Original question from Quora:

What is the most effective way to learn?

Everyone learns differently and everyone has unique interests. But surely some techniques and methods are more effective than others.

  • So what is the best way to facilitate the consolidation of skills and knowledge into long-term memory? Is there a proven technique or methodology one can follow to learn any subject effectively? (this ties in with efficiency too)
  • What works best for you? How do YOU learn best?

My Answer:

I write software for a living. As you might have noticed, technology is always changing. Thus, the software developers who are most successful are often the best learners.

When I am going to learn something new, I give myself some problem to solve or project to build using that tool.

Without fail, I learn more by the end of the project than I ever would by reading articles, watching videos, and so on and so forth.

But, there is a secret to how that happens that is as old as time, but it’s not terribly obvious.

You see, I have a full time job and I’m usually playing with this stuff on nights and weekends. I don’t ever have a full day to work on this.

I often don’t have a full hour unless I get in the zone.

Nope, there is almost no time to get anything done or learn anything new.

So, I make a little progress each day.

I’ll pick up the project and make it a tiny bit better. Maybe add a new feature, write some tests, make it look nicer, or whatever I want.

I am not trying to learn. I’m trying to build something. Like if you’ve ever built a shed in your backyard you might have an idea of what I’m talking about.

You show up and solve some little problem.

These projects are so engrossing that I find myself sneaking in time almost every day for weeks or months. By the end I’ve learned a ton and I have some new product or service I’ve created along the way.

Here’s the thing, I am actually doing some old, boring thing that nobody wants to talk about and it’s not in any way exciting.

I’m practicing.

Silly as it sounds, when I’m building side projects, I’m really practicing my skills. I’m putting in hours of deliberate practice, but it never feels that way.

It feels like… building.

It feels like.. play.

Did you ever build a sandcastle at the beach or in the backyard sandbox? That isn’t work. It’s play.

Another example of this would be learning guitar or piano by figuring out how to play your favorite song. Most pop songs are a few simple chords. A few hours of lessons and many hours of practice and you can play hundreds of songs.

But if you learn those songs because you want to play them, you will end up spending hours practicing your instrument without even noticing. It won’t feel like boring practice, it will feel like playing a song you wanted to play.

To me, the best way to learn things is to find ways to practice doing them while feeling like play. It’s just something you intrinsically wanted to do.

That will let you put in hours of time you’d never otherwise spend honing and learning whatever skill you desire.

You can apply this to learning pretty much anything. Making learning and improving the byproduct of something you’d like to do anyway.

You’ll learn more and enjoy it more. It’s a self-reinforcing loop.

-Brian

P.S. I unpack more ideas in Creative Genius.