Best way to learn/read/study

Saw this mentioned on Stack Exchange earlier (via @ryanbigg) and as it was a post I was going to be doing anyway (to accompany a forthcoming feature, ‘Best way to learn Ruby & Rails) I thought I’d go ahead and do it now.

Ok lets get started… but first it should go without saying that the ‘best’ way to learn is whatever works for you – these are just a number of tips that I find help me. Maybe they’ll help you too.

1. Learn something you’re interested in!

This one’s easy. If your heart’s not in it, forget it. We learn best when we have an interest in the topic. Of course our reasons for learning something may vary – you might want to learn something so you don’t have to pay someone else to do it, or, because you genuinely like/love whatever it is you are learning. The more you like it, the more likely you are to master it.

2. Choose your resources wisely

Finding a topic is the easy part – finding the best material is a bit more tricky. Here, my best advice is to play the field. Take a look at what’s out there, read book reviews (look for responses that are passionate), listen to the advice of people you trust or who are well respected in their field. Go ahead and try things – just because you bought a book, doesn’t mean you have to read it. I’ve bought a few that I started and just didn’t get into. That’s cool, because when you find a book you really like, you appreciate it that much more.

Don’t limit yourself to books either, screencasts or interactive learning sites (such as Code School, Tryruby, etc) are excellent ways to combine all the best ways of learning – watching, reading, doing.

Pace yourself. Don’t jump too far ahead – don’t be afraid to start from the basics… it may actually end up saving you time in the long run.

3. Eat well

Your body is a complex machine. And machines need fuel, energy, and must be kept in good working order – i.e. don’t screw up your body by eating shit, doing drugs or wearing poisons on your skin because you think they make you smell good, they don’t.

I could write a book on this topic alone let alone a blog post! But the basics are stick to foods that our ancestors would have eaten, that means no processed crap, fried foods, sweets, chocolates, breads, pizza, etc. Care about how your foods are manufactured/grown too. Think growth hormones, steroids, routine antibiotics, in-breeding, poor quality feed and conditions is going to rear good healthy stock? Think again.

Drink plenty of natural mineral water (not tap, flavoured or reconstituted). Dehydration can impact your performance by up to 40%.

People go on about bad education for the poor, but you know what? Education is only half the story – diet and lifestyle will probably have more of a profound effect on your learning ability than whether you go to a good school or not.

4. Sleep well

Your body needs quality sleep. To recuperate, and more importantly, for someone embarking on learning something – sleep is when your body indexes everything you’ve done/learned that day. If the quality of your sleep is poor, your brain won’t have been able to properly store/index everything you got up to that day properly… so all that time you spent reading something? Could well be wasted.

Luckily for you, eating clean (see above) will help you sleep well too.

5. Get a Kindle

Forget your iPad or computer screen – they use LCDs which not only give you retina burn because of the ridiculous brightness, but because they ‘refresh’/flicker so many times a second, cause eye fatigue. The screen on the Kindle is beautiful. You can read it outdoors, indoors, on the bed, in the loo – wherever. Imagine reading a huge book in bed, turning over side to side holding the damn thing – the bigger the book the less comfy it will be! Now imagine five or six similar books you have to get through – not great really. Enter the Kindle. It’s light, easy, perfect. I love mine, wouldn’t be without it now. They also allow you to highlight text and if you buy an e-book from Amazon you can view ‘popular highlights’ too – which is a great way to see what your peers think is important or worth noting.

6. Read last thing at night

Can you remember what you did first thing yesterday morning? Nope neither can I! I bet you can remember what you did last night though. And there’s a good reason for that – because of the way your brain works. It starts indexing in descending order, so what you did last, gets indexed/stored first. Try it. Read something in the morning, and something in the night – the following day see which you remembered best.

Hear that? Another good reason to read at night is for the peace and quiet. There’s nothing worse than distractions, whether it’s traffic, kids playing, or the general ambiance of people hovering around – and although you might not notice, your subconscious will. I find I can concentrate much better at night, when the pets are asleep, phones are not ringing and the rest of the neighboured is tucked in for the night!

7. Don’t get ahead of yourself

Or rather, don’t be afraid to take a step back. If you’re reading something that you just don’t get, put it down for the time being and get a book that tackles the basics, or is a step down from what you were reading. If you ‘get’ this new book and then go back to the other book and still don’t get it, do the same again – put it down and find another book that covers something simpler. Trust me you won’t be wasting your time – repeating is reinforcing. So even if you’ve covered the topic before, going over it again will still be highly beneficial.

If you just can’t get into the book that you kept putting down, maybe it wasn’t a good choice – find an alternative that covers the same material, waste no more time on it or come back to it later as a bonus.

8. Can’t concentrate? Breathe…

Sometimes you’ll have things buzzing around your head. Sometimes it will take a while for your eyes to adjust from a flickering LCD to the solid tranquillity of ink (digital or otherwise!). When you find your mind running away, close your eyes and slowly count to 10. Repeat if necessary. It works.

(Make sure you are drinking enough water too – as that can effect concentration.)

9. Listen to music before you get started

Not during – although some people are ok with that. Scientists have proven that listening to music before a task such as learning, helps you concentrate better. The type of music doesn’t matter, so long as you enjoy it. Now you can tell your parents/partners that there’s a good reason why you have the music on so loud!

10. Make notes and go over things

Whatever you do, be sure to go over things. Whether you’re the sort of person who likes making notes, highlighting in your Kindle, or just re-reading whole books, make a point to go over what you’ve studied because this will help reinforce what you’ve learnt.

I used to make notes, but since getting my Kindle I highlight snippets (or sometimes even a few pages at a time) then after reading another book I go over the highlights of the previous book. So I get a chance to begin to forget, then remember again.

I also re-read or plan to re-read my favourite books, partly because I enjoyed them and partly to see how much I’ve forgotten lol. (Just kidding!)

Also, as mentioned before, don’t be afraid to get two books that are aimed at the same level – repeating is reinforcing. Repeating is…?

Bonus tip. Enjoy yourself!

Whatever you do, when it starts to get boring or feels like a chore – stop. Keep things interesting, fun and pace yourself so you feel like you’re achieving stuff. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to get at least two books that deal with the same level of whatever it is I am learning – when you read the other book you often catch yourself thinking ‘I know that!’ and it’s moments like that that give you a buzz and remind you that you are actually learning something. Little achievements like that give you the incentive and will to carry on.