Photo: Thomas William on Unsplash

Using YouTube to Improve: Video Journaling for Rapid Skill Improvement

Learning is fun.

Wait, give me a chance before you go. I’m sure many of us have less than fond memories of “learning” while at school. If this was the only time you learned I completely forgive you for thinking of learning as drudgery.

I’m thankful friends introduced me to subjects not covered in school which required me to figure out how to learn on my own. By doing this, I discovered a life-long hobby with endless potential — as a bonus, it may also help keep my brain healthier for longer.

Cognitive calibrations aside, I’ve discovered my passion to learn is an asset — especially as a recent graduate. Our workplaces are in a constant state of flux and change faster than we’ve seen previously. A direct consequence of this is the need for all us to continually update our knowledge and learn new things.

Based off of this realization, I searched the internet and books for the best way to learn. My exploration taught me one thing. The way we were incentivized to learn in school is not efficient or conducive to rapid knowledge acquisition.

A More Effective and Fun Way to Learn

Of course, I could tie school’s inefficiencies to how it was built to produce factory workers… yadda yadda yadda. I’m not going to bore you with this old narrative.

Fortunately, we don’t have to learn the same way we did in school. For those of us who want to learn something fun and new, there are much more effective ways to go about it. We can replace textbooks and lecture with action and collaborative exploration.

Mike Boyd and Josh Kaufman showed me I could simply jump into something I’m interested in learning after some cursory research. Not only is this more fun, but it’s more effective than collecting “knowledge underpants.”

An active approach to learning can also be a bit more chaotic. It can be difficult to remember what we did in a session if we’re 100% focused on the task at hand. Replication of positive results (i.e. improving) is harder if we can’t recall what we did.

Our desire to replicate a favorable outcome is what inspired many famous polymaths’ dedication to documentation. If this process is good enough for some of the most notable and influential people in the world I think it’s good enough for us.

Unlike our ancestors, we’re not relegated to pen and paper. Instead, we can capture our trials in real time via video. Not only does this free our attention from anything but the task at hand, it’s also a better record keeper than our memories.

Accurately capturing our best efforts facilitates faster growth.

Why Video Journal?

“I take photos, I used to make films, I journal incessantly, and I really value the documentation of life. Because it’s almost like you are making something special by wanting to make it exist in an object — on paper or even just in the computer — making these recordings, making this music.”

-Lucy Dacus

Three key parts of learning by doing are skill deconstruction, consistent exposure to a skill, and deliberate practice. Video journaling our journey facilitates all three of these pillars in a different way.

Video content is a powerful form of documentation. It also happens to be the flavor of the month for marketing and our general communication. When we record something on a video we have one of the most objective observations of our experience.

Raw, unedited footage shows us what just occurred — including the things we’d rather not see. In equal measure, raw footage shows our glory and our folly. When we review our daily footage we prepare ourselves for future practice and improvement.

Moments of glory serve as inspiration for when we invariably hit dips in our learning process. In the midst of a learning dip, it’s easy to get frustrated, think we’ll suck and never get better, and give up.

The triumphant moments captured on film serve as an objective reality check. After we take a step back and review some of our previous films we’ll realize how far we’ve come — this can often serve as enough motivation to get back on the metaphorical horse.

Fleeting failures serve as a tonic of humility and signposts for what to work on next time. When we can objectively see what we did wrong we can search for ways to fix it. Active improvement is satisfying. Improvement is most rewarding in a skill we’ve wanted to learn for a long time.

Of course, we cannot have our moments of success, inevitable failures, or notable improvement without dedicating time to our craft.

An Incentive for Consistent Practice

It may just be me, but when I have and commit to a journal I feel guilty for not adding an entry. Although I’m aware a journal isn’t a living entity it feels like an extension of myself. To improve at any skill and absorb new concepts we have to constantly expose ourselves to them.

Failure to constantly expose ourselves to something new is a recipe for disaster. Our brains are wired to regularly remove connections which aren’t used frequently, especially if they’re newer. This wonderful process is called pruning — a learner’s mortal enemy.

When we commit to consistently create and post a video journal — even just for ourselves — we create an accountability metric. A video journal’s effectiveness is magnified even more if we tie it to a bet or some secondary form of accountability.

Even a bad practice session still progresses our desired skill — assuming we practiced correctly. Granted, this won’t be nearly as effective as a good session with deliberate practice built in, but we’re at least keeping the neural connections alive. Consequently, the next time we practice will be marginally easier.

An additional benefit of consistent practice is the chance for our daily learning to become a habit. Unfortunately, habit formation is not a quick or easy process. One study found it takes 66 days on average for an activity to become a habit. Since 66 days is an average from one study your mileage may vary, but it’s still helpful to prepare yourself for a long crawl.

Habit formation may sound like a drag but it’s powerful. At least 40% of all human activity is habitual. We want to be forming helpful habits whenever possible. Our brain loves repetition and interprets it as a signal of an activity’s importance. Repeated activities are likely good so we lower the required energy to start them.

Consistently practicing a new skill, hobby, or even the art of learning itself will allow us to start performing the skill with less effort. When the required energy to start an activity is lower, we’ll be more inclined to do it for longer. Consequently, we’ll enter a positive loop where we find ourselves practicing for longer and improving towards general competency quicker.

When we practice consistently we reduce the fear associated with something new and increase the likelihood of making practice a habit. A video journal gives us the initial push and the added incentive to keep learning something new until the practice becomes ingrained.

Documents the Learning Session’s Efforts

“Document, don’t create”

-Gary Vee

Over time, I’ve become convinced about how right Gary is about this manifesto. A lot of people I look up to and follow do basically this. If our goal is some level of notoriety, fame, or influence, digital documentation is certainly the way to go for the foreseeable future.

I’m not sure why, but recently there’s been a shift to strongly value individual experience. Previously, what was primarily important was the opinion of gatekeepers, experts, and data — this isn’t to say person anecdote hasn’t always been powerful, but socially it carried less weight than it currently does.

Even if internet fame isn’t our goal, we can still benefit from the idea of documentation. Consistent practice is great, but capturing our process for later review is better. Documentation frees us from two things — the burden of remembering and the need for perfection.

Capturing an experience or experiment in real time used to be much more difficult. Often we’d have to write about what we wanted to capture retroactively. Although the practitioners of the day had a strong enough memory to do record accurately enough, the retroactive recording still introduces a weak link.

Human memory is fickle, we’re easily distractible, and we’re more likely to be biased than a camera simply taking in the light it receives. When we outsource the burden of remembering we’re free to focus entirely at the task at hand — usually generating better results in the process.

I can hear the choir of “video isn’t a perfect solution either.” Cameras require batteries, they can malfunction, etc. All of these criticisms are also true of humans. Cameras are less biased when it comes to documentation — get over it. I’d bet the threshold for failure on a camera is lower than that of a human. Why would we rely upon them otherwise?

A lot of us, especially adults, don’t like trying new things because we don’t want to appear dumb or inept. When we’re doing something just for kicks and to record the process for personal use it takes the pressure of performance off. Creating a low-stress commitment is especially important for the early stages of learning a new skill.

Removing as many potential barriers as possible — including our egos — is the key to long-term success. If nothing else, we can retort “failure’s always an option” because the entire journey is a learning process. We’re not expected to be perfect — let alone good — when exploring something new.

Documentation allows us to accurately capture our practice sessions to target specific skills for practice. While we can become hyper-efficient in using documentation to review and tweak our practice, we can also use it as a shield to prevent perfection analysis. A direct result is intentional, long, and difficult practice sessions that feel more like fun than work.

Future Encouragement

Motivation is a shit master, but a great companion.

Only amateurs rely upon motivation to get difficult important work done. Motivation is fleeting and fickle. Those who accomplish worthwhile things have toiled long after the initial motivation has vanished.

With that being said, motivation is an important catalyst and pick-up during the trials of a worthy slog. In any long-term endeavor, we experience the dip. The dip is where we’re at our absolute lowest. The initial motivation we had is gone and we’re not yet skilled enough to be interested in the knowledge or skill we’re trying to acquire.

If there was ever a moment where we were most prone to flip a table this would be it.

On the other side of the dip is the promised land. We’ve finally learned or developed enough to engage a new skill meaningfully. At this point, we start a slow upswing into happiness and fulfillment with our given endeavor as our competence grows.

Surviving the dip is a matter of having a sufficient reason to endure the suffering and a system of accountability which ensures we put in the required time. Although we have an app for many things, we have not yet figured out an app to skip the grind of skill acquisition.

Reflection of our progress is one way to re-motivate ourselves. It’s easy to see the enjoyment we first had, even when doing the activity poorly. The fact we’re able to see the joy in doing something poorly and have enough skill to see how bad we were are two promising signs.

Our video journal, especially if we choose to share it with others, also creates an accountability metric. Whether this is through a bet we’ve made with a trusted friend that we won’t miss a day of practice over a period of time, our newfound following of interested strangers, or self-commitment.

The way in which our video journal holds us accountable doesn’t matter. What is more important is that it holds us accountable by creating a consequence — otherwise known as holding us “beneath the sword” (props to Thomas Frank for this tip in his habit video found here)

Contrary to popular belief, consequences can still be encouraging. When done in the right way for the right person it’s as effective, if not more, than reward as a form of encouragement. A properly formatted video journal acts as both the carrot and stick. It can encourage us to move forward when we’re feeling down or prod us to keep going when we need a kick in the ass.

Potential Teaching Material

“In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”

-Phil Colins

Personally, I find teaching to be one of the most rewarding things I can do. I love the feeling of taking someone from being lost about a subject to understanding the things they need to know. Throughout college, I chased this rush by being a tutor — both paid and unpaid.

An unintended bonus of tutoring was a continuation in my learning of a given subject. I believe it’s true what is often said about teaching. As I went to teach people the subjects they asked for help in I had to make sure I understood the concepts on a fundamental level.

Explaining how to do something to someone else requires you to understand the whole process front to back. The joyous surprise of tutoring is even when you think you understand something, a student will invariably ask you a question you don’t know the answer to right away.

Their perspective and learning process also forces you to better understand the material by contemplating it in a different way. While you’re mastering an individual subject you’re also learning how to teach.

Effective teaching is a skillful art in its own right. It’s an adventure to learn how to teach people well and a fun challenge.

Video journals give you ample material to help other people learn the same process, techniques, etc you used when you started and progressed. Now, I know what you’re thinking “who would ever want to learn for me, I’m a nobody and there are people far more talented than I am.”

While both of those thoughts may be true think about it from when you are/were learning something new. Did you prefer to watch videos of an expert who talked so far above your head you couldn’t understand anything or someone who was just a little farther than you who knew exactly what you were thinking and probably doing wrong?

I’m going to wager you chose the second option. Learning is hard so there are always more people who are novices than intermediate and beyond in skill. Once you develop past the initial learning phases you know more than a sizeable population of learners.

Consequently, it wouldn’t be ridiculous for you to start creating lessons for people who are at the same level you just moved out of. Not only could you better relate to their struggles, bad habits, etc. but you’re also less intimidating.

Those factors directly benefit whoever stumbles upon your lessons. But, teaching is a two-way street. Invariably, you’ll be asked questions which will force you to expand your understanding. Also, you’ll encounter a student who knows more about some other aspect of the same skill you’re working on than you.

Through these interactions, you help other people grow while growing your own skill in your craft. It’s a classic win-win scenario.

How to Use for Optimal Results

A video journal is actually quite easy to do. I’d bet you have a smartphone of some kind and ready access to the internet. If this is the case, then you have everything you need to start creating and preserving a video journal.

After you finish recording the day's lesson on your phone, all you need to do is save the recording and upload it to YouTube or your video hosting platform of choice. At this point in time, I recommend YouTube primarily because of its size, infrastructure, and popularity. Also, as far as I know, there are no storage or upload limits. The only limiting factor is your internet connection.

If you want to get a little more involved, you can edit out the unimportant bits, and then upload the condensed practice log. Either method is effective. The main reason you may want to condense the recording is for upload time and data considerations depending on your internet.

If you’re practicing a digital skill (design, coding, etc.) you can still use this method. The only difference is you would record your screen instead of yourself.

Several free screen capture software exists. If you’re on Windows (blasphemy for some I know) then OBS works pretty well. On Mac, it’s even easier since it’s a built-in feature in newer versions of the OS. Even on older versions of Mac OS, it’s a pretty simple task. This article gives a quick and easy rundown on how to record on Mac.

There are other alternatives, but both of the ones I listed are free, fairly intuitive, and will do the job well enough to get you to just start learning.

The hard part becomes forming the habit around constantly recording our practice. Even the best methods have a single point of failure — us. If we don’t record the practice sessions and use them to review and improve, then this idea is pointless.

As always, we’re the weakest link in our own endeavors. Once we create a habit of recording our practice habits, the rest of the analysis and improvement comes a lot easier than before.

Film Daily Practice

Before you begin practicing for the day be sure to set up the camera or recording software. Do a 2-minute test to make sure you’re recording. Even professional YouTubers have forgotten to record important footage. Incorporating a test film prior to practice will save you heartache and frustration later.

After you set up the film simply practice like normal. It’s pretty simple after that. In general, it’s helpful to follow best practices for filming. Ensure the lighting is adequate for you to see what you need to see, minimize background noise, etc.

There are many articles and videos that go into this far better than I could and they’re only a quick Google search away.

The higher quality recording you can make the better. It’ll make the subsequent steps of reflection and analysis a lot easier. As an added bonus, if you decide to eventually upload these in a public fashion to YouTube or another video sharing platform you won’t get angry comments about the recording quality.

Several successful YouTubers started their careers on recordings done from their phones. If it was a good enough method to launch some of the most successful YouTubers, then it’s good enough for our personal use. Besides, if you find you enjoy the process or want to teach people you can always upgrade the equipment later.

Bias towards action, especially when we’re concerned with doing or learning something new, is vital. As we discussed previously the specter of fear and self-doubt often keep us from even trying. If we’re not careful, a focus on not being able to start because we don’t have optimal equipment becomes a new excuse for procrastination.

So, in the spirit of minimum viability, here are the three things which will get you well on your way to documenting and experiencing something new.

  1. Phone
  2. Adequate Light and Soundscape (consider a ring light for your phone)
  3. Flexible Tripod

Using these three things together provide a more than ample basis for capturing your practice. While capturing the actual practice is important, there’s another important aspect which often doesn’t get discussed in the rapid learning community.

Film Reactions to the Practice Session

When we process new information we generally process it emotionally before intellectually. Learning is often regarded as a cerebral activity. A direct consequence of this association is the disregard for the emotional development which occurs while learning.

I find this is less discussed but equally as important as the more obvious aspects of knowledge creation.

Emotional reactions to our practice sessions also have a lot of hidden knowledge we tend to discount. Our reactions tend to work on a subconscious level. By processing the emotions we also process the lessons we captured on the subconscious level.

There’s also a less efficient reason to do so. My first sentence was that learning is fun. I strongly believe we should enjoy the process of learning as much as possible. Especially when we’re picking up something because we want to we should constantly be checking in with our feelings.

If for a long stretch of time we’re not enjoying the process, it may not be worth if picking up the skill. There are some cases where we need to pick up the skill for work and have to endure the suck. More often, we’re learning something because we think it would be fun. If it isn’t fun, and we’ve tried it for a reasonable amount of time, then why would we continue doing it?

After we capture both our objective experience and subjective reactions, it’s time to go to the film room!

Review and Take Notes

Recall the primary reason we’re documenting our practice is for more rapid improvement. Although recording and archiving our practice is a good start, to take our skills to the next level we need to analyze what we’ve done.

Since we’ve recorded and archived our lessons it’s much easier to review our practice. Like athletes in the film room, we too must watch, analyze, and put our new knowledge into action.

I could easily write an entire article about effective note taking, but we don’t need that for our purposes. There are just a couple of key things to remember for this note-taking process. The first key thing is these notes should be handwritten.

At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, there is something special about writing things out by hand. I think part of this comes from the long-standing wiring in our brains. We know from research that those who write things down tend to have better recall and accomplish their goals more frequently.

The other key to note taking is selective attention. Note, this isn’t the same type of selective attention your significant other may use while you two are chatting. Instead, this is simply a reminder to hone in what’s important.

When we’re talking about learning, the things we care most about is the technique and patterns. Patterns comprise a large part of any skill. If you’re using the right techniques in the right order then you’re already more than halfway home at being competent in any skill.

Intentional review and diligent notes allow us to maximize recording our experience and reaction to it. When we combine well-done documentation

Rinse and Repeat

That’s all there is to this system. Once you establish a habit around filming, uploading, and reviewing your film you’re well on your way to improving more quickly at things you want. As with all habits, frequency makes the practice easier. With enough repetition, we eventually enter an autopilot mode.


Learning is a highly rewarding and virtually endless hobby. It’s good for our health and wellbeing as it keeps our minds sharp and makes us a more interesting person. When we do things of interest we’re more likely to attract other people to us.

Humans are social animals which seek novelty. A commitment to learning is a commitment to become our best selves. Not only does this benefit us, but it also benefits those who rely upon us. We also love to learn because it’s fun.

When we record our learning we create a commitment to the skill we’re trying to develop, give ourselves future material for motivation and refinement, and create content we can later use to teach.

An additional bonus is the increased likelihood of our new activity turning into a habit. Setting up the habit around the skill allows us to practice and develop more rapidly. This is nice because we’ll be able to leave the dip faster if we’re improving faster, decreasing our chances of quitting.

We also realize the barrier to doing most things is lower than we estimate. Even filming the sessions can be intimidating until we realize all we need is a space to do it, a smartphone, internet, a flexible tripod, and a light ring. Most of which we already have or can gain access to if we live in a technologically advanced country.

To close out, I’ll briefly discuss why I’m so committed to this.

Learning has been a long-time coping mechanism for me. It’s one of the few things which can pull me out of my darkest moments and make me feel valuable. Not only is it fun to me, but it lets me feel as though I can contribute.

I’ve also learned that picking up new skills opens new doors I couldn’t see before. It lets me do and experience things I couldn’t have otherwise. An added bonus of all this novelty is time feels slower.

Most of us are familiar with the phenomenon where it’s hard for us to differentiate the days we went to work. My theory is because most work days are the same and our brain condenses the experience since there’s nothing useful in keeping multiple records of the same thing.

When we learn we introduce novelty into our life. Novelty is useful to the brain as it is new information which could be useful someday. As a consequence, we don’t condense the days as much since each of them has something potentially useful.

Slowing time is the best reason to start learning. It lets us live fully and more widely than we would have if we “stuck in our lane.” Although learning something new isn’t easy or comfortable, the results are worth it.

While this motivation was powerful, a combination of life events and a well-timed film have reignited my passion for learning. Recently, I watched clips from Shawshank Redemption. The one which hit home for me was where Andy said, “we either get busy living or get busy dying.”

Around the same time I’ve witnessed people I know endure life-altering experiences — which only served to further drive home the point that I have less time than I think. To me, living a life in pursuit of knowledge which can benefit others is one of the best ways for me to get busy living.

So, which will you do? Get busy living or get busy dying?

Additional Resources

I slowly stumbled into the world of more fun and effective learning. Here is a list of some of the books and things I knew existed prior to starting my journey. I hope these are helpful to you as you start your own learning adventures!

Also, if I missed a resource or you have helpful hints and tips for other people please feel free to drop them in the comments! I’d love to hear about your experiences and the resources you’ve found useful!

Videos and Websites

Mike Boyd (Learn Quick Series)

Scott H. Young (MIT Challenge)

Thomas Frank (College Info Geek)

Tim Ferriss (Self-Proclaimed Human Guinea Pig)

Yes Theory (more about embracing discomfort which is a given when starting something new)

Learning how to Learn (MOOC about effective learning)

Skillshare (not an affiliate)

Coursera (not an affiliate)

Udemy (not an affiliate)


The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast (not an affiliate)

Principles (not an affiliate)



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Dallas Blowers

Dallas Blowers

I’m a nonprofit professional who’s deeply passionate about effective learning, self improvement, and chasing my curiosity wherever it leads.