Using Systems to Dominate Learning (And Anything Else)

The MIT Challenge

Recently read a guest post by blogger Scott Young, who stunned the world by doing the impossible. Scott completed MIT’s notoriously difficult Computer Science curriculum, which usually takes bright MIT students four years to finish, in one year. Watch the TED talk on his MIT Challenge here:

To do this, Scott adopted a carefully constructed learning system that let him compress the concepts of a 4-year education into a short span of time. This wasn’t simply a matter of cramming for exams. Scott not only passed all the exams but also completed all the programming projects, which require a deep understanding of the material. How did he do it?

First, he watched all the lectures online to get a birds-eye view of the material. By watching the video lectures at 1.5x-2x the normal speed, he managed to go through a semester’s worth of lectures in a couple of days.

Next, he spent a lot more time developing insight and drawing connections. He’d first take a piece of paper and write the concept that he was trying to understand at the top. He then wrote out his own explanation, as if he was teaching it to someone else. When he came to a gap in his knowledge, he’d go back to the textbook or find it online. In this way, he systematically filled in all the knowledge gaps until he had a deep, complete, understanding of the material.

Third, he went through practice problems with the solution key in hand. He’d check his work question-by-question, getting immediate feedback for every question he did. Compared to other students who might have to wait weeks before they got back their graded assignments, Scott’s system gave him a tight feedback loop which dramatically improved his effectiveness.

As Scott wrote in a guest post describing his journey: “…the method you use to learn matters a lot. Deeper levels of processing and spaced repetition can, in some cases, double your efficiency (emphasis mine). Indeed, the research in deliberate practice shows us that without the right method, learning can plateau forever.”

In short, Scott wasn’t studying harder; he was using a system to study smarter.

The Power Of Systems

Scott’s MIT Challenge forms the premise of the book I’m currently working on: That adopting the right systems can help you to achieve much, much more than the average individual.

You can use systems to create a desirable habit, deliver happiness to people, get fitter, be more productive, negotiate better.. pretty much anything you want to achieve in life.

Most people don’t know how to improve their own lives because they rely solely on “trying harder”. How many of us make New Years resolutions to go to the gym more often, only to fail miserably before February comes around? How many of us resolve to be more productive at work, but end up online shopping and Facebook stalking before lunchtime? And how many of us resolve to saving and investing more this year, only to have all our extra cash wiped out by a year-end vacation?

Instead of trying harder, applying systems is infinitely more effective. Here’s why:

1. Systems remove the need for “willpower”

The trouble with willpower is that it’s easy to lose steam. We burn out. John Tierney, coauthor of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, describes willpower as a finite resource that runs out just as easily as a fuel in your car tank. Systems, on the other hand, take control away from you. They force you onto a certain path so that you don’t have to use willpower. It sounds counterintuitive, but we’re more likely to be successful at something when we are willing to hand over control to a system.

2. Systems are much simpler to follow 

If you’re trying to lose weight, think about the barrage of information out there on weight management. Hundreds of articles and blogs give handy “tips” and nuggets of advice, but they’re often conflicting and confusing. A system, on the other hand, is based on rules. Step 1, 2, 3. Go to a personal trainer and he’ll tell you exactly what you need to eat, how to exercise, and all that jazz. You don’t have to think – all you need to do is stick to the system, and you’ll succeed.

3. Systems are smarter

Think about Scott Young’s system for accelerated learning. It’s a simple formula, but it’ll save you a lot of time and effort when it comes to studying. Think about how much easier it is to set up a GIRO standing instruction that automatically helps you to save every month, instead of putting in time and effort to “save harder”. Finding the right system can help you to do things a lot more efficiently and effectively than most people.

Viewing the world from a systems perspective

Systems are effective, more so than many of us realize. That’s the premise of this blog, as well as the upcoming book. So far, I’ve showed you how to use systems to improve your savings and investments, find the right types of insurance, and spend more efficiently on the things you love. The book will delve a little more deeply into the psychology of saving, spending and investing, and will describe more detail on the systems that will help you tackle your personal finances.

You start to see things differently once you look at life from a systems perspective. Large challenges suddenly don’t seem so daunting anymore, and possibilities start to open up.  Are there any problems that you’re currently stumped by, but could possibly be solved by applying a system? I’d love to hear from you, even if you haven’t found a solution yet. Leave a comment, or send me an email at

Cheers 🙂


The Lowdown on Low Rates

An amendment to my previous post (thanks Sharon!) – just found out that DBS/POSB slashed their interest rates to a pathetic 0.05% for their regular savings accounts, and 0.2%-0.25% p.a for a MySavings account. To give you an idea about how painful that is, consider that $1,000 saved at a 0.05% interest rate, compounded monthly for 10 years, would give you a grand total of …. $1,005. Owtch.

It’s actually hardly surprising that banks are cutting their rates to pretty much zero in light of the current economic environment. And while I could bore you with my thoughtful analysis of why interest rates are near zero, (peppering my speech with words like “current economic environment”), I’ll just give you the lowdown on what you should, and should not do.

What you SHOULD do:

1. Stick to your guns. You’re not going to get rich just by saving, but good saving habits are the first step to getting your ass out of the poor house. Just like how the first step to losing weight is to STOP EATING THOSE DAMN TASTY MCDONALD’S BURGERS, the first step to getting rich is to stop spending your money on useless crap. Your account, while not earning very much in interest, serves as a protective commitment device to prevent you from making stupid spending mistakes. There’s a certain psychological advantage in keeping your saved money separate from the account meant for your daily expenses: you’re less likely to spend it.

2.  Use your account as a short-term savings account, saving for large expenditures that are less than a year away. This is actually what I primarily use my POSB MySavings account for – so I always have a stash that I can spend on vacations, parties, gifts, weddings (not mine), and random weekend trips, absolutely guilt-free.  Get your system to keep shoveling $100 into your savings account every month, and at the end of the year you’re likely to have enough moolah to spend lavishly on Christmas, or reward yourself with a trip.

3. If you’re a savvier saver, you could possibly look into some insurance-linked savings plans, CDs, bonds, etc. But I’ll blog more about those another day. But if you’re going down this route, be damn sure that you don’t need the money within the next 5 – 20 years. (what about your house? or wedding? or investments?)

(Side note: I have a separate long-term savings account, earning a higher rate of interest where I park most of my money that’s not meant to be splurged within the year. But I’ll talk more about why the hell I bother to maintain three bank accounts in another post)

What you SHOULDN’T do:

1. Don’t be tempted to switch to another bank offering an interest rate that’s 0.02% higher than the one you’ve got. Honestly, it’s not worth the trouble. Your subway ride to the other bank is probably going to cost you more than the additional interest you’re going to earn. Interest rates are constantly adjusted by banks. They’re low now because all the other banks’ rates are low. When the Federal Reserve in America decides to raise their interest rates, the rest of the world will follow suit and your bank will be forced to raise its rates in order to keep its customers. So hang in there.

2. Don’t be tempted to dump all your savings into some foreign currency term deposit. I’m seeing lots of ads these days touting everyone to convert their Singapore dollars into Australian dollars, offering interest rates of 5% and above. Sure, you could possibly make some money if you’re willing to take some risk, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s risk-free just because it’s a term deposit. If the Australian dollar falls against the Singapore dollar, you could actually lose more than what you earned in interest. I learned this the hard way back in college when I transferred most of my savings to my US bank account, only to see the Greenback fall spectacularly by like 30% or something. (Luckily, I was too drunk to notice).

In short, it sucks for savers that interest rates have fallen, but don’t let that steer you away from your plan. Saving is just one part of the equation – it prevents you from spending on dumb things, and it’s a necessary prerequisite for all that other good stuff that WILL make you rich. Keep it steady!