I wrote about effective learning in 2022. In 2023 I completed two MOOC courses: Learning How to Learn and Mindshift, though which I gained a deeper understanding of effective learning. This blog is a continuum from the last piece.

The Essence of Learning

Professor Barbara Oakley’s famous online course Learning How to Learn has given me a deeper understanding of the essence of learning. After establishing my awareness of ineffective and effective learning, I have redeveloped new learning habits. Through Professor Barbara’s course, which provides various simple and vivid metaphors, I have understood the science behind effective learning methods. This has deepened my understanding of effective learning methods and has allowed me to better apply these methods in practice.

Brain Modes

The brain operates in two modes: the focused mode and the diffuse mode. When we are learning a specific field of knowledge, we need to start with the focused mode, where we deeply engage in thinking, understanding, and repetitive practice and memorization to master that knowledge. In this focused mode, certain neurons in the brain become highly active, forming connections within limited local areas. While in the diffuse mode, distant neurons can create new connections, leading to unexpected associations that can inspire creativity.

Scientific research shows that the brain can only work in one mode at a time. Therefore, the ideal learning state involves alternating between both modes to stimulate different brain activities for better learning outcomes.

Chunking Knowledge

Chunking refers to a cognitive leap, where you deeply understand the essence and logical relationships of scattered, vague pieces of knowledge in your brain, connecting them closely. This allows you to easily integrate them into your broader knowledge framework, signifying complete mastery of that knowledge.

Chunking knowledge appears to be the most important step in learning. How can you efficiently chunk knowledge? Firstly, chunking should be done in the focused mode. In this mode, the brain’s prefrontal cortex helps gather various pieces of information scattered throughout the brain. Secondly, repetitive practice is crucial as it continually strengthens the connections between neurons, reinforcing knowledge chunks. Lastly, it’s essential to step back from details and focus on the macro perspective to understand the position of the learned knowledge within the knowledge map and how to apply it.


There are two memory modes: short-term memory (also known as working memory) and long-term memory. The brain’s prefrontal cortex is used for working memory when you’re focused and can store a limited number of knowledge chunks. Long-term memory, on the other hand, has a nearly unlimited capacity but requires training to store and retrieve memories.

The forgetting curve, also known as the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, describes the rate of forgetting in mid to long-term memory.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve illustrates that the retention of memory varies over time, with both short-term and long-term memory having different durations. If not reviewed in a timely manner, remembered information stored in long-term memory can be forgotten. The rate of forgetting varies from person to person, often due to differences in their understanding of the information.

Exercise and Sleep

Exercise has two benefits. First we are activating our brain’s diffused mode which has a positive impact on both divergent thinking. Also exercise helps us building brain neurons, which enhance memory.

The importance of sleep for memory is emphasized in Matt Walker’s TED talk, where he refers sleep to hitting the “save button” after learning.


When it comes to effectiveness and efficiency discussion, procrastination is often a unavoidable topic. To talk about procrastination, let’s begin with the development of habits.

People often act based on their habits without much thought because it requires less effort for the brain. Habits can be good or bad, and cultivating good habits is one way to combat procrastination. So how are habits formed and broken? When you establish a habit, whether good or bad, you follow “action cues” that make you feel subconsciously compelled to do a particular task. Action cues have four characteristics: time, location, feeling, and response. For example, if you have a bad habit of using your phone before bed, when you lie in bed feeling bored and not very sleepy, you habitually reach for your phone (response). Breaking these action cues is a way to break bad habits, while intentionally creating action cues is a way to establish good habits.

Another effective method for overcoming procrastination is to focus on the process rather than the outcome. Often, the fear of difficulty and pain associated with achieving a result makes people reluctant to start or abandon tasks midway. By concentrating on the process, you make the initial execution feel less challenging and reduce discomfort. For example we can do our study plan like this:

Ultimately, through persistence and efficient execution, you will reach your goals because all learning, whether knowledge or other goals, begins with small steps. As the saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

However, entirely disregarding the outcome is also challenging. To increase your self-motivation and reduce procrastination, Professor Barbara Oakley in her course “Mindshift” shares a valuable tip: the self-motivation formula and a comprehensive procrastination treatment guide.

Self-Motivation Formula:

\[\begin{align*} Motivation = \frac{Expectancy \times Value}{Impulsiveness \times Delay} \end{align*}\]

So, how can you increase your motivation? Based on this formula, you can break it down into the following:

Complete Procrastination Guide:

Learning Tools and Systems

This part contains practical information and shares useful learning tools that I find effective.

Engaging with Books

Ineffective learning methods often include underlining and copying. Asking questions and summarizing the answers are considered more scientific learning methods. Here’s how my note-taking process in physical books has evolved: while reading, I engage with the text as if I’m having a conversation with the author, asking questions and even throw challenges. Then, I take on the role of answering these questions by understanding, refining, and searching for information from other sources. I use physical books and a pen for this purpose. E-books can also be used, and I use GoodNotes on my iPad.

Note-Taking Tools

My journey with note-taking tools has been like: Evernote → Google Doc / Google Keep / OneNote → Notion / Google Doc → Obsidian / Google Doc / Goodnotes. Ultimately, Obsidian became my most frequently used and only note-taking tool.

Why I choose Obsidian. I could pull up another blog post to talk about it. Here I summarize the most important a few reasons:

Lightweight cross-platform file format:

JavaScript plugin system:

File-linking system:

Here’s a visualization of the file relationships within Obsidian, which closely resembles the octopus illustration

Anki Flashcard System

Anki App

Anki has both desktop and mobile applications for practicing flashcards. It allows organized flashcard management and adjusts spaced repetition intervals based on your performance.

Obsidian Plugins

I mentioned Obsidian’s powerful plugin system earlier. One highly useful plugin is the Flashcard plugin. With a few simple configurations, you can automatically generate flashcards from your notes and sync them to the Anki desktop app. Anki is a cross-platform syncing application, so I can review flashcards in any environment (changing environment, according to Prof Barbara, reinforce your memorization). It includes creating your flashcard decks and tags based on your note tags.

Burning Vocabulary

Burning Vocabulary is a cleverly designed browser extension. After installing it on Chrome, you can highlight and translate words, not only in web text but also in video subtitles and PDF text. It enhances reading efficiency when dealing with foreign languages. Another excellent feature is its integrated flashcard system based on the memory curve, which is highly effective for word memorization.

I stumbled upon this tool while searching for vocabulary learning software. The developer initially created this tool to address his own pain points in learning English. This perfectly reflects the concept presented in “Cathedrals and Bazaars”: the best programs often start as personal solutions to daily problems.

Pomodoro Technique - Forest

The Pomodoro Technique is widely recognized for combating procrastination, and Forest is a popular Pomodoro app. Each Pomodoro session involves “planting” a virtual tree, and as you complete more sessions, you grow a virtual forest. This gamified approach adds a sense of accomplishment. If you interrupt a Pomodoro session, a tree will wither.

Mind Mapping - Xmind

Mind mapping is a valuable tool for structuring knowledge, and Xmind is a great software for creating mind maps. It allows you to add links, notes, and images, among other features. Unfortunately, Xmind does not support multi-platform synchronization.

True Happiness

Is lifelong learning the same as “hustling”? Does hustling bring happiness? “Hustling” means rushing, pushing, and acting rapidly. I have always believed that I am a slow, relaxed person who enjoys leisure time. I still have plenty of “idle” time every day. Although I occasionally regret of wasting of my time on useless activities, I have to admit that I derive pleasure from this “idleness” and it is necessary “recharging”. I consider myself a non-hustler, and I cannot find happiness in the hustling blindly.

Then why all these discussion on efficient learning, am I not hustling? Adam Grant’s TED talk, How to stop languishing and start finding flow, sheds light on the secret.

Languishing is a suboptimal mental and life state, not quite depression but characterized by laziness, spending a lot of time on smartphones, binge-watching, and playing games. This state has spread to more people and households, especially during the pandemic.

Adam Grant points out that scientific research shows that our mental and physical health primarily depends on the state of flow. Flow is the state of complete immersion in an activity, even to the point of losing oneself. Watching TV shows, playing games, and following fandoms can produce flow, but they only offer temporary pleasure, not long-term growth. Higher-level flow comes from active participation in the real world.

Three key factors for achieving flow are:

In the middle of 2021, due to stress from work and life, I couldn’t sleep well. I decided to get up at four or five in the morning to study vocabulary, and later, I added interview preparation, blogging, and morning exercise. Gradually, I developed the habit of waking up early, and the one or two hours of undisturbed time in the morning proved to be highly productive. I noticed a significantly positive change in my overall wellbeing, and my sense of happiness increased. The reason was the daily two-hour experience of “flow” in the morning, which brought me great help and made me realize true happiness. Later, I voluntarily took breaks from work in 2022 and 2023, both times enjoying several months of not working. During these periods, I had ample time to read and study, and I fully enjoyed this positive experience of “flow”.

Of course, I haven’t given up on activities like binge-watching or using my smartphone for “unproductive” enjoyment.


Productivity Tools


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