On Learning and Knowledge Management

The beauty of the brain is that you can still be as greedy as you like for knowledge and it doesn’t show.

— Stephen Fry.

Knowledge management has always been a particularly exciting topic for me. I think that the problem can be broken down into three questions:

  1. How do we extract knowledge?

  2. How do we store it?

  3. How do we keep it fresh in our heads?

Neither of these questions has an easy answer. Honestly, each of them is a topic not even for a separate article, but for a whole book.

Still, there are some high-level ideas and techniques that help. Let's have a look.

Disclaimer: I may take the term "knowledge management" in a broader sense. To me, it's not only about how you store your acquired knowledge but also about how you become efficient at learning in general.

Extracting knowledge

Extracting knowledge, by which I mean separating the signal from the white noise, is hard.

Imagine you need to understand how economics works. It's not an easy topic.

  1. First you should pick your learning sources (courses, videos, articles, or books). Obviously, you should pick up sources with high signal / noise ratio. The thing is you don't know until you try. The reasonable approach would be to ask/read what other people (experts in the area) think.

  2. Pick more than one source. Ideally, at least 2-3 to make sure you get the complete view. The last time I was preparing for a JavaScript interview, I've been reading through 3 books simultaneously (chapter by chapter).

  3. As an alternative to what experts suggest, you can pick up books by sampling them, as suggested in this article. Almost all eBooks on Amazon have a free sample, which you can read to understand if it's worth reading at all or not.

  4. Structure. Everything becomes easier after breaking down. Look at this article. I'm using multiple sections, ordered lists, and try to keep paragraphs short. All this makes the whole piece much easier to read and understand.

What else?

  1. Get better at reading. You can probably read faster and save some time. Tim Ferris wrote this infamous piece — How to Read 300% Faster.

  2. You can listen and watch videos at 2x and even at 3x speed. It really can be overwhelming at first, but trust me — our brains adjusts to higher speeds surprisingly well. 3x is still a bit too much to me, but 2x is just fine, and it saves me half the time.

Storing the information

Create notes (on paper or a computer) every time you learn.

For example, I make notes every time I read books or articles. Even when I'm reading fiction, it's still beneficial to outline the main plot so I can remember it much better.

I like to think about our brain as a computer RAM memory. That's the one that super fast. But it has a limited size, so our brain regularly gets rid of the stuff we don't use very often.

On the contrary, everything we write down and place into a "knowledge management" system (or simply on paper) is more like a hard drive. It has an almost infinite storage size, but accessing the information is much slower and trickier.

It doesn't matter if you use paper or some knowledge management database, but it's essential that:

  1. You can structure the text somehow (by using headers, sections, lists, etc.). With good old paper you have much more freedom, as you can write and draw everything you want.

  2. You can easily extract the information that you need later. For example, here at Rekowl, I can organize my notes with tags, and use full-text search to find whatever I'm looking for. If you store your notes on physical paper, it's a bit more of a problem, but there are still ways of doing that though with physical paper cards

Keeping it fresh

Wouldn't it be nice if everything we learn forever stayed in our heads? And you could be able to easily remember all the little plot details from the book you read three years ago?

Unfortunately, our brains just don't work this way.

The process is profoundly complex, and we still don't know a lot of things. But several things are more or less clear:

  1. We better remember the stuff we use in practice. That's why you're so good at whatever you do for a living. That raises a different question: how do you use in practice the roman emperors' names?

  2. The key is repetition. You learned something, now you need to keep repeating it. Repetition is the most affordable and easy way to keep the information fresh. Repetition software like Anki uses a space-repetition system where it forces you to review your cards in different spaces. The more time you review, the rarer the card is shown. Rekowl uses a similar algorithm.

  3. We usually remember better stuff we are interested in. For example, I can tell you a lot about the Final Fantasy. That's mostly because I played almost every game in the series. But also because Learning about the game and the history behind keeps me intrigued and motivated.

Then, there are of course some general advise on improving memory:

  1. Multiple studies suggest that both quantity and quality of sleep have a profound effect on our ability to learn and remember.

  2. A good nutrition can be very beneficial as well

  3. Finally, regular physical activities (and especially aerobic exercise) improve both memory and the thinking skills

Conclusion

Hopefully, that shed some light on the topic. There is so much more to it, obviously. I will try to get into details into the next articles. Follow me on twitter if you're interested in ways to improve your learning.

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