The Fundamentals of Fast Learning (Part 2)

For Part 1, click here.

Create conditions for deep work

Some argue that the ability to maintain deep focus is one of the most valuable skills in the modern day. Yet in an age of distractions, internet and high-paced life, it is becomingly increasingly rare.

By fostering our ability to maintain focus, we can reach greater depths of understanding. When probing something intellectually, understanding is obtained gradually. Each answer raises another question to be answered. Becoming distracted disrupts this, inhibiting the depth of understanding you can reach.

The ability to concentrate deeply enables you to achieve in one study session more than you may otherwise achieve in multiple, fragmented sessions. It is not as simple as just covering more content. If you cover something properly and really understand it, you won’t need to re-learn it in the same way again. This links back to the idea of learning for understanding.

Deep focus can also save time by helping you to think more clearly in real-time about the approach you are taking. You may realise that what you are doing isn’t working and think of a better way. This can be further reinforced by a formal Weekly Review which I will discuss later.

Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who described the concept of ‘Flow’, where we are completely immersed in a task and the sense of time and space disappears. It relies on an optimal matching of the difficulty of the task with our abilities; challenging but not overwhelmingly so.

The ability to sustain focus and enter ‘flow’ when required may not always come naturally. But over time, we can train our ability to do so. This ability stretches our cognitive capacities and increases our abilities to solve difficult problems in the real world.

To foster this ability, we must remove distractions, use social media on our own terms and actively train ourselves to focus for set periods. I shall explore these in turn.

Remove distractions

This may sound obvious, but distractions can be a huge hindrance to productivity. Five minutes spent checking emails or Facebook leads to far more than five minutes of time wasted as it takes time and effort for your mind to regain focus on the original task. Often, allowing yourself to be distracted is the easy way out of a doing a difficult task.

Our brains are hard-wired to detect and respond to novel stimuli so avoiding distractions can be difficult, regardless of our willpower. Therefore, to make it easier for ourselves we must set up as many barriers as possible for distractions.

If you are often distracted by your phone, turn it off or put it in another room. If there’s a website you spend a lot of time on, block it. If there’s something or someone that distracts you, find somewhere to study where that won’t be a problem. Don’t make excuses to yourself — work around whatever obstacles may arise.

My personal biggest source of distraction is the internet. I find it so easy to get lost in the recesses of the internet and lose track of time. I realised that I needed to solve this problem in order to get anything done. I came across the following apps, without which I would never have finished this book:

  • InternetOff app – lets you have the internet switched off as default, and need a password to switch the internet on for a period of time.
  • ‘StayFocusd’ extension for Chrome – lets you limit time spent on certain websites or block them entirely.

By removing distractions, we can complete our work quicker and therefore find more time to do things that we really enjoy.

Use social media on your own terms

Social media can be a massive time-sink. I often found I’d log into Facebook “for a 5-minute break” or to check something only to find myself scrolling down the Newsfeed an hour or two later. The following are things that I set up to reduce the frequency with which I log on to Facebook and the amount of time spent when I do:

  • I changed my password into a series of letters, numbers and symbols and wrote it down on a bit of paper. I put this in a drawer along with a few relevant inspirational quotes and other stimuli that will make me think twice before deciding to log in.
  • I downloaded the ‘News Feed Eradicator for Facebook’ Google Chrome extension, which replaces your newsfeed with an inspirational quote.

In my opinion, the three main benefits of Facebook are event invitations, messaging friends and sharing things with others. Therefore, I set up ways to do them without needing to log in to Facebook:

  • I changed my settings so that I receive email notifications for event invitations. When I get an email, I write the event in my calendar. As long as I know about the event, I can talk to my other friends who are attending and will be aware of any changes in date or time plus other relevant details.
  • I downloaded the Facebook Messenger app without the main Facebook app so that I can still message friends without needing to log on to the central Facebook.
  • I use other apps to share things on Facebook – Instagram for photos and Buffer for sharing posts (Buffer has the added benefit of letting you decide when you want your posts to be shared).

These enabled me to get the main benefits of Facebook without wasting too much time. If you feel you spend more time on social media than you would like, consider trying some of the above techniques or coming up with your own.

There are other side effects of social media not directly related to productivity which can be insidious. It can increase how much you care about what others think and it can cause you to compare yourself more with others. This may explain why some recent studies show that social media can have a negative effect on satisfaction.

If you often consider your approach to social media, Cal Newport (an American computer science professor and author ) makes a case for not using it altogether in a TED talk and I have written an article about my experiences and current approach at

The Pomodoro Method

One simple technique that can have a dramatic effect on study efficiency is the Pomodoro method. In short, it involves alternating 25 minutes of undisrupted work with 5-minute breaks. For a more full explanation, see this video here. I’ve also written some ideas about how to use it for maximal benefit here.


Meditation is similar in that for a period of time you continually bringing your attention back to an object of focus. There is an increasing body of evidence that it can improve concentration. Popular apps such as Headspace and Calm can help with this.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport advises us:

“Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.”

Facilitate continual improvement

The techniques I’ve outlined above are some of the fundamentals of efficient learning. However, different people will gain different amounts from each point. Learning to learn faster is an individualised process and is not as simple as just following a list of steps or using some techniques that someone tells you.

This brings me on to the fourth fundamental principle which is to facilitate continual improvement. This involves continuous experimentation and evaluation. Useful ways to increase the rate of improvement are to obtain feedback and act upon it, reflect weekly and always look for new ideas.


Feedback is a fundamental requirement for improvement. It enables us to continually correct our course. Imagine driving on a road with no road markings, or throwing darts at a dart board while blind-folded.

Give yourself feedback by asking the following questions after each event:

  1. What worked well?
  2. Where could you improve?

Ask other people for feedback. Be accepting of this feedback! If someone is giving you criticism or something you don’t agree with, don’t step in and defend yourself — keep silent for as long as you can and then reflect on what they have told you. Aim to view yourself as objectively as possible.

Use objective assessment methods. For example, do past questions in timed conditions and then mark them. If essays are part of your assessment, write some and ask someone else to mark them. This objectivity forces you to be aware of your current stage and avoids unwarranted optimism.

Weekly Review

Cal Newport has written about how a Weekly Review can increase short-term productivity and lead to long-term improvement. It involves setting aside some time each week (I usually spend an hour or two on Saturday morning) to assess how the previous week went, what you can try in the upcoming week and structuring your week.

Short-term productivity is increased by deciding a structure in advance. It makes you more likely to complete a task on a particular day. If you have a series of different tasks lined up for subsequent days, you are more likely to ensure that you find time to do them and less likely to postpone them if you ‘don’t feel like it’.

In the long-term, Weekly Reviews facilitate improvement through continual self-assessment. You may realise certain inefficiencies in your approach and think of ways to solve them. These solutions may in themselves lead to new problems. Continually looking for ways to improve can lead to dramatic improvements in the long-term.

A Weekly Review can be used in contexts outside of academic pursuits. Benjamin Franklin reportedly chose a virtue to work on each week and at the end of the week reviewed how well he had kept to it.

For the Weekly Review, you can ask yourself the following questions.

Assess performance that week

  • Did I get everything done that I wanted to? (If not, why not?)
  • What aspects of my approach worked well?
  • What areas could be improved?

Planning the upcoming week

  • What do I want to achieve? What material do I want to cover?
  • When will I achieve it?
  • What new approaches/techniques can I try this week?

Always look for new ideas

There is an inexhaustible amount of information available on learning theory, study tips and techniques. Your aim is to find those that work best for you; cherry-pick from the information available and if they work, use them – if they don’t, discard them.

For example, a friend of mine, who came top in the year on more than one occasion, has written an entertaining guide on memorisation. It explores four techniques; mnemonics, method of loci and story associations, the Major System technique and synesthetic memory. It is very useful for the times when there is little space for ‘understanding’ and you just have to memorise the facts. For more details, see Appendix B. Try the techniques he describes and see if they work for you.

There are a many sources of study advice on the internet. Ones I have found useful include:


• Learning faster improves your academic results and gives you more time to do other things.

• Spaced Repetition and learning for understanding enhance long-term retention.

• Flash cards and a Review System can enforce Spaced Repetition.

• The Feynman Method, question-based learning and active recall can increase understanding.

• Developing the ability to focus is an invaluable skill today. To develop it, we should remove distractions, consider our relationship with social media and try the Pomodoro Method.

• Learning is individualised and life-long. Continual improvement can be facilitated by obtaining feedback, objective self-assessments weekly and always searching for new ideas.

Continued in Chapter 3.

This is a chapter from The Modern Medical Student Manual. A full list of chapters are below:

  • Introduction: From That Day To This Book
  • Chapter 1: Medicine from Fifty Thousand Feet: Perspective, Targets and Limits
  • Chapter 2: The Fundamentals of Fast Learning - Part 1 and Part 2
  • Chapter 3: Mastering Clinical Medicine - Part 1 and Part 2
  • Chapter 4: Increasing our Impact (and the power of Self-Education) - Part 1 and Part 2
  • Chapter 5: A Scientific Approach to Research - Part 1 and Part 2
  • Chapter 6: Commanding Clearer Communication - Part 1 and Part 2
  • Conclusion

Plus Bonus Chapters:


The full book is also available as an eBook or Paperback.