The 3 Key Factors to Learn Anything

If there was a secret on how to learn anything faster and remember it this would it. Learning is affected by 3 key factors, without which it is impossible. Let’s go.


The longer we spend learning any subject, the more proficient we will be at it. The longer we study a given topic, the more we will know about it. There is no way around this. However time has 2 components that we should be aware of, one of which results in faster learning.


Without investing time it is very difficult to get far both in learning or in any other area whatsoever.

  • Ways to control time invested in given activity:
    • Chronometer – the most direct way of measuring time. Basically requires us to log the time we spend on each activity. It’s generally used to track worker’s performance and actual costs in companies, but some people also use it for their personal time, and web browsing habits;
    • Schedule – planning ahead what you’re going to do in the future, by allocating a given amount of time to certain activities;
    • Goals – ;
    • Habits – Create the habit of studying/learning something;
  • How much time should we invest?
    • Life weeks – The image below? That’s your whole life right there… (at best). So, think wisely about what you’re spending your time on;
    • Motivations – If something is important enough, then go ahead and invest time in it.

number of weeks in a lifetime

Now the point is to learn faster, which means, we want to minimize this time. However, not all time was created equal. Learning at specific intervals can shorten the total amount of time spent learning.


Enter the concept of spaced learning, which you might have already heard of. Most of the forgetting occurs in the very first few hours or even minutes after the first time we tried to learn it. This means that if you want to remember something after the 1st time you learned about it, you should recall it at least once in the next 24h. When reviewing what we’ve learned, we notice there are things that we remember, others we don’t. We could skip reviewing the ones we remember for now, and focus on the ones we don’t. Some apps do this automatically, like

  • Anki [Search scientific papers where Anki bases to claim it works]
  • Mnemosyne

They show you flash cards based on how well you told them that you remember them. Their algorithms shows you more often the cards whose memories are weak and seldom the ones that are strong. The software uses something similar to the Forgetting Curve, image below. The forgetting curve represents how memories’ strength decay slows down with time the more times we trigger them. However there seems to be some benefits to space out the triggers in time. This is why spaced learning is better than cramming. You get to remember more with less total time invested. For example, with cramming you might need 1 hour to memorize a few words in a foreign language. With spaced learning you may need half than that. And more, you’ll remember them for longer. Generally speaking, memories that you recall many times in a spaced way, are easier to memorize and stay with you for longer.

The forgetting curve by ebbinghaus adapted by inquasar


An intense learning session is one where you’re focused and giving 110% of your energy to learn.

How can we increase the intensity of a learning session?

  • By improving the learning environment – fit lightning, sound and social environment, eliminating distractions, carefully choosing who you learn with;
  • With practice – even if we eliminate all distractions, our mind will occasionally drift off. The frequency with which this happens, however, can be decreased with practice;
  • By using active learning methods;
  • With artificial time constraints – Examples:
    • Tell yourself you will only work on your thesis until 6pm. After that, no matter what, you will stop working on it and you will do something else not related to it. This creates a sense of urgency, and urges you work in the little time you have.


You can spend a lot of time learning, and with all the focus in the world, but if you use the wrong methods, it’s of little use. It’s like riding in a car for days with the throttle pedal floored but only with  5 horsepower (normal cars, for those that don’t know much, have usually above 50 horsepower).

So, how can you increase learning efficiency?

  • Learn actively;
  • Learn by connecting ideas  (analogies, metaphors, learn the trunk before the branches and leaves, …)


These are the 3 key factors that allow us to know the maximum in the least amount of total time. “Knowledge/skill” = Time × Intensity × Efficiency. Let’s do a simple analogy to better understand this with a car’s combustion engine. This formula would become Distance Traveled = Time Spent Moving × How Much We Stepped on the Accelerator × Engine Power.

Note: Intelligence could enter into this equation, but since it is something over which we have no control, it is not worth taking the time to think about it. In addition, there are lots of books dedicated to the subject of “natural talent” vs. “talent acquired”, and the answer is always that the 1st is only of importance in very high level competitions like in the Olympic Games or in very specific cases, as savants in which which gives them skill out of the normal range [1,2]. Not considering such specific cases and for our day-to-day and even high-level needs, the talent acquired is by far more important.

[1] D. Coyle, “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown”: Random House, 2010.

[2] M. Syed, “Bounce”, London: Fourth Estate, 2010.

Featured image cortesy of alicia bramlett @ flickr.

One thought on “The 3 Key Factors to Learn Anything

  1. Heewon Lee says:

    Dear Sir,

    I’ very pleased to have this opportunity to know your name through ‘’, while I was seaching on Dr. Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve.

    I’m currently writing an Englsih grammar book for students in South Korea who want to leran English in the quickest manner. That of course will depend on time, intensity, and efficeincy as you illustrated in your 1st chart in the above. I’m asking them to repete my book, for example five times at least, which may help them to set up the own insight on English. In that sense your chart of Forgetting Curve in the above may spur my target students.

    My purpose of contact with you today is to know if I may use your above ‘Forgetting Curve’ in my book. I’m not a professional Englsih teacher, but an amateur writer who had retired from the global scale automotive company two years ago. Since then I’ve been studying English by myslef, and acquired some useful knowledge on English. I just want to deliver my own learning method in my humble book.

    Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing a positive responce from you soon.


    Heewon Lee
    Seoul, South Korea


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