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 🙂


Don’t Save For Retirement

It is close to midnight on December 29, 1972, and Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 is making its final approach to Miami International Airport. 163 passengers are onboard, most hoping to enjoy their new year in sunny Miami.

As it approaches the airport, the landing wheels are lowered and locked into position. At this point, the captain notices something amiss: the green light linked to the landing wheels has failed to light up. This could mean one of two things: Either the wheels have failed to lock into position, or the light is faulty. The pilots report the situation to Air Traffic Control, who orders the plane to circle back and try their descent again.

At this point, the pilot and co-pilot fixate on the light. They take it out of its fitting, blow on it to remove dust, and try to jam it back. Their conversation goes back and forth as they try to figure out what the fault is. They become so fixated on the light, that they fail to notice the 300-pound gorilla in their midst.

The gorilla, in this case, is the fact that their autopilot is disengaged and that they are rapidly losing altitude. They don’t notice that they are dropping rapidly because it is a moonless night and they can’t see the horizon. The altitude warning alarm rings through the cockpit and the altitude meter is dropping crazily, though neither pilot notices. They are too fixated on the light. Only when the aircraft is 7 seconds to impact, do the pilots realize that something is very wrong. They take evasive action, but it’s too late. The plane crashes, killing 101 people.

Crash investigators later found that the wheels had indeed locked into place – it was the light that was faulty. “The crash occurred due to the failure of a $12 piece of kit,” one journalist pointed out. However, the true cause of the crash was deeper than that – it was the pilots’ fixation on one particular problem, which blinded them from the true danger they were in.*

*story taken from Bounce by Matthew Syed

What other gorillas are you failing to see in your life?

Like the pilots who were overfocused on the green landing gear light, most people are fixated on one goal when it comes to personal finance: retirement. They believe that in order to retire, they need to hoard as much cash as possible, starting now. But they fail to realize the huge gorilla charging towards their bank accounts: inflation.

Two posts ago, I wrote about how inflation would slowly but surely destroy the buying power of your savings. If you’re young, letting your cash sit in your bank account (or in your fixed deposits / CPF / mattress) is like putting it in a nest of termites: it’ll eventually get eaten up.

So here’s my advice when it comes to inflation: Don’t save for retirement.

Say what?

Hear me out for a second. If you’re young and wild and free, there are other, more important things you should be focusing your attention on. Instead of saving up for “retirement” and getting a lot less bang for your buck, there are three more useful things you should be directing your money towards:

1.Save for assets

The best way to tackle the inflation gorilla is to put your money into assets that will grow faster than inflation: Stocks and real estate. Stocks are the most accessible because they don’t require a huge cash outlay, they’re easy to understand, and if you live in Singapore, they’re tax-free. Woot woot! Real estate is pretty nifty too, if you can afford the huge downpayment (or if you can’t afford the huge downpayment, you can also look into REITs – more on that later).

The biggest bonus of all is that if you plough your cash into assets that exceed inflation, you will, in fact, be prepping yourself for retirement.

2. Save for life chapters

Here, I’m talking about big, life chapters that you were planning on spending on regardless of what happens. I’m talking about your wedding, your first house, and your daughter’s upcoming college fees. If any of these are going to be happening within the next 10 years, then you should be saving up for them. Don’t act as if you didn’t know they were coming: If you know you’ll be getting married in 3 years, you should be saving up for your hypothetical $30,000 banquet and $15,000 ring… now.

A caveat: I’m not talking about cars, or vacations, or that new washing machine, that you “know” you’re going to spend on anyway. I’m talking about the big, necessary, life chapters here, people.

3. Save for emergencies

Sh*t happens. You’ll need cash to deal with it. If something bad happens, (like losing your job) the last thing you want is to be dipping into your investments to pay for your meals. If you don’t have an emergency fund of 3 months of income parked in an easily accessible bank account, then you should totally start saving up for one now.

In short…

Don’t bother saving for retirement – inflation will render your efforts futile. Other than cash set aside for emergencies and stuff you’re going to spend on within the next 10 years, everything else should be directed towards assets – Assets that keep pace with inflation. If an insurance agent / banker tries to sell you a fancy schmancy 50-year savings plan, run as fast as you can.

Don’t get too fixated on the wrong things. Just because personal finance “experts” tell you that you should be saving for retirement, doesn’t mean that you should be blindly stuffing cash into a bank account. Keep an eye out for the inflation gorilla in your midst, and take action to deal with it.

PS: the topic for this post came from a friend who replied to my previous post on spending money. To everyone reading this, keep the comments coming! They totally give me the inspiration for future blog posts.

As a young person, what do you think about the 3 ways you should be putting your money towards, instead of saving for retirement? Leave a comment, or drop me an email at Hope to hear from you soon 🙂