Having been a self-taught programmer since the 7th grade, I’ve picked up some decent skills on how i can teach myself new things. Hands down the best thing I ever learned? I wrote things down.

The most important thing that I took away from grade school science class was the note cards we were allowed to use on exams. There were no rules to what we could put on them, they just had to fit on a standard 3×5 card. Of course, I took it to the extreme. Size 8 font, printed, no margins, taped to a 3×5 card.

I crammed all my knowledge into that thing. And that’s all I did to prepare for the exam.

Then a weird thing happened. It began with me sitting down for the exam, incredibly nervous that I just spent the last 6 hours typing things onto this card that I could barely read, worrying about what things I might have missed. Tests are being handed out. Heads down. The classroom is quiet with the only noise of people sniffling and scribbling of pencils on paper.

The exam slides onto my desk. Good lord, this is like 15 pages. I start and get through page 1 no problems. Page 2. Page 4. Page 8. Each time dreading that the next question will be worth 25% of the grade and I won’t know the answer. I finally get to that dreaded question. Crap. I don’t remember, so I reach for my 3×5 card and before I can pick it up I’ve visualized where the answer was on the card in my head. I spent so much time working on that note card last night that I remember almost the whole thing. And then the answer springs into my head and I didn’t even have to use that card the whole exam.

Getting my grade back on that exam really made it dawn on me. I got a 98% without looking at the note card once.

I was so absorbed in the mindset that this note card was going to let me cheat on the exam. And yet the only thing it did was cheat my mind and its desire to procrastinate.

I’m a natural procrastinator. Reading notes doesn’t help me. Reading the book really doesn’t help me that much either. I can feel like I learned something by doing both of those things, but I’ll find it darn near impossible to recall specifics if I haven’t actually written something down.

It goes for programming, cooking, math, science, tons of things. You can read a book on programming, cooking, math, science, whatever and be almost no better off than you were before. It will feel like you learned something, but then the moment you sit down without that book? Nothing. You don’t know how to start. You forgot already.

This has become so natural to me that I do it without thinking anymore. For programming, I’ll write code before reading a book or I will write each command as I read a tutorial. It can be much harder to follow through this way when you run into a problem, but when you get through it, you’ve at least learned a lot. Reading a book from cover to cover and then sitting down at my computer to try what I just read is impossible. I simply won’t remember.

For things that aren’t programming, I carry around a Moleskin notebook with me everywhere. If I want to remember it, I write it down. I may never ever visit that page again in that notebook, but I will have filed it away in my mind visually. I’ll be able to recall the layout of the page that I drew in if I can’t remember what I wrote down exactly. And that will be the stepping stone that either triggers my memory to recall what I wanted or I will remember enough to find the page in the notebook again.

Sometimes it feels like a waste of time and I won’t do it. I know I won’t look at that page again, so why bother? And then I think back a few days and I remember thinking about writing it down but I didn’t and that memory is all I have left because I did nothing with it.

Try it. See if it helps you. It works incredibly well for me. What other techniques do you use to learn quickly?

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