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, or _________ (fill in one of your current areas of learning)?
One of the easiest ways to find more time is by by stealing pockets of time from other areas of your life.
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.
- Television. I’m not an enemy of television. There are shows I like enough to tune into weekly or order on Netflix. But one show 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 has put it? Drop the TV !
- Internet. 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. Cut the random surfing, tweets and other non-essential activities by even just 30 minutes a day and you free up a few hours a week for focused learning.
Early to bed, early to rise
makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
– Benjamin Franklin
- Get up earlier. 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 creative 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 60 minutes earlier. Or if that doesn’t work for you, stay up an hour later. Either way works.
- Email. Maybe this belongs with “Internet,” but I think e-mail is enough of a time sink on its own that it needs to be mentioned separately. Try taking the 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 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. (For a great resource on this one, see Tim’s Change This manifesto on e-mail elimination.)
- Cut back on shopping. 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.
- *Leave work early. If your work allows it, see if you can leave work earlier. If you have a smart boss, the only thing that will matter is if you’re getting your work done — not how long you’re in the office. So really focus on getting the essential work done within the time you have, and leave an hour earlier. Or, go to work late. The flip side of the above suggestion. Again, this is if your work allows it.
- *Take a longer lunch. Sometimes it’s easier to squeeze out extra time for your lunch break than it is to come in early or to leave early. If you can take 90 minutes for lunch, use the first 30 for eating (pack a lunch if possible) and the other 60 for reading, practice – whatever applies to your learning.
- Go on a news diet. 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.
- *Don’t do anything after work. 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.
- Trim civic commitments. 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.
- Minimize housework/yardwork. Do these chores take up a large part 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 yardwork, hire a teenager to do it for a month. Reassess after a month and consider how you might keep these activities to a minimum going forward
- Cut out non-essential reading. To even talk about cutting into reading pains me, but I do a lot more unfocused, undisciplined reading than I really should, and I’m betting you do too. Cut out magazine reading and most book reading (unless it’s essential) to give you some extra time. This will also include cutting out newspaper and Internet reading, as mentioned above.
- *Minimize recreation. Partying, drinking, playing sports, playing video games … however you spend your free time, see if you can cut into that time.
- Use car time efficiently. Cut off the music and NPR and plug in an educational podcast or CD. The car can be a great place for listening to books or practicing a foreign language. Be sure to pay attention to the road, though!
- Take a walk. 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 as much of a daily habit as possible. Take a long an iPod with some educational content if you like (try LearnOutLoud or iTunes University), 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, can help your memory.)
If you find any of the above particularly effective – or not – in your life, or if you have other ideas for reclaiming time, I’d really appreciate it if you would comment and share with other readers.
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 nearly all of Leo’s original 15 points, though have consolidated some of them into single points and added two of my own – Use car time efficiently and Take a walk. I have also re-written all of them except for the four with stars. In other words, I haven’t completely lifted Leo’s writing – I’ve mostly just used it as inspiration.