How to Learn New Skills Fast

A simple framework for studying efficiently outside of academia

Lina Chervenkova
5 min readMay 16, 2023

There is this saying that information without context is just noise. And with today’s easy access to practically all the knowledge humankind has collected and stored through the ages, things can get pretty noisy.

Which makes context crucial to learning new skills and staying sane at the same time.

If you have ever tried to learn something practical the way you were thought back in school, you might have noticed that you couldn’t retain that much information and what you could recall wasn’t very useful.

Tackling huge amounts of information, weaving through raw data and cramming random facts into your head will not help you solve real-life problems or make a difference in the world.

So why do it?

Well, learning the way you were thought back in school is easier. For one, after years of doing it, you are used to it and it probably comes naturally to you.

But more importantly, it’s passive, in the sense that it requires repetition and not generating novel thoughts or creative ideas, which is a much harder thing to do.

All you need to do to get the job done is listen, take notes, memorize a bunch of stuff and answer test questions.

And this might be a good approach if you are an academic scholar, however, it’s not enough to teach you the practical skills you are after, not by a long shot.

If you want to learn new skills fast, there are better learning models than the ones thought in school.

Let’s dive into one of them.

After freelancing and working on small projects for years, late last year I realized I wanted to be part of something bigger, work on long-term projects and be part of a larger team again.

And so I started looking for a remote product design position. While sending out resumes, interviewing and looking for the best fit, I also took various courses on UX/UI design, read a ton of books and articles and watched countless tutorials.

I was filling in the gaps I thought I had in my design knowledge and it was a good step to take. However, at some point, I realized that my approach had one major flaw:

My knowledge was vast and complex AND I had the practical skills to boot but my portfolio reflected almost nothing of that.

Why?

Because I had fallen victim to the “back to school” learning model — I was taking notes, memorizing data and hoarding information with no end. And none of these things was ever going to be helpful in the real world.

This way of studying might be excellent for academic pursuits (Ali Abdaal has a great course on Skillshare on that very topic) but it’s not great for gaining or showcasing practical skills.

So what to do instead?

I realized my mistake the moment I saw this post by Dan Koe.

A post shared by DAN KOE (@thedankoe)

Here are a couple of realizations I had after reading Dan’s article.

  • Lecture notes are not needed — the class recordings and all additional information are always available online if I need to check back on something.
  • There will be no tests or end exams so memorizing every little detail is useless.
  • Knowledge without practical context is just random information.

Here’s how to learn a new skill fast when you are not a student anymore

Once I was clear on what not to do, I did a little research and came up with a 5-step framework you can use to learn practically anything.

1. Pick a subject and plant your flag

Your first task is to define the problem you want to solve or decide what you want to learn and why. Then, plant your flag by choosing a real-world project and setting up your workspace.

I used to use Notion for everything but after the pandemic, I started traveling more and I needed a reliable way to access my work without an omnipresent internet connection.

This is why I use Trello as a hub for all of my projects but you can set up your workspace in Google Docs, Notion, or locally on your computer.

2. Gather your tools

Once you have clarified your goals, do a thorough but quick research. Look for the most knowledgeable people on the subject and the tools and resources you might need to get started and bookmark them all.

I use Raindrop.io and store all the relevant links in a separate folder. I have access to it at any time I need to check up on something and I don’t fret that a link or an article might get lost or overlooked.

3. Just start

For many people starting is the most daunting task. Where do you even begin to untangle this humongous mess?

Here’s a tip: if you are completely new to a subject you’ll probably benefit from taking a more structured course on the basics. Just an hour or two to get you going and give you an idea about your first couple of steps.

If you are not a complete newbie, start with what you know. Start doing the actual work one step at a time however you can. The moment you hit a wall, go back to your bookmarks or Google, read up, try new things, take what works, ignore the rest, solve the problem at hand, and move on to the next step.

4. Take notes

You might not need lecture notes but you should take a ton of notes to document the whole process as thoroughly as you can. Write down your ideas, insights and findings so you can present them or even teach them to others after you have finished your project.

5. Share your work

As scary as it is to learn in public, feedback from your community will help you get better faster. Ignore your ego that demands praise and admiration the best you can and look for kind but honest feedback you can use to improve your projects and skills.

And this is it!

You can create your own framework using the resources below but the one takeaway here is that hoarding information is not learning. The sooner you put your knowledge to practical use the faster you’ll acquire and eventually master the skill you are aiming for.

So if you remember one thing from today’s post, remember this: learn not to retain information but to solve a problem.

Resources to Explore

Quote

“If you want to learn faster, don’t start learning.
- Outline a project
- Start building it out
- Learn along the way
Too many people get trapped in tutorial hell, stacking up useless knowledge as brain fog.
Start > encounter a problem > seek specific knowledge to overcome it.

The greatest skill one can develop is decreasing the time between idea and execution.”

— Dan Koe

Thanks for reading!

First published on The Designer Corner.

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Lina Chervenkova

Product Designer & Writer. Follow along as I learn and build in public and share actionable design, writing and productivity tips: linacher.substack.com