5 Ways to Retain More of What You Learn

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5 Ways to Retain More of What You Learn

Learning offers plenty of benefits, but perhaps my favorite one is this: It gives you better ways to interpret your experiences.

When you learn a new concept or go deeper into a topic you’re familiar with, the ‘algorithm’ in your brain gets updated. Suddenly, you can run your old data points through a new program and learn new lessons from old moments.[1]This is a spin-off of James Clear’s quote on reading.

But this can only happen if you can internalize what you learned until it becomes second nature. The bucket of knowledge cannot fill up if it keeps leaking. In other words, what matters more than learning many concepts is using what you learn to improve your life.

Here are five strategies I’ve identified to make learning effective and long-lasting.

1. Look Foolish

The most common fear that deters people from learning is looking foolish. They worry about what others will say if they fail more than what will actually happen if they fail.[2]In both cases, the answer is “Not much.” People forget what they said because they’re too involved in their own lives. It’s reliving what they said that makes us feel more hurt. Also, failing … Continue reading

That’s why they stick to what they know, even when it no longer delivers results. And that’s where the “this-is-how-it’s-always-done” mindset comes from.

But when you stop feeling afraid of looking foolish, you can venture outside your comfort zone. You reflect on your experiences, which, in turn, improves your learning. You focus on being better over appearing right. And you make peace with the Imposter Syndrome that confronts you every now and then.

More importantly, you fall in love with the person you are rather than chasing the person others want you to be.

2. Choose skills you can immediately use

Another common reason why learning fails is that people cannot apply what they learn in real life. This often occurs because they learn a skill just for a certificate or a degree.

Here’s the truth. By itself, that piece of paper won’t matter much, except maybe land you an interview. What truly matters is how good you are at what you do, how well you can deliver results. And to become good, you have to practice the skill a lot.

learning and mastery come from reiteration

Choose skills that align with your immediate goals rather than ones that are trending. Find ways to apply them in your daily life.

If you’re learning data visualization, apply the concepts to your MIS reports. If you’re learning public speaking, give presentations at work. If you’re learning writing, publish your drafts—no matter how raw—on a blog.

Applying the skills you learn embed them deeper in your brain.

3. Weave a narrative

In school, I loved English and History but despised maths and science. This wasn’t because I didn’t have the brains; it was because I enjoyed stories much more than dull, boring concepts, just like other human beings.

Stories appeal to our emotional brain while concepts, theories, and definitions appeal to our rational brain. And we’re more invested in something that appeals to our emotions rather than our logic.

You can use this fact to your advantage. If concepts feel boring or tough to recollect, weave them into a story. Search the internet for articles or videos on how the concepts get applied in real life.

This technique was effective for me when I was learning about astrobiology after I was challenged by a friend to give her a presentation on it. (Hi Leha!) While reading Nat Geo articles on the subject, I took much more interest in topics like microbiology, chemistry, and biosignatures than when I learned them at school.

4. Take it stepwise

You cannot complete a 100-mile journey if you stop after 10 steps. At the same time, you don’t need Herculean strength to continue your journey. All you have to do is score small wins.

Small wins are clear, minor achievements that are easy but produce significant effects. By themselves, such wins might appear trivial. But each small win sets forces in motion that favor another small win, a cycle that continues until you achieve seemingly impossible goals.

how to achieve small wins

Here’s how Olympic-level swimmers applied this: They divided their work into smaller, achievable steps. They challenged themselves in small things: working on a better start this week, polishing their backstroke technique next week, improving sleep habits, consuming more complex carbs, planning how to pace their swim, and so on.

Don’t try to scale Mount Everest in one go. Divide your goal into smaller, easier steps. Each small win will produce results, including the confidence to attempt another small win.

In the end, you won’t just get to the top, you’ll also enjoy the journey.

5. Invest more time

It’s tough to stick to something that feels challenging, especially in the era of instant gratification. But if you give up when your mind feels the slightest hint of stress, how will you grow?

When you give up what’s important, the task eventually turns into a monster that you want to avoid. And avoidance leads to guilt. But sticking with an important problem gives you more scope to solve it.

How does that happen?

When you grapple with a problem for long, it embeds itself in your subconscious mind. Then, while you’re engaged in an unrelated activity like gardening, cooking, or even taking a shower, you experience an “Aha” moment.

Author and learning expert Scott H. Young suggests sticking to the problem for 10 more minutes when you feel like giving up. Even if you don’t get the answer, you’ll get closer to finding it, which itself is a small win.

Your attention is your most important resource. Treat it such, and you’ll reap wonderful long-term rewards.


1 This is a spin-off of James Clear’s quote on reading.
2 In both cases, the answer is “Not much.” People forget what they said because they’re too involved in their own lives. It’s reliving what they said that makes us feel more hurt. Also, failing is often not catastrophic; it’s an opportunity to learn and become better.

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