Procrastinators rejoice: Here's how to ace your next cram session

Tim Ferriss, the bestselling author of The 4 Hour Work Week, recently spoke at the 2017 SXSWedu conference about his secret method for accelerated learning—that is, how people can retain information quickly and use that information to invent new solutions to problems.

In a video for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Goldie Blumenstyk shared highlights from Ferriss' interview, explaining his learning method and highlighting his responses to challenges from the audience.

Ferriss' method for accelerated learning takes the form of an acronym: "DiSSS."

DiSSS—or really just "DSSS," since Ferriss says he added the "i" to make the acronym easier to say—stands for:

  • Deconstruction;
  • Selection;
  • Sequencing; and
  • Stakes.

Deconstruction refers to breaking concepts down into digestible units. To make a complex skill or issue easier to learn, Ferriss says the first step is to divvy it up into smaller chunks and focus on each of those individually.

The next step, selection, is actually to prune down what you aim to learn. Think about your ultimate goal: What are the most critical lessons you need to achieve it? You may find that 20% of your learning goals will lead to 80% of your progress. Analyzing your plan in this way can also help you choose the right sequence for learning—choosing the most straightforward elements first.

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In his interview, Ferriss emphasized the importance of stakes for achieving real change.

Ferriss argues that humans are inherently bad at self-discipline, so we need to creating meaningful consequences in the form of rewards or punishments to help us stick to our goals.

For example, Ferriss points to the website stickK. If you sign up for the site and fail to meet your goals, the website donates a pre-set amount of money to your "anti-charity"—that is, an organization you hate. 

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In his talk at SXSWedu, Ferriss also addressed his approach to staying innovative while being grounded in what's worked before. Ferriss champions testing multiple approaches to meeting personal goals, collecting data on what worked, and sticking with whichever one performs best.

He explained that innovation and creativity help him generate new solutions to put to the test and choose between closely performing alternatives.

Ferriss' method for accelerated learning was met with some skepticism from an audience member, who asked where he draws the line between rote memorization and actual learning.

Ferriss said that, for him, actual learning means the ability to apply what you've memorized to inventing new solutions and adapting to different situations, like you do when you learn vocabulary words in a new language before forming full sentences.

He argued that the memorization has to come first—you'll never advance to the intermediate level of a skill without a "critical mass" of information to build on. "Don't dismiss memorizing," he said. "Memorizing is really important… before you can improvise and become an adept learner" (Blumenstyk, Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/19; Feloni, Business Insider, 3/3/15).

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