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Shivani Gopal

Shivani Gopal

August 14, 2022
| Career

How to become a more effective learner

Research shows that we consume five times more information, today, than we did 30 years ago. With the ease of access to information, and the constant exposure to news, e-learning, social media, emails and videos — you would think that we would be smarter as a result. Sadly, this is not the case.

Unfortunately,  access to knowledge doesn’t mean that we're learning.

It’s becoming more and more apparent that we need a system to organise information into knowledge. Once we internalise knowledge, we can transition into learning by finding utility and value in the basic principles. 

Heuristics of learning

We all know that to be successful in today’s fast moving tech age, it’s important to keep learning and to constantly up-skill. If anything, the ability to learn fast is what keeps companies alive — for individuals, it’s the ability to learn new skills and apply them to your roles at work and in life.

The key to effective learning is to not be a passive consumer of any and all kinds of information. Effective learners are intentional about what they take in – they shortlist the very best channels to consume great information.

  • When we are constantly reading anything and everything, our brain ends up taking bits and pieces of information that are at odds with each other, and ‘mushes’ them into a half-baked ‘Frankenstein’ monster in our minds.

    This does more harm that good for our long term learning.

    How our brain interprets the world: frameworks and schemas

    It’s becoming more and more apparent that we need a system to organise information into knowledge. Once we internalise knowledge, we can transition into learning by finding utility and value in the basic principles. This is also known as the concept of ‘first principles’ — when we break something down into its most basic and fundamental values, it is more useful to us.

    We can observe ourselves acting on first principles when we decide to do something different, take a new approach or interpret things in new ways.


    Our brain uses frameworks as a system of categorising information. Without it, we would be confused about everything, all the time.

    We use frameworks during the process of thinking, and when we challenge new ideas with respect to the old ones. Think of it this way, remember the movie Fight Club? Your new idea is Brad Pitt and your old idea is Edward Norton, fighting it out to see which one is better for the task at hand.


    In psychology, a schema is the assumed beliefs that we all fall back on. In other words, it’s our world view, made up of all the interactions and experiences that we've had in our lives.

    Schemas are really helpful because they help us to understand complicated interactions in the world.

  • Here's an analogy to help drive this home: think of a framework as all the hardware that makes up your computer — you need the hardware because it’s the interface between your hands and the code that the computer interprets. Now, think of schemas as the operating system or the software that makes the computer come alive. The software limits your options, it gives you rules that you must abide by in order to interact with the computer properly.

    Developing positive learning frameworks and schemas

    When you approach a learning opportunity, you're not coming at it with a blank slate. You are bringing your baggage along with you. If you believe that you are a slow learner, or that you just aren’t that smart — you will act that story out.

    Research shows that positive self talk can help you to get out of your negative frameworks and schemas that have been built up over the course of your life.

    Change your internal dialogue

    Before you start your learning task, try saying these mantras out loud, ten times each:

  • I am unstoppable

  • I am persistent

  • I am valuable

  • I am capable

  • People are relying on me

  • I am learning for myself

Try this out for a week, right before you start your learning task. The difference will be astounding. 


How senior leaders can help their employees stay motivated to learn

Grant Cardone says to keep learning, but to be careful of using complements as a metric for how skilled you are.

There are 2 reasons for this:

  1. People only notice about 10% of your personal growth

  2. Compliments are irregular and disproportionate to the level of actual progress you are making. 

Compliments vs encouragement

Compliments are acknowledgements. They are nice to hear and they allow for an amiable interaction. But, they are also low investment and only make the recipient ‘feel good’. This isn’t enough to help employees stay motivated to push their mental boundaries and learn.

I’m not saying that senior leaders shouldn’t give compliments. It’s just that they aren’t sustainable and don’t empower employees with enough motivation to push through the uncomfortable challenges that learning a new skill requires. Encouragement is far better. 

Used effectively and tactfully, encouragement is something powerful. When someone takes the time to encourage you, they are not just acknowledging you, they are building your spirit. Great managers, senior leaders and mentors will often use encouragement to follow a critique or criticism of employees’ work. They show them exactly where they went wrong and then affirm their efforts and volition. Encouragement leaves employees better off because it inspires and empowers them to take action — it gives them energy and motivation that will help them overcome their failures and push through the uncomfortable learning challenges that they will inevitably face.

Fun fact: the word ‘courage’ is taken from the root proto-indo European word ‘kerd’. This literally means heart. It also creeps into words like cardio, core and credulous.



You only have a certain amount of willpower that you can use per day. You are more likely to make your worst decisions during periods when your willpower is depleted.

The American Psychology Association defines willpower as:

  • The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.

  • The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.

  • The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system.

  • Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.

  • A limited resource capable of being depleted.

The New York Times Bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow, says that willpower is a function of our System 2 brain. This is the part of our brain that needs a lot of energy— it's also the part of brain that is the laziest, because it requires so much cognitive resources. So, we need to make sure that we are engaging our ‘System 2’ during critical moments and during intense learning sessions.

What to do when your willpower is depleted


Terry Crews remembers a therapy session when he was introduced to the ‘HALT’ method. This means that when you are: Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired; you have to be really vigilant about where you are and what you are doing. All of those 4 states are when you are at your weakest spot. It sounds simple, but it’s worth thinking about, because it can change how you make important decisions for the rest of your life.

In your moments of mental weakness, HALT

  • When you’re hungry — eat something

  • When your angry — express your feeling to a friend or put in your journal

  • When you’re lonely — call someone

  • When you’re tired — get some rest.

As soon as you feel any of the HALT triggers creeping up, take action to change your state before you make any further decisions.

Dealing with distractions


  • The real killer to productivity: distractions

    Declutter your workspace
    Every time you have to avoid a distraction, you’re burning up valuable willpower — which you have a limited supply of.

    A very under-utilised tactic is de-cluttering and organising your working space. Humans are visual creatures, we respond extremely fast to visual stimuli. It’s why we are so good at recognising people’s emotions just from their brief facial expressions.

    Multi-tasking is not a real thing

    Stop switching from task to task or juggling multiple tasks at once. Your brain can’t actually do more than one task at a time. What your brain actually does is rapidly switch from one task to another. This happens so fast that it gives us an illusion of handling multiple tasks at once. Cal Newport, Computer Science Professor at George Town University says that consistent task switching can be damaging.

    “Bouncing from task to task deteriorates the muscle that allows us to focus for extended periods of time”

    Be weary of juggling too many tasks at once. Set up a system that organises all your work, meetings and commitments that you have for the day, and deeply focus on one task at a time.

    This means that you shouldn’t be checking your inbox during any given task. Checking your inbox is a task in itself. Some people manage their distractions by turning software and app notifications off during their task time, and schedule in time to check their inbox, Slack and Facebook. That way they are are not doing it in the middle of a mentally draining task. 

    Focusing on one task at a time allows your brain to avoid high ‘mental residue’. This is the buffer period that it takes for your brain to reassign the resources from the previous task to the new task in front of you.

    If you are consistency switching from one task to the next, you will have high mental residue, and this will wear out your willpower and focus much more quickly — resulting in sub-par and underwhelming work. It also means that you don’t enjoy the work you are doing.

    Your brain is a learning machine. Unfortunately, lot of what we are told about learning is rhetorical. We need to treat our brains well and use it how it’s designed to function. To be an effective learner, you can’t ignore the necessary processes of proper focus and regular rest. Without proper focus, you never grow, without proper rest your brain burns out, gets clumsy, and doesn’t consolidate and store all the learnings from the day.

    Selective ignorance and the ‘flow state’

    Selective ignorance takes the idea of removing distractions to the next level.

    Cal Newport likes to call it…Deep Work: the ability to focus, without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.

    Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it…Flow: a mental state of complete absorption in the current experience.

    We’ve all experienced this a few times in our life, have you ever been so engrossed in a task that you don’t feel hungry or tired? Have you been working for hours and hours and not realised the time? What about being so focused on your task that nothing else in the world matters at that moment? Have you ever worked through a challenge and found that all your ideas and experiences pour out of you in a way that gives you the answer to the problem?

  • If you are can answer 'yes' to any one of those experiences, then you've tasted the sweetness of a peak experience. 


    Flow and Deep Work are peak experiences. They dissolve your ego and open the door to feelings of transcendence and pure joy. Imagine feeling joy whilst working through your learning challenges, how great would that be?

    The one caveat is that you can’t just snap your fingers and get into Deep Work or the Flow state. It takes hours of drilling away at a specific task without distractions. Once you get into these states, you need to be vigilant not to switch tasks and start pivoting to something new — because you'll break the peak experience and then you’ll just be left with frustration.

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