A simple way to learn faster

Pay-off: time-saving tricks to help you learn fast

Investment: 14 minutes (4-7 mins if you applied the ideas within)

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You’re trying to learn something right now in your work or life, aren’t you?

You want to be able to know or do something to a desired standard, in order to enjoy the rewards that come from that.

What if you were able to do that thing, to that standard, and enjoy those rewards, in a matter of days rather than months or even years?

That’s what this post is about.

I spent about a decade of my life helping organisations to do exactly this. I challenged them to consider how to short-cut the time it took to reach a required level of competence. And then equipped them with the tools and thinking to do so. Most people began to realise that when it came to learning they were crawling when they could have been running and leaping over low-value learning activity.

Save 1-2 months a year

In fact, one technique alone (speed reading) had the potential to save many people between 1-2 months of working time each year. If you’re interested I’ll explain why that claim is true here. But if you want to immediately experience faster learning yourself, consider the unlikely task of having to learn the number pi to 11 decimal places.

If you were in a race to do it, how would you?

The average learner will grab the number (3.14159265358) and probably start reciting it in a jibbering panicked voice hoping that their mind will eventually clutch on to the string of meaningless numbers. (Same style many students use to prepare for exams.)

That’s how the average learner learns. And how the average organisation tackles learning. That’s why they’re average and will continue to be unless they question this method.

And, by the way, let’s say they get there. Let’s say they learned to recite pi to 11 decimal places. How long did it take for them to learn this whilst they panicked through their uncertain approach?

Whether you think it would take you 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or longer, it needn’t. It only needs seconds.

And some tolerance for bad grammar:

When I learned how to learn pi fast, I knew I could determine pi. Simple words are smart solution.

There, despite tensing up over that poorly constructed sentence, you’ve just learned pi.

I’ll repeat:

I knew I could determine pi,
Simple words are smart solution.

Repeat that a few times, preferably out loud since that enhances memory, and then to recall pi, count the number of letters in each word and you’ll write pi out to 11 decimal places.

Pie. I knew I could determine pi simple words are smart solution
3   . 1    4      1     5            9          2      6           5       3       5          8

That’s all you need to learn it. It’s more learnable. It fits how we learn. It makes the intangible tangible. It ties what we are trying to learn to what we already know. Learning requires that you join new stuff to existing stuff, and tie a ‘mental knot’ between the two (or a new neural pathway if you’re doing this seriously). And there are plenty of overlooked ways to do that.

The point here is not to equip you to be able to quickly calculate the area of a circle. (Although if you ever got kidnapped by a demanding bunch of geeks you might impress enough to make your escape). My point is to reveal to you that if you just accept the normal ways to learn things, then you’re probably accepting to crawl. And that’s costly, painful, and often doesn’t get us to the required standard in time.

I’m about to give you some more ideas like this to make your learning more efficient but before we move off the topic of turning numbers into words, let’s quickly note some more time and effort saving uses of this.

Pin numbers and passwords

Short of ideas for a pin number to remember? Say a common four word phrase, count the letters of each word, and make that your pin number. “I like playing football” = 1478. That saves time and is memorable. And time adds up.

And since I’m on to pin numbers, let’s look at leveraging some of your passwords. We spend far too much time entering passwords into boxes these days. So why not take the opportunity to type in a useful short phrase that you want to keep at the forefront of your mind as your password? A new habit you want to programme yourself to develop for example.

Say you’re always over committing to things and want to develop the habit of saying ‘no’ more often. Make your password: keepsayingno.

Not drinking enough water? drinkwater. It won’t guarantee that you get up and do these things (nor does it need to). But it will increase the chances that you develop a stronger mindset for this and are more likely to respond in your actions. As your nerual pathways strengthen your habits become more likely.

In sales but find the idea of selling uncomfortable? (Sounds weird I know but it’s strangely common.) Try: sellinghelpsmycustomers.

Self-critique your learning

Learning effectively is about questioning what you’re doing. Stepping outside of it, examining it, then improving your process or approach. Again, we’re coming on to some more ideas to help you do this.

So, here’s my challenge to you. Whatever you’re learning, you almost certainly could be learning more effectively and more enjoyably. You shouldn’t just tackle it in the way you were taught to learn. You shouldn’t wait to be taught. And you shouldn’t accept the way you’re taught.

Learning is done by you, not to you. You should roll your sleeves up, and do a “learning robbery” where you plan what you need, you get in, take it, and get out.


“Applying the tools and techniques that Mark has taught me has left me in awe of my own potential. In many cases, I can now get done in 2 hours, tasks that would previously have taken 2 days. Furthermore, my confidence has shot through the roof” – Adrian Griffith, Director, Oval Systems


14 ideas to help you learn faster

So here are 14 ideas. They’re dead simple. And for learning purposes, they are focused on learning and applying knowledge rather than skills or behaviours. I’ll write about those another time.

1. You’re going to have to want to learn faster.

A crawler must want to walk or run if they are to attempt it. If you’re stuck on just accepting your current learning speed, there’s no point reading further.


2. You’ll learn the ideas here faster if you actually apply them directly to learning some new knowledge.

Now, huh, you’re learning new knowledge right now, so as you learn each point I’m making, you could try to apply it immediately.

Alternatively, just pick another learning priority of yours. Point is, don’t walk away with just the theory. Walk away with the impact of having applied it and you’ll want to use your new superpowers again.


3. Realise that learning is the process of attaching what you don’t know to what you do know.

Newly learned info must attach somehow to something already in your mind. So, if the gap between the new and existing stuff is too big, you’re going to need to close the gap to make a connection. Analogies help. “This is a bit like this but with [add differentiator here]” is a great way to speed up learning. And not just for higher level concepts but for many details too. It’s your challenge to ask yourself, “what is this most like that I already know?” You’d probably attempt it naturally when explaining something to a kid. So do it to yourself.

Example: I’ve repeated that this is like progressing from crawling to walking or running. I say that not just for the opportunity to increase speed, but to point out the ridiculousness of going through life just crawling.

Any new ideas you’re learning elsewhere – pick one and ask yourself, “what is this most like? How would I explain it to a 6 year old? In the same way that a picture paints 1000 words, an analogy like this does most of the heavy lifting for you. It enhances understanding, memory, and communication of the idea to others. But to really learn the idea you must also acknowledge the differences between what you’re learning and your analogy.


4. What could, should and will you learn about your chosen subject?

You could spend ages trying to learn everything about this topic. But much of it wouldn’t be useful for you personally, considering your unique objectives.

So the next question is, what is it about this topic that you would most directly benefit from learning?

This should have you considering “what’s on the menu out there?” vs “what are my learning priorities on this?”

Might sound obvious, but many people make learning unnecessarily difficult and time-consuming because they don’t question which parts to learn (or which parts to learn first). They just let themselves be taught everything the author/teacher/trainer wants to teach them, in the order the expert chooses. And pain sets in.

A classic example is language courses that try to teach you everything when in fact, you’re only going on a skiing holiday and just need to learn vocabulary related to snow, danger, tree, or cliff ahead.

Tip: When learning a new language, you could start with a list of the top 100 most common words. Here they are in English. But Google for “top 100 most common words in [add language here]”. Then start listing the most common words you’ll need related to what you’re doing (and how you need to communicate) in that country. Also, rather than just listing words, write out the most likely sentences and questions you’re going to need. Translate and learn those. All these tips get you to where you actually need to be faster.

I repeat, this step is not just about knowing up front what you want to get out of the learning, because you don’t know what you don’t know. There might be something you should learn that you’re totally unaware of. So it’s important to get the big picture overview of what you could learn. Then make a smart selection.

You could ask yourself:

a) What one thing do I most need to learn next that will make most impact on my life/work?

b) What high-level topics could I learn about that? (How can I find that out? Who could give me the overview? What are the top 3 priorities for me?)

c) And which one of those will make most impact on me? Which will I learn?

d) What resource will I use (see point 6)? How will I get in, grab what I need, and get out?

Analogy: You buy the latest gadget or device. You could read the features list/contents/headings of the manual to learn what it can do that you were unaware of. Then pick which will make most impact on your life, and learn those first. Relevancy drives learning.

Action: take what you’re currently trying to learn and answer “what top 3 things are the most impactful things for you to learn about it?”


5. 20% of what you could learn is probably all you really need (the 80:20 rule applied)

You’ll probably be aware that 80% of your results come from around 20% of your efforts.

Well, 80% of what you need to learn probably lies within 20% of the content. That applies to most non-fiction books for example. Sometimes we just don’t need the endless stories authors cram into their books these days. Sometimes we just get the point.

And besides, in hindsight, when you look back on anything you learned, there will always be a magic 20% that made the most impact on you or your goals. What if, right at the start, you happened to magically determine what would be most useful? OK you can’t quite do that, but you can be conscious of it and strive to get close. Just knowing that there’s a smart short-cut through hopefully tempts you to find it.

Note, the magic 20% won’t be the same for everyone! It’s not absolute. It’s relative to you, your purpose and your objectives. What we understand quickly, another person may take longer. But they may understand another part much quicker than we do. It’s relative.

“I am using a lot of the tools already and finding it hard to believe my ability. Thanks the best course I have ever done and very well presented” – Gerard MacMahon

6. Decide how you’ll acquire this new knowledge.

“Learning styles” as a theoretical model have been thrown around and debated for years. Some say learning styles (whether we learn better via listening, reading, doing etc) are ‘a thing’ and matter. Others say there is no proof whatsoever to support the model. My feeling is to divert immediately to common sense;

Knowledge needs to enter our minds through our senses. Typically you’re going to listen to someone talking, read, explore pictures, watch videos, sit an interactive e-course, physically experiment, discuss in a group, or hunt down answers to questions somehow.

Which of those appeals the most? Do that.

And feel free to switch too. You want to enrich your mind and let it meander and grab things in the way it wants to. Curiosity, easy access, the mood you’re in etc tend to influence which medium you’ll prefer in the moment. Just don’t battle through one medium only because you were told to do so.

For anyone in a suffocating relationship with academic theory, feel free to drop kick the theory of ‘learning styles’ over a rainbow and just simply consider personal ‘learning preferences’. Your preferred approach tends to get you there faster in the long run.


7. Want to speed up reading?

Learn to speed read. And ‘range read’. Your eyes shouldn’t be crawling across words. Have them learn how to dance across ideas on a page.

BTW you realise headlines, summary paragraphs and the first and last sentence to most paragraphs give you a great indicator of where to dig for gold?

And did you know that by using a pen as a guide and moving it fast under each line you read, at a smooth pace, you can quickly double your reading speed whilst maintaining comprehension? It keeps your eyes moving forwards when otherwise they’d keep stopping and jumping about like a disobedient puppy. Yes, they need training.

And don’t worry about your brain keeping up. Your current reading pace is seriously understimulating your brain. You     think     it     enjoys     reading     one      word    at     a      time?


8. Want to speed up a podcast or video?

Go to settings and play it 1.5 times as faster or twice as fast. Tip: Ensure you’re comprehending!


9. Want to speed a person up when they’re talking?

A large stick might help, but if you can’t find one, politely start by telling them your precise goal or challenge (“so that we can both make best use of our time here as I’ve got an important call in a couple of minutes…”). Then ask them for their point in a verbal ‘tweet’ or simple few sentences. Or ask them for their top 3 suggestions delivered to you in a way that a 10-year-old would understand. Or ask for “what one thing would you advise on..” You can steer people to help you learn. You don’t need the impromptu broadcast. Besides, they’re busy too.


10. Connect what you learn to your life ahead by building a bridge right now.

You know that learning is about attaching what you don’t know to what you do know. It’s about connections. You’re either making them, or you’re not. And since you want to apply your new knowledge, then why not connect it to your life ahead?

Ask yourself, how will I integrate what I’m learning into my life? WHEN would I do that? At what time or in what circumstances? And HOW would I get myself to apply my new knowledge so that it benefits me?

These questions, in my experience, often don’t get asked by learners. That’s why I say that you haven’t learned until you’ve applied at the right moment, noticed what happened, and reflected.

You could repeat the following to yourself, filling in the blanks:

When [xyz happens or I’m doing xyz] I’ll [do this/access this checklist/use this prompt or reminder] to help me [do xyz] and then observe how useful it was.


When I read the rest of this article, I’ll note down the points that jump out at me, then pick my top 1, and then repeat this step on that number one priority!


When I’m listening to my next podcast, I’ll hit the 1.5 x speed button and see if I can save 15 minutes off the hour.


11. Take and make notes. Grow ideas.

Taking notes is noting down what you learn. Making notes is noting down what you think. Your own ideas really prove you’re learning. Capture everyone’s useful ideas. Theirs and yours. And review it frequently. Or you’ll lose it.

If what you’re reading here is potentially useful, where are your notes and ideas? If you haven’t made them, don’t trust that you’ll make best use of this opportunity.


12. Check your understanding

Ask, “how well do I really understand this?”
“How can I be sure that I’ve got it to the required level?”
“What’s this most like? And how is it different?”
“What other questions would I ask the author/presenter/expert of this?”
“Have I put it into action in order to really understand it?”

Go and teach someone what you’ve learned. Your friend, your family, your dog, or your reflection in a mirror. (Do you look like you understand what they’re talking about?) Or just sit quiet and visualise teaching someone it. Have you understood it? Prove it.


13. Don’t learn what you can make instantly available.

If you need to apply this knowledge to some area of your work or life, consider which parts of it you:

a) can access at the point of need via a tool or list or quick video (Just in time or “JIT” – you don’t need to learn and remember everything – often you just need to know where to access what you need)

b) must retain and recall at the point of need (and confirming how fast you need to recall that helps too. E.g. I know you don’t need to memorise pi. But if you did, the next question would be “is it ok to recall it using the words method, or must I be able to shout it out immediately without thinking?” This tells you whether a memory prompt is sufficient vs good old rote learning and practice. (Of which there is plenty of software to help you do that much more effectively.)


14. Notice what’s working and how well. And amplify it.

Check your imaginary dashboard (that means pause and notice where you’re at, how you’re tracking, and how well your approach is working). What have you learned about your learning and how can you use it in future?

Doing this makes a new connection and increases the chances you’ll do it in this way again. Failing to do it breaks the chances of doing it again from the outset. You’ll be just a one-hit wonder, defaulting back to crawling.

Right. That’s enough to get you started. If you’d like more of my posts on learning (or on developing the other ‘big 4 skills‘ you can access some below and have a dig around the tag words on the right).

How to get 10 times more out of what you learn

How to join the top 10% of fast learners

Learn up to 10 times faster

Why your learning and growth are slow

Why learning how to sell is not the challenge you think it is

10 steps to ‘download’ new skills and capabilities fast

How to apply what you learn


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