Habits of Learning

Remixing some lessons from Leo Babauta

Some tea to go with those Zen Habits? Photo by Cole Hutson on Unsplash

Leo Babauta is quite an interesting character. Mindful minimalist, vegan, father of six, he’s been writing Zen Habits for years and years, written 5 books and run multiple courses. He also shares everything freely, having opened up all of his content for uncopyrighted and free. A very productive, centered and fascinating person to follow.

One of the things he writes about regularly is learning. I thought it might be useful to dig through some of his posts and assemble something of a process based on various articles. He writes and thinks a lot about how our minds work and how to change our thinking.

The Best Motivations

It’s much easier to get started (and then keep going) on a new learning goal when it’s aligned with some kind of deeper motivation. In this first article, The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning, Babauta identifies four “less-than-best” motivations; a big goal, wanting to make quick progress, “it sounds nice” and creating your ideal self.

This last one is interesting because it’s something we often do and he’s not advocating against it but rather saying it’s not a good motivation week to week. In the latest issue of the We Seek Newsletter, I link to a talk by James Clear where his whole method can be seen as oriented to become your better self but since it’s angled that way, the steps and tricks he proposes are focused on getting better every day and “tricking” yourself in short term rewards. You could say they both acknowledge the same difficulty and address from different angles.

Babauta then proposes four better motivations to base our learning on.

Curiosity

So try to examine how much curiosity you have for the thing you’re learning. You can spark the curiosity sometimes, but other times it’s better to scrap what you’re learning and find something that really gets you curious.

This is something that we cover often here and in the newsletter, curiosity to me is the first and greatest motivation for learning new things and actually, in a way, something that detracts from “learning” as an activity. People learn all the time but when they are following their curiosity they don’t notice and don’t work at getting better and more effective at it.

Exploring something new

An interesting distinction here where curiosity is from within while exploring, as he presents it, is where you willfully decide to let yourself drift:

Allowing myself to explore in a less disciplined way is often the more sustainable method of learning. I let myself play, let my curiosity lead me, let the discovery be the goal. Try loosening up on your learning and allow yourself to have fun discovering.

I entirely support this but would argue that for most people that’s actually something to keep an eye on, because our curiosity not only leads us to explore but also astray, becoming a form of procrastination. Hard balance to find.

Doing it with someone else

In e180 ‘parlance’ this one fits in squarely as an integral part of collaborative learning. The below quote could almost be someone explaining why they do braindates.

I also am very motivated by wanting to help the other person, and while doing something for myself is also a great goal, doing it for someone else helps a lot.

Helping others, asking questions, exchanging knowledge, pushing each other, being accountable. All great tools in progressing and staying motivated.

Caring deeply about it

So what do we care about? That’s a question we have to ask ourselves, and if you have an answer, that’s a great thing to devote yourself to learning. If you don’t have an answer, then devote yourself to exploring that question by learning different things.

I think that’s also a good thing to think about when learning at work or for client projects. Finding places where you are inherently motivated are of course ideal but when you need to dig into topics that are “lesser fits,” searching for an angle to care more deeply about them would help the work or project.

To prove that you can take on difficult things

But that’s when real learning happens — when things are difficult and you push through, when you are failing and wanting to quit. We learn by pushing ourselves into uncomfortable areas, and if we always quit, we’ll never get very deep into anything.

Again relating this to e180 thinking, this is what we would call experiential learning, where you are not only going through theory or talking about it but actually in front of a new experience, a challenge or problem you need to face up to. It’s hard but it’s an incredible learning tool.


By the way: the CEO of e180, Christine Renaud, gave an excellent talk at the Montréal Creative Mornings where she explains our three pillars; self-directed, experiential and collaborative.


Four Keys

Jumping on to another article, The 4 Keys to Learning Anything, Babauta uses a similar structure, writing about four key problems he faces and then offering four keys, tackling each. They prove to be four great tips for anyone.

Small Focuses

Ignore all the vast uncharted territories for now, shut the rest of the world out, and just be in this one place. Just study this one thing. One small step at a time, a few small steps each day, and we can explore a lot over time.

I’d attach this to “creating your ideal self” above and to Clear’s method. Finding small focuses as you go, each with it’s small boost of motivation can keep you going towards a bigger and longer term goal.

Flip Failure on Its Head

So instead of looking at failure as “bad,” we have to flip it on its head. Failure is a lesson, an opportunity to get better, a wise old teacher telling us where we need to focus our learning efforts.

We’ve mentioned this multiple times at We Seek, the cult of failure sometimes obscures the fact that the goal is not to fail and move one but to learn from it and this is exactly the correct framing, failure as lesson.

Find Enjoyment in the Process

When we’re learning, instead of focusing on where we want to be, we can enjoy the particular focus we’re studying right now. We can be grateful for where we are, for having the opportunity to learn at all. We can enjoy the falling down, and any progress we’ve made so far.

Analogous to the small focuses key but seen as mindfulness, as paying attention to the process.

Learn to Relish Uncertainty

So uncertainty can be enjoyed if we think of it as play. If we think of it as creation, learning, exploration, curiosity, finding out, experimenting, openness and newness. It’s courage.

I’ll mention procrastination again. Often when we keep pushing back things we have to do, we are afraid of the uncertainty around that thing, noticing that behaviour and twisting the uncertainty into exploration and play can certainly help.

The Method

This is taken from Babauta’s article How to Train Yourself to Stay Focused and I’m repurposing it here as a super simple method in achieving learning goals, although obviously it can be used for anything.

Staying focused on one task at a time, at least for some of the day, will help you get the important things done: writing, programming, studying, taking care of finances, creating of any kind, and so on. Those things tend to get pushed back, but staying on task will increase your effectiveness with the most important things by leaps and bounds.
  • First thing in the morning, before checking anything online, pick the one Most Important Task and work on it first.
  • As soon as you sit down for work, set a timer for 15 minutes.
  • Work on the MIT exclusively, not switching to anything else or any other app. This is the nice twist; if you are blocked for some reason, sit and watch your urges to switch. In other words; meditate, be mindful.
  • Report to your accountability partner. Find someone you can work with on this method and report after each focus session.

Do this for two weeks and then add a 10-minute break and a second focus block, do that for a few weeks, then add another, etc.

Personally I like to work in 90 minutes sprints but they end up being blocks of time more than focused sprints, I’ll be trying the MIT method within my first block of time of the day.

For a twist on the MIT above, I’d recommend you have a look at the Ivy Lee Method. It’s an old trick coming from the consultant Ivy Lee working with Schwab in 1918, here written up by James Clear (again). Instead of picking a task in the morning, you prepare your top six the night before, prioritized, and work on the first right from the beginning. Also have a look at Shawn Blanc’s The Note trick which is very similar and specifically for writing.

Learning is the work

In short; start from good motivations, keep the four keys in mind when you are stuck and find your MIT, Ivy Lee or Note trick to be effective and focused first thing in the morning.

I’ll end with one last thing; I’m aware that I’m going from motivation to learn something to methods for focus and getting things done. It might look like I’m conflating learning and working and… I am. Learning is the work and the work is learning. Not all the time of course, but even outside of work, our interests inform what we are good at and that often informs what we work on. And whatever the reason for exploring and absorbing a topic, being purposeful, aware and organized in that pursuit is always a plus.


e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.