Slow Learning: Consume Less, Transform More7 min read

Do you spend hours every week watching YouTube videos, listening to one podcast after another, or consuming hundreds of small bits of information through social media and “curiosity browsing”?

Do you feel that, despite having read or listened to many books, there is still a big gap between what you know what what you do?

If so, you have fallen into the trap of fast learning.

You are collecting one “aha moment” after another, but this is not delivering any real benefit in your life. You are hooked by the dopamine of novelty, and its tantalizing promise that the way to get better is to learn more, and learn faster.

The age of AI is here to tell you that consuming information quickly is no longer valuable. We are human beings, not machines. So we should pursue that which is slow and purposeful, rather than what is fast and shallow. We should pursue transformation, not information.

The Counter-Culture of Slow

We live in the age of fast. Fast food, fast dating, fast job switching, fast everything. We also consume information faster than ever before. We consume more information than we can ever hope to truly digest and make use of.

I believe we are reaching a turning point as a society. People are waking up to the fact that fast is not better. We are seeing that the results of the culture of fast are overwhelm, confusion, stress, and a sense of never having enough—of never being enough. Fast learning depletes our attention, dissipates our mind, and doesn’t deliver the promised wisdom.

In the culture of fast, we prioritize instant gratification over the long-term, shortcuts over real work, pleasure over purpose. We get so busy chasing ephemeral things that we lose contact with ourselves, and with what truly matters. For many, that leads to falling into the pit of nihilism, cynicism, and apathy.

As this is becoming each time clearer, a counter-culture of slow is arising. Slow food, slow dating, slow travel, slow news, and, more recently, slow productivity (a term coined by Cal Newport). In this article, I’m proposing slow learning—a concept I’ve been articulating for years, and that now has got to a point of maturity for me.

Fast Learning Is a Dopamine Game

Learning a new fact releases dopamine, and gives us pleasure. Fast learning promises you to give you as much dopamine as possible, with almost no gaps in between. For this to happen, videos are getting shorter, articles becoming more clickbaity, and books more bombastic.

We fall for it, because it gives us the impression that we will be getting better more quickly. That is the promise of it, or rather the illusion of it. What actually happens is that we are sacrificing depth for fun, overstimulating our minds to the point of exhaustion, and using learning as a form of procrastination for doing the real work.

To escape this vicious cycle, we need to change our relationship with consuming information, and re-discover the true meaning of learning.

How to Truly Learn

Learning is not just accumulating information. Learning is a process of transformation. And that requires that we give time and attention to what is being absorbed.

Yet how can we do that if we are consuming one piece of information after another? After reading a powerful article, or insightful quote, we go on to read the next one. The first piece of information has barely been assimilated, and we are already throwing in another one to the mix.

It’s like throwing in another piece of dirty clothes in the middle of the cycle of your washing machine—not only that final piece won’t be fully washed, but it will disturb the process for all other pieces as well.

Likewise, once you come across insightful information, allow yourself the time to absorb it. Until you have assimilated it to some degree, any other piece of information is just a distraction.

We can conceive the process of learning as being composed of these four phases:

Consume → Assimilate → Reflect → Implement

Fast learning encourages you to spend all your learning time in the consumption phase. That means you will have no time for the other phases, and therefore the information you consume will ultimately be meaningless. At the very least, it won’t be transformational.

Slow learning encourages you to pause after you consume a piece of information, to allow it to really settle within you. It gives space for that information to be encoded, to connect to other pieces of information already inside of you, and be saved in your long-term memory.

It then enhances that process by asking you to contemplate what is being learned. This makes space for you to question it, to expand it, to discover what it truly means for you. It gives space for you to emotionally respond to that new insight—to integrate it not only in your mind but also in your heart and gut.

And then it encourages you to make a decision, a resolution, of how you want to implement that insight in your life.

In an alternative universe, you would have spent all that time consuming new pieces of information, with the noble intention of learning more and growing more. But, alas, how much you would have missed!

The Discipline of Learning

Fast learning is like fast food. It requires less effort, less commitment, and gives you more pleasure. But it doesn’t have the nutrients you need—and, in long-term, it makes you sick.

The challenge is that gathering information is fun, and reflecting requires effort. Using those reflections to then take action in your life, to change your behavior, requires even more effort.

Yet, that is the true discipline of learning. Without it, learning is just the accumulation of information for the fun of it—the pastime of the 21st century, and an addiction of choice for millions of minds.

In the age of AI, learning as accumulating information is not very valuable—the bots can do that better than any human ever can, and can instantaneously feed us whatever information we need. Only learning that transforms ourselves and our lives is still valuable.

In practical terms, how can you implement slow learning in your life? As you assimilate the concepts in this article, reflect on it, and decide to implement it, the ways to do so will become clear for you. Here I leave you with some pointers.

First, swap short-form content by long-form content. This means reading articles instead of social media posts, watching documentaries instead of YouTube videos, prioritizing online courses instead of quick tutorials, and reading a book instead of its summary. The summary is truly valuable only at the end of learning, and not as a replacement for learning.

Second, focus your sources. This could mean subscribing to five newsletters instead of fifty, reading one or two books at a time instead of being in the middle of five, and exploring fewer topics, but going more in-depth. Narrowing your focus in this way will help you prioritize the most high-quality sources, and the topics more closely related to your aspirations.

The third pointer—and perhaps the most important of them all—is to make time for reflection. Have you just finished a book, article, or podcast? Don’t go to the next one yet. Hold your horses. Instead:

  • Spend some time mentally reviewing what you have just consumed. I often like to ask myself, “What is the most important thing I want to remember from this?”, “What were the three most important points?”, or “What will I do different after knowing this?”
  • If you just finished a chapter, re-read your highlights, to consolidate the key points of the materials.
  • Journal your thoughts about what you’ve learned. An exercise I like to do is to pretend I’m explaining what I’ve just learned to someone who doesn’t know that topic.
  • If relevant, decide what you will do different in your life as a result of this learning. Is there a new habit you need to build, an old habit to break, or a different way to look at things? How will you remember to do it? Consider creating reminders for yourself, or adding a task in your todo list to review and re-think this material after some weeks.

You wouldn’t go through this process for every single thing you consume, of course. There are books I’ve read and never thought about again, because it wasn’t worth it; and there are books I took six months to read, because I was spending nearly half an hour reflecting on every page I read.

The key idea is: spend less time consuming, and more time assimilating, reflecting, and implementing.

Now It’s Your Turn

After finishing this article, you could just move on to the next. You could click another interesting read from one of the many newsletters you subscribe to, listen to the latest news, or scroll through social media. You could go on and consume more.

But if any of this resonated for you, then you might do something different.

You might decide to spend some moments silently reflecting on it, allowing these thoughts to expand into deeper meaning inside of you. You might realize that choosing between these two ways of learning is not only about choosing how you learn, but about choosing between two different versions of your future self. You might, then, make a real change in your life.

My hope is that you will.

My hope is that we all collectively wake up from the trance of fast, and it’s empty promises. That we cultivate slow learning.

Finally, now that you have read the whole article, here is the summary for you:

Learn more by learning slowly.

Consume less information. Reflect more, and implement more.

Whatever new shiny piece of information you are not consuming is not as valuable as the wisdom that you are creating by making time for reflection. This is the real thing. This is the real learning.

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