anything electro-engineering related. Like, if I had to choose between slow and painful death and connecting LED diode to a battery source, I’d have to opt for former. Seriously.

I just had an enormously narrow field of interest, which was, surprise surprise – a software engineering. And anything, and I mean ANYTHING aside from that was completely out of my interest. I did manage to improve this, but I still “suffer” this strong trait of being laser-focused on couple of fields, while ignoring everything else.

This proves to be really handy when you earn your living from being a software engineer. As in – I love it and I get obsessed with it and hence people like paying me for doing what I’d be doing for free anyway. However, having my tire blow up in the middle of nowhere, I’d probably be like – “Is this it? Is this how I’m supposed to depart from this planet?”.

** “The End” playing softly in the background **

I finished college quite easily though. It was a very specific area of study – “Internet Technologies”, and I actually enjoyed it, which made it easy to be great at.

But then, for God knows which reasons and obsessions, and with a strong influence from my therapist, I decided to re-enroll in university in my mid-20s (to be specific – I was 26 at the time). Shouldn’t come as a surprise that I decided to do it during those “golden” years when your brain is transitioning from well, we’re here to learn, to well, we’re here to reproduce and die. Couldn’t wish for a better time.

I was lucky enough to have some really interesting subjects, like – Cryptography and Artificial Intelligence, which actually shaped some of my future life. But let me tell you, I had some SHITTY stuff that I had to study for. Stuff like Multimedia and Developing Software Applications. I mean, sure, they definitely give you some nice base … if you’re a 17 year old fella who never developed software before. But they don’t really provide much interest to a person who has been actively developing software for almost 10 years at that point!

In one word – they were boring as fuck! Like, I remember having to learn some stupid lists of which types of blogs exist. And it was, honest to God, an actual question for an exam. And as someone who is about to start a blog 5+ years later, it would have been stupid to fail the exam because of that question, you know!

Now, I did some calculation, multiplied with money that I was paying to the university, and I realized the following – if I’m going to do this shit, I might as well look for ways to actually do it effectively. Like, figure out a “proper” way to learn stuff.

Shan’t come as a surprise that first thing I did was google for “Learn how to Learn”; or something along those lines (remember, this was a while ago!). One of the first results that came up, which I’m eternally grateful for it did, is a Coursera’s free course called – “Learning How To Learn”.

Learning How To Learn – a Coursera course

If you haven’t already, now’s just about the perfect time to bookmark this course. Here’s a link again. Did I mention it’s FREE?

It seems to be tailor-made for dummies like I was. Dummies who were never really taught HOW to learn stuff and how to acquire new knowledge.

If you are like me, and since you are reading this I’d guess you are, you were probably just thrown into the school system. You attend five to six 45min lectures, you go home and now you are supposed to “study”. Next thing you know, high school comes, and then college, and if you were lucky enough to figure out some system along the way – kudos for you. But if not, chances are that you just struggled and fought with hands and feet, banging your head over the book, contemplating life, the universe, and everything.

This course came as a rescue. It’s a 4-week program, with lessons lasting about 15mins or so. I strongly encourage you to go through it all (I suggest scheduling 20mins per day to watch one lesson) but if not, even just skimming through will be worth it.

And you know what else? I think this should be INTRODUCTORY course in your pre-school year. Like, a first lecture you ever attend before attending other lectures.

What good is school if they never teach you HOW to get most out of it?

Some of the concepts that you will learn, which I will be covering in this blog post, are:

  • How memory works and how we build “strong” memories (i.e. how to actually learn AND remember something)
  • Importance of chunking
  • How sleep is an extremely important factor for learning anything new
  • Pomodoro technique

Again, even though I will cover most of these, I still strongly suggest you to at least consider this course.

Let’s talk about memory muscle now.

How memory works

As anyone who has ever tried shovelling course material the night before the exam knows – this doesn’t really work. You surely do remember some stuff, and occasionally it’s enough to get a satisfiable grade, but it’s a pity because three days in and you most likely don’t remember a damn thing. Maybe a line here and there, but that’s just about it. A week in and you can’t even remember what you studied for. Yuck!

The problem is that your memory doesn’t work this way. It’s simply not built for it.

The best way of acquiring new knowledge is spending some time on it (say 20 – 30 mins) and then making a break. Repeat for 2-3 times and then STOP!

Yes, you heard me right. I said a few 20min sessions and STOP. Go do something else, like – study another subject. Or play video games, read a book or whatever the heck it is that you do for relaxation.

However, and here’s a trick – next day you need to recap on what you learned the day before. At least read through it, but best case scenario – try to repeat it; or better yet – try explaining it to your friends!

Do that and then do another series of 20-min sessions, studying some new material. Keep repeating this and keep moving forward!

You can think of your memory as series of batteries. Like – billions of them. And before you start thinking that I’m telling you that there’s a limited capacity of knowledge that you can acquire – no. Sorry to disappoint you. It’s way more likely that you will run out of your time on this planet than it is to fill up all your memory batteries and have no memory left. Yep.

If you overcharge those batteries by throwing tons of new knowledge over them, best case scenario is that you create small holes and they start leaking out, but worst case scenario is that they blow up!

Ever wondered why it TAKES TIME to fully charge your phone? Or a car battery? Why you just can’t squirt tons of electricity towards them and have them charged instantaneously? If we take away the actual bandwith of current, the huge problem is heat. By trying to charge instantly you will generate tons of heat and as you can imagine – having anything overheat always has consequences!

It’s the same with your memory. Or shall I say – memory batteries. You just can’t charge them instantenously by throwing tons of electricity on it, because in best case you get a headache, but in worst case – you burn out.

Hence, best way to learn ANYTHING new is to split it up into small parts (chunking) and to learn in couple of small, but repeatable iterations (e.g. using pomodoro technique). Day after day!

โš ๏ธ Word of caution!

One thing I’ve observed both in myself and others is a tendency to keep iterating over the same stuff. As in – you cover pages 1 – 5 today, and then you recap them tomorrow, but you keep re-iterating over the same chunk day after day, thinking that you need to MASTER that before moving forward.

This is another phenomenon which I contribute to nothing else but anxiety. The fear of moving to new chapter is big enough that we keep spinning in circles, under the assumption that we have to master the current chunk before moving on to a new one.

This is exactly the same as staying in your comfort zone and never making a step forward. It’s nice and comfortable but not really useful.

What you need to do is to RECAP and MOVE FORWARD. Have some faith in your memory batteries. They will never fail you!

One might wonder, and rightfully so – if you keep recapping the old stuff, day after day, how do you keep advancing at all, as at one point you will spend majority of time recapping on old stuff.

The trick and important concept to remember is – “a spread out”. I’ll give you an example.

Let’s assume you want to learn a new topic, say, linear algebra. Here’s how your learning schedule should look like:

  1. Day 1: two to three 25min sessions on introduction to linear algebra. Stop here.
  2. Day 2: spend 10mins recapping what you learned yesterday. If needed, invest single 25min session into skimming over what you did yesterday. Now do another round of two to three 25min sessions of whatever the next lecture is. Say – vectors. Stop here.
  3. Day 3: recap Day 2 only. Do another 25mins if needed to recall day 2. Proceed with new material and another two to three 25-min sessions.
  4. Day 4: quick-recap of Day 1 and then day 3. Invest some time if needed to recall things you forgot. Proceed with day 4 material.
  5. Day 5: quick-recap of Day 2 and then day 4. Proceed with day 5 material.

You get the gist I hope? The idea is that you learn something new, recap it tomorrow and then let it sink for couple of days. Then you recap it again and then you let it sink for even longer period (say 7 days). You keep repeating this and after 2-3 spread outs, it’ll be so embedded in your memory that you’ll tell your grandchildren about it.

Pomodoro technique

Technique carries its name from, believe it or not, but a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (or, shall I say, with Italian accent – Pomodoro!):

Image source: Wikipedia

The traditional idea is rather simple – you set a timer (pomodoro!) to 25 minutes and during that time you focus on nothing but the task at hand. Once the timer goes off, you take a 5-10 min break and you repeat the cycle.

It sounds too simple, but here’s what really happens:

  1. Most of the time, the biggest issue is “starting” the work itself. As in – when you think about having to study something, you automatically think of long hours it will take to figure it out and, as a result, you become upset and frustrated; or at least that’s what happens to me ๐Ÿ™‚

    With pomodoro technique, you know that you need to focus for 25 mins total. That’s it. 25 minutes and you are done. It’s not hours, but simple twentyish mins and you are done. And this usually makes it easy to actually START the process, which, most of the time is the HARDEST part.
  2. By timeboxing your learning, you’re forced to chunk up your work into digestable units. And, as elaborated below, chunking is one of the most important things when it comes to acquiring any skill!
  3. Finally, since you are limited to two to three sessions only, it kind of puts you in a “positive stress” mode which has been proven to do wonders. Just think of a last time you had weeks to do something, where you ended up doing everything the last minute. That’s the symbiosis of positive stress and laser-focus.

Obviously you don’t have to use the tomato-shaped timer (pomodoro!). Just google for “timer 25 minutes” and you’re good to go.

Studying in small batches – Chunking

If timeboxing your studying is a first pillar of learning, chunking it up is definitely a second one (there are three pillars in total!).

The idea is pretty simple – instead of thinking of what you want to learn as one huge piece of “unknown”, what you want to do is go and split it into bite-sized pieces that you can, ideally, “eat up” during a single pomodoro session.

It’s important to mention that instead of chunking it up in your head, what you really want to do is write it all down and chunk it up on a piece of paper; or in an excel file. There’s a huge difference between “having an idea” and “writing the idea down”.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that you want to learn Frontend programming (which seems to be a rather popular topic these days).

Mind the difference

First and best thing to do would be to see if somebody already chunked this up for you by googling for “learn frontend development”. Quick search reveals tons of articles, but one that I like is this interactive roadmap. It’s huge, yes, but it gives you a finite number of BIG CHUNKS that you need to further work on.

Let’s further say that you ignore everything and you want to focus on React.js first. If you follow the links from the roadmap, you will either go to official “Getting Started” guide or to some other course. Good thing about both is that they give you a CLEAR OVERVIEW of how many topics there are. This is perfect.

Your final task is to setup a time where you can have two to three 25-mins of uninterrupted work and commit to it daily. And if you deem that to be too much, say if you have a family to take care of and two hours hours of uninterrupted work (3 sessions of 25 minutes + 5-10 mins in between) is not something you can afford, take my word for it — a SINGLE 25-minute session PER DAY is enough as well! It will take you longer, for sure, but you are guaranteed to get there. A single session per day is better than no sessions at all!

I read somewhere an amazing idea and sadly I can’t find the source now. But the question was around the lines of “how do I, as a single mother of newborn baby stay up to date and concurrent in extremely greedy and fast-advancing market that programming is” and the answer somehow blew me away:

Invest 20 minutes per day in where you want to be in 5 years.

That just blew me away due to simplicity (20 mins per day) and power of multiplying the chunks – 20 minutes per day is ~2 hours per week, ~8 hours per month, ~100 hours per year and ~500 hours in 5 years. And let me tell you, investing 500 hours in ANY topic is guaranteed to make you an expert in whatever the topic is! And yes, 5 years could sound like A LOT, but it’s nothing compared to NEVER ๐Ÿ˜‰

Importance of sleep

We finally come to the LAST pillar of learning anything new — importance of rest and sleep. Yes, not doing ANYTHING and especially “sleeping on it” is as important as studying the thing in the first place.

I always knew that a good sleep is probably useful, but I was, in all honesty, completely blown away to learn that SLEEP is the most important thing when it comes to acquiring new skills.

You’d probably think that “investing more time studying” is important, but funny enough – not at all. It’s “getting more sleep”; or better yet – “getting more quality sleep” that makes a huge difference.

Don’t hold me accountable for it but my understanding is that, among other things, they did some experiments where they had people practice some skill (e.g. learning to play piano) and then they hooked them up to some sci-fi sort of machinery during the night where they track your brain activity. Lo and behold, you’d expect that by falling asleep your brain “shuts down”, but what actually happens is the complete opposite! Your brain as well as your cardiovascular system goes into a full blown LET’S ROCK&ROLL BABY kind of state. Everything fires up!

It turns out that this is exactly how something you are trying to learn gets embedded into your deep memory! For example, I read that in piano players, they figured out that during the sleep (I think REM phase specifically) the same brain centers that were being active while you were practicing, get activated with way higher intensity! Which is exactly why “sleeping on something” that you couldn’t figure out the day before, miraculously makes it fully clear the day after!

Again don’t hold me accountable for the correctness of it, but I’ve also heard that Einstein was famous for utilising sleep whenever he couldn’t grasp something. Like, he’d try to solve the problem and if he couldn’t get it, he’d go to sleep but would keep a keyring in his hand, such that the moment he does fall asleep, the keyring drops and wakes him up, usually resulting in problem at hand being solved.

The point here is that:

Focus is good, but taking a break and letting your brain make those inner connections is equally, if not way more important.

Before you take me for granted here, what I am NOT saying is that you should not do anything but sleep and expect to acquire a skill. No. Just in case it’s not obvious – NO. You need to invest time and then let it settle down. Rinse & repeat ๐Ÿ™‚

Undervalued skill of Teaching Others

I wouldn’t call it a “pillar” but teaching others in order to gain better understanding in something is most certainly an underrated technique.

I remember a time when I was trying to explain Neural Networks and Gradient Descent to a friend of mine. In my head, it was as clear as a day. Inputs, weights, outputs, … math! But the moment I tried formulating those thoughts … well, holy guacamole! What came out was so confusing that, just like the person above, I realized that I have no clue what I’m talking about.

The thing is that attempting to explain a concept to somebody else (a friend, a spouse, or a poor stranger in a bar) forces you to clear up and organize your thoughts and charges those memory batteries even more. And by repeatedly doing so, you gain better and deeper understanding of the matter.

Here’s a challenge for you, if you’re up for that kind of stuff. Next time you are trying to learn something, spend a week practicing and then schedule a presentation on the topic. Or even better, schedule a presentation immediately (say – 30 days ahead or so) and watch what happens. By committing to do the presentation, you’ve signed yourself up for having to understand it before that; or else you risk losing your face.

You’d be surprised how much of a fuel can stress and deadline be. Which actually brings me to another point – stress.

Using Stress as a Fuel

If all other techniques made sense, this one is a complete mind-blower; at least it was for me. We usually correlate stress with not being able to do anything useful, especially learning new stuff.

Here’s what’s funny:

Putting your mind under POSITIVE stress can be a huge boost to learning capabilities.

As in – putting yourself under a positive stress just before the learning session could make a huge difference in how much information you acquire.

You know how your mind goes into that TURBO mode just before the deadline hits? Or before the tomorrow’s exam? That’s exactly it! That’s the effect of stress helping you laser-focus your brain on one thing – one thing that’s URGENT.

But how do you do this if you don’t have the stress of “must do it”, right? Say you are a 40+ years old person with has a steady government job, but would like to move to programming. How do you get yourself FORCED to learn it day after day?

Turns out that you can induce this state of URGENCY by applying this “positive stress” strategy.

For example, and this is pretty much the best example there is – going for a quick and intense exercise just prior to engaging in a learning session is a GAME CHANGER. Seriously.

What I used to do when I learned about it (which really was a couple of months ago) – I’d finish my work, go for a 30-min run (1 min sprinting, 3 mins walking) and then come back all hyped up and just start banging whatever it was in front of me. The trick is that you have to get your heart rate up! Going for a slow walk and not getting your blood pumping, sadly, is not gonna do it. Bonus points for the fact that you are getting your exercise in! Two for the price of one, eh?

However, and this might seem weird but, what you want to avoid is going for a stressful activity AFTER you are done with your learning session. This actually produces quite contrary results – it makes you tend to forget what you learned before.

The proper way to utilise it is – get your heart rate up by inducing some positive stress (e.g. exercise), then engage in learning and then go do NOTHING. Rest. Sleep. Do some Netflix. Play with your kids and/or talk to your partner. Whatever it is, as long as it’s not intense, it’ll be good enough!

But what if you CAN’T engage yourself in a pump-that-heart-rate-up kind of activity? Say, if you have a heart problem or other health issues? In that case, you’ll need to create some artificial sense of urgency. I don’t have too much experience with it, but what I’ve managed to induce a couple of times was promising someone to do something at X o’clock, which meant I have X MINUS NOW hours to do whatever it is that I wanted to engage in, which successfully induces that sense of “well, it’s now or never!”. I’ve also written an article on a similar topic, so it might be worth checking out.

So, in summary, what’s the best way of acquiring new knowledge?

If I were to summarize the whole article into a kind of a recipe for acquiring new knowledge, these would be the ingredients you’d need to have:

  1. Discipline — I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being disciplined and spending at least a single pomodoro! (e.g. 25mins) session a day on the thing that you are trying to learn. And if you tell me that 25mins per day is something you can’t afford, no problem, but then stop wasting mental energy thinking how you want to learn something new. You just can’t do it. Period.
  2. Chunking — whatever the topic is – you have to chunk it up! Ideally find a course that does this for you, but simply spending one or more pomodoro! sessions over a topic at hand is OK as well. You don’t have to finish everything today. Leaving something for tomorrow is OK as well, even if you stop it in the middle.
  3. Pomodoro! — set a timer to 25 minutes and during that time, focus only on subject at hand. Then make a 5-10mins break and then repeat for couple of sessions. Finally, after 3 – 4 sessions, move on to next topic or simply call it a day!
  4. Positive stress — getting your heart rate up just before the learning session does wonders! A 20-30min intense exercise, or a fast walk will do it.
  5. Sleep — the most important ingredient of all. It’s the sleep that makes your brain actually remember and digest what you learned! If you don’t provide for enough recovery time, you will be at loss and slow at learning!

And that’s all there is to it ๐Ÿ™‚

Useful resources

This article wouldn’t be complete without citing all sources that actually inspired me over the years. Sadly, I can’t rate and say one is better than the other, because they all had massive influence. Hence, I’m providing them in a very random order:

  • Huberman Lab podcast — an amazing podcast by Dr. Andrew Huberman, which discusses tons of topics on neuroscience, sleep, learning, etc. One of my favorite episodes is one that discusses Dopamine and effects of it. There also seems to be one called “Learn Faster” but I haven’t listened to it yet.
  • JRE #1513 podcast with Andrew Huberman — a Joe Rogan podcast that I mentioned before, featuring Dr Huberman. Link will lead you to a 6-min version where he discusses the topic of stress-induced learning, but I strongly recommend watching a full episode (I did it thrice!).
  • Why We Sleep book by Matthew Walker — an incredible book by a sleep research expert Dr. Matthew Walker. Covers everything from WHY we sleep to WHY we dream and HOW sleep regenerates our body and makes our learning actually happen.
  • The Talent Code book by Daniel Coyle — another great book that discusses the concept of “talent” and goes on to expand on how talent is not born, but is created through repetitive engagement. Incredible read for anyone who believes they are “not talented for something”. Here’s my review of it.
  • Learning how to Learn course on Coursera — I’ve mentioned it couple of times throughout article. An amazing introductory course on basics of effective learning. An absolute must-watch, if you ask me.
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear — another amazing book not specifically on subject of learning but habit creation. And, as I mentioned above – one of the KEY ingredients of effective learning is DISCIPLINE. And discipline stems from HABITS. So in order to become disciplined, you have to create a habit out of learning. And here’s my review of it.
  • On Writing by Stephen King — yet another amazing and yet not really related to learning. It’s a personal memoir of Stephen King (you know, guy behind “The Shining”, “It”, etc.) where he goes on to show how he became an acclaimed writer. And it wasn’t a talent but mostly just repetitive failure, more or less. Eventually he got it right. Here’s my review of it.

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2 thoughts on “How I Learned to Learn (or how to learn effectively as an adult)

  1. As a DevOps Engineer, I feel personally attacked by the Kubernetes tweet. Good one. It’s funny ’cause it’s true. lol

    Thanks to the Pomodoro app, I passed so many exams.
    I agree that sleep is super important. Or maybe I just enjoy sleeping A LOT.

    Great article, thanks for sharing valuable advice.

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