In this article, I’m going to show you the best tips so you can learn ANYTHING more effectively.
Let’s kick it off with the surprising benefits of learning:
Why Should I Become a Lifelong Learner?
We started learning the moment we were born.
But some people stop actively learning after school. Here’s one question I have for you:
What are YOU actively learning now?
Actively learning something in your field or a new hobby is critical for your growth.
Here are just a few benefits of learning, backed by science:
- We stay sharper. Learning new skills increases myelin in our brains, which is the white matter in our brains responsible for mental speed and strength.
- We get better work. Research shows that people with higher education have greater employment opportunities.
- We have better mental health. Another study shows that learning can give us a sense of purpose and lessen mental health problems.
And perhaps one of my favorite benefits is:
Learning is one of the fastest ways to build confidence.
If you ever have a case of imposter syndrome, learning is one of the best ways to combat it.
And because I’ve felt awkward and like an imposter most of my life, I’ve devoted myself to learning new things all the time to develop the confidence I need.
15 Tips to Learn How to Learn
Does this sound like you?
I used to be a learning procrastinator… until I learned how to optimize learning.
Here are my 15 best tips to help you learn:
The Memory Palace Technique
Imagine your home.
You likely can remember most big details about your house, right?
This is where the memory palace technique comes in.
What is the memory palace technique?
A memory palace is a learning technique where you picture a familiar location and place mental “objects” in it. The memory palace technique takes advantage of your spatial memory to assist in learning and help you memorize different concepts.
Here’s how to build a memory palace, courtesy of Art of Memory:
- Step 1: For your first memory palace, try choosing a place that you know well. I like to use my home, as an example.
- Step 2: Plan out the whole route. Imagine yourself walking in the front yard, going through the front door, entering the living room, and traversing all the major rooms in your home. Some people find that going clockwise is helpful, but it isn’t necessary. Eventually, you will have many memory palaces. You will also be able to revise the memory palace after you test it a few times, so don’t worry if it’s not perfect on the first try.
- Step 3: Now take a list of something that you want to memorize, like a shopping list of 20 different items—carrots, bread, milk, tea, oats, apples, etc.
- Step 4: Take one or two items at a time and place a mental image of them in each locus of your memory palace. Try to exaggerate the images of the items and have them interact with the location. For example, if the first item is “carrots” and the first locus in your memory palace is the front door, picture some giant carrots opening up your front door.
Once you’ve got that down, you can tie your image to a particular thing you’ve learned. For example, to open the front door, perhaps the carrot has to input a math equation in the door lock.
To dive deeper into memory palaces, here’s a great video resource:
Become a Note Taker
If you’re used to typing everything you learn, you might be better off doing it the old-fashioned way: with paper and pen.
That’s because typing doesn’t actually help us learn much.
A 2021 study put handwriting and typing to the test:
- Researchers asked students to first write and then type notes from a biology textbook.
- The researchers then compared the handwritten notes and the typed notes.
- The results? Researchers found that students, while typing, seemed to be cognitively overloaded. In other words, they typed the notes on their computers, but that information didn’t “stick” as well as handwritten notes. The students also showed less knowledge, accuracy of terminology, and ability to interconnect ideas when typing notes.
When it comes to learning, the pen is mightier than the keyboard.
Pro Tip: Write everywhere! Write on sticky notes, write in your journal, write on a whiteboard. I even write everywhere in the books I’m reading.
And if you’re not reading physical books, check out this next tip.
Ditch the Digital
Speaking of handwritten notes, learning from physical books might be better than from a screen.
The physical sensation of holding books and turning the pages gives us extra sensory input compared to a digital device, and this helps us retain more info.
So science tells us there’s still use for print books—especially to help us learn better.
The Interleaving Effect
Are you into language learning?
According to LingQ, achieving basic fluency in a language would take roughly 480 hours, or 720 hours for more difficult languages.
To help with language learning, I interviewed the amazing Steve Kaufmann, co-founder of LingQ and polyglot of over 20 languages! Watch our interview on learning below:
In the video, Kaufman talks about the interleaving effect. Interleaving is a learning technique of learning several related topics together.
For example, a person learning how to swim might intermix learning freestyle, the breast stroke, and how to float. A typical interleaving pattern would look like this:
Learn topic A —> Learn topic B —> Learn topic C —> Learn topic A —> Learn topic B…
Interleaving works—perhaps better than learning just one topic at a time.
Of course, researchers tested it out—in actual classrooms. They studied students in one classroom who interleaved both algebra and geometry, with their weekly homework assignments containing a mix of both types of questions.
The result? After a month, they performed 76% better than with the normal approach.
Interleaving is a great way to spice things up while also boosting your learning. Here are just a few ideas you can implement:
- Learning management? Switch between people skills, management training, and organization skills.
- Learning to draw? Swap between human anatomy, shading, and colors.
Here’s a great video that explains interleaving:
Give Your Brain a Break
Are you stressed? Amped up? Feeling rushed? It is incredibly hard to learn anything when you are in that head space.
Stress is literally anti-learning.
Imagine trying to intake information when you’re amped up, angry, or stuck in a negative thought loop. Yikes!
A 2016 study shows evidence that stress impairs memory retrieval and causes us to revert to “rigid, ‘habit’-like behaviour.”
So before learning, try to give your brain a restorative break:
- Meditate. Do a quick 5- or 10-minute meditation using your favorite meditation technique.
- Oil it up. I love using essential oils. The scents are great, but I love putting on a peppermint scent, as it primes my brain to turn on “learning mode” and gets me in a relaxed mood.
- Hot bath time. Hot baths are great for relaxing. One study found that warm baths even lower stress, anxiety, anger, and depression—more so than a shower alone.
- Take breaks. If you’re learning something for hours on end, try having a mental reset. Go out for a walk, or set up a time blocking system for scheduled breaks.
Remember those long, sleepless nights reviewing notes before a test?
Well, it turns out testing actually works. Research shows that students who studied and were then tested had greater long-term recall of what they learned than students who did not test.
And the best way to prepare for a test?
Spaced repetition is a system of learning that uses scheduled, repeated review of the information to be memorized.
It helps because we tend to forget 20% of what we learn after 24 hours, unless we review what we learned. Take a look at the following graph to see how spaced repetition works:
As you can see, if we don’t test or review what we’ve learned, we’ll only retain 60% after 3 days. However, if we just review once, we’ll retain that information much longer but still retain only 60% after 7 days.
With each added review, we increase memory retention, which means we can keep retention at the highest level, even though we schedule longer and longer intervals between reviews. And that’s the beauty of spaced repetition.
Eventually, after a number of reviews, we may only need to review our materials learned weeks or even months later.
So how exactly do you review or test yourself?
I personally love to use the app Anki. I can input my flashcards and have regularly set intervals for reviewing anything I learn.
For a more in-depth look at spaced repetition, check out this guide here.
Take a Nap
We all know we perform better on a good night’s sleep.
But if you’re running on fumes, research shows that “even a short sleep lasting 45 to 60 minutes produces a five-fold improvement in information retrieval from memory.”
Author Daniel Pink explains in his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, that a power nap resets our brain. Our brain glitches as the day goes on, and a power nap helps smooth out these glitches so we can function better.
He also recommends a caffeine-nap hack—drink a cup of coffee, then take a power nap for 25 minutes (the amount of time it takes for the caffeine to kick in); however, I feel the best length for a power nap depends on each person!
Try napping to find your optimal power nap length.
Own Your Environment
Believe it or not, your environment changes how you learn.
For example, imagine yourself in these types of environments:
- a quiet library room
- outside in a park
- in a noisy cafe
- your own workstation at home
I like a consistent environment where I can sit down and work without distractions. Others might prefer the more vibrant environment of a busy cafe.
Your chair is also an important environmental factor—if you’re working remotely, then you’ll likely be at your chair for hours and hours every day. The proper seat can keep you motivated to learn longer rather than complain about the back pain!
Do some research on the best ergonomic chairs, and your back (and learning capacity) will improve!
Explain Like I’m Five
Physicist Robert Feynman created an organization-based learning method by writing on the title page of an empty notebook.
From there, Feynman was able to break down extremely complicated ideas into really simple ones.
He used what I call the “Explain Like I’m Five” technique. Here’s how it goes:
- Take a difficult-to-learn concept. For this example, let’s go with a bonsai tree.
- Try breaking down the concepts like you’re explaining it to a five-year-old. You can use analogies, which is what the Feynman method is perfect for. In our case, we can go with something like: “Bonsai trees are just like a big tree but smaller.”
This is super simplified, but breaking down difficult concepts into many smaller ones can help you see how the pieces fit together.
If you’re having trouble visualizing a concept, it might help to try writing it down using this technique as well!
Learn by Heart
Are you big on exercise?
If so, you might be a more effective learner.
Studies point out that increased heartbeat through exercise can lead to increased learning ability. This is because during the learning process, new neurons are activated. And exercise helps these new neurons survive.
So in your free time, why not go for a run, hit the weights, or do some bodyweight exercise?
You can also try a standing desk if you’re learning at your desk, or hop on a walking treadmill to keep your heart rate up.
Find Your Optimum Noise
What’s your favorite learning noise?
Some people love to listen to music. Others like it completely silent.
If you’ve got construction workers banging outside your front door, or you’re used to blasting loud ’70s hair metal while you learn, you might be doing it wrong.
So who do we listen to?
Your optimum noise level likely depends on your personality type, so experiment with yourself to find out if you’re either a noise- or silence-loving learner.
I love classical for learning and deep work, but my husband loves techno. Find your music flavor.
Set Up Learning Stations
Most people tend to learn in one place, usually their desk.
But it may be better to change up your environment, using what I call “learning stations.”
For example, I’ve got my main learning station at my computer desk. Then there’s the learning station on the sofa, at my favorite local coffee shop, the public library, out on the patio, in my favorite park, etc.
Having multiple learning stations works because of a phenomenon called context dependent memory. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that our brains associate our environment with what we’re learning at the time.
This means the more different environments you can learn in, the more associations your brain makes.
It’s a win-win!
Lights, Color, Clutter!
Make sure your environment is set up for ideal learning conditions.
This includes the right lighting, colors, and orderliness:
- Try to learn in an environment with natural lighting. Studies show that when compared to dim lighting, students score 25% higher in a naturally lit environment. Learn near windows or in an area with access to sunlight for optimum learning.
- What color is your learning environment? Blue has the tendency to keep us calm and relaxed. Red keeps us passionate, while yellow can make us feel positive and happy. What is your color preference? Find out which colors suit your learning abilities in our color psychology guide.
- Remove the clutter. A Carnegie Mellon University study found that students were more distracted, spent more time off task, and learned less in a cluttered classroom vs. when the clutter was removed. Clean up your environment to declutter your valuable brainpower.
Learn stacking is taking what you already know and learning about similar topics.
For example, if you’re learning about cabinet making, you might also want to learn about the types of paints that are used to paint cabinets, the types of trees cabinets are made from, the various types of cabinets commonly used throughout the world, etc.
Learn stacking is about building relational knowledge. Expanding your knowledge will help you “connect” what you’re learning better and better integrate it into long-term memory.
I like to think of learn stacking as being similar to cup stacking.
The more you learn about relational subjects, the taller your stack will be, and the stronger the foundation.
To gain even more knowledge, you might want to try speed reading. Speed reading is the skill of reading faster by scanning, while also absorbing what we read. Learn to speed read in our guide here: How to Speed Read: 4 Strategies to Learn to Read Faster
Be The Guru
If you can teach someone what you learn, great!
But if not, research shows that even expecting to teach someone boosts learning capabilities.
This is because our mindset shifts to learn more effectively than someone who, say, learns to just pass a test.
Here are some ideas to become an expert at what you’re learning:
- Teach a friend. Have someone you can share anything with? A friend, family member, or even your dog? Share with them what you’re learning!
- Start a podcast! A podcast is an easy way to spread your knowledge and gain a fan base in the process—and all you need is a simple microphone (your phone will do!).
- Start a blog. This is exactly what I did to build up Science of People’s audience. If you’re a good writer, channel your knowledge into words. Get started with this resource: How to Start a Successful Blog in 2021.
- Start a YouTube channel. Engage with the community, create a following, and truly become an expert in your field. Start here: How to Create a YouTube Channel.
Learning = The Remedy to Overthinking?
I’m a chronic overthinker—I constantly worry, overplan, and don’t take action.
But I found one fascinating phenomenon:
When you learn a new language, you have fewer words to use.
This means you literally CAN’T overthink. At least, not as much as you would in your native language.
This doesn’t only work for language learning, either.
Learning ANYTHING can help with overthinking.
Do We Learn Differently?
I get this question a lot: Are there different learning styles?
Essentially, some people believe people are born with natural tendencies to learn better through visual, audio, or tactile experiences.
But in fact, research shows the opposite—students who answered a questionnaire to determine their preferred learning style and altered their studying habits to reflect it showed no remarkable improvement.
So, there you have it!
I hope you learned a lot in this article, and that I’ve inspired you to continue your lifelong learning journey.
Now, here’s a bonus tip for you! You’ve heard of a bucket list, but do you have a learning bucket list? People who make bucket lists are more likely to achieve their goals. So let’s get to creating! Head on over to our article to make your own! How to Make a Learning Bucket List