Three Simple Learning Practices

Reading, Attending a Learning Circle & Collaborating

Café Bar Darling where we held one of our editorially minded meetups.

In this publication we are interested in a lot of different forms of learning and many different adjacent topics. We try to keep it approachable but I’m sure some readers see some of the terms thrown around like social, informal, formal, experiential, collaborative or self-directed and have a hard time getting a grasp of what their next steps might be. Although some of those terms are pretty self-explanatory they might also be somewhat obscure on their own, especially if you are trying to find some easy ‘ins.’

Over the summer, I kept up with a great meetup I’ve been attending for almost a year and finally got back in the habit of reading books with quite a bit more regularity. I realized this week that what we do at the meetup and the book reading are actually super simple examples of three types of learning. I thought I’d write them up here, to show how approachable those practices can be.

Rediscovering Books

Eight or nine years ago, I was reading a book a week, something I managed to do for a few years. Not a massive accomplishment but a good bit more than what people read on average and something I was quite happy with. Then Twitter happened. Then a son. Then launching a print magazine.

Before I knew it, my habitual go-to method of learning was a shadow of its former self. That’s a problem because the basis for much of what we learn, the self-directed part where we are led by our curiosity, was there but not followed up with deeper dives into more specific topics, something I usually do through books.

Twitter was probably the biggest culprit in this, from one more social platform to keep up with friends, it has transformed for me into a “research filter” through which I find a constant flow of interesting articles. Before switching to Instapaper, Pocket was telling me year after year that I was in the top 1% of users. In 2016 I used it for only half the year and still managed, according to Pocket, to read the ‘equivalent’ of 42 books. But of course it’s only equivalent in word count, not in depth or pertinence.

This year I put my early summer vacation to good use and finally got back into a semblance of good reading habit. After 4 years of shamefully low numbers, in the 7 weeks since the end of said vacation, I’ve read 7 books. Yay me! Over those weeks my main realization has been this:

It’s not that hard to read a book!

When life and social media happen and you get out of the habit of reading books, it often becomes somewhat overwhelming. When you only manage to grab a few minutes here and there, progress is slow and many books start looking like mountains. That’s something I didn’t even realize until I started a new one a few days ago and, upon closing it, thought “hey, that’s a good chunk of it already done, it can be pretty quick to read a book. I forgot.”

How did I come, finally, again, to this obvious conclusion? Baby steps and an app. For a few months I’ve been using a habit forming app — Momentum but there are a bunch of ways to go about it. You enter some goals, set some objectives and the app reminds you every day. Key for me; the app icon has a ‘todo’ badge counter. Since I keep track of only 4–5 goals, it’s a good enough reminder and small enough number of things to do that I can get it done reliably well. For a while I had it set at “Read a book for 30 minutes” but it was too much for my atrophied reading muscles. I set it at 15 minutes a day and even then I didn’t manage a good streak until our 2 week vacation. But afterwards I managed to keep some good streaks going, the read books started piling up and I was back to a good rhythm.

But first, I had to cull my Twitter list and Instapaper backlog. I let go of some of my FOMO, cut my main list by 60% and got my social media checking and reading under control. [Plug: you can also check out my article Collect & Connect for how I manage what I do keep.]

Then I started being more mindful about the quality of articles I was reading and deleting more liberally when some pieces gathered too much dust or were just not that interesting to me anymore. I also started sending the really long ones to Kindle, making a better (less connected) reading environment for long form. All of that freed up some time and, perhaps more importantly, some mind space for much longer form reading.

I started being more mindful about the quality of articles I was reading and deleting more liberally.

I also picked my books more wisely from the overflowing unreads shelf. I specifically started with the easy ones and the sure bets for my taste. I’m only now inching towards “harder” books. In other words I picked things I was sure to be into, not things I ‘should read.’

In short I:

  • Cut social media (Twitter) by a lot.
  • Started being more mindful of what I read and discarding liberally.
  • Set a low threshold for daily success and worked on streaks.
  • Started with the sure bets and worked from there.

But again, the important point for me: re-discovering that (some) books are not that hard to read (duh!!). It was actually a lot harder to cut the little rush from new stuff coming through the feed than to get into the habit of “real” reading. I couldn’t do one without the other though, and that was the problem.

Participating In a Learning Circle

Last year my friend Rebecca West started a small meetup to get together a few people to chat about some editorially minded topics. We started with only three people and have only added a couple since then. That’s done on purpose, to keep conversations easy and at a size where everyone can participate. We’ve done simple off the cuff conversations, started off with a couple of questions to set directions, we’ve discussed problems, policies, practices, favorite apps or tricks and helped each other out on a few occasions, various combinations of members collaborating on various client projects.

Admittedly, five or six people having coffee for an hour or two isn’t that original an experience but it’s definitely something quite different from exchanging messages on some platform.

It’s something that comes up time and again at various sizes of events; why do we need to meet in person when we already know each other online? I usually answer in two parts. First; we’re humans, we like being with other people, the simple fact of being together in person is a completely different experience that feeds us in a deeper way than purely online. Second; what I’d call bandwidth. There’s just so much more information passing from person to person when you see the body language, emotions, eyes, etc. There’s a reason we use emoji, we’re trying to compensate for what we’re not seeing and feeling.

We’re humans, we like being with other people, the simple fact of being together in person is a completely different experience that feeds us in a deeper way than purely online.

All of us try our best to make it to the meetup every month and walk away, I think, with so much more from having had a chat and laugh together than we do from spending some time on Slack with the same people. (Though both feed each other.)

We don’t call it a learning circle but that’s pretty much what it is, people gathering around a topic and helping each other out. We learn from each other and the experience is richer and deeper because we are sitting together. Super simple.

Collaborating In Sensemaking

A few months ago, Rebecca proposed setting a theme ahead of time and picking some reading material to prepare the discussion. Each month one person volunteers and proposes a theme, about a week ahead of time s.he creates a Google Doc with the location and time, a short intro exposing the theme and usually something like four to seven links to articles framing the topic. The document ends with some questions we’ll discuss in person.

So far we’ve spoken about the use of AI in writing and publishing, knowing when to quit projects and precarity and anxiety in the gig economy. We’ve had some excellent discussions on every topic. In some cases we came to some good conclusions, surfaced a lot of adjacent ideas, learned about unknown publications, apps, services and theories. Let off some steam, had new ideas and made some progress on personal challenges.

We agree on the themes together, the initial articles usually come from a few people, questions from all and answers are created together. In other words; we learn stuff and we do it by collaborating together, by cooperatively making sense of the themes we address. Again, pretty simple. Pick a theme, some sources, study a bit, discuss. Add coffee.

Pick a theme, some sources, study a bit, discuss. Add coffee.

No Singing Required

Ok, I’m aware that I spent a lot more time on the reading bit. I actually left it like that for a reason; I do a lot more self-directed learning than any other type. Always have and that’s fine, when we encourage various forms of learning, we are not saying that you need to do equal amounts of specific things. You pick what you prefer and run with it. People often imagine that to learn collaboratively you need to sit in a circle, sing a song, hold hands and use five hundred post-its. Not so (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it can simply mean sharing your learning goals with some friends, coworkers or a mentor, getting some feedback, some reading suggestions and perhaps checking in periodically. Nothing all that complicated.

Mix it up as you please. But you should definitely try some new ideas and diversify how you gather knowledge and wisdom, it’s good for you.


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.