In this blog post, I’ll post my notes and thoughts about the course “Learning to Learn [Efficient Learning]: Zero to Mastery.” (Udemy Link).

The course has four main sections: Principles, Pillars, Lies, and Techniques.

The Principles

The section establishes some useful principles for motivated self-learners.

  • Learning vs. Winning The System
  • shift from trying to win the game (get good grades, get a promotion) to a mindset of long-term learning (see “The Lesson to Unlearn” by Paul Graham
  • define your measure of success
  • you need drive and persistence
  • embrace the obstacle: you’ll be bad first until you get good
  • know when to quit, make a smart choice (not everyone can become an Olympic athlete)
  • compound learning: learn in chunks instead of cramming
  • improve by 1% every day
  • failures don’t count against you: people know you right now, they don’t care about the test you failed five years ago
  • use failure as a feedback loop
  • mindset: choice vs. chore: shift your focus from “I must do that” to “I want to do that.”
  • framing: use a frame/context to change your perspective
  • Pareto principle (80/20 rule): eliminate until you’ve boiled it down the essentials
  • focus on the critical 20% and make efficient use of your time
  • Robert Greene - “Mastery”: 3 principles: curiosity, value learning about all else, skill-stacking (uniquely combine your skills)
  • the trick is to have skills that work well together, but are varied enough to allow you to stand out (avoid the most obvious path)
  • happiness factors: identify the areas/things/people that make you happy - if you’re happy, you will be able to learn better
  • monitor your happiness factors
  • productivity time: find the time where you are most productive
  • self-learning paradigm: find your identity as a self-learner

The Lies

The section deals with debunking myths.

  • “Follow your passion” is terrible advice - you don’t need to be passionate to start to become good at something and enjoy improving your craft (craftman’s mindset)
  • aim for creativity, control and impact instead
  • Lie “You can avoid risk”: you have to get out of your comfort zone, you can’t play it safe all the time
  • Lie “Trust this one person”: don’t believe the gurus: find various teachers and opinions, unique perspectives, combine different sources
  • “The 10,000 Hours Rule” (become a master by practicing more) is debunked
  • practice smart, not hard (efficiency)

The Pillars

The section introduces four pillars as foundations for implementing the learning techniques.

1. Everything is a Game

Adopt a growth mindset: everything is trainable. Seek out challenges to grow.

If you believe you have control over your life (“locus of control”), you realize that you can it’s in your hand to improve your skills instead of blaming undesirable results on external factors.

2. The Feynman Technique

To understand something, you need to be able to explain in simple terms. You’ll also be able to identify gaps in your knowledge.

The Feynman Technique is the best way to learn anything:

  1. Choose a concept you want to learn about
  2. Pretend you are teaching it to a student in grade 6
  3. Identify gaps in your explanation; Go back to the source material, to better understand it.
  4. Review and simplify (optional)

3. Trunk-Based Knowledge

(This reminds me of the idea of first principles).

4. Efficiency Trumps Grit

Being busy, busy, busy is not a good thing.

Manage your time and energy, be efficient, instead of hustling all the time.

Remember that resources are limited. Use the right strategies to get ahead.

The Science

Here we learn about the science behind the study methods from the last section.

  • focus vs. diffuse mode of thinking: both ways are essential for learning, you have to jump between both modes
  • sleep: during sleep your brain flushes toxins, your mind forms new neural connections
  • brain training: strengthen the connections between brain cells - physical exercise also helps (encourages diffuse mode of thinking)
  • science of feedback: both negative feedback (rather: corrective feedback) and positive feedback (for motivation) are crucial; immediate feedback is best
  • procrastination: everybody battles procrastination: you have to learn to manage your emotions, not your time
  • doing hard things (like learning) will not initially feel good
  • ask, “what’s the next action?”: just get started
  • long-term and short-term memory: use spaced repetition to help with storing in long-term memory
  • active vs. passive learning: can you learn soccer by watching videos? No, you have to practice
  • prefer recall over re-reading (test your knowledge)
  • intrinsic motivation: 3 factors for an inherent drive - autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • small steps (Kaizen)
  • SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound
  • It pays not to be busy
  • combine chunks of knowledge into a big picture - how do these chunks connect?
  • use different strategies to learn how to solve problems: focussed thinking and diffuse mode (intuition)
  • deliberate practice (Anders Ericsson - “Peak”): you’ll hit a plateau and use deliberate practice to break through the limit (train on the edge)
  • use specific goals, intense focus, and immediate feedback (be active and use maximum effort)
  • spaced repetition: spread out practice/learning sessions
  • habits save energy
  • be adventurous (excitement, experience new things)
  • have an endpoint: plan your finishing time
  • be bored: allows for the diffuse mode of thinking

The Techniques

1. Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a method for time-blocking and chunking. Work for a certain time (25 minutes or more), then take a break. Rinse and repeat.
It also helps against procrastination, as you define the time block before starting.

According to Wikipedia, there are six steps:

  1. Decide on the task to be done.
  2. Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
  3. Work on the task.
  4. End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
  5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 2.
  6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.

Andrei, the instructor for the course, recommends starting with your most challenging task first.

2. Chunk The Subject

Combine subjects and concepts to give it meaning.

A popular method for cracking particular algorithm challenges is the Divide and Conquer method.

You break down the problem into small parts and use them to learn or solve problems.

Examples for chunk-based learning curriculums are Khan Academy or Duolingo.

Exercise: Write a 1-page summary of everything you need to learn.
If it’s too tricky, you have to chunk more. Example.

3. Spaced Repetition (Revisited)

Avoid over-learning. There is a forgetting curve.

The effort of recalling and retrieving information enables reconciliation in your brain. Reconciliation leads to strengthening the required neural pathways.

(That’s why the Feynman Technique works so well.)

A popular flash-card tool is Anki.

Another method is to use diagrams or mind-maps to distill the main concepts.

4. Deliberate Practice (Revisited)

Avoid the easy tasks. Take on challenging projects.

Every day, carve out focus time (you can use the Pomodoro technique, for example).

Then, push yourself to the edge of your ability: “Have I done this before? What’s the +1?”

Aim for immediate feedback.

Measure it. Write it down.

5. Create a Roadmap

You need a plan. Prepare. Create a curriculum. Research.

What do industry leaders say? What are the topics I need to learn? Where are the quality resources?

What are the most important topics? What are my measures of success? How does that benefit me or someone else?

6. Interleaving

Vary learning methods, vary practicing different skills: “mix it up.”

7. Einstellung

German Einstellung Effect: a rigid mindset that hinders you from broadening your horizons.

Be willing to be wrong.

“What is option C?” You thought of options A and B, but might there be another way?

7. Importance of Community

A community can help you to identify blind spots, can assist you and provide feedback. Others can hold you accountable.

8. Habits (Revisited)

Habits are automatic and thus save energy.

The habit loop: cue (trigger), a routine, then reward. You also believe in the habit (that it’s right for you, or that the reward is tied to the routine (“smoking relaxes me”). (See The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg).

Instead of using willpower (depletable resource), it’s better to use habits.

Four of behavior change (from “Atomic Habits”):

  1. obvious
  2. easy
  3. attractive
  4. satisfying

Don’t break the chain - a method for building consistency.

9. System vs. Goals

Create systems instead of goals:

For example, losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can’t maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.

10. The Power of the Senses

Stories and metaphors are essential. You have to try to make sense of the material.

Example: You can learn in stimulating environments to make it memorable.

11. Method of Loci

The technique helps with invoking many senses.

12. The Pareto Principle (Revisited)

Use the 80/20 rule to identify the critical skills you need to acquire.

Ask yourself: “Is this the best use of my time?“ - “Is this the most critical piece of information?”

Try to remove the unnecessary.

13. Parkinson’s Law

From Wikipedia:

Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. It is sometimes applied to the growth of bureaucracy in an organization.

Use the law to your advantage. For example, use the Pomodoro technique to constrain yourself. Set deadlines to force yourself to limit your project to a particular time-frame.

14. Deep Work

Deep work is focussed, highly engaged work/practice.

Here’s a book summary of “Deep Work”:

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.
Shallow work is non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style work, often performed while distracted.

15. Stakes and Rewards

Aim for small wins to stay motivated.

“What’s at stake?” - what happens when you don’t achieve your goal? What are the consequences? You have to have skin in the game.

Hold yourself accountable.

16. Concepts vs. Facts

Facts are easy to search for (Wikipedia, Google).

How are things connected? Concepts are high-level topics that you can use to come up with unique solutions.

Concepts are the “trunks” of your knowledge tree. After you’ve incorporated them, it’s easier to learn the “leaves” of a topic. Focus on the foundations first.

Ask: why?

17. Test Yourself

What are the key ideas? How can I summarize this?

What did you just learn? Quiz yourself. Use recall to gain feedback on your understanding.

Review

The course impresses with entertaining videos and brief and clear explanations. The lectures are engaging and offer exercises (like the Loci method). The course has a clear structure and is easy to follow.
I enjoyed having a visual roadmap for the class. The instructor also provides worksheets where you can note critical takeaways.

While the class offers bite-sized methods and self-help wisdom, you won’t encounter anything new under the sun.

If you know courses and books like “Learning How to Learn” or “Ultralearning”, you will already be familiar with the topic and methods.

The instructor, Andrei Neagoie, showcases the remarkable skill of breaking down ideas into digestible pieces. Sometimes, nuances fall prey to the simplification of a topic.

For me, the class was a delightful repetition of learning strategies and theory that I already knew. As a whirlwind tour, the course certainly delivers.

The course will be most useful for someone who has never busied themselves with learning theory. You will get to know all the important strategies for improving meta-learning.
Experienced “productivity hackers” should look elsewhere.