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How to Hack Learning Curves for Slow Learners Like Me

Before I would discuss the techniques I use, I'll start giving a backstory of when I was before I discovered these techniques, when I was studying something I couldn't get it and I always get stuck! It is so frustrating that would make me feel so dumb that I'll start to believe that it is not for me, I started to think that maybe programming is not for me. It always reminded me that I'm no genius because whenever I browse the internet and look at how others do things and look easy for them, that's the time when I wonder that is there a way to learn how to learn?

I tried to search for things on how to learn and what I had discovered changed my life and I will share it with you. You should keep in mind that learning is emotional, so you have to believe that you have the ability to learn, and you do, as I had said earlier it is bad to think that the one thing you're learning is not for you when we are a kid, and we couldn't walk or run properly, we didn't say that "running is not for me", we always believed, failed at some times and we did. Brains are like muscles that when stretched they'll break and repair themselves and be stronger, the brain also keeps changing and creates stronger neuron connections based on what we do with it, we just need to utilize it and exercise it.


Here is the list of techniques I used to learn efficiently. Please be mindful that not all of these techniques could apply to you, some may work and some may not, you could try and combine these techniques when you're trying to learn.


Whenever you encounter a new topic, break it down into its first principles--deconstruct it as each topic is just a composition of smaller topics or concepts that you can boil down to something that you do know. After breaking things down look for the essentials, see if some of it could be postponed for you to focus your energy towards those mostly or commonly used. I create mind maps so the things I break down are linked to their parents, so I can look up to their relations and associations which helps me to understand the overall idea of the topic.

I use coggle for my digital mind maps, but I mostly use pen and paper to create my mind maps. You can learn more about mind mapping by watching the talk by Hazel Wagner, Ph.D..

Transfer Learning

Now that you managed to break down the topic into smaller ones, you can then find patterns that smaller sets that can be used to other skills or can be used to a different topic. For example, you're trying to learn a programming language like Java and as you have broken its concept and as you see the language has control structures that have if-else statements, and you'll soon realize that when you learned it you can use it and transfer the learning to many programming languages, with that in mind, it is very helpful for you to study and master it.

With this, you'll learn faster because you know that it is a part of it and helps you not to be overwhelmed by it. Be comfortable being uncomfortable, when you're trying to learn your brain receives a pain signal to your neurons, and you would try to avoid learning, this is sometimes the reason why we procrastinate as it makes it hard to learn. Just let it sink in and sooner or later the pain will ease.

Brain Modes

Have you ever experienced it when you're taking a shower or just walking after you worked on some topic and left it for a while and knowing the answer? Or when you're working on a bug, and you decided to sleep and when you're sleeping you'll know the fix or even dream about the fix!?

A study conducted by Prof. Barbara Oakley mentions that our brains have two modes: They are focused mode and diffused mode. This is different research on the left brain or right brain. The focus mode is the mode wherein you're working on learning the topic or when you're in the zone, the other mode is very different because this mode is making your brain at rest and let your mind wander.

While taking that hot shower, you would find out that the topics now make more sense, or you'll know the resolution to the problem. That's because the diffuse mode is at work, these modes cannot work in parallel and diffuse mode can only work effectively after you have focused on the topic first, so the brain can manage those things you try to put into your brain.

Pair programming also works effectively because of this, the driver is in the focused mode while the observer is in diffused mode, this is sometimes the observer can see the mistakes of the driver because the driver is in the focused mode and not seeing the bigger picture, he is so focused that sometimes he couldn't see the other solutions. This means that when you're trying to solve an unsolvable problem, try to solve it away from your workstation and just let your mind wander.

Learn more about focused and diffused mode.

Feynman technique

This technique is developed by Richard Feynman which is named to himself, the technique is just to study the topic and try to teach it and when you can't teach some part of it, you'll have to go back to study the topic again. I use this when I just learned a new topic I try to share the learnings with others which means that I have to teach it to them too.

This may also refer to Einstein's quotation "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough". The statement could also be reversed and when you don't understand it enough you couldn't explain it simply. Try to explain it to someone or your rubber duck when you're studying, with this you're helping yourself to learn, and also you're helping others to learn too, I call this process a peer to peer (p2p) learning as there's free-flowing information through your network.

The reason why this works is that whenever you're thinking, your brain short-circuits in order for you to think fast, this was also referred to as System 1 on Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman that is why when you try to use a language to convey it, your brain needs to create a structure of the way how you think and your brain can only create the structure when you get a good deeper understanding of the topic.


Learning is a skill and when learning it won't happen overnight you need to develop it, you have to make it a habit to learn. To create a habit, you need to know its steps. A habit consists of 3 steps, a cue, routine, and reward. Cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go to the habit. Routine is the action itself and the Reward makes the particular routine worth remembering because your brain releases dopamine which makes you feel motivated and do it again. Try it when you have finished learning something to find your reward, as for me my rewards are playing games or just mindlessly surfing the internet.

You could also create your if-then statements to create your cue, add the if statement to your existing routine. For example, if I opened my laptop then I'll open my digital notes and if I opened my notes then I'll read what I had studied yesterday to review it. My other cue is if I finished drinking my coffee then I'll start learning (this was maybe the reason why I like coffee, it helps me to learn 😁). Try to develop a habit to learn 25 minutes a day, it is better to learn 25 minutes a day for a week compared to 175 minutes in just a day. Because your brain has to create the building blocks, imagine it as if you're creating the foundation of the house, it needs time to strengthen its foundation for you to build on top of it and when you try to cram it in a day, you wouldn't have a stronger foundation.


Another thing I use is to create analogies, I mostly use Explain Like I'm 5 to try to explain it simply and create analogies that a 5-year-old can understand, that's also the same as whenever I try to learn something and I get stuck, I'll try to look up the term I wanted to understand and add the "ELI5" to it and see how others explain it to a 5-year-old. Recently I'm trying to learn about Kubernetes (K8s) and looked up "Kubernetes eli5" on Google and has a result of ELI5: What is Kubernetes..., this helped me to understand its concepts more. But there's a danger when creating analogies, as there are some topics that are not a complete analogy so just be aware of that.

Spaced Repetition

After you have studied the topics, you have to repeat it, as the neurons in your brain only remember the things that are repeated over and over to them, the reason why your brain forgets things because your brain tries to remove the things that you do not need, so you have to tell your brain that you need to learn the topic by repeating it over time.

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that helps you review the topics at gradually increasing intervals, what does it mean? It means that when you try to learn a topic try to recall it again after 3 days and when you still know it tries it again after 6 days and if you noticed that you forget some of it you have to review it again and review it in 3 days and so on. I use Anki for this to help me manage the spaced repetitions of the topic. Also, one thing to improve retention is to write it, use pen and paper! Even if we are in the digital age. This will also help you to have an overview of the written notes or mind maps.

Recognition vs Recall

There are also times that you think that you already know about the topic and mastered it. This is the feeling when you're watching some tutorial and feels like you're learning it but when you try it, you're lost, this is the recognition pitfall, as you're just recognizing it based on what you see you're not actually recalling it, recalling is when you have the capacity to self-correct and by recalling your brain tries to create a connection and improves it, the more you recall it the more the connection strengthens and improves, which makes it easier for you to pick it up when you needed that fragment of information, make sure to try it and do it on your own for you to recall it when you needed it.


I know this seems weird right? I use this technique to improve my capability to learn, as the exercise increases levels of the important neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine) that is responsible in how you process your thoughts and emotions that affect how you think, you'll notice that when you're stressed or in anger it is harder to focus and think properly. With exercise, it'll help you to feel energized and motivated this will help you to learn faster, and when you noticed that you can't focus, try to walk around your block, do some jumping jacks or even sprint just to move your muscles that could help produce energy levels that travel to your bloodstream and into your brain.

On Dr. Terrence Sejnowski interview on how he learns, he uses exercise to learn more which also helps him take advantage of the diffuse mode thinking.

Closing notes

Lastly, to learn how to learn you have to apply some techniques if not all, try to use one or a couple of the tips/techniques first and integrate another one, try each of everything and see if it works for you, as we do have different solutions. Or you could discover or even develop your own! Enjoy the process, because if you don't enjoy the process, you'll get disappointed, sometimes you have to just take a break if you get stuck. As stated I am no genius and by no means learning fast, and I still have many knowledge gaps, I'm still learning, keep learning, and don't stop learning. GLHF!

I recommend you to take the course of Learn how to learn by Dr. Barbara Oakley.

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