The 3 Books Technique for Learning a New Skilll

post by mr-hire · 2019-01-09T12:45:19.294Z · score: 77 (28 votes) · LW · GW · 5 comments


When I'm learning a new skill, there's a technique I often use to quickly gain the basics of the new skill without getting drowned in the plethora of resources that exist. I've found that just 3 resources that cover the skill from 3 separate viewpoints(along with either daily practice or a project) is enough to quickly get all the pieces I need to learn the new skill.

I'm partial to books, so I've called this The 3 Books Technique, but feel free to substitute books for courses, mentors, or videos as needed.

The "What" Book

The "What" book is used as reference material. It should be a thorough resource that gives you a broad overview of your skill. If you run into a novel situation, you should be able to go to this book and get the information you need. It covers the "surface" section of the learning model from nature pictured above.

Positive reviews of this book should contain phrases like "Thorough" and "Got me out of a pinch more than once." Negative reviews of this book should talk about "overwhelming" and "didn't know where to start."

The "How" Book

The "How" Book explains the step-by-step, nuts and bolts of how to put the skill into practice. It often contains processes, tools, and steps. It covers the "deep" part of the learning model covered above.

Positive reviews of this book should talk about "Well structured" and "Clearly thought out." Negative reviews should mention it being "too rote" or "not enough theory."

The "Why" Book

The "WHY" book explains the mindset and intuitions behind the skill. It tries to get into the authors head and lets you understand what to do in novel situations. It should cover the "transfer" part of the learning model above.

Positive reviews of this book should talk about "gaining intuitions" or "really understanding". Negative reviews should contain phrases like "not practical" or "still don't know what steps to take."

The Project or Practice

Once I have these 3 resources, I'll choose a single project or a daily practice that allows me to practice the skills from the "How" book and the mindsets from the "Why" book. If I get stuck, I'll use the "What" book to help me.


Overcoming Procrastination

"What" Book: The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel

"How" Book: The Now Habit by Neil Fiore

"Why" Book: The Replacing Guilt blog sequence by Nate Soares

Project or Practice: Five pomodoros every day where I deliberately use the tools from the now habit and the mindsets from replacing guilt. If I find myself stuck, I'll choose from the plethora of techniques in the Procrastination Equation.

Learning Calculus

"What" Book: A First Course in Calculus by Serge Lange

"How" Book: The Khan Academy series on Calculus

"Why" Book: The Essence of Calculus Youtube series by 3blue1brown

Project or Practice: Daily practice of the Khan Academy calculus exercises.


This is a simple technique that I've found very helpful in systematizing my learning process. I would be particularly interested in other skills you've learned and the 3 books you would recommend for those skills.


comment by Hazard · 2019-01-10T02:02:05.818Z · score: 23 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I really like the "positive reviews should look like X, negative reviews should look like Y" information. I've never seen it before, and I expect it to actually be useful when looking for resources.

I'm cofused by how "deep" and "surface" are being used in your first picture. From how the "What" and "How" books are described (and from the examples you give), I would have called "What" the deep resource, and "How" as the "surface level" resource. How are you thinking of it?

comment by mr-hire · 2019-01-10T12:28:47.498Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This may be because of my particular learning style. I tend to get most of my deep learning from the actual application of the skill, which is based on the how resource. I use the what resource in a very surface way, just getting particular facts or techniques when I'm stuck. However, I agree that What books tend to cover material in a deeper way

comment by Hazard · 2019-01-10T14:34:58.418Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think I can relate. You made me notice that there are two things I could point to when talking of "deep learning". One is "making a piece of knowledge or information a deeply ingrained, easily accessible piece of me" and the other is, "not having any whole in my conceptual understanding, every piece of info is well connected in my knowledge graph and well motivated, and things make sense in a powerful way".

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2019-01-11T18:16:55.059Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

this is very interesting, i'm likely to try it, thank you :)

btw, i also found the graphic in the beginning confusing

comment by Andrew Quinn (andrew-quinn-1) · 2019-01-09T22:46:06.335Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I quite like this approach. :) I’ll see if I can apply it to electrical engineering and pure mathematics soon, as those are the subjects I am studying in school. Linear algebra will be my first stop.