Learn faster with this trick from Pokémon Go and Cognitive Science

yaphi1 profile image Yaphi Berhanu Originally published at simplestepscode.com ・2 min read

Reduce the distance between milestones, and you'll go much farther. That's what I learned from a seasonal update to Pokémon Go's reward systems.

Shorten your milestones and you'll go farther.

Pokémon Go rewards you for hitting certain walking distance benchmarks. However, the distances were long for relatively small rewards.

Then a temporary update cut the benchmark distances in half.

Suddenly I found myself outside walking a lot more, and my friends had the same experience. Now that each milestone was more reachable, I was more motivated to move. I felt like each step mattered, so I was more willing to take steps.

The end result was that I traveled a much greater total distance than in the past.

This was a eureka moment.

I could apply this principle to other things, like learning certain coding skills (or really learning anything).

As an example, I had wanted to get good with HTML5 canvas for a while, but that sounded like a big goal so I let it sit. Eventually I tried shrinking the distance between milestones.

I told myself to code one circle. And I did. That was the momentum I needed. Soon I had built up to a glowing laser-pong game, gravity physics, an arrow flying through the air with an accurate trajectory, and more.

According to cognitive science, here are the main benefits of shorter milestones in learning:

  • Motivation: Small steps help you stay motivated because each step feels more acheivable and therefore is more likely to get done. [Psychology Today]

  • Retention: Small steps improve retention because it's easier to remember stuff when there's less of it at a time. [Harvard guest lecture, Lifehacker]

Motivation and retention are common stumbling points for learners, so it's great to have a trick that can address both points.

If there's something you want to learn, try shortening your milestones. You might amaze yourself.

Now I'm curious to hear from you:
What's something you've been wanting to learn, and what steps have helped you make progress?

This article originally appeared on Simple Steps Code, which helps people learn JavaScript and actually be able to use it. Feel free to check it out if you're curious to see more content like this.

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Yaphi Berhanu


I like to make JavaScript simple when I can. I hope it's helpful!


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Thank you for writing this!

I learned this 'trick' for achieving longer milestones from my motorcycle riding and car driving experiences, pretty much the same as your observation in Pokémon Go: if I focused on the fact that I had another 800km to drive, it felt daunting. However I realised that if I targeted the next big town somewhere under 100km, I could easily do those 100km 8 times over :D


Glad you liked it!

One of my favorite things about this is that it's a pattern that works for a lot of things.


Ironically I started to learn HTML5 canvas not even a week ago. This post came right on time. I was close to jumping into to big of a “canvas,” that would keep me from learning anything. Thanks I will make my projects smaller from now on.


Glad the timing worked out!


This is one of the side-effects I get from TDD. Write the smallest working pieces possible until you have a big thing!


Great point! It definitely makes a big project less daunting.


This is also why I love coding. It allows you to see life and all the things that comes with it, as a sum of patterns.