40-60 minute read
For highschool and college students, as well as all my fellow self-learners.
Learning is a three-phase-cyclic activity. From Tree-Building to Linear-Digging to Project-Making phase. Each knowledge seeker goes through them all. Consciously or unconsciously.Project Mike
This blog post is adapted to Textbook Learning. Meaning, it focuses on theoretical knowledge and how to master it. Though principles described here are useful for other types of learning as well.
This is also an interactive post. While reading, you will find exercises and step-by-step to-do lists. They will help you conquer all the necessary micro-habits for studying and create clarity in your purpose.
I have spent well over 50 hours making this post. I took my time to refine and polish the ideas to a level I am happy with. Even after strict editing, this post ended up being 10 000 words long. That is almost 1/4 of a typical self-help book. Make sure you bookmark this post and read it over a few days.
I have always been a tutor. Helping people achieve their goals is one of my biggests passions in life. If you need tailored advice about learning, studying or productivity send me an email to WebProject.Mike@gmail.com. Together, we can create a better plan for your next learning endeavour.
- Intro: The Best of the Best
- First Phase – The Preparation
- Second Phase – The Execution
- Third Phase – The Consolidation
Introduction: The Best of the Best
Do you know someone really smart?
Someone, who can easily solve all problems you give him. Without him, that project at work would simply fall apart. It seems his life is a fairytale. He breezes through ranks in your company. He has it all figured out while you’re still struggling with your job or studies.
You probably think he is from another planet. You silently admire him. You might even feel envious. But chances are, he is not much different from me and you. With the right tools and structure, we too could become more like him.
This is the High-Skilled Knowledge Worker. The beating heart of our economy.
These are the people, who are the best at what they do. Having deep theoretical knowledge and the ability to immediately apply it to problem-solving, they lead the way and teach others. With Focus and Dedication.
They are truly indispensable.
Become a Pillar of Society
We all can learn something today, that will make us a bit more indispensable tomorrow. Bringing more to the table means having more bargaining power to live your life the way you want to. Want to work from home? Or perhaps less time? Have more vacation time? Get a promotion? Master difficult things.
No matter what you do, learning matters. To thrive you need to be a master at integrating new information. Just imagine what you could do with the ability to learn anything rapidly. Learning truly is our superpower.
Sadly, we aren’t born with the innate ability to use this superpower. Even more devastating is the fact we didn’t learn it in school, either. Otherwise, there would be no need for writing this post. We would all be happy and wealthy already.
In college, I used to think I simply need to study – a lot. Attending one of the hardest programs in my country – Physics, I used to study 10 hours a day. Still, something wasn’t right. I lagged behind my peers. Why? What were they doing that I was not? The answer simply couldn’t be more work.
I was rubbing shoulders with the smartest and the most conscientious people in the country. Having the privilege to observe their study habits and thinking processes, I learned a lot. They all had at least two things in common. The ability to sustain intense concentration, as well as a well-thought-out studying system.
It has been a few years since my undergraduate studies. It was then that my life-long obsession with optimal learning bloomed. I experimented a lot in college, as well as in my job as a Software Engineer. I read a ton of books and developed many ideas and systems myself. The latest and most holistic idea is what I call the Three-Phase Learning Cycle.
The Three-Phase Learning Cycle
It divides learning into three equally important phases: tree-building, linear-digging, project-making.
In the first phase, you explore what exists. You concern yourself with the width of your knowledge. In the second phase, you choose a few concepts and you learn them deeply. In the last phase, you build something tangible from the concepts you learned.
and then you start all over.
This seems obvious, but it is never applied in practice.
Remember how fast you learned as a beginner. Entering a new semester or a job is extremely stressful because you are surrounded by novelty. Everything you do is something new. You have to think and learn all the time. You explore, you learn deeply and you apply what you learned. Then you explore again, learn some more and apply all over. With this kind of rapid progress, mastery is just 2-3 years away.
But you stop. After a short few months. You settle down. Your skillset is just good enough. You can do the projects you have to do. Exploration and deep learning are put on the peripheral. Maybe you will look something up to solve a problem, but you won’t bother to dive deep. There is no reason to. You feel comfortable and everyone is happy. Starting the cycle again can wait… Until you realize 20 years have passed.
Starting all over is hard work. It’s even harder if you’re not consciously aware of the progression. But staying in the last phase of the cycle will quickly make you plateau. Maybe for years. By consciously choosing to learn, and putting yourself in unknown situations you are jumpstarting that learning curve again and again…
Learning can be divided into practical skills and theoretical knowledge. Both are important and both build on each other. But in this post, I will focus solely on the latter.
The Three-phase-learning cycle adapted for Textbook Learning.
You will find out how to correctly prepare for a new semester or a new learning project. For work or a hobby. I will walk you through a great algorithm for extracting useful information from textbooks – treasure chests of theoretical knowledge. You will never have to bother with the uncertainty about “what’s next”. Lastly, I will tell you exactly how to consolidate new abstract knowledge. Make it stick for longer, force understanding and make it truly yours.
Why a textbook, though? Today, you can learn from so many other sources. Educational websites, blogs, articles, even youtube videos…
All of these can be helpful. However, if you want to learn something deeply, it’s best to learn from the source. It’s much harder to write a textbook than it is to write a blog post. Not only is the textbook more information-dense, but it also goes through the scrutiny of peer review. Always make sure you query your knowledge from a good information source.
Though even textbooks have problems. Two stand out from the crowd.
First, it is notoriously difficult to read a textbook. My model solves this by providing a good learning structure. This problem will be easily solved by the time you finish this post.
Though even with a good learning structure, reading a textbook requires a lot of focus. Luckily, concentration is a skill that can be trained. The model provides the perfect training for just that. I even included some additional training exercises you can incorporate in your life.
This post is divided into three sections, each corresponding to one learning phase.
- First Phase, Before Reading
Your main concern about this phase is the width of your knowledge. To creatively solve problems or find new approaches you need two things. A map of linked concepts and the awareness of which concepts exist and which don’t. Together, this makes a net of ideas to hang new knowledge on.
- Second Phase, While Reading
Choose a few concepts to learn deeply. Although similar to what you have been doing your whole life, it takes a radical new approach to thinking and note-taking. Reading becomes an engaging and rewarding activity.
- Third Phase, After Reading
Consolidate your knowledge by recreating it from your head. No notes. Minimize the problem of transfer by thinking about how to apply the knowledge in the real world. Make a special kind of project tailored for learning abstract ideas. With it, you will:
- Practice recall
- Identify gaps in your knowledge
- Force understanding
- Filter the unimportant
More than anyone I realize that just reading about doing is not enough to get you moving. So I crafted this post in a way, I want all posts I read to be crafted. With examples, exercises and actionable to-do lists, I can print and follow in my life. Directly and immediately.
Stop. Stand up. Find a pen and a piece of paper.
This is the first step – therefore the hardest. If you don’t do this now, there are good chances you won’t do it later. And no change will happen in your life. So grab a pen.
Read this post slowly and carefully. Do exercises as you reach them. Do them all and follow them closely. I have personally made, tested and adjusted all these exercises many times. So don’t skip steps. Studying is a hard skill to master.
First Phase – The Preparation
The number one killer of every learning project is bad planning and a bad overview. Everyone immediately wants deep knowledge, that’s understandable. But blindly jumping headfirst into unknown waters is a recipe for disaster. You will either get overwhelmed and flake, or persevere and experience a lot of unnecessary stress.
The solution is simple. Check the waters and plan your frontflip.
Clearly defining your project will lift the confusion about what needs to get done next. This way, you won’t stumble around. You will move straight ahead towards your goal. No time wasted.
By getting familiar with the ideas you will eventually study, you create a knowledge net to hang deeper understanding on. By having a good overview, each new idea can be placed in a context. This fosters understanding and makes remembering an effortless activity.
In this chapter, we will first learn how to easily create the skeleton of your project by following a predetermined structure. Next, we will set up a system for rapidly expanding the width of your knowledge.
Define your Destination
If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.Seneca
A well-defined learning project has five properties. The overarching domain, a tangible goal, reasons for pursuing the goal, good metrics to track your progress and a smart time constraint.
The Domain is the field of expertise of your learning project. It’s the widest knowledge category. It can be the name of your career. Mathematics. History. Biology. Programming. Microeconomics. Painting. Law.
The thing you want to achieve. By defining your goal you define your future. Every moment you spend with your textbooks should be a step towards your destination. Goals come in two favors. If you can, define them both.
- Subjective goals: These are goals you define whether you have successfully achieved them or not. These are easy to set up. Important, but might not be very effective. Goals like “Become better at math. Learn how to sell better. Gain a deeper understanding of color theory” are all subjective goals. As you increase the width of your knowledge, these become more specific. “I want to gain a better understanding of linear algebra” or “I want to solve calculus equations faster” are all examples of more specific subjective goals.
- Objective goals: These can be made from subjective goals. They have only two outcomes – success or failure. An objective goal could be “pass the history exam [with a B+] [while studying max. 20 hours]”. The more specific an objective goal, the more discipline they require. This can make you muster additional focus – you don’t have time for distractions, or the goal will fail. But setting up an unreasonable goal can backfire. With experience, you will refine your feeling for goal setting.
Without having a good reason for starting a project, you won’t follow through when the going gets tough. Initial motivation will fade, but the reasons why you started will not.
So make sure you write them down and make them personal. Ask yourself why would it be good for you to have this knowledge. Maybe your reason is so you can get that job, start a business, be carefree during summertime, or because it simply interests you.
Once you have your destination, metrics will help you stay on track. They track your progress and are like road signs to your goal. Good metrics can prevent you from getting lost, taking unnecessary turns and waste time.
- Input-Based Metrics: These are easy to set up. They track the number of hours you spend studying or the number of pages you read or wrote. Their goal is to inform you whether you are moving somewhere, or are you just procrastinating.
- Output-Based Metrics: These are hard to set up correctly but are extremely important. You have to think through if your metric is measuring what you set out to do.
A bad metric would be the number of math problems you did or computer programs you wrote. These provide no solid feedback about your knowledge. Did you do them successfully? Were they diverse at all? Are they even relevant?
On the other hand, a great metric would be the number of mock exams you successfully completed or the number of concepts you can explain to your friend without looking at your notes.
A time constraint is needed, otherwise, there is no pressure to take action. These depend heavily on your goal and its importance for your life.
- Deadlines: Every project should have a limited amount of time – a hard deadline. After the hard deadline, you’re done. The project goes in for the review.
Even though you have a hard deadline, plan to finish your projects a fraction earlier. This is your buffer time if something goes sour during your project. Over-optimistic planning or unexpected life events.
Projects should last about a month or two. After it’s done, review it. Notice what worked and what you would do differently. Then start a new project. This is also true if you’re a student planning to finish a semester. Break it down into chunks.
Plan a few soft deadlines as well. A soft deadline is concerned with the current state of your project and is closely tied to metrics. Are you progressing fast enough, or are you lagging? These feedbacks will give you a work rhythm you need to sustain to smoothly finish the project.
- Investment: How much time are you planning on investing in your project. How is this time going to be split each week and day? Will you work every day for one hour, or will you do your work in 3-hour chunks on the weekend? Find time in the calendar you can devote to your project. Make it a part of your routine.
You will notice the properties depend on each other. This makes you jump back and forth between what you wrote, and modify your writing. This is all a part of the process. Thinking, simulating and figuring out the harmony. Sync everything together to the best of your current ability.
Keep what you wrote close to you. Place it on a wall or have it constantly open in Notion or a Word Document. Every week or two reread everything and redefine what’s necessary. Do your metrics work? Are your time-constraints too strict? Is your goal not specific enough? Every week the world will look different as a result of new experiences. Integrate them and update your project description – or it will soon get out of date.
Explore Your Surroundings
Every time you start something new, you find yourself in an unknown environment. Nothing is familiar. You don’t know what is important and what is not. Novelty puts you in a state of fight or flight. It can stress you out or even paralyze you.
But it need not be so. The solution is simple. Explore. Look around.
If you ever paid any attention to what young kids do, you already know the solution. The first words are usually “what this” and “what do”. Nothing else matters to a child. Since they have so much to take in, they are completely happy with shallow answers. A flower grows from the mud and becomes pretty. If I give it to my mom she will be happy. Who cares about photosynthesis; there are a million things to define first, before increasing the complexity of topics.
If you are already a professional and you have an itch to skip this chapter – don’t. You might know how to do things, but there might be ways to do them differently. Perhaps more efficiently. Maybe you will stumble upon problems that you could solve effortlessly if only you knew solutions already exist. There is always something more to explore.
But, how do you explore? Is it enough to simply gloss over the table of contents – the most common recommendation given nowadays? In my opinion, simply flipping through pages is better than nothing, but it is still extremely shallow work that provides almost no benefit. That is why I developed The Exploration Algorithm.
The Exploration Algorithm is split into two parts: Exploring and Integrating new concepts into the bigger picture. Your job is to find new concepts and try to connect them. Sounds easy, but unlike quickly glancing at the table of contents, this is not a leisure activity. This should be considered a serious study with considerable time investment.
Build an Outpost
An Outpost is a medium you use to search for new concepts. Each project normally has a unique outpost. Outposts can be as simple as Google, Wikipedia, documentation, official class notes or even Youtube and blogs. Various documentaries and popular-science books can also be a part of your outpost. Anything that can easily expose you to new concepts.
Below my project definition in Notion – a text editing program, I put links to most common internet sites I visit while exploring the topic. I might find a great blog about optics, or an interesting popular-science pdf book about quantum mechanics (where starting with extremely simplified topics was crucial for my studies). This way, I have all my resources at hand, packed neatly for each of my projects. Additionally, by going straight to the desired website, I minimize the chance of jump-starting my semi-automatic habit for mindlessly browsing Youtube and waste time.
For theory-heavy projects that I have very little experience in, I love to start with watching “overview of…” type of videos on Youtube. Subjects like history, mathematics, physics, and biology really benefit from this approach.
Skill-based projects, like drawing, composing, and even programming also benefit greatly from watching this type of videos. There are a lot of speed art videos on the internet. Watch 10 or 20 of them and you will start to glue together the steps for creating a piece of art. If you’re an intermediate programmer (or an artist), watching longer programming (art) commentaries on Youtube is also a great way to find new ideas or good (art) programming practices.
Lastly, for the advanced learners, speed reading textbooks or documentation is a good way to quickly expose yourself to many new ideas.
But just looking at ideas is not enough – far from it. That is why we have The Concept Furnace…
Bake them in the Concept Furnace
The Concept Furnace is a list of all new concepts you stumble upon while exploring from your outpost. These are the concepts you only know the name of – or vaguely know what they look like. If you’d see them, they would be familiar to you. Give them a placeholder name for now.
For these concepts, you can’t precisely say what they are and what they are used for. Neither you understand their significance in the bigger picture. That’s ok. The purpose of the concept furnace is to be an intermediate state between exploration and integration, so you don’t break your flow context switching.
Create a concept furnace section under your outpost. In Notion, Word Doc or simply your notebook. Every time you dedicate your study session to exploring, add each novel idea to the concept furnace. Don’t go reading about the concepts just yet. Simply knowing they exist is enough for now. Doing this will quickly create familiarity with the subject.
An anecdote: if you have a habit of visiting a specific location at more or less same hours (gym, bar, library, store, …), you will quickly notice you are pretty much always surrounded by the same people who have a similar habit. This is a large part of what gives that place a feeling of familiarity. You don’t have to know who these people are, not even their names – but you can recognize them. Seeing someone new at your local gym, spikes interest – to say the least.
Store them in The Concept Bucket
The Concept Bucket is a list of all the concepts you can write a very short description of what they are and what they are used for. If you can’t define their use, attempt to write their significance for the domain of your study.
You are now starting the process of integration. I recommend you don’t mix exploration and integration in the same study session. Integration is hard. Much harder than exploration. It will require a lot of concentration. Take a short break between them, at least.
Having your concept furnace open, start reading about the first concept on the list – but don’t go into details. This means not reading everything. Focus your attention on the beginning and the end of the chapter. That is where definitions and summaries will usually be. If you can write a one-sentence definition after reading the first paragraph, stop. It doesn’t even have to be completely correct – simply writing down what you think the concept is will often be enough.
Uses and significances are trickier. Most times, they won’t be stated in the text, or in a clear way. Which, in my opinion, is a sign of bad writing. If the author can’t meaningfully think of uses for what he is writing or an objective significance of the topic for the targeted audience… Well, at best I would consider him just a bad writer. Again, give your best guess about the significance of the idea. If you can brainstorm a potential use, even better.
As you can see, we are not trying to be correct. We are simply trying to guess what the concept is and its significance for our study. Being wrong is a million times better than having no stance at all. The core action of every good scientist is to make an educated guess and crafting a hypothesis long before the experiment starts. At this stage, the only difference between you and a scientist is that you are guessing things that people already have a consensus on. Remember, you too have accumulated a non-trivial amount of knowledge already. You’ve been alive for a decade or two at least! So go ahead and make a guess, even if it is just from the concept’s name.
Richard Feynmann, the renowned 20th-century physicist had a similar technique. As a student reading scientific articles, he read the experiment setup first. He would then make his hypothesis about the outcome. Flipping to the article’s conclusion, if it matched his guess he would not read the article.
Example 1: Studying mathematics – the integral is a mathematical operation of joining very small objects into a bigger geometrical shape. It is a revolutionary concept, used constantly for calculating areas and volumes.
Example 2: Studying physics – a beating wave is a superposition of two waves with slightly different frequencies. Musicians can hear it while tuning their instruments. Otherwise, I don’t think it is a core concept and therefore it is not that important for my study.
Example 3: Studying European history – the 100 Year War was a war between England and France between 1337 and 1453. Being a 100-year war, I guess that it was historically very significant, with far-reaching consequences for Europe.
To sum it up, a concept is considered baked once you have a name, a short description, and its significance and/or an idea for its potential use. Remember, think of baking as adding little personal hypothesis to your concepts!
Craft a Concept Map
Having a dozen concepts in the Concept Bucket, start joining them in a concept map. The point is to add another property to each concept – how they fit in the bigger picture.
Pick a concept from your bucket and write it down in a little bracket. If you’re just starting your concept map from scratch, it is useful to start with concepts listed at the beginning of your textbook. These are usually more fundamental and are grouped together. Pick another concept and if you think there is a direct connection between them, draw a link. If you can’t add it to your existing net, simply let it hang around for now. Keep going until your concept bucket is empty.
Some concepts might not have a link. Place these back in the concept bucket. Concepts that are linked together begin to form a net. This net represents the width of your current knowledge. It is not meant to be an accurate representation of the subject. The map is something very personal, that grows and changes over time.
In college, I spent the entire first week drawing and redrawing concept maps for each of my classes. Though back then, I sadly didn’t have my structure of buckets and furnaces which would make this process even smoother. I wrote down every concept I needed to know to pass the class. As well as how these concepts relate to each other. Before we even got serious with studying, I already knew what and why we are doing each week.
Expect your first map not to be perfect. As your understanding of the subject grows, return to the map and rewrite it with greater clarity. After you’re done hang the map back on a visible place in your study. Remember, having a map, even if slightly wrong, is far better than wandering completely in the dark.
Grow your Tree of Knowledge
This is the highest resolution of wide knowledge you can attain. The last property of the concepts is how fundamental they are. The more fundamental a concept, the more other concepts are based on it. Every subject has fundamental concepts. Overlearning them will serve as a great tool for your journey into the depths of a subject.
However, the Tree of Knowledge can’t simply be researched. This is because you can’t feel the weight of a concept until you have used it in practice yourself. So even though you can build a stellar concept map by just exploring and researching, a solid knowledge tree can’t be built that way.
A tree of Knowledge is an ordered concept map. The fundamental concepts are leaning on the left side, with details growing out of them to the right side.
Watching your knowledge tree grow organically through months and years of practice is very rewarding. Make sure you update it every time you conclude one learning cycle.
As you conclude the first phase, you might still have concepts sitting in the concept furnace waiting for you to bake them and move them further down the pipeline. That is not a problem. Remember, merely being aware of the existence of a concept is also valuable.
As a beginner, I like to spend a little more time in the first phase than the other two. Once I reach a higher level of mastery in the subject, my emphasis shifts to the third phase of the cycle, as the topics get more complex and there are fewer new things to explore. Start experimenting by investing 1 to 2 hours in any phase before moving to the next. Adjust the cycle until the rhythm feels right.
The critical mistake people make is ignoring anyone phase altogether, or even staying in just one. For a student or a hobbyist that’s usually the second phase. And for the professional, that’s the third phase. But the trap they all sooner or later fall into is underestimating the power of the first phase.
Now it’s your turn. I have prepared some exercises and to-do lists so you can immediately apply what you just learned to your life. After you finish the exercises, come back to this blog post and read about the algorithm on how to efficiently mine the knowledge from textbooks.
EXERCISE 1: Aim More, Miss Less
This simple exercise will help you get in motion. The goal is to define a project you will work on the next month. It is based entirely on the steps described in this chapter.
Do each step of this exercise with a pen and paper.
- Write down your overarching goal. This is a big goal, one that will require many learning projects.
- Pick a domain of expertise that you need to become a master at to reach your goal.
- Write down a smaller subjective goal for the learning project. Consider, it will last a month.
- Analyze your subjective goal and brainstorm how to make an objective goal out of it.
- Find reasons for pursuing your goal. Try to find at least three. The more you have, the less likely you will quit.
- Think about metrics to track your progress towards your objective goal. Consider input and output based metrics.
- Take your existing calendar and consider when you have some time to spare. Sum up the amount of time you managed to scrape.
- Go through the steps again. Ask yourself if the learning project is too ambitious with the time constraints that you have. If it is, tone it down into something more manageable.
- *Advanced: consider which time chunks you will devote to the first, the second and the third phase of the learning cycle.
Example of my current learning project
- My overarching goal is to become an indie game developer.
- As an indie game developer, my weakest link is not in creating quality apps and games that bring value to the people – but in distributing them and documenting the process. Therefore I believe the fundamental skill for any entrepreneur is the ability to write and express ideas clearly.
- My subjective goal is to improve the quality of my writing.
- It is not clear what makes good writing good. But even someone who doesn’t know how to write can sense bad writing. An objective goal might, therefore, be writing a better essay. Comparing an essay I wrote at the beginning of the project with one I wrote at the end will tell me if I succeeded in my endeavor. I can ask for feedback from friends, family, and readers regarding my decision – as to remove any success bias I might have.
- I will track the number of outlines I craft and pages of headlines I write. These I believe are the foundations for a good essay and should be intensely practiced.
- I will do my writing drills (outlines & headlines) every day for an hour between 5 pm and 6 pm after work. Every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I will additionally work on my writing from 6 am to 1 pm.
- Through Thursday to Saturday, I will devote 5 hours to actual writing (third, project phase). The last two hours of each work session will be devoted to learning how to write essays and blog posts (second phase). I will devote half of my Sunday to analyzing existing blogs and reviewing my process (first phase).
I would consider this project to be well defined. It is not perfect. And I will continue to work on it as the weeks turn.
EXERCISE 2: The Factory is The Product
Once you have a project in mind it is time to set up the system for exploring new concepts.
- Download Notion, Microsoft Word or any note-taking program you fancy.
- Create a new page. Give it the same title as your projects.
- Copy what you wrote in Exercise 1 on the top of the document. It’s good to have it all in one place
- Write a headline “Outpost”. Go on the internet and find websites that you might use to explore new concepts. Copy their links under your Outpost. You can give each link a brief description of what the site can offer you.
- Write the headline “Concept Furnace”. Make it a list of all the concepts you want to learn. If you don’t know the name of the concept, give it a placeholder name and a quick description.
- Write the headline “Concept Bucket”. This is a list of concept names and their definitions, as described in this chapter. Once you add a concept to your bucket, delete it from your furnace.
- Write the headline “Concept Map”. Go over each concept in your bucket and place it onto your concept map. When you’re done, put concepts with no links back to your bucket. Remove the rest. You can create online concept maps from sites like Miro or Lucidchart. If you prefer using plain old paper, take a picture with your phone and add it under this headline.
- Write the headline “Tree of Knowledge”. Every once and awhile, take your concept map and turn it into a concept tree. You don’t have to trash your concept map afterward. Keep them both.
Use this system whenever you are exploring new concepts. It is not easy to bring a concept the whole way to the concept map. But if you do, deeply learning it and using it in your projects will be easy.
You are now ready for what I call The Linear-Digging Phase. The concern of this phase is not on the width but on the depth of concepts.
Second Phase – The Execution
The most optimal learning happens in the state of Flow.
Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow is the state of consciousness in which you are completely absorbed in the activity you’re performing. You know this. That moment when you’re completely absorbed in that novel or that video game. Or perhaps when you’re playing football with your friends or having a deep debate with an interesting person.
Flow is an engagement in an exciting activity, which introduces just the right amount of challenge to push yourself, but also just the right amount of mastery so you still kind of know what you’re doing. But engagement and excitement reading a textbook? Reading textbooks is by definition the most boring and low-stimulus activity you can do. In this chapter, we will learn how you can implement rituals and algorithms to help you enter the flow state faster and stay in it for longer while doing even seemingly torturous activities like reading a textbook.
Furthermore, flow is an extremely fragile state of being. Once broken even for a moment, the time needed to finish an intellectual work is prolonged by a nontrivial fraction. In this chapter, I will provide my tips for dealing with this problem – in a world filled with distractions.
The Flow Ritual
Before each study session, perform a predetermined ritual. I will write about habits, rituals, and algorithms more in-depth in later blogs. Essentially, A Ritual is a set of actions you do before an important task to help focus your mind on the task in front of you and enter the Flow State effortlessly. Even though I introduced rituals here, in the second phase, use the ritual for exploring and integrating concepts as well.
A good basic ritual should involve the following things:
- Checking if you have all the necessary material at hand – a textbook, two pieces of paper and two colored pens. Maybe even earmuffs and some good coffee.
- Turning off your phone and removing all other distractions from the room. If you’re a radical like me then consider even removing digital and analog clocks.
- Writing down the main goal of the following study session, like: »I am trying to get a deep understanding of Integral calculus and how to use it to calculate the volume of different objects«. This way you probe your brain to pay very close attention to anything relevant to your goal, and to ignore all other unimportant details.
- Writing down the methods and algorithms by which you will work. In the rest of this chapter, I will describe an algorithm specifically for reading a textbook. But use this ritual for any work you do – simply adjust this step according to the demands of your work.
- Lastly, writing down reasonable but still challenging time constraints. This will help you stay focused since important work needs to get done and you only have a tight time window. Force yourself not to have time for procrastination & distractions.
I tackle the problem of distraction by wearing earmuffs or my hoodie – even though I study in a remote and quiet location anyway. This further removes any possibility of any unanticipated visual or auditory event to distract my train of thought. Even a small seemingly harmless distraction, like a distant phone beep, can increase the time required to finish knowledge work by a significant fraction.
I also suggest you don’t listen to music while you do this kind of work. There is a time and place for music. It is possible to train yourself to produce content while listening to a particular kind of genre. But for the sake of deep learning, we want to remove any possible distraction – and having an open playlist is a potential distraction.
The Reading Algorithm
An Algorithm is an ordered series of actions you repeatedly do until you finish a task. An unstructured version of this is essentially what you would have considered studying, before reading this blog post. The next algorithm is used for successfully extracting useful information from textbooks. This algorithm is extremely important. If there are two things I want you to take away from this blog, this would be the first one.
- Read the first paragraph.
- Close the book, or cover it with a piece of blank paper. In one or two short and descriptive sentences, write down what you think the author is trying to tell you with this paragraph. If it helps, ask yourself out loud or have a sticky note with questions: »What is this paragraph trying to tell me? Why did the author include it in the text? How important is this information for my goal?«. Draw, point, brainstorm, jot and make analogies about everything that comes to mind. Don’t focus on making the notes pretty, grammatically spot on or even contextually correct. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. The point here is to establish a communication with the book, not to merely move information around.
- After you have written down your thoughts, pause. Look if any more questions pop into your head. Questions like: »Why is this like that? I get this fact but where does it come from? How does this relate to what I already know?«… Jot all these questions down with another color – even if you think they are not important. You might have three times as many questions then text. If you do, it means you are thinking! These questions will usually be answered as you move through the textbook.
- Reopen your textbook. Continue reading the next paragraph and repeat this process until you finish the entire chapter.
As you progress, you will notice your understanding of previous paragraphs changes. This will make you jump back and forth between the current paragraph and the previous. This is perfect. It means you’re creating new connections and honing your understanding of the topic – throwing away subpar ideas and keeping the best. You can add a step between 2) and 3). During this step, you will perhaps take a third colored pen and refine your previous notes – maybe even answer some questions you have written down before.
The first complete read of a chapter will usually take you anywhere between 15 to 90 minutes and will be very exhausting, yet rewarding. If you have carefully followed the steps then what you’re left with is a very messy, organic and personal writing of your actual understanding of the subject. Enjoy it for a moment. You’ve done something beautiful and poetic, no matter what the paper looks like.
Optimize your Focus
Start Small to go Big
If you’re not used to working very deeply, start slowly. If done correctly, this kind of work is intense, so don’t expect to study the whole day. If you’re just starting, spend anywhere between 20 minutes to 2 hours studying in this cognitive demanding state. Over time, you can stretch this. I started small as well. Now I can consistently push myself to work 2 to 3-hour chunks on topics that don’t interest me, and well over 4 hours on topics I find great interest in.
Take Boring Breaks
I am very careful about taking breaks. On one hand, once you are in the flow you don’t want to interrupt it with a break, even though flow states can last for hours. On the other hand, experts recommend taking a break every 25-45 minutes since your ability to concentrate begins to fall drastically after that time.
I like to take a break whenever I feel like I need it. Usually when I notice I’m starting to lose my ability to focus. This changes from day to day, so there is no good model for break-taking.
The problem with breaks is not when you should take them, but how. When you stop your deep work activity, you probably go do something mindless to recharge. This mindless activity is usually also addictive and makes it harder to go back to work. This is a pit you can fall in regarding breaks.
The solution is rather… boring. Well, take boring breaks. Don’t check your social media or promise yourself you will watch only one episode of Friends. For a short break (5-15 minutes), sit on the edge of the bed and look at the wall. Do some burpees or static stretches. Make yourself some coffee. For longer breaks, go for a long walk in nature or hang out with friends.
There is a way to dramatically increase the depth of your flow state and your ability to focus – by changing your lifestyle. And I am not talking about eating better or exercising more. The following might seem extreme. Remember, you don’t have to live this way to get good results – applying what I’m offering in this post will be enough for that. I just want to expose you to some new ideas to see what else is possible.
The following is based on Cal Newport’s Deep Work. High-value activities, such as reading a textbook, are naturally boring activities. Therefore living a life soaked with high-stimulus and unimportant events drastically decreases your brain’s ability to focus on “hard & boring” tasks. Sooner or later, your mushy tissue will want that delicious dopamine snack from checking your social media, addictive websites, video-games or TV-series. This will ultimately break your momentum and might easily send you down a spiral of hopping from one distraction to the next for the entire afternoon.
Cal suggests reducing or even eliminating such activities, and replacing them with more high-quality leisure such as painting, woodworking, book reading, hiking, cooking… Anything that is engaging, requires concentration and ideally forces you to make a tangible product in the real world – which later brings on the feeling of accomplishment and content.
I have experimented with everything Cal suggests. I personally benefited greatly from his suggestions. Though, this might not be for everybody, since we all have different goals and ambitions. Being productive is very important to me, so sacrificing playing games, watching TV and Youtube, and even listening to music wasn’t a big sacrifice. The vacuum left behind from removing these activities was effortlessly filled with work and other high-quality activities – in my case playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends, hanging with my girlfriend, composing loopy songs on the piano, drawing concept art and dabbling with blacksmithing. All of this filled my life with a lot of meaning and purpose.
You are not required to do this, of course. Simply be aware of how your brain craves high-stimulus activities while you work for a while. If it doesn’t bother you, that’s great. But if you, like me, find this to be a hindrance, I suggest you pick up a copy of Deep Work & Digital Minimalism and put your brain on a low stimulus diet.
Exercise 3: Design your ritual
Based on the algorithm described in this chapter, create your own. This exercise requires a lot of experimenting and fine-tuning. But the basic idea is that you prepare your brain, body and the environment for learning. Here are some ideas you can experiment with:
- Prepare your body by hydrating yourself, do a quick static stretch routine, deep breathing or some pushups.
- Prepare your mind with a 30-second visualization on your achieving your goal.
- Double-check if you have all the necessary materials you need to study
- Remove every distraction possible. That might involve putting your phone on airplane mode or turning off the wi-fi.
- You can train yourself to get in the state by listening to the chorus of a song that pumps you up.
Stick with the routine for two weeks and review it after. Change things as you see fit. You can make it as complex or simple as you want. But you must have an action trigger your brain registers as “it’s go time”.
Exercise 4: N-Back Reading
Use this exercise to train your concentration. All you need is a non-fiction book.
- Pick up a book. Start with books you normally read.
- Read a paragraph. Look away and sum it up with one sentence in your head or out loud.
- Read another paragraph and sum it up. Then recall the summaries of all previous paragraphs in the correct chronological order.
- Keep repeating steps 2-3 for as long as you can. It is rather easy to hold 5-7 summaries in your head. After that, it gets exponentially more difficult.
Don’t be surprised if it takes you 30 minutes to read merely 15 paragraphs. Expect to feel mentally exhausted afterward.
After you become good at this, introduce distractions. Read while listening to loud annoying music. Or with the TV on. This is equivalent to adding weight to your squat bar.
The last phase of my Learning Cycle is what I call Project-Making Phase. This phase is all about consolidating your knowledge.
Third Phase – The Consolidation
The main point of this phase is to create something in the real world using your newly acquired knowledge.
For most theoretical knowledge, this can be very challenging or even impossible. You can’t make a Krebs cycle with your hands. But you can easily retouch photos using color theory. You can’t do experiments with superconductivity at home. But you can make electronic circuits to automate simple tasks.
The best way to consolidate purely theoretical knowledge is to write articles. In an article, you will write everything you know about a particular topic, written in a way as if you are teaching the general population. Articles solve three main problems regarding learning: efficiency, memory and deeper understanding.
Article: your Bread and Butter
An article is a piece of writing that explains one topic for a broad audience. By writing articles you are practicing free recall, forcing your brain to make sense of the information and identifying gaps in your understanding – all at the same time. Articles are the perfect hands-on project for mastering theoretical knowledge fast.
The Problem with Passive Reading
After the initial reading, you might be tempted to review by simply doing more of the same thing – passive reading. However, this way of learning is inefficient. By merely reading the text, you are practicing the recognition of the concept. Although crucial in the beginning, it is not what you are going to be tested on. We want to be able to freely recall complex information and conjure persuasive arguments effortlessly from our head.
The solution is to write. The core activity of writing an article is to close all your notes and recall everything you know about the concept. The harder it is to recall, the more efficient the learning. By writing five to eight articles on a topic, you will surely be able to easily recall any necessary information regarding the topic. This is not only crucial for a student but professionals as well. Imagine you’re expected to give a talk or present arguments about why your idea is good for the company.
The next pit you can fall into is by drilling the things you already know well enough. This is pseudo-work. The more you understand something, the less you drill it. Make recalling harder by allowing your brain to forget – to dim the memory of the concept and reignite it back again with an intense recalling session.
As you write you will notice you can recall some information easily, and some with great effort. Sometimes, you won’t be able to recall anything at all. This is usually because you’re missing a key piece of information. In this case, you have uncovered a knowledge gap. Mark it. Write down all questions that arise around this gap. When you are done writing, go back to your textbook and look for the correct answers. Write the article again with your refined understanding.
The last learning-lock has to do with constantly choosing the easy way. Reading or waiting for help is easy. I believe the harder it is to attain answers, the better you understand them. When a solution is simply given to you on a silver platter, you don’t exercise your intuition as to why the solution works.
Writing about, recalling, experimenting and simulating a potential solution is hard. And precisely what you want. Your brain is an energy optimization machine. The harder you try to create or summon a solution that doesn’t yet make much sense, the more your brain will try to understand it as to make subsequent recalls easier. This might seem paradoxical to when I suggested you mark and write down questions regarding your knowledge gap. But it really is not. When you hit a gap, spend a minute of intense focus trying to recall information. If the solution doesn’t appear, write down what you think is correct, based on some assumptions and continue writing the article. It is this mental strain that promotes rapid learning. Only when you are done, go back and look for the correct answers in your textbook.
When to Write Articles
You should write your first article on the same day you encounter a new concept when it is still fresh in your mind. Aim to write five to eight articles on any concept before considering it mastered. Each repetition will get noticeably easier, as will the quality of the article. By the time you write five articles, you will most likely already have a very deep understanding of the topic.
Writing sessions should be evenly spaced through a longer period. Don’t write eight articles on a single topic on the same day. Expose yourself to the information at least five times before you are tested on it. An easy way to plan this is to take the time interval from today until your exam date – or a fixed stopping point of your learning project. Count the number of days and divide by six. Round the number down. That is the number of days you wait in between writing an article on a particular concept.
You will forget quite a bit in between articles. This is fine. In fact, it is precisely what you want. With time, everything you don’t deeply understand fades away. It becomes harder to recall. Let your memory serve as a filter of subpar ideas and explanations.
By forgetting, you can see things from a new perspective. You might feel like you forgot most of the material and you just wasted your time. Remember, this is not true. Even if recalling is temporarily hindered, the neural connections still exist. Relearning the material will reignite the neural circuits, and understanding will come much easier this time.
When I come home from my lectures, I usually write two articles back to back. Writing the first one just so I can see what I don’t yet know. Then going back through my notes to refine my understanding and answer any questions I have. Lastly, writing my second article with my refined understanding. On a good day, I can do all this in 20-30 minutes per 2 hours of lectures. After this, I will schedule 5 more study sessions, during which I will again write 1-2 articles, depending on my time.
How to Write Articles
It takes a bit of practice to get a feeling for what an article is. Writing a few of them with the help of this step-by-step list will give you just the insight you need.
- Make an outline first. This includes the title of your topic, headers, and subheaders. At first, write a lot of subheaders with the help of your notes. This will help you break the recalling into smaller chunks. Each study session remove some headers until you are finally left only with the title. Recall or make up the necessary headers as you go.
- Remove your notes, textbooks or other material far from your field of vision. If you don’t do this, you will succumb to the impulse to recheck your notes.
- Under each headline, fill in whatever you can remember. If you get stuck, try to recall harder for 1 minute. This will signal your brain the information is important. Then, attempt to write or derive a solution yourself, even if you know it’s not exactly correct. Note the place where you got stuck and add any questions that may arise.
- After you’re done, correct your article with the help of your textbook. Do this, as if you’re a professor correcting a student’s work. Make sure you mark what is incorrect but also what is correct. When writing new articles, invest more energy in the parts where you were previously wrong.
- Write an article again. Repeat steps 1-4 one or two times more. Then take a break for at least a day. Let your unconscious mind process the information as well.
Essential Tips & Tricks
- Don’t be overly concerned with making your articles look pretty. Their main purpose is to be a brain dump. Get used to writing, scratching out and rewriting sentences or paragraphs. The amount of writing you will do by studying this way is tremendous. It would be a huge waste of time if you focused on how the article looks instead of its contents. Besides, these articles are not even made to store information, so you will also most likely throw them away.
- Write for the general public. This will make you explain ideas in layman terms and not skip any steps in the explanation. You can ask for feedback from a friend or family member. If they understood at least something, you are on a good path.
- Add your analogies, metaphors, and graphs as fast as you can. Even if you think they are stupid, bizarre, overly specific or even plain wrong. You can always fix them later when you achieve a deeper understanding. Analogies to the concept are equivalent to hooks holding up a ship in the shipyard. More hooks mean a better chance of the ship staying up in the air, while the 19th-century workers fix its underbelly, and sing “what to do with a drunken sailor, shave his belly with a rusty razor” (see what I did there? that is an image you won’t easily forget). People remember bizarre visual images, rhymes, and places extremely well. This, in fact, is the basis for how some can easily remember 500 random numbers or a deck of cards in a matter of minutes.
Exercise 5: Close this Post
Close this post and write an article on it. Help yourself with the Table of Content you can find at the top. Follow the Article Writing Algorithm as introduced in this chapter:
- Make an outline
- Close your notes
- Fill in what you can remember
- Make up the things you can’t remember
- Add analogies and metaphors
- Reopen your notes and correct your article
- Throw it in the trash
- Write another article
Learning is difficult. It requires a lot of time investment and careful planning. But to thrive in our economy, which values high-skilled knowledge workers, it is crucial to learn how to learn. It seems like a trivial task, yet it is anything but that. Just because you have been learning your whole life, doesn’t mean you are an expert at it. Different skills require different approaches. To progress in a skill means having a deeper understanding and the ability to apply it. But it also means tweaking your mico-habits and algorithms for work. What good is it to be an expert programmer, if you have habits of writing bad and unreadable code? An art prodigy can still make bad paintings or procrastinate if his or her routine gets too chaotic.
You have people who tell you that you need to explore to progress (tree-building). Some will tell you to follow tutorials (linear-digging). Others will simply say to keep it simple and just make stuff (project-making). They are all correct.
But to effectively ride the learning curve means cycling between different ways of learning. First focus on width. Then on depth. Then learn how to apply your knowledge in a project. After you’re done, start over.
Not focusing on all three ways of learning will stunt your growth. Focusing on only one will make you plateau. Making projects can only bring you so far. You can’t find better solutions without widening your horizons. And you can’t apply the solution without strategically deepening your understanding.
You might consider this method of studying to be unnecessarily complex. I have tried my best to apply my three-phase-cyclic learning to textbook studying. It’s no secret you will need time to internalize the method itself. Until that happens, you will feel like you’re doing extra unnecessary work. But you will quickly adapt and start reaping the benefits of these advanced learning algorithms.
In this blog post, we learned about the three-phase learning cycle and how to adapt it to learning purely theoretical knowledge. First, we defined a good learning project and created a system for exploring it. Then, we introduced a work ritual and an algorithm for reading a textbook. We also looked into our ability to focus and how to improve it. Lastly, we introduced the concept of writing an article to consolidate your knowledge. Articles help you practice free recall, identify knowledge gaps, and force understanding. By strategically deciding when to review, we allow our memory to serve as a filter of subpar ideas and explanations.