Productivity YouTuber
Thomas Frank (Pic: Thomas Frank)

Productivity Guru Thomas Frank on effective learning techniques, common learning obstacles & why walks are good

Thomas Frank, Productivity YouTuber, has helped several through his videos covering a wide range of topics. Let's pick his brains to find out more

What motivated you to create a Productivity YouTube channel for yourself?


I started as a blogger, then slowly added a podcast and finally a YouTube channel to the blog. I started my blog, College Info Geek, because I wanted to write for a bigger study hacks blog that rejected me when I applied. I'd written a full article draft as part of my application, and I didn't want it to go to waste — so it became the first article on my blog!

At a higher level, I started creating content around student success because I was personally obsessed with it. I graduated high school in 2009, and everyone in my graduating class was still very aware of all the chaos and uncertainty that came with the 2008 financial crisis that started here in the US and affected much of the world.

Personally, I was under the impression that getting a job would be much harder from then on, so I was motivated to perform at the highest level possible in college.

I read every college prep book in my local library during my senior year of high school, and when I started college, I got a job as a campus tour guide where I also helped students and their families feel more confident about the college transition.

All the training I received for that job, plus the reading and experimentation I was doing on my own, primed me for writing about student success.


Can you share a few significant and effective learning techniques that you implemented during your student days?


My team and I created a full Studying and Learning hub page on College Info Geek a few years ago that collects the most effective strategies for studying, but I'll share a few especially effective ones that helped me here.

Without a doubt, the most effective way to quickly learn and retain new information is to care about it.

I tend to express this idea these days as "obsession", if you're obsessed with it, you'll learn it effortlessly.

My go-to example is Pokemon; when I was around eight-years-old, I got obsessed with Pokemon (as did most of the kids in my school, and in my whole generation for that fact!). I found myself able to name every Pokemon, rattle off their stats, types, strengths, and weaknesses, and recall obscure details about the games. It was effortless, because I was obsessed.

When it came to school, I eventually learned a couple of techniques for creating more interest (if not outright obsession) in the topics I was assigned to study:

- I used fictional books, movies, and video games to immerse myself more fully in topics I was studying. I remember playing the third Assassin's Creed game in college, and then finding myself much more interested in Roman history after that.

- I focused on my identity, and on who I wanted to become. By getting clear on that, I was able to justify long study sessions to myself more easily.

Today, I do this with workouts. I have very clear fitness goals that connect to an identity I'm trying to build, and I remind myself of that identity whenever I'm exhausted and want to give up.

A few additional tips I can share, which are more tactical:

- You can use spaced repetition techniques, like the Leitner System, or even tools, like Anki, to get more value from your study sessions.

The science of the spacing effect is complicated, but the gist is that your brain and body adapt to the challenges you give them – including the challenge of remembering information after not thinking about it for a long time.

So instead of studying the same information every day, or even on an evenly-spaced schedule, you want to add progressively longer periods of time between study sessions.

For example, if you're studying anatomy and you recall the difference between adduction and abduction today, try recalling those terms again three days from now. If you get them right, don't study them again until two weeks after that. Treat your brain like a muscle; train it with progressively more challenging exercises. That's how you convince it to invest resources into getting truly better.

- Develop mnemonics for hard-to-remember terms and ideas. Mnemonics are interesting, often silly metaphors or ideas that you connect to things you're studying. In the case of adduction (movement toward the midline of the body) and abduction (movement away from the midline of the body), I mentally connect ABduction to "abdicate", example "to walk away from duty". I then connect aDDUCtion to "duck", mentally envisioning myself pulling my body parts inward.

- Finally, don't just study. Wherever you can, go out and use what you're studying. This won't always be possible, but if you can find areas in your life to apply what you're learning, you'll retain that information much more easily. This becomes much easier to do once you're out of formal education and you (hopefully) embrace lifelong learning. The topics you choose yourself should lend themselves more easily to true application.


In your opinion, what are some common learning obstacles and how did you overcome them?


I think the biggest learning obstacles for people today are:

- Lack of good reasons to care about what they're assigned to study

- Lack of a good feedback cycle

I covered how I try to solve the first problem in the previous question; I seek ways in which I can connect what I'm learning to something fun or interesting, or I try to connect it to my identity so I'll take it more seriously.

The second problem refers to the fact that most of us either don't get the opportunity to truly test what we're learning and get qualified feedback on it, or we do, but the cycle is too slow.

I define a good feedback cycle as a repeatable sequence of three stages:

- Learning (ideally from engaging materials, teachers, books, videos, and so on)

- Application (trying out what we've learned for ourselves)

- Feedback (judgement from a qualified source, which can point out what we're doing wrong and how we can improve)

We see a great example of this in the many people who want to start businesses. They'll read business books, watch videos by business gurus, and maybe even pay for expensive seminars. They're going through the Learning stage here, which is good.

But then they fail to actually try to start a business. They don't develop a product idea, nor a prototype. They don't launch it to a test audience. They don't actually try anything. So they fail to make it to the Application stage, which means they also never get to the Feedback stage. There's no effort for anyone to judge.

The best learners in the world not only go through this entire process, but they do it as many times as possible and get through each revolution as quickly as possible.

Even people who do run businesses (myself included) often fail at that last part; we spend way too much time in the Learning stage, over-analysing things, and second-guessing ourselves.

We're afraid to make mistakes, and haven't developed a thick enough skin yet to endure the judgement and criticism that will come in the Feedback stage, criticism that we absolutely need in order to improve.

Outside of business, people struggle with this as well. In my personal life, I enjoy cooking, but I've had to teach myself to be okay with the occasional bad-tasting dinner. In the past, I was too afraid to make bad-tasting food to really try new recipes and branch out from what I already knew.


Any other lesser known productivity tip that you like to give students?


I'll share just one in this section.

If you can, go for a daily walk.

I'm working on an entire video about this, but in short, walking daily creates "active meditation" time where you can more easily allow your mind to relax and solve problems in more creative ways.

There's a great book called A Mind for Numbers (that is not about Math), which explains this in more detail; our brains have both a Focused mode and a Diffused mode, and we need to switch between them throughout the day to solve tough problems.

We also need to switch in order to prevent good stress from becoming chronic (bad) stress. Going for a walk each day, or doing something else that's fun, makes this easy.