What tactics do you use to learn and retain new material? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Tactics in general are overrated, but that's especially true when it comes to learning new things
Since most people are 1. underdogs who 2. dislike hard work, the idea that a clever tactic can "win the day" is really, really appealing.
Throughout history, tale after tale repeats the same "brains over brawns" narrative that sensationalizes tactics: an unlikely victor defeats a bigger, stronger opponent through quick ingenuity and courage. David and Goliath. Odysseus and the Cyclops. Perseus and Medusa. Theseus and the Minotaur. The list goes on.
The problem with "silver bullets" is that they usually don't exist.
While we all want to find a "get rich quick" scheme or take a "magical pill" to lose thirty pounds, almost every achievement is won through thoughtful long-term strategy and consistent, competent execution. Tactics, however good, are rarely decisive.
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
To be clear, tactics can be really useful, but they have to be considered within the broader strategic framework. Tactics should compliment and strengthen the overarching plan, not undermine or substitute it. Being heavily reliant on tactics is a sure-fire sign of lacking a sufficient strategy.
With that in mind, here are the best tactics and strategies for learning and retaining new material over a long period of time:
Position Yourself for Victory (Strategy)
The hardest part of achieving any goal is starting. With dozens of distractions and competing priorities, motivation is often dangerously low.
While some people try a variety of tactics -- e.g. turning off their phone, restricting rewards like food and TV until after they finish, etc. -- to "force" themselves to study, these don't work very well over time. The real problem isn't being addressed.
Instead of pushing yourself to work through low motivation, I think a better approach is to position yourself to be highly motivated.. . . Organize study sessions. Take classes. Dedicate time each day to achieve your goal.
If you can position yourself to succeed, you won't need to rely on clever tactics to win; you'll just be able to "do it."
Rallying the Troops (Tactic)
Being well-positioned is essential, but it isn't always sufficient. Doing something you knowyou should do can still be difficult!
My favorite tip for overcoming reluctance is a tactic calledDeveloped by a Stanford psychology professor, layered procrastination productively channels the desire to avoid an "important" priority into the motivation to do a different, more appealing task, e.g. cleaning the house, organizing files, or checking email.
Fight Wars Worth Fighting (Strategy)
Physics, biology, and your other obligations will place an upper limit on how much time and effort you can invest in learning. Life is finite; at some point, you have to make tradeoffs between learning this or that, going deeper or broader, and studying or applying.
Make those decisions wisely. Do stuff that excites you and that you want to know more about. Learn things that will matter or that you can apply to your life or talk about with friends. Don't waste time on material you don't care about and don't enjoy just because you think you should. It's possible to learn this way and do well, but it's often a hard, unnecessary uphill battle.
The Propaganda Machine (Tactic)
Unfortunately, sometimes you will have to learn things you don't find fun or interesting. This sucks, but there are ways to cope. The Harvard Business Review recently. Check it out.
Fight Battles You Can Win (Strategy)
Some people procrastinate and then look for study "hacks" to cram weeks worth of material into several days. Other people look for tricks to study for many hours without a break or lapse in concentration.
While there might be ways to accomplish these impossible feats, it isn't advised. Jogging a marathon is a lot easier than walking the first half and sprinting the rest. In other words, don't take on everything at once; instead, divide your work into reasonable portions that you know you can do. Then, do it.
Fight Battles When You can Win (Tactic)
Sometimes, life gets hectic and our schedule seems to control us more than we control it. Fortunately, there are ways to proactively fight against this. If you know you have an unpredictable schedule, give yourself "wiggle" room to miss or exceed deadlines, assign work based on input (i.e. time, pages read, etc.), or create contingency schedules in the event of something unexpected.
Choose Your Battlefield (Strategy)
School teaches us that learning is reading a textbook, sitting in a class, and doing homework until we've memorized enough to pass a test. This is obviously false! In the information era, great content is everywhere.
Don't limit yourself to conventional forms of learning. Find audio and video content on Youtube, Audible, Coursera, and Apple Podcasts; grab books and articles from the library or Internet; enroll in a community college course, take a MOOC, or audit university lectures; start a club or group, join a forum, or browse Quora.
There are plenty of ways to learn, and no excuses for lacking creativity.
Fortify Your Position (Tactic)
Once you find the right medium and content for your goals, create a consistent time in your schedule to dedicate to learning. Whether that's listening to podcasts on your commute to work or reading before bed, if you can establish a specific and consistent behavior, it will be easy to keep going.
Also, if there are relatively small investments that you need to make for your learning (e.g. buying headphones to listen to podcasts), do not hesitate to spend that money. You are your biggest asset and that purchase will absolutely be worth it. At the same time, be resourceful -- do you really need a fancy new keyboard to learn to code?
There's No Shame in Surrender (Strategy)
Whether its a subject, book, project, or language, giving up isn't always the same thing as failing. Sometimes you'll misjudge the difficulty, scope, time commitment, or benefit of an endeavor. Other times, priorities will shift, interests will change, or circumstances will necessitate a reallocation of time and energy.
Whatever the case may be, don't be afraid to quit and do not be discouraged by an incomplete objective. Education is a lifelong campaign, and each day is just one of many battles. While surrender may not be a victory, it is rarely an irrecoverable defeat.
Tactical Retreat (Tactic)
When a full blown surrender isn't warranted but continuing at full steam isn't feasible, take a tactical retreat. If you've been studying for awhile, take a break. If you're stuck on a nasty problem, work on something else. Step back, regroup, and come back stronger when you're ready and rejuvenated.
This advice applies on larger scales too. Don't feel too bad about missing a few days, modifying your goals, or extending your schedule. Obviously, tactical retreats aren't ideal, but if they help you live to fight another day, then they're worth it.
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