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Sequencing: Putting Your Learning In The Right Order

This article is part of a series on the learning framework developed by Tim Ferriss through years of experimentation, called DiSSS (or DS3). The initials stand for Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing, and Stakes. While each article can easily stand on its own, if you want to start from the beginning, go to my article on deconstruction.


 

The backbone of the DiSSS framework, according to Tim Ferriss, is the 3rd part, sequencing. In this stage, which follows deconstruction and selection, the goal is to decide the order in which you’ll study the material you’ve chosen in the previous two steps. Remember that you should have already set a specific goal to achieve, deconstructed the skill, and selected the appropriate resources for your learning.

It’s important that you create a logical sequence for your learning, but notice that ‘logical’ rarely equals ‘conventional’. Let’s quickly dive into various techniques you can leverage to figure out how to do proper sequencing. Keep in mind that you should aim for the sweet spot between effectiveness and compliance, a.k.a. sticking with the program.

‘No stakes’ practice

My favorite technique for sequencing is the one called ‘no stakes’ practice. The concept is that, in the beginning, you structure your learning in a way that actually prevents failure completely, especially when it comes to specific, difficult sub-skills.

For example, knife-cutting is one of the most intimidating skills for beginners in cooking. Tim Ferriss, in his talk at TNW, describes how he used a lettuce knife, which had a similar shape to a chef’s knife, to learn how to actually use it. This knife was so harmless, that he would cut lettuce while watching TV, and thus quickly became comfortable with the motion.

A lettuce knife next to a chef's knife, illustrating the similarities.

A lettuce knife, next to a chef’s knife. Note how you can practice with the one to get used to using the other.

Another similar example, again by Tim Ferriss, was learning how to flip the contents of a pan. Instead of trying to learn that skill with a hot omelet over a stove, Tim actually practiced the motion with a cold pan full of beans. To make it even less ‘dangerous’, he would practice the motion on his knees on top of a carpet, so that, even if he did make a mistake, beans would not go flying all over the room.

Tim Ferriss flipping a pan full of beans on his knees

Tim Ferriss flipping a pan full of beans on his knees.

When you went through the deconstruction process, you identified both the core components of the skill you want to learn, and the potential failure points hidden within those. Now go through each of these failure points carefully, and try to come up with a way to have some ‘no stakes’ practice, before you actually put the skill in use. Remember that early wins are hugely important.

Start with the endgame first

It’s sometimes best to reverse the conventional way a skill is being taught, and start from the endgame. The point here is to understand underlying principles better, getting ready for everything that comes your way, instead of using ‘recipes’. This technique is great for some things, like language learning and chess, but might not be so for others, like athletic fitness.

A great example of this is Josh Waitzkin, author of “The Art Of Learning”. A chess prodigy, Josh started learning chess in an unconventional way, by learning simple endgame scenarios first. While most kids start with openings, which leads them down to a path of endless memorization, Josh managed to grasp the underlying principles of chess much faster. That later became the foundation to his chess career.

In “The 4-Hour Chef”, Tim Ferriss also describes how he made it to the semi-finals of the Tango World Championships with only 6 months of practice. One of the most integral parts of his achievement was that he started by learning the female role first. As unconventional as it sounds, it is what some male professionals do later in their career. That sequencing helped Tim quickly develop technique and footwork that he wouldn’t have been able to develop so quickly with the conventional approach.

Explicit vs implicit

When researching or interviewing top performers in any field, a pattern almost always emerges. There are things that these experts explicitly tell you to do, and there are others that they don’t usually verbalize, but that they actually do when performing or when under pressure.

There are 2 quick ways to identify this implicit advice. The first one is to find footage (video, audio, written, it depends on the skill) of them either performing or practicing, and try to identify these implicit things that they do yourself. It is best to repeat this process later on, when you know more about the skill, to improve the insights you extract.

The second one is to ask yourself, what would happen if you avoided what the majority calls best practices. If you have time, don’t be afraid to test against those conventional suggestions. The worst things that can happen is just wasting a little bit of time.

My favorite example for explicit vs implicit advice is learning how to cook from your mother. Most mothers, at least here in Greece, are great in the kitchen, and are the go-to person for advice when in the early stages of learning how to cook. Still, even with their detailed advice, the result is never as good as theirs. After observing my own mother cook, I noticed that there are various little details that even she wasn’t aware she was doing. It was those implicit, unspoken advice which made for all the difference in the results.

Leveraging past experience

A great way to sequence your learning is by figuring out what past experience you already have that can help you learn some sub-skills faster. Not only can this provide some quick and early wins, but you can also create a foundation based on your strengths, upon which you can more easily expand.

For instance, I’ve been into martial arts for a long time, and I’ve practiced a few of them throughout the years. If I decided to start learning how to dance today, I’d make sure to leverage the balance and the spatial understanding I’ve developed to kickstart my learning experience.

Simple first

One simple, yet important, rule of thumb in sequencing is to start as simple as possible. When beginning your learning journey, your working memory tends to get overwhelmed by all the new information, and is unable to hold it all in. Therefore, you need to be conscious about keeping things simple, in order to minimize frustration and maximize effectiveness.

Unfortunately, a lot of the available material for beginners fails miserably in taking this into account. Many times it will be up to you to figure out when something seems overwhelming. A question you can use to simplify is to ask yourself: “Can I achieve the same results with half the suggested steps/resources/equipment/etc.?”

To understand more about how to avoid getting your working memory overwhelmed, read my article on chunking along with this post.

Conclusion

Using some, or all, of the aforementioned techniques, you should be able to successfully sequence your learning. Successful sequencing means that you should be working constantly at your desired level of difficulty, while avoiding boredom or getting overwhelmed. This balance will allow you to operate a little outside of your comfort zone at all times, creating the ideal conditions for deliberate practice.

Call to Action

If you liked this article, please share it with your friends. Also, if you want us to work together in your sequencing process, or anything else for that matter, make sure to let me know! Post on the Facebook group, or contact me directly at info@themetalearners.com!

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A hand picking out a record from a stack, illustrating the selection process.
Selection: Choosing The Best Material You’ll Actually Study
Stakes: How To Actually Hold Yourself Accountable - An image with a black deck of cards and casino chips
Stakes: How To Actually Hold Yourself Accountable

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