Optimizing Your Learning and Thinking

Last updated on May 3, 2021

I think that it pays to have an optimized workflow of the actual learning process. After all, if you learning efficiency is only at 60%, then that means that out of 10 hours that you put into learning a particular piece of knowledge, you would only retain 60% of the information spread out across those 10 hours, leaving gaps within your knowledge after that 10 hours (meaning that you would have to go back and revise parts that you are not sure of again…).

You will also have to actively make efforts to shift that piece of knowledge from your short-term working memory to your long-term memory, as well as to practice your recalling of that piece of information so that it comes to mind effortlessly when thinking of related information. This end goal of eventually utilizing the piece of information for something is the metaphorical gold at the end of the rainbow: learning is just a means to an end, not something done for its sake, otherwise we would lose our motivation to learn things very quickly.

Inside the Big Brain

How exactly does our brain retain things over time? Harvard has a great article on how our memory works, but it basically boils down to 3 steps: Encoding, Storage, and Retrieval. Encoding refers to the way in which the piece of information is learned. Storage then refers to whether it is stored in our short-term memory or long-term memory.

Newly encoded information is firstly stored in our short-term memory, before being moved to the long-term memory. Of note, short-term memory lasts only 15 to 30 seconds, and only between 5 to 9 items of information (with 7 being the average). Retrieval refers to the process of accessing and recalling the pieces of information, which differs for each type of memory. Short-term memory retrieves information by the order of storage, while long-term memory retrieves information by association.

Information retrieval is different from passive reviewing. Known as active recall, we need to stimulate our brain to simulated to retrieve the information from long-term memory through answering questions or explaining concepts. In contrast, a passive review such as reading, writing, or watching does not help to consolidate long-term memory.


Pareto principle (80/20 rule)

Pareto Principle: For many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences comes from 20% of the causes

Imagine that we do not have to do much work to get 80% of the way to our goal, we just need to be specific and target on 20% of the available resources. This principal applies to many natural phenomena. For example, when looking at a textbook, we can glean 80% of the critical information through targeted reading of only 20% of the pages that hold those snippets of information.


Language-immersion is a very well-known technique for quickly picking up languages. However, when generalized, this technique simply means to fully immerse oneself into the target domain, such that one can pick up contextual clues and related information subconsciously and with minimal effort. For example, to learn how to sail, one can live on a boathouse with a host to rapidly learn the ins-and-outs of sailing.

Non-verbatim Notetaking

Verbatim: in exactly the same words as were used originally.

One tendency that many people have is to take notes verbatim without actively summarizing, or concept mapping, and is considered non-generative (while its counterpart is called generative notetaking). When we actively summarize the input material when taking notes, our ability to actively link facts and concepts increases.

External Brains

Our brains are an opaque place. Trying to find specific snippets, reference materials, related information is hard and very memory-dependent. What if you could not for the life of you place the website that you had sourced a quote from in a research paper?

That is where the concept of an External Brain comes in.The External Brain simply refers to the method in which notes that are taken are archived for future referencing as needed. You can think of it as a large library of ideas and concepts that you can search through – not always necessary, but really helpful when you are exploring new ideas or finding old forgotten ideas.

Some common techniques are:

  1. Wikis – The advent of Wikipedia has shown how useful an interlinked encyclopedia is, especially as a referencing tool. When applied to our older notes, it allows us to categorize notes by topics, interlinking them based on concepts, and exploring new ideas through browsing.
  2. Binders/Loose Leaf – taking notes through loose-leaf paper allows us to easily categorize related notes together in a collective binder or file. This helps for quick exploration of learnt information by concept. By virtue of notes being on loose-leaf paper, re-categorization in the event of new information learnt is easy and effortless.
  3. Zettelkasten – German for “slip-box”, which is a research technique to tag notes with an ID and interlink them through the ID, allowing easy back referencing through a network.

Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is where one recalls a piece of information at gradually greater intervals, pushing the knowledge into long term memory. For example, information may be shown to a person, then repeated after 15 seconds, then 1 minute, then 2 hours, then 1 day, then 1 week, and so on. This can be used to retain vast amounts of information in long-term memory indefinitely, making it greatly suited for vocabulary usage, such as technical medical terms or second-language learning.

Mind Palace

A mind palace is a memory technique to map spatial memory to pieces of information, used by memory champions for memorizing. It is considered a mnemonic device, as it helps to trigger memory recall, and has been used since the ancient Greeks and Romans. Information is placed mentally at specific locations, and during memory recall, one virtually “walks” through the locations to remember the information.

Example: Language Learning

Let’s see how all of these techniques can be put in practice to tackle a real-life problem that many people can relate: learning a second language.

Firstly, by the Pareto Principle, we can target certain aspects of the language that are frequently used that would get us to 80% of complete understanding. For vocabulary, this can be done through frequency lists (provided free online at Wiktionary), such as the top 1000 frequently used words in that language. By learning the top 1000 words, we would have built up a vocabulary pool that would allow us to somewhat understand the meaning of foreign sentences. We could use spaced repetition software such as Anki to create flashcards for these 1000 words together with information about the definition and the contextual usage. For tricky concepts and words, we could use the mind palace technique to provide a mnemonic device for recalling.

Constructing words would require studying grammar rules, however. Of course, sticking to the Pareto Principle, we would prioritize the most frequently used grammar rules. In this case, when learning the grammar rules, we can take non-verbatim notes using pen and paper, then later revise these notes and format them into a wiki or Zettelkasten software of our choice, allowing us to quickly look up these rules and watch for patterns across the language and across other languages that we may know.

Finally, we could immerse ourselves within the culture, whether in-person through travelling and classes, or virtually through television and online content. We can then absorb non-verbal information, such as hand gestures and facial expressions, allowing us to subconsciously link these concepts with the new words and sentence structures and making memory call through association easier.