2 Easy and Useful Mental Models To Maximise Learning from Reading
The quality of your learning from the books you read is directly proportional to the mental models you use to read and understand them.
When used correct, mental models can help you improve your decision-making ability and maximise your learning curve with minimal effort.
Poor mental models translate to poor mental results.
What are Mental Models?
We use mental models everyday.
You can think of mental models much like the operating software on your smartphone. It is a cognitive map of how your thought processes work.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you use them to make decisions both large and small.
Mental models explain how a person interprets complexity in the world, why they consider some things more relevant than others and how they form attachments in relationships.
Mental models are formed from an aggregation of an individual’s lived experiences, childhood and education.
They ultimately shape how you make key decisions and approach problems.
This means that the results that you have in your life right now is directly correlated to the quality of mental models you use.
Every mental model has a design that is appropriate to its medium.
Why Are Mental Models Important?
Using outdated mental models results in outdated thinking.
If all the mental tools you possess resembles a hammer, all your problems will start to look like nails.
Thus, it is important to be aware and understand how mental models work because they can be improved. Significantly.
The world’s best thinkers, artists and athletes have already figured this out.
Not only do they work much harder than the average person in their chosen field, they also spend significantly more time refining their mental models.
In their book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner explain that the best ‘superforecasters’ are those that are able to aggregate large amounts of data from diverse sources by applying different analytical tools or mental models to their estimations.
These superforecasters are able to continually update and improve their mental models consistently over a long period of time, which leads to better prediction outcomes.
This is great news for us.
This means that with enough effort you can improve your mental models much like you can update the software on your smartphone.
The trick is deliberate practice, awareness and intellectual humility towards your own thinking process (or metacognition) and constant exposure to new mental models that make the old ones obsolete.
The more models you have-the bigger your toolbox-the more likely you are to have the right models to see reality. It turns out that when it comes to improving your ability to make decision variety matters — Andreas Janes
So here are 2 easily implementable and highly useful mental models to breakdown complex ideas and maximise your learning from what you read.
1. 80/20 Principle
What is it?
The 80/20 principle is a mental model that describes that 80% of effects can be attributed to 20% of the causes.
This principle was discovered and developed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who noticed that 80% of wealth was owned by 20% of the population.
But this distribution wasn’t just limited to income.
Pareto tested whether this principle could be applied to other things.
On further inspection, he found that 80% of population lived on 20% of the land available and that 80% of the peas he grew came from 20% of the pea plants in his garden.
Used correctly, the 80/20 principle is a powerful way to quickly breakdown and analyse patterns, identify value and roughly estimate the distribution of most phenomena.
The 80/20 principle is a powerful mental model.
Why use it when reading?
- Not all knowledge is made equal.
- Most books are too long.
Most business and personal development books would make great blog posts or extended essays.
They usually have one core concept that can be explained with a few pages but are wrapped with examples after examples.
Even the great ones could be cut by 100 pages or more, saving both time and energy for the reader and author.
While I mostly read my books from start to finish, I never give the parts of the book equal weighting.
How do I use it?
The objective is to search for the golden nuggets of the book.
Employ a strategy of reading discriminately and actively. Don’t treat all information with the same weighting.
A useful tactic I’ve used is to annotate, tab and highlight the 20% of the book that is providing you 80% of the value. This allows you to be able to easily revisit the section at a later time and provides a literal and cognitive sectioning of the book.
A general rule of thumb is that for a 200 page book, roughly 40 pages will provide the most value of the entire book (or even less in some circumstances).
This process saves you both time and mental bandwidth in trying to remember every part or every argument of the book.
More on the 80/20 Principle: The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch
2. Logic Trees
What is it?
Logic trees are a visual representation of a problem.
They help to neatly break down and disaggregate large conceptual ideas and arguments into smaller manageable sizes.
This tool is incredibly simple and effective.
One of my favourite mental models.
The trick is ensuring that each component (or branch and leaf) of the tree is governed by the principle of MECE — mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.
This means that each component should not overlap but taken together provides the full picture of the problem or idea.
You can think of a full cup filled with 50% water and 50% oil.
Broken into its constituent parts, both liquids don’t overlap or mix. But taken together represents the entire liquid consistency in the cup.
Apply this to your ideas and this is the law of MECE (pronounced Me-See).
Why use it?
Logic Trees help me to sort and categorise information and ideas from a book into an analytical framework that is easily accessible to critical thinking and synthesis.
I can’t tell you how much this allows me to articulate an a detailed answer to someone asking ‘what’s this book about?’ about a book I might have read 3–4 months ago or even a few years ago.
How do I use it?
The objective is to get analytical clarity on the book you’re reading.
A strategy to do this is to form a logic tree early and consistently update, refine and iterate the tree as you read.
There are many ways to do this. One tactic is to physically draw a logic tree on a piece of paper or create it in your head.
I’ll usually draw a Logic Tree when I feel like I have enough information to start to sort and categorise what I’ve been reading.
As a rule of thumb, getting half-way through a book should give you a good idea of the author’s main arguments or ideas.
More on Logic Trees: Bulletproof Problem Solving by Charles R. Conn and Robert McLean