How do you Study?

Hey folks,

I’m in the process of updating my skills and find it very difficult to study. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to do it. I’d be interested to know from those currently studying anything both how you use your Mac to study and how you fit in study time, especially if you’re like me and have a busy work schedule and family life.


1 Like

I think it really depends on what you’re studying and what you’re trying to get out of it. Are you studying for an exam? Studying for a class? Studying skills you expect to use?

It’s for skills mainly but focused on particular exam track such as Cisco, Microsoft ISC2 etc.

I have a range of books and videos to use. Finding the time to sit down and do it is tough and making sure I’m taking the information in is also tricky. I feel like I need to learn how to learn.

Consistency is key :slight_smile: I read/study 30-60 minutes every day before bed. Thats 30-60 minutes every day, 7 days a week etc. Its actually a lot in the long run.


Learn how to learn? There is a quite good coursera course on it, maybe that’s an option?

1 Like

The most important thing is to block out time. Then put yourself somewhere with no distractions and cut the electronic distractions (web browser tabs, phone notifications, etc). Then it’s all on you.


That is a lot. I think you’re right, if I can get into a routine that would be good.

I’ll second the advice to find a time when you can study regularly.

For something like this it might be helpful to break your study down into a couple of different components:

  1. Learning the underlying skill – Depending on the situation, the skill may be one you already know and you’re just doing the exam to demonstrate that to potential employers, etc. However, if it’s a new skill I’d start off working on learning the skill as you’d use it in the real world (to the extent that it has real world applicability, of course). If you’re starting from scratch, this will probably involve some reading or watching videos, but once you understand the basics you probably want to move on to some application of that knowledge.
  2. Learning the knowledge you’ll be tested on – Being able to use a skill doesn’t necessarily mean that you can easily call up the kind of things that tests like use as a proxy for your ability. Look at exam preparation material and figure out what you’ll be tested on and then study that. Depending on what you’re studying and the type of exam this could be reviewing written material, flash cards, practical application, etc.
  3. Applying that knowledge in the format of the test – Just because you know something doesn’t always mean that you can regurgitate that knowledge in exam format. This is where practice exams really come in handy. Do as many as you can until you’ve got it down cold.

Where you want to place your emphasis probably depends on what you’re trying to get out of this. The fastest way to a certification is probably to emphasize #2 & #3, but that can leave you lacking in the practical application department. Just as an example I got my ham radio license a couple years ago. I studied by reading the license manual, taking practice tests, then going back and re-reading sections of the manual that corresponded to things I’d gotten wrong. This was very effective in getting me ready for the test, but not so much in being able to practically apply that knowledge (which is one of the reasons I haven’t actually done anything ham radio related since then).

1 Like

Studying is a skill and you may have lost some competence with it over lapsed time. I recommend looking at studying as a way to cultivate your capacities for direct attention and comprehension. You wouldn’t expect yourself to be able to sit and meditate skillfully for an hour a day, say, if you hadn’t been in a regular practice for a while, and the same goes for sustaining the attention to do anything, count breaths, read pages, etc. So, patience, discipline, forgiveness… those are things I recommend.

Also, in terms of synthesizing your learning, consider concept mapping, rigorous outlining, or freewriting (or something else that you know works for you) as a complementary task. I try to create concept maps of what I read so that I can see where there are gaps. I also freewrite my answers to questions to see where I might lack knowledge. After reading this thread, I’m going to give outlining a try, too.

Here’s an example of a map I made about how neuro/biofeedback works, and one about persuasive technology. Yesterday I set a timer and freewrote for 30 minutes about creating an app that utilized “calm technology” to see if I understood how to apply the theory to something practical. I collect writing prompts in Omnifocus so I can visit the list and grab one when I need it. Right now I have 27 really solid prompts I can take on in various ways on any given day.

Most of though, remember that learning is hard and also something you can’t not do. It’s as frustrating as it is rewarding, and there are far worse things you could be doing with your time.

Good luck!


Everything above is great advice. But, I think they all come second to having a personal investment in the success of your learning. If you can figure that out, the rest comes easy.

Really solid advice from everyone above. Having finished a PhD some months ago, I heartily agree that the single biggest factor for successful learning is consistency. All other learning tips fall in line after that. Daily application in understanding the material (and yes, there’s a difference in knowing versus understanding) and testing yourself constantly helps consolidate learning.

I would also suggest using Anki intelligent flash card software. I’ve been using this for only 8 months, but this beats the pants off anything I’ve ever used before for really burning bits of data into my mind. The Mac/PC app is free, the iOS app is not however, but this would’ve saved me thousands of hours of unproductive study sessions had I known about it earlier in my academic career.

I also suggest picking up the following books, even if you aren’t a traditional college student, there are a lot of great strategies within each to make anyone a more responsive and flexible learner:

A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley:

How to become a Straight-A student by Cal Newport: Don’t let the title and brevity of this book put you off, it contains some strategies that were immensely powerful for me. It was my first introduction to GTD methodology and put me on the path to becoming a (somewhat) structured individual :slight_smile:


(This got long; sorry!)

Firstly, I was going to recommend Anki but I can see @Aaron_Antcliff has beaten me to it. Especially if you are learning anything that involves some degree of rote memorisation (which is most everything, really). I use it mainly for Spanish vocabulary and memorising my students’ names these days, but have used it in other academic studies previously and I keep thinking I should expand this to other areas.

As far as software for learning that kind of information is concerned, Anki is killer. I’ve been using it for longer than I can remember (at least 7 years at this point, but probably longer).

There are a couple of points I would highlight about it because it is just such a powerful tool in my opinion:

  • They key is spaced repetition i.e. the idea is that Anki will show you things just before you forget them, and the easier something is for you to remember the longer the time before it will show again. I know there are other apps that do this but I haven’t really played with any of them so couldn’t tell you how they compare.

  • You can customise the fields and the cards that are generated (beyond just front/back flashcards) and this is HUGE. For example I have a Spanish irregular conjugations deck. Rather than having to create a note for each conjugation, I have a note type called ‘verb’ or something where I enter all the conjugations in one place. Then I have set up templates in Anki that generate all the possible combinations of cards I want.

  • If there is specific, structured data you want to enter, there are a couple of options to consider.

    • First, you can import something like a csv file (I think there are some other options too) so anything you can get into that format you can import in bulk. I have just finished off (and intent to write up/share at some point) a Keyboard Maestro macro where I can enter the infinitive form of a verb, it will get the HTML of a Spanish dictionary website, grab all of the conjugations (including a ‘span’ that includes the irregular part of the conjugation), and add them into a text file that I can import straight into Anki. Not only is it WAY faster (as in, I’ll actually bother to enter them now) but also a lot more accurate, which is important in a context like this. (Recently discovered that the word I thought meant ‘slop’ in fact meant ‘slope’, for example!)

    • Second, with the note that I haven’t played with this at all, there is a URL scheme available for adding cards so if you want to streamline creation of cards with Shortcuts or similar that would be a possibility, i believe.

  • Some items won’t be able to be created “automatically” and that’s okay, and sometimes good. I think the process of taking some information, understanding it well enough to synthesise it/distill it down into a question that you can answer (preferably in a way that is either right or not) is really valuable for the learning process in and of itself.

  • There are heaps of add-ons which are well-worth browsing. For example:

    • For languages, there is a text-to-speech extension so you get audio. Good for reinforcement, but I am, for example, using templates as described above in conjunction with this using templates above I create “audio-only” cards out of my existing notes so I can’t rely on just reading the words.

    • There is an “image occlusion” plug-in which is pretty cool (though I don’t have a use for it currently). It basically lets you blank out different parts of pictures to use as cards.

  • I highly recommend checking out the Anki manual to get some ideas of the kinds of things you can do, including the above. In addition, there are many posts online about the best ways to go about creating cards which may be worth a look.

Outside of Anki, I don’t really have many “learning” tools that I can think of (other than those that are specific to a particular subject area, for example things like Duolingo). But I would say in terms of getting myself to actually do these things, what is working for me at the moment is:

  • A daily repeating task in OmniFocus that automatically shows in my “Do” perspective, because this is where I will see it.
  • A note on the OF task with a link to a Siri Shortcut which opens whatever I need to do the task (Anki, or Duolingo, for example), starts a time-tracking timer, and marks the task as done in Streaks.

This is for smaller repeating habits that I want to do regularly, rather than big blocks of time spent learning. I think it works because I have a limited “Do” list each day that I want to try and check things off of, I have the link right there so there is minimum resistance to tapping it, and once I have done so it’s been marked as done so I’m basically guilted into doing it at that point. Streaks is new to the setup but I think it helps because the actual “streak” of days completed motivates me to complete the action—if I only use Omnifocus, where I know that if it’s getting towards the end of the day and I check that task off, it’s only going to come back tomorrow, so it’s easy to skip it. Streaks just adds a bit more pressure. :slight_smile: (Hopefully that is more coherent than it felt while writing it, haha.)

I have also created a “Today I Learnt” journal in Day One with a similar prompt to the above). I like the idea of this but admittedly haven’t made great use of it yet so I’m not sure how it will pan out.

Sorry for the length and the Anki-evangelism but this was what came to mind when I saw your post. :slight_smile:


Also: as a complete nerd and quite-good test-taker I think if you’re preparing for an exam (or multiple exams) and you can get your hands on them, past exams or practice exams are one of the best ways to do that.

The advice is typically to do the exam under ‘exam conditions’ (i.e. timed, potentially no access to your resources, etc). That’s good, especially close to an exam, but I find if that seems to much in the earlier stages it’s still beneficial to do the exam without those pressures too.

(When beginning to prepare for an exam, I also like to look over a whole heap of exams to get a sense of what the questions are, identify where my gaps are, and focus study on those before attempting a practice exam.)

Obviously this is focused more on preparing for the exams than learning the skill, but that is useful at a particular point in the learning process if passing the exam is what you’re trying to achieve.

Also something I’m surprised more people don’t do well: know what’s in the exam. As in: how is it structured? What content can you be asked for? How is it graded and what do you need to do to actually pass (or get your desired result)?

1 Like

Aand one final thought to add. In addition to making information for flash cards in Anki, for academic-type subjects I used to make my own summary of the content, broken down by topics/learning outcomes required by the course/exam if these are known.

One of my favourite things to do when I was studying was to make flow charts or other diagrams on That is how I blitzed foreign tax law…it was an open-book exam and because I’d already done the work I just had to follow the steps I’d already written down to get to the right answer.

I see a few benefits to this:

  1. Sometimes you are allowed to bring notes into the exam in which case this is helpful (duh)
  2. Even if you can’t use the notes in an exam, you can refer to them later, during your study/preparation or later on when you find you actually need some of the information.
  3. Possibly most importantly, the process of condensing down the notes (if you do it properly) means you have to understand them, so it forces you to learn the content.

Several study videos and iPod…


Lots of good advice above, some of it quite involved. To take it in a different direction — try the Feynman Technique.

  1. Choose a Concept
  2. Teach it to a Toddler
  3. Identify Gaps and Go Back to The Source Material
  4. Review and Simplify (optional)

I don’t think the fourth is optional, but should at least be attempted.
If you don’t have a toddler handy, try a dog, cat, stuffed animal. Create a presentation as if you have an audience.

More here


Holy smokes, soooo many good tips here! Thank you for these, I’ve been tinkering with Anki a bit to optimize my experience. Before using Anki, I relied on rewriting and reworking my notes (ala Robinson’s “What Good Students Know” book) and blowing through literally teams of paper in the process. I still do this to some degree when I’m trying to wrap my head around a concept (via Feynman’s technique) but just about everything now gets dumped into Anki using mostly close deletion and prudent use of basic card sets.

Lots and lots of great stuff here folks. Thanks so much. What a wonderful bunch!

I completed my masters a couple of years ago on top of everything else. I had been many decades away from studying anything that intense. I also had to learn Java and relational database design to write LambTracker. For those more mental skills I found that I first had to relearn how to take notes. I can watch or hear something and it will never sink in. I can even do it and I can’t remember how but if I write it down then it sticks. So my first task was to look up info on the Cornell notetaking system. I buy paper from Levenger and use blue for my notes and red for the highlights and things to do. That way I have a visual indication of what is important. I write notes as I read or watch videos on how to do the stuff I am trying to learn. Then I re-read them and highlight or circle or make other notations in red as my review. Then I try to apply that knowledge to a new real-world problem I am facing.

Other people have different learning methods. There are a number of tests you can take to figure out what learning style you prefer. Mine is very highly weighted toward reading. So I have to write down and then reread the material or I won’t learn it.

For physical skills I try to chunk it down like you would when teaching an animal new behaviors. If you try to teach a sequence of behaviors to an animal you first start with a single piece of the behavior and then teach the next one eventually building up a behavior chain. So to apply this to physical stuff I am trying to learn a new fiber art called Australian Lockerhooking with roving. There is the holding and manipulating the hook, how you hold the roving, how you manipulate the rug backing and the actual stitches. So I first am learning how the hook has to move to perform the stitches. Once I find a good way to hold the hook going both directions I’ll work on how to hold the roving. The it’s a matter of practice moving slowly at first and eventually speeding up.

Think of learning as this sequence

Unconscious Incompetence
Conscious Incompetence
Conscious Competence
Unconscious Competence

You first need to understand what you are doing wrong. Then you have to think about the proper way carefully, and finally get good at it until it becomes second nature.

Then it’s practice and consistency. I am trying to do at least a bit of lockerhooking a couple of times a week. I need to get it to muscle memory.

For physical things it can help to have a coach so that you do not train in bad form that will hurt you later. Think weightlifting with free weights. Almost any way will work for small weights, but you better have good form once you start lifting heavy ones. That can take an outside observer to say, nope, head up you’re rounding your back, your knees are not square etc. If what you are trying to learn falls into that type of skill then find a good coach to help.


I finished 3 university studies working full-time, busy, whatever:

  • Mac or not doesn’t matter. I used a range of tools, but in the end, a PDF viewer, LaTeX and other pieces of software (octave, R, …) did it. Calendar and Mail, of course. No secret sauce. For stuff I needed to memorize: Anki. Today I would use “Studies”. I don’t think any app out there will turn a slacker into an achiever.
  • Discipline. Absolute Discipline. If you set 2 hours for study, it’s 2 hours of study.
  • Environment: I went to the university’s library to study. 2nd basement between the publications of 1850-something and other dusty crap.
  • Discipline. Can’t stress it enough. 100% students can afford to waste hours, you not.
  • 100% preparation. You don’t have much time. So, don’t try exams. Be throroughly prepared and pass them. Again: 100% students had lower progress than the few ones working full-time. I never failed an exam, never had a bad grade.
  • Commit. Sorry, but you have to cut down on other things. “Let’s go to that great new restaurant…” “Sorry, no, have to study”. I missed the parties, didn’t go out to eat/drink. Was it a great time? No. But now I have 3 master’s.
  • Find co-students. I found some fellow sufferers (studying full-time) and we sat together to study. Made it more bearable.
1 Like