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 Great Sit-Up Challenge

I like to do many things on a whim. So when I saw this picture on my Facebook newsfeed, I decided to re-post it on my wall, with the text:

“I’ll do 5x worth of sit-ups on however many likes I get in 24 hours. Deadline is Tuesday 8:43am. Bring it on, bitches ;)”

Essentially, it was a challenge: For every Facebook “Like” I got in 24 hours, I’d do 5 sit-ups. I figured the most I’d do was like 200-ish – It was such a lame challenge that I figured no one would give a damn anyway.

But I completely underestimated my friends’ propensity to sabotage: I got 111 Likes, which meant that I had to do a grand total of 555 sit-ups.

Now, you must understand that for all my talk of being sexy, I do not actually have a six-pack of steel abs (even though I like to occasionally delude myself sometimes). In fact, 2 years of sitting my ass on an office chair have consolidated whatever stomach muscles I used to have (fyi for my international friends – all Singaporeans have to serve almost 2 years in the military) into a solid, and slightly wobbly, one-pack on my belly.

But hey, what the heck – I figured this would be a helluva opportunity to get started on getting those muscles back. So I approached it like how I would approach any big project, which was to:

1. Set a goal

The goal had to be tangible, quantifiable, and specific. Some corporate programs would ask you to do it SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) – I’m allergic to corporate jargon, but you can totally adopt it if that floats your boat.

So this was perfect – I had to do 555 sit-ups, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to finish it in a day, (like I said, my one wobbly pack isn’t the most optimized for such punishment) – so I set my target for the end of the week – Sunday, which gave me 6 days to complete it.

2. Be accountable

I posted my deadline on Facebook status for all the world to see: 555 sit-ups by the end of the week. A friend commented: YOUR HONOR IS AT STAKE, YOUR INTEGRITY. DON’T LET YOURSELF DOWN. DO IT.

Talk about pressure.

The most common reason for failure is not following through, which is why accountability is critical. Tell your boss that your performance this year should depend on the success of this project. Pay your friends $5 everytime you don’t meet a deadline. Stake your integrity and honor on something. And be serious about it. Don’t be a pussy.

Yesterday, I attended a gathering of awesome people (termed “Awesome Anonymous” – which is a freakin awesome name btw). We each had our own individual projects we wanted to complete, and we all agreed to hold each other accountable by meeting every month and reporting on how we were doing. Miss your deadline, and risk being ridiculed and buying everyone coffee. Helluva motivation.

3. Break it up into smaller chunks

Any big task can be broken up into smaller, less scary, bite-sized chunks. For mine, it was a matter of 93 sit-ups a day. Even better, when I was up to it, I did more than 93 a day and it totally motivated me to finish ’em even earlier than expected. Focusing on a smaller chunk also makes you less likely to procrastinate or get distracted.

So what does this have to do with hatching a rich life? Well, do you remember a time when you just graduated from college, wanting to change the world, to fulfill your potential, or just to do something superdamnawesome? Yet, somehow along the way, we might have gotten lost, spending most of our time living workday to workday, bar to bar, movie to movie, in a zombie-like state of existence that isn’t very dangerous… or exciting. I suspect most of the awesome things in your change-the-world / be awesome list are probably a little bigger and a little tougher than your average to-do list at your day job. Tackling them could seem a little daunting right now.

But hey, if a lazy ass like me can do 555 sit-ups in a week, I’m pretty sure you can do something awesome too 🙂