When it comes to learning I’ve ran into several issues;

  • There is an almost infinite amount of things that seem interesting or beneficial to learn at any given time
  • When you learn a new thing it shows you 10 other things you didn’t know that you didn’t know
  • Learning one thing generally blocks you from learning another thing
  • You want to stay productive in your day to day work/life tasks, but you don’t want to burn out by doing everything in the mornings or evenings

I don’t know about you but I feel that if left unchecked my learning becomes inefficient, incomplete, and I’m never satisfied with progress I make. This isn’t great, especially now I am working for myself.

I want to share how I attempt to learn new things, it has been helping me be more professional in my learning, tackle those four issues I mentioned, and give me focus.

There are 4 steps, which you should follow in order.

Disclaimer 1. I can’t take credit for the techniques I am suggesting you use, annoyingly I also can’t give credit since I am a dumbass and forgot where I originally read or adapted these techniques from.

Disclaimer 2. I try and follow my own advice, I am not a learning expert and don’t always practice what I preach!

Understand what you want to learn and why

Off the top of my head there are about 7 different programming languages I would love to know, or know better. That strictly speaking isn’t true – they aren’t off the top of my head because I have written them down.

I’ve got into the habit of writing down everything that I want to learn – it could be as large a problem set as “Functional Programming” to as simple as for once and for all learning when I should use ‘effect’ and when I should use ‘affect’ when writing (don’t judge me!).

Knowing the topic you want to learn isn’t enough, you need to have written down a justification for wanting to learn it. The justification can be as simple as “it looks fun” to as important as “I need this in order to not get fired”, the important thing is you think about it and justify it to yourself.

The justification step is really important because once you see a list of things you want to learn and their justifications, some will stand way out in front as clearly being more important to you (something that isn’t necessarily clear when you don’t consider them all in one place at one time).

Justification also helps over time because things change and reasons for wanting to learn something may become out dated as situations change. When this happens you need to re-consider the learning you wanted to see what the new justification is, if there isn’t one then you can remove it from your list.

Make learning project based

If you now have this list (warning, it may be huge) then the next thing to do is pick a project to work on that would get you closer to your learning goals, this is critical – I can read all the books I want on a certain topic, but unless I apply them somewhere then I am not really learning, I am reading.

The project could be;

  • Something work related (useful because then you have external incentives to complete it)
  • A completely toy project, never meant to be useful
  • Achievable in a very short length of time (it doesn’t need to be something huge)

There should always be something to show for it though, it isn’t enough to say you want to watch 7 hours of ted talks on a subject, in this case the project could be something like “Write an article based on what I’ve learned from watching ted talks for 7 hours”.

It is great if the project will help you learn multiple things on your list, but don’t overburden yourself, the project should be completable. I’ve found before that if you make the project too all-encompassing that you end up learning a lot less than you had initially hoped because the project ends up requiring too much non-learning time.

You should only work on one project at a time. (I suck really bad at this bit, but when I do manage to focus on one project geared at helping me learn, I do much better).

Give yourself tight deadlines

This next step is crucial, you need to be really focused and unless you are super-human you will procrastinate like the rest of us.

The rest of us know how to focus up when it matters, when deadlines are looming. So make things simple, start with a tight deadline.

Doesn’t giving yourself a tight deadline just end up giving you a lot of stress? No. It helps you focus on what is really important.

If you have 3 hours to complete something, are you going to spend 20 minutes on Amazon thinking about the 3 books you will order? Hell no, you will dive into that one book you never finished reading and skim for relevant information - or you will find the quickest way to inject the knowledge into your head.

If you don’t hit the deadline that is a shame, make a new one and take time to reflect on the progress you were able to make.

Deadlines work best if there is an external aspect to them, for example if the project was to write something, try and write for something other than your personal site, that way there will be deadlines you need to commit to with the publisher.

Public deadlines work best of all – if you wanted to learn how to yo-yo (yo-yos are still cool? right?!) if there was an amateur yo-yo competition you should enter it – ready made deadline and if you suck by the time the deadline hits, then people will see you sucking, which is an extra driver to get practicing!

Schedule time for learning

Learning shouldn’t be something in shoehorn in around the rest of your life, it needs dedicated time.

The easiest way to do this is to block out time in your calendar as appropriate – I try and do 1 hour a week minimum. Blocking out time also helps in the same way deadlines do, if you know you only have a certain amount of time you have no choice but to focus on what you deem to be important.

Speak to your manager at work if this is something you want to do during the working day – they would have to be a bit of a dick if they didn’t want you improving yourself. This should be a complete no brainer if the project is work related, they may even be willing to pay for your learning materials with company money, which would be nice.

This time should be non-optional – If you’ve planned out the time and then mid-way through someone asks for your attention, treat it like you were on a work related task you needed another 30 minutes to finish.

Rinse and Repeat

Once you complete a project reflect back on it and see if it helped you achieve your learning goal, if it did, perfect, cross that one off your list.

Whilst learning did you find out about new concepts and things that you think would be beneficial? Write them into the list.

Whilst learning did you realise your priorities have now changed for other things already on your list? Now is a great time to update those justifications in preparation for picking the next project.

That is it

Hopefully you found this useful and it brings some clarity and efficiency to your learning.