Learn How to Learn, Before Learning How to Code

While this anecdote is from my own experience, I firmly believe that most of us been in this situation before. One day, you decide to learn something new. Perhaps you want to learn how to code, so you pick the hottest language of the moment. It’s a language that “pays the most”, works like magic, and everyone is looking for people that know it.

Or at least every forum and video selling you a course said so…

You went to the documentation, completed all the modules in code academy or freecodecamp and the like. Maybe even joined a Bootcamp, and by the end of it, you were left with an unsavory taste in your mouth thinking, “Do I really know how to code?”.

I spent three months on learning to code from scratch. And the first thing I realized was that I did not know how to learn something in an effective way, or possibly at all.

Thinking back on my academic experience, my way of learning things was forcing myself through an empirical method (Practice X math problems until you get it, read through this chapter X times until you cannot forget it…). This ended up being tiresome and more annoying than I have words to describe.

This method was crushing my willingness to learn anything new and made me question, “How the hell should I learn to code then?”

After seeing the third ad for a course promising I was going to master data science in one month and be working with Google in three months, I decided to ask a more general question, “How do I learn new things?”

That magic question taught me that there are a whole bunch of smart people working on that question, with no bridge to sell, and willing to share their findings with the world.

So, I jumped right into it and here I brought you the core ideas, so you can start implementing them in your studies. Here are 3 ideas that should help you learn more efficiently.

1. The brain avoids discomfort, so you have to bribe it to make it work

Reading through a topic you don’t understand for several hours is hard. Most people actively avoid reading for long periods of time, but why is that?

To your brain, going through that is not much different than forcing you to endure torture. Most of the time your brain can’t be bothered to do stuff it doesn’t like, so you have to negotiate.

Give your brain something it likes as a reward for giving you those lovely minutes of focus, whatever triggers that sweet sweet endorphin.

One common way is the simple Pomodoro technique:

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes (or as long as you can focus)
  2. Once the timer is over, indulge yourself with 5 minutes of relaxation. Go on Facebook, eat some candy, play a few games of Tetris, whatever works for you.

The important part is that you give your brain a break which takes us to my second point.

2. Being focused is not the only way to learn

As much as we like to compare things, the brain is not a machine. It is a complex organism that we know very little about.

Learning a new topic is not as easy as clicking into a .exe file and installing the software.

The brain needs to build neural paths for the information to get in, and it does this by repetition. Go thought the same notes in a guitar 10,000 times and you will play them by reflex, the same goes for coding.

Yet, when we learn complex topics, forcing yourself to focus sometimes does more harm than good. Again, doing so is like torture for the brain.

The other way we understand things is by diffuse thinking. You know those amazing ideas you get before you go to sleep, while taking a shower, or doing exercise? The brain takes the information you took while focusing and tries to get to form new neural paths with it, making you see it in new ways and hard wiring the concepts in your mind.

So, going outside for a walk after two hours of writing code or reading the documentation does more for you than forcing your head through that again.

3. Always get a good night’s sleep

The stereotype of a student cramming books all night is over dramatic and stupid. You do more for yourself studying four hours and sleeping well than going all night without sleeping.

Your brain consumes energy. In fact, it is the thing that consumes the most energy in your body. The chemical production of energy also produces waste. When you don’t sleep, you can’t get rid of that waste which make it harder for your brain to work.

Do you remember all those videos or guides telling you to keep your code clean so it is easier to read and workaround? The same goes for your thoughts.

Also, you are going to carry that bag of neurons inside you for the rest of your days, so keep it presentable.

Learning any new topic requires routines, and negotiation with your brain. You will have to build a work schedule to set those neural paths and thinking you will do it in a single night is naive and unrealistic.

Final Thoughts

To close things off, let’s review the most important points.

  1. Set a focusing period, with a reward afterward and increase it as you see fit.
  2. Start small, but be consistent; build strong foundations one brick at the time.
  3. Diffuse thinking is a powerful tool, so take a walk outside when you feel you can’t get your head around the information anymore.
  4. Get a good night’s sleep. Your brain is your learning tool. If it is rusty and slow, it will do a terrible job.

This is the core of the “science behind learning” that I’ve been using in my own studies. Please use this information as you see fit, and if you are willing to dive in here is a good course you can start with: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/

I do hope this guide helps you improve your own study tactics and achieve your long-term goals!




Software developer in development. Data analysis enthusiast. Healthcare IT.

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Samuel Almao

Samuel Almao

Software developer in development. Data analysis enthusiast. Healthcare IT.

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