Learn Better By Applying Fitness Programming To Skill Building

New Year Resolutions are designed to fail. Why? Because they’re wishes, not plans. If you want to change how you’re living you need daily action, not a promise.

I’m doing something different this year. I’m adapting a planning method that I use in the gym to create a system for rapid skill acquisition. It’s part experiment, part challenge, part hobby, and it’s going to be awesome. It’s nowhere near complete, but it’s underlying principles are cool.

Here’s a sneak peak:

Sport Periodization and Skill Acquisition

According to Wikipedia:

Periodization is the systematic planning of athletic or physical training.[1] The aim is to reach the best possible performance in the most important competition of the year.[2] It involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period. Conditioning programs can use periodization to break up the training program into the offseason, preseason, inseason, and the postseason. Periodization divides the year round condition program into phases of training which focus on different goals.

In simple language, that means paying attention to what you do and when you do it, so you’re ready to do your best at the right time. The specifics of periodization involve a lot of science about how muscles respond and how quickly physical skills are developed, but the general idea is quite adaptable.

When you’re trying to learn a new skill, your time can be divided up a number of ways. On one end, the macrocycle is your year-long plan for when and how hard you’ll be training in order to reach maximum performance for your athletic season.

On the other end, the microcycle is your week-to-week plan for what muscles you’ll be hitting with what exercises in what order. It’s what most people think of when they talk about their fitness program.

And in the middle, the mesocycle.

The mesocycle is the 2–6 week training cycle that connects the weekly work of the microcycle with the overall objectives of the macrocycle. In the fitness world, this kind of monthly planning is indescribably useful, as it provides enough guidance to keep athletes on track with their sport-specific goals while still allowing day-to-day flexibility for schedules, minor injuries, and personal intentions.

Planning your training in mesocycles helps you determine when you should be going hard, when you should be tapering off before a competition, and how to work in activities that don’t repeat with the same regularity as those in your microcycle.

So why don’t we use that same logic elsewhere?

Meet The Mesocycle

Think of a mesocycle as a month-long skill development block.

Let’s say you want to learn web development. You’ve blocked off some time in your weekly schedule to practice it (that’s your micro), but you still want to attach some objective goals to what you’re doing so that, by the end of the year, you can launch your own website (that’s your macro).

You could just grab a book and “do your best,” but it’s hard to keep your shoulder to the stone when you can’t really anticipate or prepare for what’s coming next. By breaking your learning sequence into a series of monthly blocks, however, you can actively engage with how you learn, increasing the likelihood that you power through.

For each month that you’re learning and practicing, build it around an objective. Like this:
  • The first meso focuses on learning the terminology and the “informational framework”
  • The second meso focuses on foundation skills, things that you’ll be consistently relying upon throughout the rest of the macro
  • The third meso focuses remedial work, filling in gaps before they undermine you later on.
  • The fourth meso focuses on specific skills, helping you reach the goal-specific state you need for your project
  • The fifth meso focuses on specific skills, continuing goal-specific skill development on a higher level
  • The six meso is a practice run, letting you verify your skills in a “live environment”
  • The seventh meso focuses onremedial skills, and help you plan the next block of training

And so on.

With this off-the-cuff outline, you can see how you can take a big task (learning how to make an awesome website in a year) and break it down into monthly objectives. You learn the framework, you see how it’s used, you fix your weaknesses before they hurt you, and then dive into a large block of goal-specific training. Then you test your knowledge, fix your remaining weaknesses, and acquire the remaining skills needed to succeed. Skill development 101.

And the best part is, you can customize this to match anything. You can use it for skills, habits, hobbies; anything that requires knowing things and doing things. The specifics will change, and your cycles might be longer or shorter depending on the complexity, but the core of rapid skill acquisition is still the same.

The Three Phases of Skill Acquisition

Now that I’ve covered the basics of applying sport periodization models to rapid skill acquisition (there’s more, specifically on the fatigue/stress management side of the equation, but we’ll save that for later), I think it’s important to look at the learning process itself.

In basic terms, we learn best by working in stages. Instead of trying to cram everything in at once, it’s better to figure out the framework, fill that framework with information, and then test your knowledge by using it in semi-structured activities. Call it the three phases of skill acquisition.

By combining the three phases of skill acquisition with periodized model we’ve already explored, you’ll be able to build an intelligent (and flexible) learning plan for any skill. There are obviously deeper levels to learning and skill acquisition that a more qualified education professional could comment on, but for the people who want to learn outside of the classroom this works fairly well.

Phase One: Framing and Loading.

Every discipline comes with its own discourse and way of doing things. Before you can learn specific skills (and make them stick) you need to get a handle on how the overall framework, well, works.

This is the part that most people skip, as they don’t care enough about the subject to put it in context. This makes it harder to retain information, as it’s harder to put it together, leading to excessive cramming come test day.

Once you have the framework down, fill it out. Learning how the various systems and sub-systems of whatever it is you’re doing works, and work through them in a semi-linear fashion, and test it out in phase two frequently.

Read it, write it down, play with flashcards, listen to it; do whatever you need to do to get it into your head, but don’t do too much at once. You’ll need to bounce back and forth between loading and testing fairly frequently, so make sure you don’t set yourself up to fail.

Phase Two: Comprehension Testing

You only retain what you use, which means you need to use the information that you loaded in various exercises, tests, and what I like to call “non-linear applications.” Essentially, take what you’ve learned and use it to fix a problem that’s just out of your reach.

Phase one is all about learning form; phase two is about putting weight on the bar. Do isolations, do compound movements, do some conditioning; play with the knowledge in ways that strain your brain and find your limits. Whenever you identify a weakness, make a note of it and schedule in some remedial work to fill in the gaps.

Phase Three: Demonstration and Application

After you’ve framed, loaded, and applied the information you’re learning, you’ll need to take a break. Stop bringing in new information, stop giving yourself headaches. Brush up on the basics, then directly apply it in a realistic scenario.

Make sure that you can use the information you’ve learned comfortably. You should always push harder in phase two than you need to perform in phase three, as it’ll leave you with a healthy margin of error. If you let weaknesses sneak in without fixing them, or you have gaps that you can’t reasonably fill in the time that you have, you’ll at least be able to pull your way through on the margin.

Building it into the meso

The three phases of skill acquisition naturally combine with the mesocycle to create a natural learning rhythm. Your needs will shift depending on the objective (you’ll spend more time on your framework at first, more time on testing later on, more time demonstrating and applying at greater training ages, etc), but that’s better than having no model at all.

Use the three phases of skill acquisition to figure out what you’ll need to do each week when learning a new skill, and use the periodized model to figure out your mesocycles and to set appropriate objectives on the macro scale. This will help you create an actionable learning plan that, as long as you stick to it, will make skill acquisition significantly easier than going in blind.

If this still sounds intimidating, though, don’t worry. Learning how to learn is a skill all its own.

Learning How To Learn

I have to admit something: I had a completely laissez-faire learning style in college. I barely studied, and when I did I’d just skim through the class materials, and this lasted right up until I tried to learn database management. I passed that class, but only because I changed my entire approach to learning. This article is your fault, Dr. Twig.

Imagine that you learn new skills following a stimulus and response model. Intense stimuli produce stronger results, but they also create more stress (fatigue) which can interfere with later learning. That means that, when your brain is relatively untrained, concentrated learning exercises can leave you intellectually knackered.

As an extension of this, any stimuli that isn’t intense enough to produce stress won’t increase your learning capacity. You won’t learn much if you stay inside your safe space and don’t attempt difficult topics, and different skills require different approaches. Just as I struggled with databases until I changed my approach from one that was memorization-based to one that followed the three phase model, you may struggle with topics that require approaches that don’t match your default.

If you want to learn how to learn better, figure out how you’re learning right now. If you have any kind of goal, dream objective, or more-than-passing interest in trying something new, knowing how your head works will make it significantly less frustrating to achieve. If you’ve struggled with skill acquisition in the past, take the time to build your foundation. Strip away the digital crutches, grab something basic, and figure yourself out.

Build yourself a project, take something that you’ve wanted to learn and use that skill, hobby, or habit as a test subject. Sacrifice it on the alter of “I don’t know what I’m doing” and pay attention to the process. Take a ton of notes. Get frustrated. If you do it right, learning that skill will be your gateway to hundreds of others.

That’s what I’m doing here at the end of 2016. I’m using my last meso to clean up my bullet journal, to re-locate my markerboard, to reorganize my kanban system, to figure out how and why my brain works the way it does, so I can dive into 2017 with an intelligent skill acquisition system.

Instead of setting a resolution to succeed at one task, I’m going to be doing a bit of everything. I want to improve my learning systems even further, which means testing it until it break.

Do you want to learn how to learn? Follow me on Twitter.