Three Tips to Learn Faster

How can you get a better return on your attention? Try these three techniques to retain more of what you learn.

Three Tips to Learn Faster

Recently I was invited to give a fireside chat to a group of business owners. Since we had just completed a four day global learning conference, I wanted to share three practical tips on how you can retain and use more of what you learn.

  1. Connect it.
  2. Share it.
  3. Play with it.

Another way to express these same ideas (which produces a fun acronym) is to:

  1. Associate
  2. Teach
  3. Experiment

They are really the same thing, but how and why do they help you know more? Let's take a look.

Association & Connection

Do you know why people's names are so hard to remember? They are arbitrary facts. Information that has no connection, path or association can be really hard to retain. This is why memorizing lists of vocabulary words can be so difficult when learning a foreign language.

One of the most effective strategies for retaining new information is to connect it to something you already know. The human brain is an association engine. It is constantly comparing what we see with what we already know looking for matches.

What's more, we have two modes of integrating new information - assimilation, and accommodation. Assimilation is when we take new information and fit it into our current understanding of the world. Kind of like the first time I saw a hairless cat. I knew it was a cat, but I didn't know there was a variety without fur!

Accommodation is much more challenging, and we often resist this more. Accommodation happens when we have to create a new higher level category. An example of this is when a toddler learns to recognize a "dog" - four legs + fur = dog. When they see a horse, they might say "dog?" And a parent would correct them and say, "No that is a horse." The brain accommodates the new information by creating a higher level of category - four legged animals with fur, that allows for many more sub-categories. (Cats, and Zebras, and so on).

It is much easier for us to assimilate than accommodate. So one hack is to try to associate your new information with what you already know.

If you can't just accept the new information
You may be facing the need to accommodate and that can be deeply uncomfortable. A great visual of this is the moment in the movie "BlackBerry" when the founders realize that Apple has changed the cell phone market forever. Up until that moment, everyone thought the cell phone business was about selling minutes. Then the the CEO of AT&T says, "the problem with selling minutes is that there's only one minute in a minute." The executives at BlackBerry were too late in accommodating the new information.

Teaching and Sharing

There is a saying from medical school that the best way to learn a medical procedure is to:

  • Watch one
  • Do one
  • Teach one

Teaching others is definitely a powerful way to reinforce your own learning, however I run into many people who are too humble, or timid to assume the role of teacher. They do not believe they possess the expertise to teach others. Sharing what you have learned however, can get you 80% of the benefits of teaching. There is a very powerful technique called the Feynman Technique after the famed physicist Richard Feynman. The idea is that you explain what you have learned, as simply as possible. You want to talk without jargon or buzz words, like you are talking to a twelve year old.

Often, trying to simplify an idea forces us to connect it to other things we know. Therefore, if you try to share it, you are just as likely to associate it with other ideas you already know!

We often confuse recognition with retention. Just because we recognize a piece of information does not mean we actually know it. To truly know a new idea, we have to be able to produce it ourselves. Sharing is one effective way of practicing this production. Memory is not an act of retrieval, it is an act of reconstruction. When we reconstruct this information on our own, we forge the neuron connections necessary to assimilate it into our brains.

Even if you can't tell someone, you can write it down like you're writing an email, or a message to someone. (This is a great use of a Second Brain). If you don't have anyone to explain it to right now, you can share what you have learned in the Resources section of your notebase.

Play & Experiment

Finally, to really make something your own, to integrate it, you likely should play with it a little. Experiment, try it out and see how it works for you. As the saying goes, you can't learn how to ride a bicycle at a conference, some things you can only do through practice.

This also ends up being a great filter when you attend a learning event, listen to a podcast, or read a book. You can ask, "what, if any of this could I actually try?"

Some great books contains closing sections that will literally spell out exercises you can do for yourself. Books like 10X is better than 2X, or The Art of Being a Monk, or Getting More all have sections after each chapter that try to make as clear as possible what steps you can take to validate for yourself what they are asserting. I try to follow that formula in my own book Work at Play. I want you to be able to put to test what I am sharing, and I know most authors are the same.


When you add up all the dollars and hours you spend trying to gain new information, one way to improve your return on attention is to take three simple steps.

First, connect what you learn to something you are already familiar with. This is like finding space on your mental shelf to hold the idea. If it doesn't fit anywhere, the chances of you being able to recall and use the new information is greatly reduced.

Second, share what you have learned with someone else. Express it. When you can recall it, you begin to assimilate it.

Finally, play with the idea. Experiment. See if the concepts or ideas are valid for you. Like learning to ride a bike, or swing a tennis racket, ideas and knowledge respond to practice and experimentation. The more we work with concepts the easier they become to integrate into our lives and extract the maximum benefit.