How to learn anything you want faster – from foreign languages to writing for profit

f you are a passionate “polymath” like me, you may have taken a leaf out of Tim Ferriss’ book: “The 4-hour CHEF: The simple path to cooking like a pro, learning anything and living the good life” to be more exact.

In his book he talks about one fundamental principle which rings true for most of us.

That simple works — complex fails.

In other words, that in order to learn something new, we have to put in the least possible effort.

Otherwise, it won’t work and we’ll just give up.

Just think of the last time you tried to learn something new.

A foreign language perhaps?

A musical instrument?

A new sport?

Was it easy or did overwhelm take you out like a tidal wave?

I thought so too.

Luckily, it is possible to learn anything we want faster, effortlessly even, by learning some shortcuts.

Tim Ferriss calls this his DSSS formula.

And I decided to try it out with two of my favourite activities: foreign languages and writing.

DSSS stands for:







What are the minimal learnable units I should start with?

With languages (not with all of them, mind, but certainly with a lot of European languages), a way to shortcut your learning process is by learning to use modal auxiliary verbs.

I am currently learning my 6th language, German, which is a very grammatical language. German has thousands of verbs which are classified as either weak or strong. There are also separable verbs and reflexive verbs and in each case I need to learn how to decline all of them in 6 different persons.

Or, I can learn six modal auxiliary verbs instead (dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen, wollen), learn how to decline those six only in six different persons and put every other verb in the infinitive form.

With modal auxiliary verbs, you can express quite a lot:

I have to eat : Ich muss essen
I want/would like to eat: Ich möchte essen
I will eat tomorrow: Ich werde morgen essen
I can’t eat: Ich kann nicht essen

The good thing is that you can use this shortcut with French (Je dois manger,Je veux manger, Je vais manger, Je ne peux pas manger), Italian (Devo mangiare, Voglio mangiare, Vado a mangiare, Non posso mangiage) and Spanish (Tengo que comer, Quiero comer, Voy a comer, No puedo comer) too.


Which 20% of those learnable units should I focus on?

The Deutsches Wörterbuch contains 330,000 words but only 5,000 of those words make up 87% of everyday German. In fact, the BBC says you can start with as few as 800 words. So what if you were to start learning just the most commonly used words in a language first?


What order should I be learning these learnable units in?

Now this is important because if you were to get the sequence wrong, the entire system could collapse. You see, just because a certain sequence works for someone it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you too. You need to figure this out yourself. Focus on 2–3 steps and do them in the sequence that works for you.

For example, when I am learning a language I try to focus on speaking by:

a) learning the most commonly used sentences in a language and

b) mixing + matching the words I learned with sentences to start creating my own sentences


Finally, you have to create incentives and become accountable, otherwise you will not take your learning process seriously. In other words, if there is no pressure of any kind to follow through with your promise, you will eventually give up.

For the weak-willed there are even companies like Stickk where you can appoint an anti-charity to receive your money if you break your commitment. An anti-charity is an organisation whose cause you are adamantly against. If, for example, you were to stake USD 250.00 on finishing your next marathon or risk this money going to a Donald Trump charity, I bet you would achieve your goal in no time!



Writing a 120,000 words book is a huge feat but when you break it down to smaller chunks and set smaller goals the whole process becomes more manageable. Same goes for an article. If you don’t know how to write an article, it, too, becomes an unmanageable feat until you break it down to its basic “aminocids” : a main heading and opening paragraph, 2–3 subheadings, 1–2 paragraphs per subheading, etc.


What are the minimum sections I need in a piece of writing to put my message across as clearly as possible?

Create an outline if you have to:


An opening paragraph to introduce your topic:
Start with a main point and offer some examples or statistics

Transition: start talking about what will follow in the rest of your article

Break into 2–3 subheadings or more depending on the article

Subheading 1: Start with a main point and offer some examples.

Transition to subheading 2

Subheading 2: Start with a main point and offer some examples.

Closing paragraph: put everything together and come to a conclusion.
Obviously this is not the only way you can write an article but if outlining helps you frame your thoughts better, don’t skip that step.


What order are you going to start writing in?

Some need a title first in order to begin writing, in which case why don’t you use these handy tools for inspiration?

Hubspot’s Blog Topic Generator

The Headline Wizard or

The Kickass Headline Generator

Others like me need to write the article first and then come up with the title. Finding which way works for you could be the difference between writing straight away and feeling stuck for a couple of hours!


No, I don’t think you should take any drastic measures but writing needs accountability because it can get very lonely when it is just you and the keyboard. An idea would be to create a private Facebook group with other writers where you can post each day (or week) your progress: how many pitches did you send this week, how many articles did you write, etc?

For your next goal, why don’t you try to apply the DSSS method and see where that takes you?

Deconstruct — Simplify — Put in order — Make a promise.

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