/ Talha Atta. / blog

How to become a learning machine

August 12, 2019

Growing up, one of my biggest insecurities was feeling stupid. I felt like I didn’t understand concepts as fast as other people, and had to put in the double the effort until I finally understood something.

I remember in 9th grade when my friends seemed to instantly grasp what we learned in math and science class. I would go home and reteach myself the entire lesson through Khan Academy or websites I found through elaborate Google searches.

Whether it was concepts in school or lessons on philosophy and business on the side. I would put in a ton of work behind the scenes until I was competent.

On the surface, it probably seemed to others that I got things right away or I was born really smart, but I knew it was a huge amount of effort that others never saw.

Driven by my insecurity of feeling stupid, I spent a ton of summer days and free time reading, watching videos, or listening to podcasts about random stuff so I could feel smart. As a result, I absorbed knowledge whenever I had free time. Eventually, the insecurity left, but the habit of learning never ended up going away.

Now I’m sort of known as the guy who has random knowledge and cool resources for any problem you could be facing. Just ask me a question and I’ll send an Evernote link with the answers I collected a few months back. What’s my secret ???? Oh, I just read a lot.

But it’s what I do after reading that’s kinda novel. I’ve created a system to turn myself into a “Learning Machine.”

The most important aspect to note is what works for me might now work for you, but here are a few methods/tips/tools:

Tips on Creating a Learning Machine

Before you follow any of these methods there are 3 key things to note:

1. Use methods that are easy for you to incorporate into your life or workflow.

Certain tools will be easier to fit in than others. The ones that stick are the ones that have the least friction → the ones with the least friction are the ones you’ll use most.

2. It’s really easy to collect knowledge but harder to actually utilize it.

Don’t fall in the trap of just consuming, take the time to always reflect, introspect, and create your own key takeaways/action items from what you read. Pain/Experience + Thoughtful Reflection = Progress.

3. When you use a tool or system you need to fully trust it.

I know a ton of people who use tools like Evernote or Instapaper, but the tools never stick because they don’t fully trust it. Even after getting it they continue to store articles on other notes app, messages, or places like Slack and Gmail. As a result, too many touchpoints get formed so consistent engagement gets hard. You should create a process where everything consolidates into the minimum amount of tools possible.

Methods, Approaches, & Tools

1. Write Down and Organize What You Learn. (Build A Second Brain)

I read a ton of random articles, listen to podcasts, and watch videos. I don’t always remember everything, it’s usually the major concepts that stick in my head. It’s also been pointed out to me that without habits or consistent intention, what I read is useless. So I try to create as many action items from readings as possible.

I have a specific group of notebooks in my Evernote called “Resources & Learnings” that is set up to have a section for Article Notes, Book Notes, Podcast Notes, and all major topics/subjects so I can I look back on them.

Before you go switch to Evernote: It’s important to note that tools are just tools. Most of them have the same functionality and are only marginally better than each other. Two of the core reasons I think people will decide to switch are because they think something is way better & because people are using something else. I fall victim to this all the time, I’ve been debating if it’s worth moving to Notion or Quip for my notes since I’ve been hearing amazing things.

My Method for Notetaking

To store all my notes I use a method called “Building A Second Brain” which is slightly altered for my personal preference. The course is costly but if you Google around you’ll find some guides that distill the main points.

When I write a note that resonates with me or has personal key takeaways, I put words at the top or tag it with the associated feeling. I view taking notes as storing information into a second brain or creating reference points for later utility, these notes should be easily searchable.

This makes it easier to find terms when I need them or recapture the emotion. I look at it as building a second brain with terms e.g. I listened to a podcast with Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson, which inspired me to work really hard and invoked the feeling of motivation. So at the top, I put motivation, hustle, relentlessness.

Then, when I’m not feeling motivated one day I’ll search all my notes for motivation, and read some that will spark action to work hard(like this one with the podcast).

I have a way of taking notes that I personally like, it’s a mix of action items, key takeaways, and random facts. Here’s an example of what my notes might look like:

2. Spatial Memory Retention

One method that’s been valuable for me is using a tool called Random Note (also from Building A Second Brain) to help with Spatial Memory Retention. In the most simple form, it’s when you read or learn something, to look back at it in increments in order to refresh your memory.

The script called Random Note goes through your Evernote and opens up a random note file for you to read. Depending on the day I’ll use it anywhere from minimum once up to 10 times. This sparks a lot of serendipity and gives me the opportunity to view old material to reflect or act on (hopefully).

If something is SUPER valuable, to the extent I felt it changed my life or an action item I really need to enforce. I’ll go into my calendar and set a reminder to look at it in 3 weeks, 8 weeks, and 24 weeks. If it’s something that needs to be enforced daily I’ll put in my daily habits to focus on it.

3. Newsletters from Publications & People

I subscribe to a ton of newsletters, not only from publications but many from individuals.

I really enjoy newsletters from people like Shane Parish and Nat Eliason. They always put in the coolest things they’ve learned, or articles that they read that are top quality. So you’re constantly getting content that others have filtered through and recommend.

Here are some of the newsletters I’m subscribed to

4. Twitter

I’m on the fence about social media and still trying to decide my views. I’m stuck in between using it strictly for getting value or not using it at all. However, Twitter is the one exception right now. I find Twitter the ultimate tool for serendipity and learning random stuff.

To maximize seeing valuable stuff on my Twitter feed, I try to only follow people I think will provide unique insights and knowledge.

Note: Twitter can be addicting as hell, even if you limit the scope of who you follow. I try to use Twitter for MAX 15 minutes a day, I use Screen Time on iPhone to make sure I don’t go over.

5. Instapaper

Instapaper is the tool that changes everyone’s life, especially if you find yourself reading a ton of articles online that eventually get lost. Anytime you find an article on mobile or on your web browser. Hit save to have it go to your Instapaper to read offline later.

Instead of uselessly checking Social Media, Instapaper is my go-to when I have pockets of 5–20 minutes or am in transition periods. It’s also the best way to store all the articles you’ll be finding with this system 

6. Using an E-Reader

I have a Kobo with a ton of books recommended by people I admire or who accomplished great things, anytime someone recommends me a book I put it in my long list called “Books to read”.

If I go to bed and can’t sleep, I put my phone in airplane mode, and force myself to read as much as I can. Which results with me waking up with an E-Reader poking my ribs.

7. Podcasts

I listen to a ton of podcasts. The podcasts app is a goldmine of information into any topic you want to learn about. There are so many great podcasts out there, I recommend searching and finding a few that interests you if you don’t currently listen to any.

The biggest benefit I see to podcasts is that voice is really easy to consume. Whether you’re cooking, cleaning, or riding the bus you can connect a pair of headphones or speakers and start learning.

8. Learning on Mobile

One tactic that has worked for me to incorporate learning into my day, is on commutes only being able to use apps in a folder I have set called “Learning.”

There are a ton of different tips and methods in the article, but the goal shouldn’t be to jump right in and start doing everything all at once. Practice implementing each item one at a time to see what works and doesn’t work for you.

Learning is a marathon and not a sprint, and compounding is extremely important. I learnt this from Sam Altman:

Compound growth gets discussed as a financial concept, but it works in careers as well, and it is magic. A small productivity gain, compounded over 50 years, is worth a lot. So it’s worth figuring out how to optimize productivity. If you get 10% more done and 1% better every day compared to someone else, the compounded difference is massive.

A small step or implementation in increasing how much you learn today can dramatically affect what you know in the future.

Key Takeaways

Overall this system works for me because it’s ingrained into my daily life and I don’t need to use too much willpower to find new material to read. Ultimately, if you decide to create your own system I think the goal of your system should be:

1. Create the habit of naturally running into an abundance of high-quality resources and content.

2. Create touchpoints and workflows where you collect content, so you can easily consume it later.

3. Create habits and where you consistently engage in these touchpoints to constantly be learning.

Note this article was originally written for Medium so formatting may be off.