A Step-by-Step Process to Teach Yourself Anything (in a Fraction of the Time)

The following article is from Scott H Young. I have been following his website for a few years now and this is my favorite article.

Have you ever wanted to learn something, but weren't sure where to start? Maybe you want to learn a language, programming or business. Maybe you want the confidence to tackle supposedly "hard" subjects like math, finance or physics. Today I'm going to show you how.

Scott used this in MIT
I'm going to describe the process I've used to condense a lot of learning into a short period of time. This is the same process I used to learn MIT's 4-year computer science curriculum in twelve months, teach myself languages, business and intellectual subjects like physics and psychology.
This article is going to be a bit longer (~3500 words), so you may want to bookmark it for later.
I'm going to focus on the strategy for learning, meaning how you choose to break down a nebulous goal like "learn to speak French" or "understand personal finance" into something concrete and actionable. As much as possible, I'll try to provide links to specific low-level tactics I use, such as the Feynman technique, visual mnemonics or active recall as well.
This strategy is just one possibility. If you've found success with another, by all means, go ahead! I only want to share the method I've been honing for years across a variety of different subjects.

The Steps in 2-Minutes
If you're short on reading time, I'll summarize the steps for you:
  1. Take your learning goal, and craft it into a compelling, obsession-worthy mission.
  2. Find material to learn from, structure it into a flexible curriculum.
  3. Define feedback mechanisms to constantly direct your future learning efforts and ensure high-intensity, active recall.
  4. Test and enforce a schedule that is sustainable over the entire lifetime of the project.
  5. Develop a long-term retention strategy (formal or informal).

Step One: Craft an Obsession

Almost anything can be achieved with the right motivation. The motivation you bring to a project forms the foundation for all your efforts. If that foundation is unstable, you don't have a chance at success even if you use all the "correct" learning techniques.

Here are a few ingredients I've found helpful for taking a vague goal and crafting a mission you can get excited about:
  1. Give it a name. Naming your project helps you define it. A name helps you identify the boundaries of what you're trying to accomplish with this particular mission, and which you aren't. Having a name also helps you think about the project as a unified whole instead of a random collection of loosely related learning tasks.
  2. Pick a specific objective. Narrow your ambitions onto something concrete. Instead of just trying to learn a language, have a goal of speaking only in the target language for an entire day, for example.
  3. Constrain the scope. Instead of just defining what you'd like to accomplish, also define which things are outside of the scope. This doesn't mean you have to avoid learning anything outside of those constraints, but it helps you prioritize the vague desire many autodidacts have to "learn everything" onto something attainable in a project.
  4. Hit the challenge sweet spot. The ideal amount of challenge is that it should be hard enough that you aren't sure whether you'll be successful, but not so hard that you give up. If you've put off learning something because it scares you, try lowering the challenge. If you've given up because you've been bored before, try increasing the challenge.
Building a compelling mission isn't too difficult, once you try. The majority of the time people skip this step, in my mind, is because they either don't realize it's important, or they falsely convince themselves that there's no way learning about *insert subject* could be compelling.

Step Two: Build a Flexible Curriculum

The next step is to gather material. I've found it important to choose material from a wider net than others may cast. This way you can shift between resources to meet your goals. Here are some points to look for when trying to find material:
The purpose of picking out material isn't to try to cover all of it. Instead, it should be to give you a starting point for structuring your learning efforts. Even if a different resource turns out to be slightly more efficient later, you can adjust.

I've found it useful to do most of this step prior to starting my project. For me, gathering material is distracting from the task of actually learning from it. This is why investing a day or two into researching, bookmarking, downloading and purchasing all of the material you might use in advance is so helpful.

Step Three: Define Feedback Mechanisms

Feedback is essential to learning. One feedback tool you might use is practice problems, which has demonstrated effectiveness in increasing long-term retention.

How do you incorporate feedback?
The two most straightforward ways are by producing something or practicing something. Although not guaranteed to provide feedback, if you're doing either of these as a significant amount of your learning time, you'll probably be getting feedback.

The best feedback goes directly toward your project's mission. If your mission is to perform a skill or speak authoritatively about a topic, then practicing that skill or writing about the subject are ideal feedback mechanisms. If your goal is to have a particular set of knowledge, self-testing and explaining the knowledge to yourself are good mechanisms.

Step Four: Enforce a Schedule

Many self-learners can successfully reach this point in their project, but fail on the next one: actually doing all the work.The first half is in preparation. Without a compelling mission, it's easy to get bored and quit. Without a curriculum, it's easy to get lost and give up. Without feedback mechanisms in place, it's easy to not learn anything at all.
The second half is in establishing a schedule that allows you to follow through with the reading, watching and practicing you need to do. Here are a couple frameworks I've found helpful for successfully implementing such a system:

1. The "Every Day" Plan
The first strategy is to do a little bit of work every day. When I want to cover a large swatch of information on a particular domain, I would get several books and devote 30-60 minutes reading them at the same time each day.
The process is simple:
  1. Define a certain time period, every day, when you'll do your work. It doesn't need to be a long time period to be effective.
  2. Commit to following this time period, without exception, for at least three weeks. The number is arbitrary, but I've found that enforcing the habit strictly in the beginning is essential.
The advantage of this strategy is that the effort quickly becomes a habit. This is the approach to use if your project is not going to be full-time and it will require some self-discipline to execute. The other strategies I'll mention can also be effective, but they have greater risks that you'll drop the ball when your motivation wanes.

2. The Obsessive Burst
This strategy is one I've used on projects which interested me deeply, and were short (in the span of a few weeks). The idea is simply to work on the project during most of your off-hours until it is completed.
This method only works if you're genuinely motivated enough to pull it off or there is a compelling external reason for such devotion. If you're rolling your eyes at this possibility, do yourself a favor and opt for strategy #1 instead.
The advantage of this method is that it utilizes your initial motivation. Some projects that could be finished quickly, I opted for this approach because I knew that my motivation would wane after a few weeks and I wanted to see results quickly. The disadvantages are obvious, but in some instances they don't matter.

3. The Precommitted Schedule
A final strategy I'll mention is simply to precommit to a certain goal, or certain hours. If you're making use of tutoring or outside help, simply committing to your tutor to have finished an amount by each lesson will give you motivation. Opting for a structured MOOC or course plan can also be helpful, since they provide you with constraints you're required to follow.
Another alternative is to set up short-term exams which you need to pass along the way. This could be useful in studying for a larger self-study exam (SAT, MCAT, GMAT, LSAT, CFA, etc.). Basically, you could break down practice exams into segments and resolve to be able to ace a particular segment by the end of the week, giving you the motivation to learn that section without procrastinating.

Anti-Strategies (or Plans that Rarely Succeed)
In contrast with the above three mentioned strategies, I've also found some approaches that tend to work poorly. This doesn't mean they never succeed, but rather that they require disproportionately more motivation or self-discipline to execute. These include:
  • Working on your project whenever you feel like.
  • Not establishing particular scheduled hours or deadlines.
  • Planning to begin a learning task later, without providing a compelling reason why it should be delayed.
In the end, you know yourself and your motivation. If getting stuff done isn't a problem for you—don't worry about this step. If it is, I'd recommend using strategy #1 in most cases. It's a good default go-to approach when you're not sure which one to apply.

Step Five: Long-Term Retention

This final step is an optional one. For many learning projects, I pursue this step informally because I know my lifestyle and goals will allow me to circle back to the knowledge I acquired previously at some point.
For those who are worried that such an informal approach may lead to losing a lot of the knowledge acquired, taking additional steps can be useful. Adding a strategy for long-term practice and retention can make sure that you don't forget things years later.

Implementing the 5 Steps

This is just a framework for planning and executing a self-education project. As such, you may have a lot more questions about handling the specifics. Here are a few articles I've written on the details of learning efficiently:

The Benefits of Learning Well
Self-education can seem like a luxury at times. Or it can look like an exercise in intellectual wastefulness—something that doesn't materially improve your life. I've found the opposite is true: learning more gives you an enormous advantage in almost any area of life you choose to apply it toward.

The people I know with the best careers, relationships and lives are the ones who learn continuously. I always strive to have a learning project at all times, and following these steps have been essential to make them successful, instead of something I idly start and never finish.