principles /
How to Learn

The best tips I've come across for learning more effectively.

Get the Tree Trunk

First skim the table of contents, outline, or syllabus to get a sense of how things are organized. Every topic is made of a few core “pillars” that carry the greatest load, so by figuring them out first, you develop a “tree trunk” from which details (“branches” and “leaves") can easily grow.

The key is to avoid superficial note-taking—that is, mindlessly highlighting or jotting down information without any awareness of structure. For written material, you might try morse-code reading: scribble a dot next to a main idea and a dash next to supporting ones.

For spoken material, you might try the Cornell Method of note-taking. Simply divide a page into 3 sections and fill them out accordingly:

  • Main ideas
  • Notes - supporting points such as dates, diagrams, and formulas
  • Summary - a brief summary of the material, written at the end

Even examples of work can be reduced to component parts. Benjamin Franklin provides some inspiration here: in an effort to improve his prose, he would take articles from the best publications and jot down notes on the meaning of each sentence. He’d then shuffle the notes, try to put them back in the correct order, and rewrite the article from scratch.

First get the trunk of the tree, from which the rest can grow, and you’ll be much better off.


Recall, recall, recall. The best way to remember something is to absorb the material, then look away and see what you can recall from memory. It’s more effective than rereading—and leagues above highlighting.

After reading something that I’d like to retain, I go through a miniature version of the Feynman Technique:

  • Recall the material out loud, as if you were explaining it to grandma (be simple and concise, use analogies)
  • Identify the gaps in your explanations
  • Go back to the material and fill them in
  • Repeat until you’ve gotten it!

Remember, recalling from memory is key. And if you really want to retain something over the long term, you’ve got to “practice” your recollection of it, much like singing a song over and over again.

This is where spaced repetition techniques such as the Leitner System come in handy. Interestingly enough, we encode things better when we work harder to retrieve them (right before we start to forget). Spaced repetition techniques take advantage of this by increasing the interval of time between subsequent practice sessions until the material is sufficiently memorized.

When in doubt, recall. Then wait a while and recall again (then again, after longer while).


“Chunking” is simply the act of breaking large amounts of information into smaller units. Simplistically, it’s the difference between 18008618380 and 1-800-861-8380 (15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance).

It’s also the difference between:

  • Potatoes
  • Chicken breast
  • Lettuce
  • Butter
  • Ground beef
  • Milk
  • Tomatoes
  • Cheese
  • Pork loin
  • Carrots, and


  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Milk


  • Chicken breast
  • Ground Beef
  • Pork loin


  • Carrots
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes

Just chop up the information, identify similarities and patterns, and group it into manageable units. Chunking is effective because it makes things easier to recall. Plus, you make connections more efficiently between chunks than between individual points (a related phenomenon to this is called “transfer,” when learning chunks that take on a certain pattern in one field make it easier to learn chunks that take on similar patterns in another).

Whenever I practice chunking, either in design work or for personal use, I like to follow Miller’s Law, which states that the average number of objects a person can hold in working memory is 7 plus or minus 2. All of my Principles posts, including this one, top out at 5 points. Easy to hold in memory and countable on one hand.

Creamy or chunky? When it comes to learning, chunky is clearly better.

Pay Attention

Do not multitask. Don’t do it! Each and every time you switch between tasks, you incur what’s called a cognitive switching penalty. It consumes valuable energy, and it doesn’t matter what you’re switching between—spreadsheets and email, studying and Twitter—it all has a cost.

Secondly, the prior task leaves what Cal Newport calls “attention residue.” When you shift your attention to new task before finishing the first one, thoughts about the first linger around, gunking up your mind. They’re like that dinner party guest who just won't go home. Thus performance for the subsequent task suffers—according some studies, the equivalent of a 15-point drop in IQ (or being high).

If you find yourself have a hard time focusing, have no fear! Attention can be trained. Mindfulness mediation is a surefire long-term solution to this, but in the short-term I’ve found the Pomodoro technique to be effective.

It’s easy. Rather than worry about completing a task, which can feel intimidating, simply commit to paying attention to it for 25 minutes. Then take a 5 minute break, then start again, until it’s done. There’s something about the emphasis on time that makes it easier to get into. Note: the breaks should be thought of as actual breaks, not opportunities to squeeze in a few emails. Make a coffee, go for a walk, pet a kitten or two!

Another thing that’s helped me is the distinction between high-density fun and low-density fun. It’s so much more rewarding to watch a good movie than it is to spend the equivalent time skimming Instagram. With this in mind, I try to cut out as much low-density fun during the day (meaningless dopamine-kick distractions) and reward myself with high-density fun later on.

Balance Your Thinking

In her course Learning how to Learn, Professor Barbara Oakley describes two modes of thinking:

  • Focus mode, where you concentrate on the matter at hand and ignore extraneous information, and
  • Diffuse mode, where you’re more relaxed and allow connections to be made between disparate ideas

The former is working on a math problem, the latter: the “eureka” moment in the shower.

To learn something more effectively, or to solve a difficult problem, alternate between focus and diffuse thinking. First, concentrate on absorbing the key points of the material (use chunking and recall to help encode it). Then, let your mind wander; take a nap or go for a stroll. Your diffuse mode will spread the learnings around, making connections to things you already knew.

The next time you return the material, some of the best connections will stick around, and you’ll have better comprehension to work with. It’s the dance between these two modes—not the focus on any one of them—that’s most effective.

Dali was well aware of this phenomena (if not the mechanics of it). When he’d get stuck, he’d take a handful of keys and recline in a nearby chair. Then, he would slowly drift away. Just as he was about to fall asleep, the keys would slip from his grasp, clattering loudly on the floor. He’d then jump up, mind full of of new ideas, and run back to his painting to explore them.

Lastly, as a measure of maintenance, it’s important to get plenty of exercise and plenty of sleep. Aerobic exercise is known to benefit the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is related to memory and learning. More exercise = better retention. And sleep not only provides the requisite energy for learning, but also serves an important role in the consolidation of your memories.

Think of exercise and sleep, then, as part of the study process. G'nite!