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If you’ve heard of the DiSSS method, it’s probably been in the context of learning a new skill, like a hobby or new proficiency at work. The process, from productivity and learning guru Tim Ferriss, is all about breaking things down so you can learn them quickly—and it applies well to studying, too. Here’s what you need to know about DiSSS and how you can incorporate it into your study routine. 

What is DiSSS all about? 

DiSSS is an acronym, but it’s not a perfect one. That lower-case “i” in there is just so you can pronounce it better. What you really care about is the D and three Ss, which stand for the following:  

  1. Deconstruct

  2. Select

  3. Sequence

  4. Stakes

When learning a new skill or delving into a new topic in your studies, you follow these four steps to simplify, shorten, and enhance the process, so it goes faster and you get more out of it. 

How does DiSSS work? 


First, deconstruct the material at hand. As ever, it’s best to do this in chunks. Instead of looking at a semester’s worth of information, make sure you’re going chapter by chapter, unit by unit, or whatever breakdown makes sense for what you’re studying. You deconstruct by finding the smallest, most useful pieces of information. To do this, use a method like SQ3R, which has you scan your materials to focus on key elements like chapter titles, headings, picture captions, and vocabulary words. Pick out everything in your material that seems like a basic, important piece of information. 


Next, move into selection, which really means applying the Pareto Principle to your efforts. The Pareto Principle—or 80/20 rule—says that in general, 80% of results come from 20% of your work. A simple real-life example of this could be when you’re learning to play an instrument. The most common chords make up a small fraction of all the possible notes and combinations out there, but they can be the foundation for 80% of what you ultimately play. Learn a few basic guitar chords and you can figure out most songs. For your studies, the same is true: Focus on the most basic, key concepts, and expect them to comprise 80% of the whole idea—or what’s going to be on the test. Narrow down your focus, studying vocabulary words or the most foundational parts of the lesson with much more frequency and intensity than anything else. 


This will make it easy to go into sequencing, or planning out your study routine. Before you get to any of the heavy, difficult stuff, you need to grasp that 20% above, so create a schedule that leans on your mastery of foundational skills. Block out time for studying and make sure that block of time is broken down further into allotments for certain topics and ideas, with the bulk of time being given to the basics that are going to underline all the concepts likely to be on the test. Make flashcards and employ the Leitner system, which uses spaced repetition to help you identify which concepts you’re struggling with and which ones you can set aside, so you can drill the basics until you know them and organically move into more demanding ideas as you go. 


The final step of DiSSS is stakes. You’re more likely to do well if there are stakes attached; urgency promotes more efficient work. Ferriss’ standard DiSSS model is for people learning a new skill, so he calls on them to set personal consequences for themselves if they don’t put in the required effort or time. When you’re studying, the stakes are clearer: You want to pass the upcoming test and, ultimately, the class itself. You don’t want to be embarrassed if you’re called on in class and don’t know an answer. You want to learn the skills you need for your chosen career. In a notebook or on your phone, write down the consequences you’ll face if you don’t achieve your studying goal or stick to your schedule, whether that’s a failed quiz or even having to switch majors. The idea here is similar to when you use “anti-goals” to structure your work around avoiding things you don’t want to do: Sometimes, negativity is a great motivator. You don’t want to fail, you don’t want to repeat the class, and you don’t want to waste your time, so writing down the real stakes of not studying will help you stay on task.

That said, positivity is also important, so include a section in your note space for what reward you’ll get if you meet certain goals. To make this easier, use Animedoro or a similar technique to outline the exact reward (like a half hour to watch your favorite show) you’ll give yourself if you study on schedule every night. Scale up to bigger rewards, identifying what you’ll give yourself if you get a B on the test, an A on the test, an A in the class, etc. The key is writing down the negative ramifications and positive recompense you’ll get, depending on if you study and master the material. 

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