What is the best approach for learning new things? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Our minds are incredibly powerful, but they weren't built for the office environment.
In the office, we're always moving from task to task. We're reviewing a document, giving a presentation, talking to Beth from accounting--and our attention is constantly switching from one thing to another. We lack focus.
What we need is a structure we can use to make our minds more effective.
About a decade ago, I needed a way to capture my knowledge on some of the subjects that were important to me. I didn't necessarily want to write a book, I just wanted to have a reference guide for the best way to do the things in my life.
At the time, I only had scraps of information--notes from meetings and passages I'd marked in books. But there was nothing that really tied it all together. So, I began creating documents that I called BeCT, or Best Current Thinking documents.
Here's how this method works and why it helps me synthesize information:
BeCTs are constantly updated best practices on various topics.
They are a mechanism to help you understand what you really know about something and continue to expand your knowledge of it. I've listened to a lot of interviews with authors. And one thing I've noticed repeatedly is that many of them say the book that changed them the most is the one they wrote.
The BeCTs work in the same way.
Each document is a compilation of your knowledge on the topic at hand. For example, I have a BeCT dedicated to negotiating. It includes all the lessons I've learned over the years, how I go about tackling certain problems, and what tactics to use in different situations. Writing that document helped me clarify and get down everything I know about it.
And when you write about a subject extensively, it's inevitable that you begin to see new connections you've previously missed. You realize how your understanding applies to different areas, and you clearly see what you still have to learn.
It changes how you see your knowledge--and makes it transparent.
Begin by gathering information and categorizing it.
The process is simple but not easy. It starts off slowly as you begin to compile information, then categorize it. A framework starts to appear. Your initial forays may seem random and erratic, but you have to keep going. Focus on building that framework with a table of contents--and grow the documents from there.
The categories that you choose should be unique to you. Two people could be scientists, for example, but they may have very different categories. The way people think about subjects and the depth of their mental representations are personal to them and change over time. BeCTs are different for every person. I doubt my BeCTs would be of major use to anyone else.
The documents may initially consist of important lessons, insightful quotes, or passages from other texts.
But the real benefits come as you begin to write.
Slowly, the information will take shape.
You don't want to create a BeCT that's only filled with other people's thoughts. The goal is to synthesize that knowledge with your own to create something new. Something that is yours alone.
I'm always collecting new information and putting it into my BeCTs. If I see a theme or an insight developing, then I might write it into a chapter. I might add a subtopic as I learn more about the subject. Sometimes I just jot down some research that I haven't read yet but want to take a look at later.
You'll begin to see the documents take shape as you continue reflecting on, and writing about, the information you've collected.
Review your BeCTS all the time.
These documents work best if you're continually trying to improve them and refine the knowledge within.
Mental practice and progress are tough to measure. The concepts are abstract. There is no perfect way to measure the depth of your knowledge about a subject.
If you sit down and reflect for thirty minutes, can you say how much of that time was useful? Can you really pin down how much progress you made? The great thing about BeCT docs is that they're a tangible product you can look at and use to gauge your progress.
And you will make progress--as long as you continue to improve and iterate on the docs.
When you read about a technique that sounds interesting, try it. If it works, then you can add it to a BeCT. If it doesn't, then throw it out.
That's why I call them Best Current Thinking documents--you may discover something better tomorrow. But until then, this is the approach you use.
Your knowledge and expertise will expand.
This method can work for anyone. When you reflect on your knowledge and synthesize it into paragraphs and chapters, you will gain a deeper understanding of that information.
It's a lot of work, but just collecting the information isn't enough. You have to go in and truly integrate it into your thinking. You have to make it uniquely your own. That's when the real benefits show up.
It's not a waste of time to have a file of information on a certain subject. But your biggest gains in knowledge and expertise will come when you take that information and make it your own.
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