A Useful Framework for Learning New Things (D-I-R-T)

Let’s do a thought experiment. Assume I give you ten thousand dollars and a book that teaches the exact method for converting your money into one million dollars by the end of the month. The only requirement is that you must follow its instructions perfectly.

How would you go about learning from that book? Would you read it, or would you dissect it? Learning is a skill for you to develop. It’s like playing the piano or speaking a foreign language, and if you’re going to improve at it, you must pay attention to how you work.

To be the kind of person who has consistent and valuable ideas, you need a system to leverage your thinking. It’s not enough to try and remember concepts, scratch thoughts on random pieces of paper, or log them into your computer. You need a way to capture every piece of information related to your work, process each one in connection with the other ideas in your knowledge base, and then return those ideas to you in a usable fashion when and where you need them. Your structure must produce high quality notes that you’ll depend on as a critical thinker. To create an approach like this is possible, but it’s not for the lazy-minded.

The Limitations of Learning

You have four problems if you want to learn something new. First, you’re not designed to remember everything you read. Most of us do not have a photographic memory, which means that we’re saddled with some logistical constraints. If our brains remembered everything, we’d go mad.

There’s a biological pressure valve in our minds that allows information to pass through – you might call this “autopilot.” I’m grateful for this feature, because at the end of a long day, I’m mentally exhausted. If I retained every detail, I’d probably hide in my bedroom. The concern is that this feature can make learning new things difficult. We must work hard to imprint something for the long-term.

The second problem is that we’re physically impaired. We get tired, we suffer brain fog, and we’re emotional creatures. Being a human means accepting the physical maladies of an imperfect body.

The third problem is that most of us deal with some level of self-conscious weight. We may think we’re not smart enough or capable of learning hard things. These destructive lies shelter us from the honest truth – that we would rather not do the work. And that leads to the last limitation.

Something must be said about laziness. It creeps in all times, begging you to take shortcuts, to do the work later, and relax. “The great enemy of knowledge is our indolence; that native sloth which shrinks from effort, which does indeed consent now and then capriciously, to make a big effort but soon relapses into careless automatism…” (Sertillanges 124).

To develop the skill of learning, you must overcome laziness at all costs.

Your Learning System Must be Three Things

“Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile” (Sertillanges 9).

You need a personal system to learn new things, otherwise your physical limitations will win the war almost every time. As I stated in the beginning, you have a unique way of learning, which means you need to take an active part in designing a system that make sense to you.

Many gurus are willing to show you step-by-step methods for note-taking or memorization. These examples are great as long as you don’t follow them blindly. You must experiment with them to see what works for your personal needs.

Your system will be more resilient against clutter and rot if you can manage to follow these three tenants:

  • Simplicity – If you platform for thinking requires complicated rules or multiple steps, you won’t use it to gather and form your ideas.
  • Accessibility – Your platform needs to be with you at all times so that you can add new ideas when they arise.
  • Idea promotion – Your platform needs to process notes in such a way, that as you combine them with other interesting notes, new ideas organically promote themselves.

“A good structure is something you can trust. It relieves you from the burden of remembering and keeping track of everything. If you can trust a system, you can let go of the attempt to hold everything together in your head and you can start focusing on what is important: The content, the argument and the ideas” (Ahrens 5).

The D-I-R-T Framework

I’d like to offer a framework to help you discover your own personal learning system. Use these concepts to research and design a program that works four you. It’s a four-stage methodology I call D-I-R-T.

D (Decide) – The first step of this model is to decide that a piece of information is worth understanding. This is an important step because you’re going to invest time, resources, and mental energy on the topic. You really need to consider if it’s worth the effort to be truly understood.

Most ideas can be skimmed by watching a casual YouTube video, but they are not understood and applied. The act of truly integrating knowledge will be an investment on your part. Decide now to put in the effort.

I (Internalize) – Once you’ve decided to learn something, it’s critical that you internalize how that knowledge will benefit you.

Let’s return to our thought experiment of ten thousand dollars. You can see the benefit: If you do exactly as the book says, you earn one million dollars in 30 days. The same idea goes for learning philosophy, aviation, or a musical instrument. You must find the value in what you’re studying, or you won’t retain it.

Once you’ve made the topic important mentally, make sure to invest the time into a quality set of notes that reflect the significance of the concept. Sloppy notes send the message to your subconscious that this piece of knowledge isn’t important. If, however, you take time to write well, link concepts, and ask if your note is durable to your future needs, then you send the signal to your brain that this topic is worth the effort.

Creating a quality note for an idea you care about can be difficult because you enter the realm of verbalizing you thoughts. “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard” (Zinsser 9). It may take a few drafts, but a good note will pay you dividends in the future.

R (Revisit) – We need more than one exposure to an idea to retain it. A great study session is a start, but it’s not enough. Your learning program must have a way to resurface these ideas a few times within the near future. I like to revisit ideas I’ve learned twice within the coming week. I’ll return to my notes, read through them, and reconsider why the information is important.

T (Teach) – The final step in this learning system is to teach the topic. Don’t skip this. You think you understand something until you have to do a 30-minute presentation on it.

Formalizing the concept into a presentation forces you to understand it on a deeper, more meaningful level. Find a way to teach what you learn online, at work, or within your family. You might feel awkward here, worried that it’s pretentious to go about teaching everyone. It doesn’t have to be. You can share what you’ve learned in a humble and informative way.

A Few Warnings

I’ve worked on personal learning systems for the past few years and I’ve discovered some danger zones. There are three that I can think of that will make your system fall apart. And yes, I’ve committed all of them.

First, there’s a tendency for people to complicate their learning systems – especially with the amount of technology available. You’re going to be tempted to sign up for courses, buy templates, and create databases before you start learning. I don’t have issues with this, but I do want to warn you. The lure of the perfect architecture doesn’t exist because softwares change and so do your preferences for how you engage with your research. You need to draft a system that works, just be careful that you don’t get lost in the details.

Second, I would suggest going digital. Analog learning systems are wonderful, and I use them every day for a creative doodling, but I don’t rely on them in a crunch. Having my learning system on a digital platform makes it searchable, safe from most disasters, and usually accessible. With an analog system, your ability to connect ideas, see across multiple entries, and compare ideas is more limited.

Finally, avoid taking too many notes. A note is an asset in your learning system. It take care to craft an idea worth keeping. Too many notes leads to an oversaturation of subpar ideas. Learn to ask the critical question, “Is this idea worth the investment of adding it to my system?”


Learning is a skill. You get better at it with deliberate practice. By focusing on a structured learning system built around your personal needs, you can improve your ability to process information, learn new things, and discover ideas of your own. As you research the structure of your personal system, consider the D-I-R-T framework to prevent clutter and rot from building up.

“To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need. Everything else is just clutter” (Ahrens 29).

Works Cited

Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. CreateSpace, 2017.

Sertillanges, A.G. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. The Catholic University of America, 1992.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Reissued, Harper Perennial, 2016.

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