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How To Learn Anything: Faster And More Efficiently

Daniel Daines-Hutt
Daniel Daines-Hutt
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Are you trying to learn something new and looking for ways to learn it faster?

Maybe you find learning to be a struggle? You put in the time but nothing seems to stick.

Or worse, does the thought of having to try and learn or revise, make you want to curl up under your duvet until the last minute, and then you have to cram?

Well, good news! In this article, we’re going to cover some of the best ways to learn anything new, along with the common problems that people face when trying to learn, the causes, and how to get past them.

So let’s dive in…

Find your reason why and get clear on why you want to learn

Let’s start off with some ‘woo woo’ stuff right out the gate. It may seem unimportant, but a lack of clarity and weak motivation is realistically what causes most people to fail with goals.

For example

  • Do you just want to learn something because it’s part of your grade in school? Maybe it's just a requirement to get into college or to get a job?
  • Or are you trying to learn something new outside of school? Perhaps you’re employed and want to skill up to get promoted?
  • Or maybe you’re trying to learn a new skill outside of work, so you can change careers or simply for fun?

These are all good reasons but I doubt they’re the core reason why you want to learn these things.

What's the reason BEHIND that reason that you tell people?

What’s the real driver if you dig deeper that would get you out of bed every morning and raring to go? It's important to get clear on this. A lack of deeper meaning causes people to give up early.

We’ve all had New Year’s resolutions that failed a week into January, but then you also hear stories of millionaires who were never successful until they had to live in their car. The difference of course is the emotional driver connected with the need for change.

You don’t need to let everything fail to succeed. You just need the right level of emotional motivation and connection so that you stick to this goal.

For example

Simply wanting to be a coder is not enough. But being able to quit your job, remove your commute, and not have to worry about money though? That’s pretty motivating.

Better still?

Knowing you can’t afford a house for you and your partner on your current salary unless you change your job and how much you earn? That’s an even deeper motivation.

So before you do anything else:

  • Find your own real reason that you want to learn this behind the reason you might tell others
  • Imagine your life once this is completed. What does it look like? How do you feel? Describe your day
  • Then, go ahead and imagine you future if you would fail. What would your life be like 6 months from now if you don’t learn this thing? What caused you to fail?

Once you have the answers to these questions, go ahead and write them down to review later. It helps to not only get clear on this now, but use it as a reminder when working.

Do this now: Create a Google doc with your answers on it and then take a screenshot and set it as your background/screensaver. Maybe even print it out and put it on your desk so you see it every day.

Seriously, create this google doc, we're going to come back to it throughout the post. Creating this google doc will make it 91% more likely you actually take advantage of this post.

Trust me… it will make you think twice before loading up Instagram or that computer game if you haven’t finished your learning for that day.

Identity creates action

Humans are weird creatures. Thanks to brain chemistry and social dynamics, we do strange things, and one of those is a commitment to ‘self-identity’.

I wear these clothes because I like X”, and it also works in the other direction. “Because I like X, I wear these clothes”.

This commitment to self-identity is simply helping us to stand out and find our tribe.

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Because of that though, we don’t like to contradict ourselves. We won’t wear something else because it breaks who we are. The cool thing is, we can use this commitment to self-identity to our advantage:

Rather than say “I am learning to code”, start referring to yourself as a coder instead.

I’m a programmer and I’m currently expanding my Javascript skills”.

This can work for anything that you want to learn:

I’m an English-French speaker, and I’m learning to have deeper French conversations” etc

It’s such a small thing but this change of moving from being the same person you are now who is learning X topic, and instead identifying as who you want to become, will get you to follow through on learning this new thing.

Better still, it will help you to associate and do the things that you know those people already do. Call it "faking it 'till you make it", but it does work. It's a trigger in your brain to start to take the right actions.

You go from someone who is learning to code and wants to be a developer, to becoming a developer who logs in and writes new Javascript code daily.

I'm a coder and this is simply what coders do. So why wouldn't I login and write code?

See the difference?

Become the person you want to be, simply by identifying as it now and then making that new identity become a driver in the actions you take.

All major changes in life, such as learning new things, are life changes. You can’t become this new thing while staying the old thing. You need to become a new person. This means a change in habits, actions, and thoughts.

Go ahead and write this statement down also. You can then use this as another part of your background image/screensaver.

Then, you can use self-identity again and take it a step further…

Set your intention

Another super small thing, but again, it works to help us keep on the path.

Setting the intentions of what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and when you’re doing it, will make you far more likely to follow through on a task.

For example

In a study on creating habits and follow through by Harvard University, they found that people who set their intentions of when, how, and where they would exercise, were far more likely to actually exercise each week and form the habit.

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Group 1 was simply asked to exercise each week, and track if they did or didn’t do it. This was the control group to see how people would follow through on willpower alone.

Group 2 was asked to do the same, but were given a motivational speech and tried to connect the end result with the habit of working out. They actually exercised less than the control group (possibly because they were goal focused but more on that in a second).

Group 3 was given the same speech, but was also asked to simply write down their intentions of how this would work (when, where, and how will you exercise).

I will do X minutes of exercise, on Y day at Z location.”

This alone caused 91% of the group to follow through and exercise each week.

Why? It comes back to self-identity we talked about already. We don’t want to contradict ourselves and the actions we’ve committed to, if possible.

Alright, head to that Google doc you created and write the first draft of your intentions now.

  1. What you will do
  2. When you'll do it
  3. How you'll do it

Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. I'll be right here once you're done.

Did it? Nice work. By now you should have:

  • Your core motivational drivers and real reason why
  • What your life will be like if you succeed or fail
  • And your intention to make this challenge a success

You may need to edit it in a second with some more information, but it’s good to get clear on this early.

Plan your project before you start

OK so right now you’re probably incredibly motivated, but hold off on starting to learn just yet, because you need to strategize first.

Just like creating a workout plan before you head to the gym, you need to figure out just what your plan of attack is. There’s nothing worse than joining a gym for the first time in January, and then being overwhelmed with where to start and what to work out:

  • What results do you want?
  • What exercises get those results?
  • How many reps should you do?
  • Which exercises on which day?
  • Which machines should you use?
  • What do they do?
  • Can I just work out my biceps every single day?

This is all stuff you should know in advance if possible, but the same is true for anything that you want to learn.

If you want to learn HTML, CSS, Javascript and get hired as a developer then you need to find out what that actually means and looks like for you:

  • How will you know once you’ve ‘learned’ HTML, CSS, Javascript?
  • Is there a set level of competence?
  • Are there challenges you can take?
  • Should I build projects? If so, which ones? How many?
  • Are there specific topics or areas inside Javascript that you should know and learn?
  • Do you need to know absolutely everything about the language or are there certain things that take priority?

Getting clear on everything you want to achieve to succeed, and then breaking that down into sections and milestones will make it much easier to learn. Even better still, is if you take that further and break down what you need to learn for each section now. This way you can have a roadmap of what you need to learn.

Don't just take my word for it. This is exactly what Andrei did when he first taught himself how to code. He spent the first month avoiding any coding tutorials or programming courses or books. Instead, he spent this month figuring out what would be the best way for him to learn code and get hired as efficiently as possible.

You don’t need to go too crazy with the research, otherwise you might over complicate things and get overwhelmed.

You can check out some articles on the topic or watch Youtube videos like these to get a rough outline but make sure the author is credible first before listening to their every word.

It's easy to get tricked by people just trying to sell you or overwhelmed with so much advice out there. If you go this route, pick 2-3 people that seem credible to get a few different viewpoints.

An even better strategy? Find and speak to 2-3 people who have recently reached the goal you want to reach (ex: got hired as a self-taught programmer) and ask them what their "roadmap" looked like and what they would do the same or differently if they had to start from scratch.

If you have the financial resources, consider taking a course for what you want to learn. Check the reviews and if there is a free trial or money back guarantee so you can make sure it's a good fit.

The benefit of taking self-directed courses is that a good course already has all that in mind. They know what you need to learn and get you to build the right projects, while also helping you to learn in a logical system of progression. It can seriously fast-track your learning path.

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You may even find some documentation online of what success looks like in this area that you want to learn. Just make sure it’s up to date.

For example

I’m currently working towards my blue belt in Jiu Jitsu, and I found documentation on what goes into the grading curriculum for that belt (i.e what criteria you need to pass).

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Some information varies between different clubs, but there seems to be an overlap of specific techniques, a few of which I never really learn or use due to being more proficient in other areas. (I’m a heavy dude so lying on people is far easier than lying on my back and trying to stop people with my feet. Core muscles suuuck.)

The thing is, to get to that level and pass that grade, I need to start practicing and learning these particular skills. And now that I know what I need to cover, I can start to organize my training into specific areas to practice and drill, and give myself a path of progression.

Simple!

You need to do the exact same thing for anything that you want to learn, then mindmap it all out. The end goal, the sections or ‘milestones’, what goes into each section, and the best path you think to learn each of them. I.e should you learn how Javascript works first, or how to build with it?

Create your roadmap. This way you know what to learn in total, what to learn first, and how to assess your own progress. You now have a roadmap for your learning process. As a bonus, you can check things off as you go which always feels great.

Think less about the goal, and more about your system

The problem with goals is that they are a binary method of tracking success.

You’ve either learned the thing, or you don’t know it yet, and it’s the same metric every day when you’re working on a larger goal, which sucks.

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This can cause you to be disappointed that you haven’t achieved your goal, and stranger still, this goal type focus can even cause depression when you reach the goal as it’s no longer there as a motivator. Weird huh?

If that’s not bad enough, goal thinking can be overwhelming. We know what the end result is and the enormity of the task, and we procrastinate and get anxious, causing us to not even start!

So how can we get past this?

Well, the trick that professional athletes use to plan their path for success is to create daily systems and track those instead of their goals.

They map out what they need to do to achieve their end goal into a daily task, and then track that instead.

For example

If you want to win the 1500m sprint, you need to get faster. The key however is to make sure you train each day, eat well and sleep, and so they track and measure each of these things.

Sure they still need to break down what they need to do for each day, but they are tracking the inputs required to acheive the output (aka goal of winning the 1500m sprint).

Measure and track the inputs because these are what you have direct control over.

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You need to do the same and create a system for your own goal. You’ve already started that with the roadmap planning in the last tip, but now you can break it down even further into a system of what to do and when.

Break down the milestones, what days you’ll work on each, and then simply follow that system focus each day.

If you’re working online, then Asana is a good tool for planning projects for free.

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Take a quick break from this post and go do it:

  • Add in your project
  • Add each section and then the tasks
  • Then you can set dates and times for what you want to work on

Decided to stick with me to the end for now? Well you're in for a treat then because these next 2 tips will help you a lot…

Make it easy to win

A major problem people have with learning something new is that they try and take on too much at once. They want to lose 2kgs each week or learn a programming language in a month.

It might be possible but more often than not it's just too much and becomes overwhelming.

This either means that you never start because there’s just not enough time or the change is too large or worse, you do start at this intensity but can’t keep up the momentum and then feel like you’ve failed and you quit.

Instead, give yourself one small success metric that ties into the end goal and use that as a marker of daily success. Ideally, it should be something that initiates that end action and makes you say “Today was a success, and I moved forward”.

  • Learning to code: Did I log in and start learning for at least 10 minutes? ✅
  • Losing weight: Did I show up to my workout class today? ✅
  • Etc...

Having this small win each day will make you keep going when times are good and bad. Better still, start tracking those small wins…

Don’t break the streak!

Here’s another easy tip for both motivation to work, and to help you stay on track. Start measuring each day that you achieve this small win, and tick it off.

You can use a calendar or an app - whatever works for you. The trick is to keep it somewhere where you can always see it. On the fridge or as part of your homescreen when your pc loads up.

All it takes is doing that small win and ticking the box, but soon you’ll never want to miss one. It’s such a proven method for success that we actually built streak tracking into our training platform:

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The user logs in and then it tells them each day they’ve logged in and completed a lesson.

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It helps rank them amongst their peers, and gives awards and badges for specific milestone markers. (Gamification and small rewards are great for ongoing motivation of long term goals).

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Duolingo does the exact same thing with their users. They help them not only set a goal, but set up a small win for each day that they can track as a success metric.

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What if I miss a day of my streak?

Streaks are an incredibly powerful tool for keeping you on track. Just don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Instead, make sure that you never miss 2 days in a row.

A sign of high performers is not that they never fail. They do, and they miss streaks. However, they get back up and running faster than everyone else.

You don’t need to make up the time or practice for twice as long. Keep that one small success metric tracked and just try to never miss 2 days in a row.

If you do that, then your results will compound over time and blow your mind how much you’ve learned and changed in 6-12 months.

In fact, learning consistently for 10 minutes a day is way more likely to lead to success than for 70 minutes once a week.

Make it simple to take action

A huge factor in both good and bad habits is our environment. Does it help us do the right thing or the wrong thing?

For example

If you live near a McDonald's then chances are high that you’ll go there more often than if you lived 10 minutes away.

In fact, in a 2012 study on obesity and availability of fast food, they found that if you had 5 or more fast food locations in a 1 mile radius of your house, then you were more than 30% more likely to eat at them then if you had less than 4 locations near you.

Your environment really does shape your actions and choices. With this in mind, we want to create the ideal learning environment for success so we can trigger positive actions to help you succeed, and remove the things that will make you fail.

Remove distraction triggers

If you only follow the first 4 of these, your productivity will skyrocket:

  • Download and install site blockers for both your phone and computer (these restrict your access)
  • Remove social media from your phone. The constant alerts make it very hard to stay focused
  • Clear your desk of anything not related to what you are doing right now
  • Keep your phone in another room
  • Get noise canceling headphones to cut out excess noise

The phone is the bane of online learning followed by the desire to click across to social media and Youtube.

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Don’t use willpower alone. Cut out the option entirely instead.

Add correct action triggers

Likewise, you can add positive triggers to your environment to help you learn.

  • If you use a notepad for learning, have it on your desk ready and open to where you are continuing. Seeing this can help remind you to start
  • Set your homepage for your project management, streak tracking, and learning materials only. You can see what you need to learn, get that small win and tick it off, and then start learning!
  • Add reminders in places where you might be distracted. Sticky notes on tv remotes or fridges. Make a screensaver on your pc and phone to learn

Top tip:

Forming a new good habit is a lot easier when you connect it to something that you already do each day.

For example

If you want to exercise in the morning, then leaving your gym gear in the bathroom near your toothbrush will help trigger you to put it on and then head out the door immediately after brushing your teeth.

It seems simple but because you’re already conditioned to brush your teeth at the same time each day, it makes the new task become far less mental bandwidth to get started.

Remember:

  • Triggers are what starts it all. It’s how we start forming habits. Both good and bad
  • Habits are how we start taking action on systems
  • Systems are what we do daily to reach goals
  • Streaks are how we keep following systems and don’t stop
  • And the roadmap gives us the path to a goal
  • And the goal is what we want at the end

Far too many people focus on just the goal, but even when they buy a course roadmap or create a system, they still don’t create or stick to the habits that get them working on those systems. Build your environment for success.

Everything you’re doing so far is all tied together to help you win, even when it feels like you’re losing…

It will suck (but it gets better)

Whenever we learn something new, there will be times when it just feels too difficult or complex. The information doesn't quite make sense yet, and there’s this gap between where we want to be and where we are now.

This can make a lot of people give up. Often not because the task is beyond them, but because their ego is bruised from not being good at something.

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Reframe this situation so that when you get that feeling that this is hard and you suck, you instead realize that this must be something difficult so it must be important.

This difficulty is a signal of growth and change. That way, you’ll stick to it and keep learning!

The other cool thing about this reframing?

Because most people quit here, it means that you’re going to be learning something that increases your value in multiple ways. Not only are you learning this new topic, but your new level of perseverance and willingness to learn will increase, making all future learning even easier.

Don’t forget... failure is literally the scientific method.

We test something and see what happens. Only by learning what doesn’t work, do we then learn what actually works. Failure is part of growth. Treat it like a computer game and realize that you’re just leveling up!

Accountability is key

Another super simple cheat code for sticking to any project is public accountability!

By setting your intention of what you're doing in front of your peers, this can cause you to stick to the end goal.

It works so well, that we get all our new users here at ZTM to do this in our Discord community. It helps them see other new people on the same path, and then share in their journeys and struggles.

There’s also a great movement in the coding community called 100 days of code.

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It works like this:

By sharing a screenshot of you coding each day, along with the hashtag #100daysofcode, you’re publicly showing all other members that you’re on the same path. You can even tag which day you’re on, what you’re doing, and more.

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And because it takes around 90 days to form a new habit, if you can keep at it for all 100 in the challenge, then you'll be a far better coder by the end of it!

Important: Beware of false wins or feelings of accomplishment for simply sharing your plan.

What do I mean?

It can be very easy to get the same endorphin release for sharing what you’re going to do, as you would when you actually achieve your end goal. This can cause some people to share their goals, get a pat on the back, feel good and then never start them. Don’t fall into this trap!

Alright. So we’ve covered a lot so far on systems and strategy and mental components, let’s look at some tips for the learning process itself…

Consistency beats cramming

Unless you’re some kind of wunderkind, I’m willing to bet $1,000 that you’ve crammed for an exam before.

You stay up all night consuming a mad concoction of energy drinks and nodoze, learn what you can, complete the exam and then immediately forget everything that you ever learned.

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Not great eh? This type of learning can work in a pinch, but it’s not effective. It can help you pass a test but you never really learn the content.

The trick to learning the fastest and most efficiently, is to actually stagger your learning in short bursts over extended periods of time. It seems counterintuitive but doing less more often, creates new pathways in your brain that actually makes the information stick.

We call this ‘spaced repetition’.

You see, unless we keep covering material we start to forget it over time:

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But the more often we recap and actively/deliberately practice it and talk about it, the longer it stays in the memory.

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In fact, the more we do this, the stronger our neural pathways become and the easier it is to recall and associate this information with other facts and ideas.

We even go from holding this information in short term recall to it becoming long term memories.

I won’t get into all the science of this as Andrei covers it in fantastic detail in his deep dive course on efficient learning.

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But trust me, staggered learning is the cheat code you probably didn’t want, but have been looking for.

learn to learn more efficiently

The best part of this approach?

There’s far less stress or anxiety when you stagger out your learning into short bursts. All it takes is 1-2 hours max per day (even less is fine to when you're just getting started), and it starts to compound.

Within 70 days, you’re already 100% better than you were when you started, in terms of both new knowledge and how much you’ve retained so far.

Also? When you stop cramming as a method of ‘learning’, you can actually get some rest the night before…

Sleep is a secret weapon

No joke, getting enough sleep is like a cheat code for life.

A lack of it and you start making bad choices based on fear and survival. Exhaustion actually alters our brain chemistry and generally ruins your day. You have coffee to try and get through it but now you’re just caffeinated and still not performing correctly, just faster!

But when you do sleep, your brain builds pathways easier, helping you to create those connections between what you're currently learning and what you've learned so far.

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So why aren't you sleeping enough?

Probably because you're still in the cramming mindset perhaps?

Remember:

  • Keep your learning to 1-3 hours max per day
  • Cut off at the same time each night so that you have dedicated focus windows
  • And then get to bed early!

Know your limits

A key sign of a professional is knowing when to work and when to rest.

Trying to push through when you're exhausted just makes you more tired, but if you can figure out your optimum window for focus? Well then it’s like a superpower.

Some people are better in the mornings, others are night owls - the trick is learning when you work best and taking advantage of it.

Better still, use a tool or browser plugin such as a pomodoro timer to help you stay focused during those focus windows.

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You set the timer for 25 mins and work, and then take a 5 minute break.

This helps the brain go from focus mode to diffuse mode, where it can rest and get ready for the next burst. Do that 4 times a day and you’ll be amazed how much you get done.

That being said, some days are harder than others to focus so be aware of your limits. If you’re struggling with learning or practicing something, not because it's complex but simply because your brain is tired, then take a break.

Go for a walk, exercise or do a mundane task such as washing the dishes.

This can help refill the tank and even help you to connect the dots on things you were struggling with, but without feeling bad and sitting at your computer the whole time.

Then when you have that aha moment, come back and smash out the lesson for the day!

Multitaskers get nowhere fast

Do you ever feel mentally tired sometimes while learning, and are not sure of the cause? Some days are fine but others seem far more difficult?

Well, you could be suffering from a lack of directed focus causing you to mentally fatigue much faster then usual.

The main culprit? Multitasking...

Often thought of as a way to get more done fast, multitasking has been proven to not only slow you down, but to cause you to tire out and be less efficient then if you just did each task in sequence.

Fun fact?

If you try to perform 2 cognitive tasks at the same time, then you’ll suffer a cognitive processing drop that's equivalent of going from a University level MBA student to an 8 year old.

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We just can't parallel process very well, so don’t do it if you want to learn more efficiently and not get tired as fast. Close those tabs!

Learn by actively doing

There are 2 types of learning: active and passive.

A lot of self-directed learning fails because it’s passive. We only consume information such as this blog post or a Youtube, but unless we actively act on it, all we’re doing is acquiring short term knowledge.

You need to be actively applying and using that information if we want it to stick.

  • Writing notes
  • Recapping and recalling what you’ve covered
  • Explaining concepts out loud to yourself
  • Trying to teach someone else what you just learned
  • Solving problems
  • Actually writing code & building projects (vs. just watching tutorials)
  • And just generally using what you’re learning

If you want to learn French then practice speaking French. Recap the words you know, write down their translations, take tests, find a native speaker to speak with, etc.

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This focused and deliberate practice is the best way to learn and retain any new information long-term.

Learn by teaching

We’ve talked about this technique before and it ties into the tip above.

The Feynman technique is named after Richard Fenyman, Nobel prize winning physicist who was both a genius but also great at explaining difficult concepts to people who had no background in an area.

The idea of course is that if you can explain an idea in simple terms, then you know it better. If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t fully grasp the concepts yourself yet.

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So by actively trying to understand and simplify a concept, and then teaching it to others, you understand the content better. Chat to friends and family, or even in your accountability community.

Helping others will help you.

Check your direction and course correct

Do you ever feel like you’re not going anywhere and just moving in circles? Well chances are that you’re right.

You see, without an ongoing system of action, feedback, and response, humans will often second guess decisions.

In fact, in a 2009 study by Max-Plankk University, they found that hikers without a method of finding a direction such as a compass or landmark, would simply walk in circles for hours.

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There were 4 groups being tracked via GPS to map their movements.

Each one of them backtracked multiple times, apart from one. The difference? The sun came out after around 15 minutes and they followed it in the sky. (Notice how for the first 15 minutes they walk in an arc though!)

Any long term goal needs that action, feedback, response loop.

I recommend that once a week you check in with yourself and you progress:

  • Did you maintain your streak for the week?
  • Did you work on the one most important task?
  • How many times did you complete these tasks?
  • Can you recall the information now? (re-visit those weaker areas)
  • Can you pass a test on this topic?

It’s a small thing, but time passes fast and can easily run away from you. If you’re skipping any extra 1 or 2 days, you’ll soon start to see a pattern.

Likewise, if you’re doing well then you’ll start to see a pattern of progression. This is so important. Sometimes it feels like we’re not learning anything because everything we learn is new. But once we look back and see everything we’ve learned, then we can see our progress.

Make it rewarding!

Another secret for long-term goals is to reward yourself as you go, not just at the end.

It’s ok to look forward to the end goal of a new job or home, but it’s also important to give positive reinforcement for when you're making progress. Small wins for milestones etc.

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Celebrate and reward yourself for those 7 day streaks and milestones and you’ll want to keep going.

What to do when you get bored of learning?

We’ve actually been covering a lot of elements so far that can help with boredom. Hopefully you wont suffer from it often, but if you get stuck just remember:

  • Try to get that one small win. Once you start you’ll find it much easier to keep going
  • Reward yourself for your efforts
  • Go back and re-read your goals, intentions and reasons why. Re-light that fire!
  • Track what you’ve learned so far. It can be a good pick me up when you see your progress
  • Take breaks. Diffuse thinking on the topic is good if that's all you can manage today
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The key thing is, make sure you don’t beat yourself up about it.

So what are you waiting for? Start learning that new topic or skill today!

We’ve covered a lot of tips here on how to learn far faster and more efficiently. If you want even more tips and detailed video guides on how to learn more effectively, then check out our course here.

Otherwise, go ahead and follow through and take action on this guide. Find your reason why, build that roadmap, create your system and start learning now!

By the way, if you want to learn both technical and non-technical skills that you need to have a successful career in the tech industry, then come join us as a member of Zero To Mastery.

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