4 min read

Current Thoughts on my Learning System

TLDR of what I've been thinking about lately:

  • Learning is a set of skills. You need to practice each component of the learning process to get better. You can’t watch a video on a new technique and immediately become a pro. It takes time to reap the benefits.
  • Relational vs Isolated Learning. As you learn something new, try to learn it in relation to the things you already know rather than treating it as isolated from everything (flashcards can perpetuate the problem of learning things in isolated form).
  • Most people suck at mindmaps. Mindmaps can be horrible for learning if you just dump a bunch of text on a page and point arrows to different stuff (some studies show mindmaps are ineffective, but that's because people initially suck at making them). However, if you take the time to learn how to do them well, they will pay huge dividends in the future. I’ll be doing the “Do 100 Things” challenge and developing my skill in building better mindmaps. Getting better at mindmaps involves “chunking” the material and creating memorable connections and drawings.
  • Encoding and Retrieval are essential for concepts for efficient learning.
  • Deep processing is the foundation of all learning. It is the ability to connect, process, organize and relate information. The opposite of deep processing is rote memorization. If it doesn’t feel like you are engaging ~90% of your brain power when you are learning/reading something, you are likely not encoding the information into your long-term memory effectively.
  • Only use Flashcards as a last resort. Flashcards are something a lot of people do because they feel comfortable going through them. However, if your goal is to be efficient in your learning, you should only use flashcards when it’s something that requires rote learning.

Ever since I was little, I have relied on my raw brain power to get to where I am. Unfortunately, I could never bring myself to do what other smart kids were doing. Flashcards, revision? I would either get bored out of my mind or struggle because I didn’t know how to do it well. Mindmaps? It felt OK while I was doing it the few times I tried, but I would never revise it, and, honestly, I sucked at it.

But none of that mattered. I could still do well enough even though my learning system was terrible. However, I didn’t get the top grades, and I felt frustrated.

I read a few books and watched the popular YouTubers on how to learn things best. Spaced Repetition and Active Recall kept coming up. All these intelligent people were using it, and I truly believed it worked. However, whenever I tried it, I either ended up with too many flashcards to have the time to review, or I couldn't build a habit out of it. Flashcards also felt super inefficient when studying physics.

I did use Cal Newport’s stuff for some classes and performed better by studying the same amount of time, but as soon as things got intense (exam season/lots of homework), I would revert to my old (ineffective) study techniques like reading the textbook aimlessly and highlighting stuff. As a result, I would never truly develop the skill (yes, skill!) of studying well. But, just like anything, you can get better at creating mindmaps for proper learning and long-term memory.

I never got a system down, and I feel I’m losing out on gains in my career. How do I learn things efficiently? I don’t want to do the natural thing of putting in more hours to get more done. 1) My productivity will be capped by my inefficient system, 2) I still want to live life, and 3) it probably won’t work anyways.

So, consider this my public accountability statement to take the time to develop the skills necessary to become more efficient in my work. No more aimlessly reading LessWrong posts about AI alignment. There are more efficient ways to learn.

I want to contribute to AI alignment in a bigger way, and something needs to change. There is so much to learn, and I want to catch up as efficiently as possible instead of just winging it and trying whatever approach seems right.

Had I continued working on things I don’t care deeply about, I might have never decided to put in the effort to create a new system (which will probably take a year of practicing my learning skills). Maybe I would have tried for a few weeks and then reverted to my old habits. I could have kept coasting in life and done decently well in work and my personal life. But we need to solve alignment, and building these skills now will allow me to reap major benefits in a few years.

(Note: a nice bonus for developing a solid learning system is that you can pass it on to your children. I’m excited to do that one day, but I’d prefer to start doing this now so that I know that *I* can do it, and I’m not just telling my future kids nonsense.)

So, what have I been doing so far?

I started the iCanStudy course by Dr. Justin Sung (who has a YouTube channel). I’m only about 31% through the course.

My goal will be to create a “How to Create an Efficient Learning System” guide tailored for professionals and includes examples in AI alignment. Please let me know if there are some things you’d like me to explore in that guide.

Before I go, I’ll mention that I’m also interested in eventually taking what I learn from constructing my own learning system and creating something that allows others to do the same, but with much less effort. I hope to make this work for the alignment community in particular (which relates to my accelerating alignment project), but I’d also like to eventually expand to people working on other cause areas in effective altruism.