we probably learn the most "stuff" as children, yet are unaware exactly how we learned. perhaps the only tactical skill i remember developing from scratch prior to my 25th birthday was typing on a computer keyboard.
it wasn't until i began learning to code in September 2015 that i started to become aware of how we learn, or at least how i learn. fast forward a few years, i'm now teaching myself Korean and going through the process a 2nd time.
first, the more complex an idea is, the messier it becomes to internalize. this is annoying because you can learn a new vocabulary word in 20-30 seconds and commit it to long-term memory in a few days with enough review.
but if you want to understand, say, why the United States got involved in a particular war or fat tail distributions' impact on society and risk-taking... well, you can't just stare at a text. you need context, which begets more context, and before you know it you've spent 100s of hours devouring biographies, newspapers, and interviews just to have a solid understand of the Viet Cong.
so step 1 of improving our learning ability is acknowledging it will always be messy. step 2 is figuring out a way to etch out milestones in the midst of this messy, non-linear process.
in language learning that means being able to ask where the bathroom is, even if you can't ask the same question about a train station. in music it's reading a guitar tab before reading the treble clef. and so on.
it's this failure to create achieavable milestones, i think, that prevents many of us from learning. if you've ever told yourself, "i want to lose 50 pounds," instead of creating a plan to lose 5 pounds in the next 15 days, you're guilty of this trap.
now for step 3. and this is straight from my "teach myself Korean for no apparent reason" playbook: build a conveyor belt to your brain.
your conveyor belt is literal and metaphorical. whether you're at a rickshaw factory or a Tesla factory, conveyor belts help transform raw materials into finished goods. they add linearity to the non-linear. they reduce complexity and signify manufacturing milestones.
my Korean "conveyor belt" is 2 spreadsheets. one has tabs for every noun, verb, preposition, and adjective i've learned. the other spreadsheet has a daily schedule of tasks, like "review yesterday vocab" and "learn 20 new words" and "practice typing for 5 minutes" that i cross off each day. i also use a time tracker app to understand what portion of my studies are spent on vocabulary vs grammar, vs listening or reading or writing.
with just a few simple tools i'm absorbing a highly complex idea -- an asian language for a native English speaker -- with efficiency and measurable progress.
if you replicate this, you can learn anything.