The Four-Step Framework for Effective Learning
I’m a self-proclaimed productivity nerd. I love consuming content from books, podcasts and blog posts to learn about different topics from programming to self-development. But like many, I’m sure, I can get carried away with consuming for the sake of consumption. Oftentimes I read a blog post on a specific programming technique or best practice, only to forget it after a short period of time. The reason for this is that I’m not taking the correct steps to synthesize what I’ve learned. Passive learning can only get you so far; active, purposeful learning is the best way to retain knowledge.
On the Learning How to Learn episode of the Founder’s Journal podcast, Alex Lieberman discusses his four-step framework for effective learning. In this post, I’ll share some of the steps that I take — or plan on taking — to accelerate my learning both as it applies to my career and my own interests.
Check out the episode below:
There is more information online than any individual would ever be able to consume. The first step in learning anything is to develop a curation funnel for yourself, and the best way to do so is to look to people that you trust.
Email newsletter subscriptions are my primary source of knowledge curation. I use an app called Stoop to subscribe to newsletters to people and organizations that generate content that I find interesting and useful. This process creates a sort of flywheel effect; the people who I subscribe to also tend to be curators themselves. It then becomes easy to find more people whose writing, opinions, or work bring value to my own life.
Refind is a app that sends you a certain number of articles per day based on your selected interests. It uses an algorithm — that you can continue to train yourself — to generate content that you will find interesting or useful.
I’ve begun using Refind as part of my curation process. One useful feature of the product is called “Deep Dives”. These are collections of 10 articles related to a particular topic. By the end of the collection, the goal is to have learned more about this deep dive. For instance, I’m reading the collection on How to Build a Writing Habit.
The second phase of the learning framework is to consume the information that you’ve curated for yourself. You may have a specific type of consumption that works best for you. Generally, it’s beneficial for your learning if you combine reading, watching, and listening to content.
If you want to maximize your ability to retain what you’ve consumed you’ll want to prioritize active consumption. This means that you interact somehow with your learning resource. Take notes. Write down questions that cross your mind as you consume. Engage with the learning material.
It can be difficult to avoid consuming for the sake of consumption. I often fall into this trap myself. I’ll have a number of browser tabs with articles open that I want to read, and when I finally get to reading it I feel as if I have to power through it to check it off my reading list. What’s the point in that, though? Sometimes you’re better off reflecting on whether you truly want to consume content and for what reason before diving in. Then, if you’ve decided to do so, take your time in getting through it. Be as present as possible.
Once you’ve found a content creator who you trust, go deep. Dive into more of their work. You’ll be more engaged and interested in what that person has to say. It’s a beautiful thing to discover an author whose work resonates with you.
For me, this means observing the resources that I’ve curated for myself above and prioritizing content they’ve created. I know that Frontend Masters’ instructors work at companies like Netflix, Microsoft and Amazon. These people are seasoned engineers whom I can learn from. I should spend more time watching longer-form training material on the Frontend Masters platform as opposed to random web development videos curated to me by YouTube.
Reflecting on what you’ve learned is the most important step of the learning process. It’s the bridge between consuming and tangibly applying that material to your life. If you don’t reflect, you’ll have a more difficult time synthesizing what you’ve consumed.
You can reflect on your own by taking a walk and asking yourself questions internally. Or you can talk to yourself out loud. But you can also reflect with the help of a willing listener, be it your partner, family member or friend. Even better if this person pushes back by asking you follow-up and supporting questions. This will require you to express in words what you’ve learned, which is a great way of reinforcing your learning.
The process of reflection could include going back to the source material. Reading over the notes that you took. Re-listening to sections of a podcast episode where you noted down specific timestamps. You may argue that this is consuming all over again. But by going back to these parts with a purpose you think more deeply about it.
The last step of the learning process is to create something new. The simplest way to do this is to take several existing ideas and combine them together: remixing.
Writing a book review on your blog would be a good example of remixing. You wouldn’t be creating anything new. But you would be presenting the material in a novel way with the insights you gained from reading the book. You might also help someone else learn about the book in the process.
The other form of creation is original content. Creating anything original is a difficult, time-consuming process. It means uncovering new ideas and markets that haven’t been invented yet. It’s not clear how new a creation has to be to be considered original. The authors and musicians who release new material take inspiration from outside sources for their work. Does that mean that their creations aren’t original? Of course not.
Whether or not your content is remixed or original, creating will supercharge your learning. The process will force you to distill what you’ve learned and put it to practice.
Putting It All Together
Now it’s your turn. Find sources of information or people that you trust. Absorb what they’ve created or curated for you. Take some time to process what you’ve learned. Finally, put your own creation out into the world based on the new knowledge that you’ve gained.