The human mind is wired to be learning all the time – even during significant parts of the time when we are asleep – but with all the noise, distractions, and interruptions of modern life, it can be hard to find time for truly focused learning.
How can you carve out the hours needed to learn Swahili, master delta blues guitar, understand Aristotle’s view of ethics, fully appreciate the views of that “other” group, or _________ (fill in one of your current areas of learning)?
One of the easiest ways to find more time is by by reclaiming pockets of time from other areas of your life. And, in our current circumstances, when many of us – for better or worse – now have very different daily schedules, it can be a great time to try out some new approaches.
The following are some ideas for reclaiming minutes and hours that you might then apply towards your focused learning efforts. You can look at these as temporary fixes – something to try over a 30-day period. During that time, pay attention to what works for you and what doesn’t – and come up with other ideas for reclaiming time.
I’m not an enemy of television – or, more accurately these days, streaming media. But one episode on Netflix (or Prime, or Hulu, or …) can easily lead to another, and before you know it, you’re watching 150+ hours a month like the average American.
Want to open up a big chunk of “cognitive surplus,” as Clay Shirky put it long before binging became a thing? Tame the TV!
This one is tougher for me – and probably for you, too, if you are here reading this post. I practically live on the Web, and a lot of what I do here is learning related. But, of course, a lot of it really is not – or at least not in a focused way. Cut the random surfing, social media posts and other non-essential activities by even just 20 minutes a day and you free up a couple of hours a week for focused learning.
Of course, chances are you don’t even know how much time you are spending doing non-essential things on the Web (including your phone) each day). Commit to paying careful attention and noting your activities down for a couple of days and then post those notes in a place you can easily see them as you work on cutting back on your random Web time going forward.
Early to bed, early to rise
makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
– Benjamin Franklin
I’m not convinced that getting up earlier has made me any wealthier, but Benjamin Franklin had it right on the “wise” part. Early morning tends to be a great time for solitude – particularly if you have kids in the house. I find I am at my most focused and productive in the morning, but even if that is not true for you, the time can be spent for review and reflection.
Try getting up 30 to 45 minutes earlier. Or if that doesn’t work for you, stay up an hour later. Either way works. (Just make sure you are getting enough sleep overall!)
Okay, total eradication may not be an option, but try taking the now age-old advice of Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, and check e-mail only once or twice a day at a specific time. I’ll confess I haven’t been able to stick with this habit so far, but it is one I truly hope to make permanent going forward.
The world really doesn’t stop when you don’t check e-mail every ten minutes, and aside from freeing up more of your time, your ability to concentrate shoots up when you aren’t jumping from one e-mail stream to the next. Here are some quick tips on reducing e-mail
Do less of it and plan when you do shop. I’m not a big shopper in general, but I know a lot of people are. And even with the little bit of shopping I do, I find that I often end up making multiple trips for shopping that might have easily been handled in one trip if I had taken the time to make a list, review it thoroughly, and plan out my time.
If you can, cut back to shopping only for essentials and plan those essential trips well.
If your work allows it, punch out earlier or show up later. Certainly that’s a much more viable option these days, when so many are working at home. So, take advantage of it if you can.
If you can’t really change when you come or go from work, find ways to squeeze more out of breaks. If you can take 60 minutes for lunch, use the first 30 for eating and the other 30 for reading, practice, reflection – whatever applies to your learning.
How much time do you spend reading a daily paper (online or off), checking in on CNN or ESPN, or tuning in to NPR news in the car? I don’t advocate living in ignorance of what’s going on in the world, but try cutting out news for 30 days and see how much you really miss. Probably not a great deal, and in the meantime you free up a lot of time. If you go back to daily news, try cutting down to 20 minutes or less.
If you make social commitments after work, or business meetings, or whatever, stop making these plans for 30 days and use this time for focused learning.
Our current circumstances make this potentially a much easier one to try out. You probably aren’t doing anything social after work anyway, so pay attention to how you could use that time and take advantage of the chance to establish new habits.
Do you volunteer or serve in an organization or are you a member of some group? That’s a great thing – and I don’t advocate dropping these activities. But often those who volunteer over-extend themselves and commit to doing more than is reasonable.
Are there things you are doing that someone else could easily do? Perhaps you could recruit a new volunteer to share or take over an activity. You’ll strengthen the organization in the process and also free up some time.
Do chores around the house and/or yard often take up a chunk of your day? See if you can minimize them, just for a month. Relax your standards a little. Or do a speed-cleaning stint once a week for two hours, and don’t clean the rest of the week. Do your laundry once a week rather than multiple times. For yard work, hire a teenager to do it for a month.
You get the idea. Reassess after a month and consider how you might keep these activities to a minimum going forward
A lot of our time is spent getting from one place to another, and that’s often prime time for learning. Whether you are in the car, on public transportation, or self-propelling, cut off the music and NPR and plug in an audio book, an educational podcast (like Leading Learning) or some other form of instructional audio.
The car, in particular, can be a great place for listening to books with fellow travelers or – if you are alone – practicing a foreign language. If you have to drive, make it count!
Sometimes just dropping everything, putting on a good pair of shoes, and heading out the door can be the surest way to cut the distractions and free up time for focused learning. I try to make this sort of learning walk as much of a daily habit as possible.
Take a long your phone loaded with some educational content if you like (I’m a fan of The Great Courses), or just use it as a time for reflection. Aside from learning a little, you will also be contributing to your physical well-being (which, in turn, supports your overall brain health and your memory.)
As the points above make clear, to find extra time really isn’t really all that hard.
What’s harder is truly reclaiming it for focused learning once you have found it. As with most worthwhile thing in life, just making the decision and getting started is often the hardest step. So, make that decision and get started today.
If you apply just a handful of the suggestions above, you could easily find as much as 30 minutes to an hour a day for focused learning. Over the long run, that can make all the difference.
Some notes on the origins of this post:
I am a fan of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits and have been thinking for some time that I would like to take him up on his “uncopyright” and create a series of Zen learning habits. This post is based on Leo’s 15 Ways to Create an Hour a Day of Extra Time … for Solitude.
For me, solitude and focused learning go hand-in-hand, so it seemed like a great starting point. I have kept many of Leo’s original 15 points, though have consolidated some of them into single points and added two of my own – Maximize learning in motion and Take a walk. I have also re-written all of them. In other words, I haven’t completely lifted Leo’s writing – I’ve mostly just used it as inspiration.
Title photo licensed from 123rf