How to learn anything

Recent neuroscience studies have uncovered some interested facts about the way we deal with and respond to competing priorities in our brains. Apparently, the more things we have to hold in our brain at any one time the more effort it takes, the more stressed and tired we get, and it stops us from retaining new information. This is because the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) area of our brain - which is responsible for the high-level thinking required to plan, prioritise and learn is a hungry beast that steals all our energy. This is a big problem for students as our job is to learn as much new knowledge as possible in a very short time so that we can pass the assessment.


The truth is that planning how we're going to fit how learning something new is going to be factored into our already busy lives is really important to achieve success. Learning needs to be integrated into a plan that takes account all the things you need to do so that your brain is freed up to focus on the learning and not tied up trying to hold all those competing priorities in mind.

So here are my 5 steps to helping you achieve just that…

1) Write down your learning goals.  Be as specific as you can. E.g., I want to learn about mindfulness - the theory and practice so I can make it very practical in my day-to-day routine. 

2) Add due dates into you plan. Giving yourself an end date to achieve it helps you figure out the smaller steps involved to achieve your goal.

3) Working backwards from your due dates, schedule in sessions to work on achieving your goal. You know how you like to work. Schedule it that way. If you are a short-bursts-of-work sort of person - do that. If you like to roll up your sleeves and get stuck into your goal for two whole days per week (and have that luxury) - schedule it that way.

HD assignment

4) Categorise your goals according to the ‘Critical, Important & Nice to Have’ prioritisation framework:

  • Critical: These goals are crucial and must be accomplished first. Examples of critical goals for those who are parents is spending regular quality time with your kids. E.g., would be ensuring your work is completed on time, because if you don’t, you may lose your job (and those bills won’t pay themselves).
  • Important. These goals are significant but don’t quite fall into the critical goal category. E.g.,  keeping up with your readings as you know it will help you recall the information better when its needed.
  • Nice to have. These goals are important enough to list but in comparison to the critical and important goals they come third in the list. An example might be reading the recommended ‘further reading’ list. You know that it would help deepen your understanding of the learning but if you don't have time - would this task really matter if it didn't get done?

5) Review your plan. Ask yourself – is it realistic? Is it achievable? Have I scheduled in enough time to get everything done? If you don’t think it’s achievable or realistic, remove some of the ‘nice to have’ goals.


And there you have it. Now for one final tip...Putting a plan in place is crucial to learning new things but what is most important is ACTIONING that plan!

Over to you... how do you learn new things?

About the Author

Veronica Merry (MerryCoach) is passionate about helping people and organisations learn, adapt and evolve to achieve their vision. Veronica has over 17 years’ experience in designing and delivering learning programs across a broad range of disciplines including organisation development, change management, leadership and performance development, mentoring and coaching. Contact Veronica to help you design and deliver your next organisational development program.


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6 Comments on “How to learn anything

  1. Great post! I definitely agree with you that a plan is so important to keep you on track. When you’re working and studying (and have other commitments) it’s vital to think of all your responsibilities as a whole – so your idea to plan them all in one place is great 🙂

    1. Thanks Chloe – yes I loved my huge A1 calendar planner that my university provided us with for scheduling all my appointments in work, life and study in the one place. Worked a charm.

    1. Yes, once I realised the reason why I was having trouble focusing when I had too much on was because I was using up too much brain capacity holding it all in mind I started to change my morning ritual. Now the first thing I do is refer to my planner, write down the key priorities for the day and number them in order based on how I like to work. It has improved my productivity out of sight.

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