It used to be that people would spend the first part of their life going to school, the second part of their life applying what they learnt in school, and the third part of their life retired and potentially teaching others.

Things are changing rapidly nowadays. It used to be sufficient to accumulate knowledge in the initial years of a career only, but knowledge now becomes irrelevant and outdated faster than ever. Simultaneously, new technologies and industries arise that are impossible to prepare for and learn about years in advance.

With this in mind, the ability to acquire new knowledge and skills are now more relevant than ever.

While some people have an easier time learning new things or acquiring new skills than others, there are certain ways to increase efficiency and, thereby, the speed of learning regardless of your talent for learning.

This guide will highlight techniques that have worked for me – techniques I’ve picked up from literature, and speaking to multiple true masters of accelerated learning. The result is a 7-step process covering how to: 

  1. Define your learning objectives
  2. Decompose the topic into a learning tree
  3. Get a sufficient level of depth
  4. Validate your learning tree
  5. Figure out the best way to learn about each twig
  6. Activate your understanding
  7. Stay up to date

1. Define your learning objectives

The best place to start learning is to define your learning objectives. Most people have an intuitive idea about the direction of the topic they want to learn about, but they lack a specific goal. A lacking goal usually comes from a lack of context, and this makes mapping the learning tree harder.

To illustrate this, imagine a person wanting to learn more about human behaviour. Depending on the actual objective, “human behaviour” could mean anything from understanding the biochemistry of the brain or the nervous system to developmental psychology. 

Ultimately, you will structure your learning differently depending on whether you seek to change an old habit, understand how your diet impacts your behaviour, or how to raise your child. It is therefore important to define the context of your learning as part of the objective, e.g. “human behaviour in order to change bad habits.”

An example of an objective could be: “I want to learn more about and improve on my EQ in order to improve my relations with other people and build stronger bonds”

In most cases, it is hard to definitely say that you have learned a new skill, as it is rarely a binary outcome but rather something you can always improve on.

2. Decompose the topic into a learning tree

Imagine that you are in a new city and want to visit three tourist attractions at three separate addresses. A map won’t give you the experience of going there, but it will help you navigate the new city, help you get from one address to the next in the most efficient way, and help you minimize travel time. The Learning Tree has the same role with regards to your learning.

To build a tree, you’ll need to start by decomposing the topic into its various conceptual sub-topics. This enables you to build a mental structure of the topic, which acts as a skeleton where you can attach your new insights and knowledge. This is what I refer to as the Learning Tree: each topic branch out into subtopics, which again branch out into another set of subtopics ad infinitum.

Example

Throughout this article, I’ll use emotional intelligence (EQ) as an example of how I would work with the learning tree. If you want to improve your (EQ), the broken down conceptual model of EQ could look like this1:

Emotional intelligence
  1. Personal competencies
    1. Self-awareness
    2. Self-management
  2. Social competencies
    1. Social awareness
    2. Social interaction/relationship management

Each of those can be further decomposed so that for example Social Interaction/relationship management could break down as per the below example.

Example2

2.2 Social interaction/relationship management

2.2.1 Inspiration (of others)
2.2.2 Influence/communication
2.2.3 Developing others
2.2.4 Teamwork/collaboration
2.2.5 Change catalyst
2.2.6 Conflict management

When you design the tree, you need to be careful to include all the sub-topics (the branches and twigs of the tree) you could learn more about on every relevant step.

The Learning Tree needs to cover the entire universe of each topic at an appropriate depth, even though you may already know that you want to focus on just a few of the sub-topics. This ensures that you don’t miss any crucial areas which could potentially limit your understanding. 

Insight

For EQ, even if you already know that you want to focus on improving your abilities within Social Interaction, you still need to ensure your list is comprehensive at the level where Social Interaction is just one branch.

If you don’t do this, it’s easy to falsely conclude that emotional intelligence only relates to our relationships with others (a commonly held belief). You will then completely miss the fact that in order to understand others, you must first understand yourself: It is no easier task to imagine a kind of feeling that you haven’t experienced before than it is to imagine the melody of a song you have never heard.

As you reach new insights, awareness of the full Learning Tree will also help you place those insights into the bigger picture. 

Feel free to only break down every relevant branch as you go down the tree, but ensure to do it fully every time the tree branches out, otherwise, you may lose track of how everything ties together in the end.

Tip

You may benefit from creating your Learning Tree in a clear structure that is both mutually exclusive and commonly exhaustive (MECE). To be mutually exclusive you should find a structure where the same subtopic does not fit under multiple headlines. Just like the example of the map above, it is significantly easier to navigate a city if each address appears only once. To be commonly exhaustive, you should include every subtopic – even the ones you may already have decided not to focus on.

3. Get a sufficient level of depth

At first, when learning a new language, the words melt together and seem like one long stream of sounds. But with experience, the sounds become words and you’ll be able to discern the different words from each other.

The same goes for learning. As you learn more about your topic, you’ll be able to expand on the Learning Tree with more detail and granularity. Some areas may seem like one at first, but the distinctions become gradually more obvious as you gain a better understanding.

Example

Think about how “engineering” may be perceived as one single area or function for most non-engineers. For engineers, however (and for the rest of us benefiting from their work), it makes a massive difference if the engineer is specialized in building bridges or aeroplanes. You probably appreciate the differences every time you cross a bridge or fly on an aeroplane.

Personally, by investing time in research initially, I like to go as deep as I can when designing my learning trees at first. I thereby identify all areas exhaustively so I know which area to focus on. As a novice, this may be impossible for some topics, but the important point here is to be as granular as possible to gain a broad understanding.

Keep in mind that the required depth of your tree depends on your use case. You can stay at the more superficial levels if you are just looking for a conceptual understanding rather than developing a profound skill.

4. Validate your learning tree

When learning a new skill, ignorance of an important branch can easily be the difference between strong competence or incompetence. Consequently, you’ll need to ensure that your learning tree reflects the real world.

There are often multiple ways to design Learning Trees covering the same topic. Rather than Personal and Social Competencies, for example, the tree for EQ above could equally well have been split by Awareness (passive) and Management (active) at the first level. 

It’s important to accept differences, but only as long as the overall tree is valid. It is easy, for example, to miss a layer in the tree when you are new to a topic. As per the example above on social interaction, omitting a layer is critical as you may miss out on new branches of insights that fork out from that layer, making it harder to get a comprehensive understanding.

There are many ways to validate your learning tree. The two most common are:

  • Speak to someone who is further down the learning curve than you are – this is my favourite way. If you are able to get input from a true expert, he/she may also provide guidance on where to start your studies and recommend good resources 
  • Research existing models or frameworks – during my research for EQ it became apparent that there was consensus around a model broken down like the above. In your own research, ensure that it includes the consensus and not just an opinion from a random person. Also, make sure to add other areas you find that aren’t part of the consensus model – you can always re-draw your tree later if a different branch or sub-topic  is more suitable

5. Figure out the best way to learn about each twig

Once your tree is designed and validated, you need to find the best way to gain the understanding, insights, or skill required for each sub-topic (the twigs of your tree). 

To optimize your knowledge, you need to consider both the type of media and the specific resources that will teach you what you need to learn.

Type of media

Books are more affordable and available than ever before. Videos and articles about most topics are available online, for free, and the list goes on. 

Information is no longer a scarce resource or the limitation for your learning. Chances are that the only thing holding back your learning is your own time and commitment to the cause.

To learn something new, start by exploring the media which best suit your way of learning. Some of the most common ways include:

  • Books (physical and ebooks)
  • Articles
  • Videos
  • Online courses
  • Conferences
  • Conversations with experts

Some of these formats (top four) are obviously easier to use than others (conferences and conversations). Resources for your area may not be available in all of the above formats, so find the best match between availability and your preferences.

Specific resources

Once you’ve set yourself on the type of media, say books, you need to find the best books to cover your topic.

Places I usually find recommendations for the best resources (My favoured form of learning is via books):

  • Check Quora if someone has already asked for recommendations
  • If the topic is taught at universities, I check the syllabi of the relevant courses for leading universities
  • Check interviews with domain experts. It’s common for them to list resources
  • For books, check the bestseller lists on Amazon and rankings on Goodreads
  • For videos, check ratings and view-count of YouTube videos. Although TED talks are usually much more conceptual, YouTube can provide more in-depth knowledge
  • For online courses, check the reviews of the largest sites (E.g. Udacity, Udemy, Coursera, Lynda, Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, Stanford Online, iTunes U, etc.)

It can be tempting to jump in with the first book or video you come across, but it may be worth your while to check the consensus to ensure you don’t invest your time sub-optimally.

Tip

If you want to go extra deep into a field, check the references sections of the books you read. Often, the books that are frequently referenced are worth reading.

A separate post on how to get the most out of reading books will follow at a later date.

6. Activate your understanding

As mentioned earlier, information is available in abundance. Knowledge is like language skills. For most people, they understand way more words (passive vocabulary) than they would actually use in their daily communications (active vocabulary). This should be particularly familiar for people speaking a 2nd or 3rd language.

Similarly, information can easily become passive (or forgotten!). That may be fine if learning is just for inspiration, but if your intention is to use your knowledge and develop it into skills or a profound understanding, you need to activate it.

I’m a big believer in the adage, “See one, do one, teach one.” The challenge for most people is not to “see one” (e.g. read a book, watch a video, speaking to an expert), but rather how to get in a situation to do or teach one.

Do one

For skills, nothing replaces practice. Doing the work itself is paramount. In cases of “just” securing understanding, studies suggest that repetition is important. One way, of course, is to read the entire book/watch the video/etc. again. I personally find it helpful to write notes and use these to write a summary. This is a good way to gather my thoughts and get a clearer picture of the key takeaways. It ensures that I don’t succumb to recency bias, focusing only on the learnings from the last chapter of a book or the last 5 minutes of a video.

Physical books have the added benefit of the ability to write in the notes. For ebooks, I use a kindle or the kindle app on an iPad. With these, I am able to export all my highlights which makes using them for a summary faster.

Finally, once I’m done with the first draft of my summary, I search for other summaries online to see if other people have highlighted different points from the material than I have – this helps me rethink my takeaways while the materials are still fresh in mind.

Teach one

Explaining something in a way that is easy to grasp for the listener requires a profound understanding. I find that having to explain something to another person forces me to think about what I have just learned with more structure and from the most fundamental principles, compared to if I just had to remember it for myself. This is probably a result of 1) the clarity required to explain something, 2) the pressure of not wanting to look like an idiot when explaining the topic.

It can be difficult for most people to get in such a situation, but I find that there are two good substitutes:

  1. Explain the topic to someone who is willing to listen, even if they may not have an explicit interest in the topic
  2. Develop teaching materials as if you were to teach the topic

The first is quite self-explanatory but the second point may require some explanation. I often find that forcing myself to prepare a document or presentation on a topic helps me structure my thoughts. I often make the materials with one particular person in mind and develop the materials in a way that I think would be able to teach him/her everything I now know about the topic.

Engaging with people who are further down the learning curve may help expose if parts of your understanding (or teaching materials) show a lack of understanding of certain areas. Try your best to always challenge how profound your understanding is and whether you understand the first principles.

7. Stay up to date

Finally, once you’ve built your learning tree and achieved the desired depth, keep in mind that most fields evolve over time. 

I recall at the graduation ceremony from business school, one speaker highlighted that of the things we had learned during the coursework, one third would be irrelevant for what we would work with, one third would be outdated by the time we would need it, and only one third might be relevant for what we were going to do.

Similarly, the knowledge that you have acquired may also be left behind if you don’t ensure to stay up to date.

Summary

To summarize the above, the best way to accelerate your learning is to follow the 7-step process:

  1. Define your learning objectives
  2. Decompose the topic into a learning tree
  3. Get a sufficient level of depth
  4. Validate your learning tree
  5. Figure out the best way to learn about each twig
  6. Activate your understanding
  7. Stay up to date

This methodology is based on both empiric observations and academic research. Please share below how it works for you and if you have any other ideas that have helped you accelerate your learning.


Sources:

  1. Bradberry, Travis: Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (2009)
  2. Goleman, Daniel: Primal Leadership (2013)

Images: Pexels.com

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