Have you ever told yourself that you were going to learn a new skill?
How many times have you told yourself that you were going to dedicate an hour to a specific task, only to find yourself staring blankly or zoning out during that time?
Rather than trying to force motivation, it might be helpful to instead try the approach you’re most familiar with:
You may not realize it, but most likely you’ve spent probably close to 2 decades of your life learning in a certain manner.
That manner is by chunks of time: when you went to school, you had a specific time for Math class, for English, for Social Studies. It would usually be the same time every day.
So why not structure your learning that way? Rather than trying to learn a single skill, it may be more productive to learn multiple.
Establishing productive habits
How many times have you, while trying to keep up with a learning effort, have you ended up with an unproductive day? Maybe you started off checking e-mail for one minute, then ended up on social media for the afternoon?
We all have probably had bad school days, but just showing up to school is a major accomplishment. Why? Because of the power of context: by showing up in a learning environment, we might find ourselves absorbing some knowledge along the process.
What is important is not necessarily that we achieve exactly what we set out to do. What is important is that you are able to establish a habit of being in an environment where you can learn every day.
What I like to do is set my browser to open up multiple tabs on default. These are all different subjects or things that I’m interested in. A Coursera course. A piano exercise. Coding or design exercises. Educational textbooks. Medium.com.
That way, when I turn on my computer and open up Chrome, the first thing that pops up to me are a bunch of different learning options.
The power of choice
One of the ideas that has circulated recently is that to be more productive, you should tackle the hardest task first. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I know that ‘hardest’ can often be subjective. Sometimes, a coding exercise will feel like the hardest thing in the world. Sometimes, it will be reading an educational textbook.
You might have had some days at school where you were squirming in your seat, counting the seconds to get out of a class that you couldn’t stand. Why not use that energy? If you find that you’re not being productive or you want to work on something else, see if it can be channeled into another productive effort.
This actually works well with the Pomodoro technique. If you imagine that you have 30 minute class periods, see how you feel at the end of those 30 minutes. Is it going well? Do you want to go to another ‘class’?
Intersection of skills
There’s a great piece by Ayodeji Awosika where he talks about the intersection of skills. This is a great way of approaching learning multiple skills if you’re struggling to think about what else to learn.
While learning a single skill is nice, often times they are not useful in isolation: what other skills might you need to get it into the format you need?
If the main thing you’re trying to learn is coding, but you’re going to need to document it somehow, why not learn LaTeX? If you’re learning design but you’re going to need to communicate your findings, why not look into books like Articulating Design Decisions?
Focused vs Diffuse thinking
In Learning how to Learn (an amazing course, by the way), the instructors bring up two different methods for learning: focused and diffuse thinking. Focused thinking is what you might be trying, devoting time to a single skill without any distractions.
However, that’s not the only type of thinking that’s out there. Diffuse thinking is like coming up with the solution to a hard math problem while running on the treadmill. It’s the thinking that occurs when the brain is given a chance to relax and not focus on one specific thing.
You may discover, when learning about something else, a good idea that you might want to test out with your code. Unlike school, nothing’s stopping you from taking a break in the middle of one ‘class’ and going back to a previous one.
Sometimes, the solution is right around the corner. You just have to stop staring at the wall and look in another direction to find it.