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I study philosophy at university, a subject that covers a lot of ground. My problem is that I often feel overwhelmed by what's been done in the past 2,500 years in so many different fields. There is so much to learn. When I start reading a text, I encounter some philosopher that I didn't know about yet, so I look up his name. Then there's a term I didn't know about, so I have to look that up. Then there's a reference to some historical event I didn't know about. And the list goes on. What I end up doing is reading very superficially about many different subjects rather than reading or studying one text or subject thoroughly. This hasn't really caused trouble, my marks are fine, but I feel that my knowledge is broad but superficial rather than deep. Especially since I'm about to get into graduate courses, this learning attitude may cause trouble.

Part of this has to do with my very strong desire to learn about just about anything. On the one hand, it is obviously a good thing to keep me motivated. On the other hand, it's hard to focus on one subject, because there are all kinds of interesting things to learn about lurking in just about every sentence of the text you actually want to or need to read. The material that's part of the curriculum is not overwhelming at all; it's the references to other material "hidden" (and references in those texts, and so on) that are often overwhelming. A typical day of study begins with one particular text or concept and ends with a huge pile of books on my desk, a couple of youtube videos on the concept and encyclopedia articles in my browser and a ton of notes. I really cannot choose between different subjects/topics/concepts/authors, so I attempt to learn them all, which usually results in learning very little. Some say that "to choose is to lose something, but to refuse to choose is to lose everything" and this seems to apply perfectly to my situation.

So my question is: how do I turn my strong desire to learn about just about anything, which I consider to be a good trait, into a way to learn well about one subject/concept/author/... at a time. While I think I have identified the problem fairly accurately, I find it hard to come up with good and practical solutions to resolve it.

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You may have an interesting thing here or there stick, but for the most part, jumping around too much will cause little to stick. There are some great answers here already; I would only add that some form of writing or teaching what you learned will help you retain those subjects better. –  Gaʀʀʏ Jul 10 '13 at 15:54
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4 Answers

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This is unfortunately a problem for anyone with a wide curiosity, and as you have already identified, whatever you do will limit your future choices.

This should just be accepted, however, as no individual has enough time to explore everything in depth.

The key then is to choose some key areas for a deep dive, while keeping the right options open for possible future expansion of your interests. Some of this is straightforward - identify the topics that give you the most enjoyment or challenge, or those that lead to careers you could enjoy having, or that are possible to study in depth in your location, or any number of other criteria, but importantly - choose

Once you have listed out your favourites, the rest is relatively straightforward and is just about control. If you need to write a to-do list of what you will study on a particular day, do that. Some people have set time windows to study their main topic, with breaks where anything goes - and if you find something in that time that interests you, write it down and later check to see if you want to build that in as a main study topic. Not at the time

As you do become more expert in a particular topic, you will find that they can be incredibly broad as well, so your curiosity may kick in to help you study that topic.

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Have a ordered list of things you want to learn/understand, and just do it in order. You can rearrange list, but when you start on one resource finish it! If you need some other knowledge to understand current resource, try to get wikipedia familiarity only. If you want to learn more about that 'other thing', put resources about it on list and go at it after you are done with original thing!

I have kind of soft list in my head, and i do not veer to much.. Mostly, I am learning from online articles, presentations and books. (Actually I learn most by designing software and coding)

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You have already pointed out the results of such unfocused study in "so I attempt to learn them all, which usually results in learning very little. Some say that "to choose is to lose something, but to refuse to choose is to lose everything" and this seems to apply perfectly to my situation."

I fully agree with the answers so far. I would like to add that, focused study will be more comfortable and enjoyable when you are convinced in it and believe that this is the natural thing for humans to do. Now why it is so? Here we step in philosophy or religion. I think of it as part of the human condition. Much like the fact that we can die at any moment (and so the study stops). We have finite time and energy.

I have heard many times people, who specialize in a very tiny area, says that they find the whole universe in their tiny area of research. The area is tiny because there are lots of other areas beside it, but it is not tiny in the great many things that happen in it and that resemble and connect to the other areas (This is a deep philosophical topic to ponder on.)

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Just adding a little to Rory's answer.

First you need to accept that this form of learning is not feasible as you move ahead in life.

Once, you have done that, you can attempt to feed your curiosity but in a controlled manner. One method that I have found extremely helpful for this is, while studying a main topic, do not deviate. If you find something interesting , write it down. Dont understand a term, try to figure out the meaning (etymology is your friend). If you think you may be incorrect, write it down for later reading.

Now, in your free time, or at the end of the day, you would have ended up with a rather long list. Its time to start working on it. You will realise that as you now have a better understanding of your main topic than when you started, you will be able to prioritize your extra reading, and maybe cull the not so relevant parts. Also, the fact that you would generally be tired by the end of the day, would mean that you would (sub) consciously try and optimize the process.

This way, even your (extra) studying will become targeted study without much extra work, other than exercising self-control (which is an investment with high returns). Also, you will over time realise that your understanding is deepening rather than expanding.

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