Each of us is physically active, even if only in very small ways, throughout each and every day, and yet we all realize that true physical fitness usually only comes as a result of a conscious, consistent exercise habit. So it is with learning.
Our learning never really stops, but once we reach the stage of life where there is no longer a teacher standing in front of us on a regular basis, it usually becomes a much more haphazard affair. I happen to be a fan of random, haphazard learning, but like most devoted lifelong learners, I also appreciate the sense of fulfillment that comes from really focusing and mastering a new topic or skill.
Reaching this kind of fulfillment demands that we establish clear learning habits, but we often fail to do so. Read on for why that is – and, more importantly, how to overcome this situation and make learning a habit.
The Main Problems
Where do we tend to fall short in making learning a conscious, regular habit? Here are some of the main pitfalls I know I encounter:
1. No real goals
I wrote about the importance of setting learning goals recently in relation to my own struggles with learning to play the guitar. It’s easy to pick up a little bit of new knowledge – a chord here, a scale there – but the path to true accomplishment requires a clear goal and consistent habits in support of that goal.
2. Too many goals
Often we set out to do too much. We want to learn a new language, become a black belt in karate, and [fill in one of your own] all at the same time. In the short term, this can feel exciting and fulfilling, but over the long haul, spreading out our focus in this way means we are unlikely to achieve any of our goals.
3. Too difficult
In our enthusiasm for learning, we may set goals or try to establish habits that are simply unrealistic. “I will practice for an hour a day,” just may not work in your life right now, and trying to force it will lead to frustration and, ultimately, giving up. I think being realistic is one of the main areas where discipline factors into learning.
4. Low motivation
Let’s face it: lifelong learning is not all fun and games. There are times when it is important for us to acquire new skills or knowledge that we may not be all that passionate about. Discipline helps, but discipline only takes you so far if you can’t find ways to boost your motivation.
The 4 Simple Steps
So how do we overcome those problems? Keep it simple. Here are the four steps to start – or jump start – your learning habit and keep it going.
1. Set one easy, specific, measurable goal. There are several keys to setting your core learning goal:
- Write it down: If you don’t write it down, it’s not important. I recommend actually putting it on paper and posting it somewhere you will easily come across it several times a day. Alternatively, if you are bit of a techie, have it load up automatically on your computer desktop.
- Make it easy: Start with something you know is a slam dunk – like practicing an instrument for 5 minutes a day – and build from there. Success breeds success.
- Be specific: Be crystal clear about what activity are you going to do, at what time of day, and where. Don’t just say “practice” or “read”. You have to set a time, a place, and specific activities. Make it an appointment you can’t miss.
- Set a trigger: It might sound a little Pavlovian, but it’s a good idea to have a “trigger” for your habit. For example, you might always brush your teeth right after you shower. The shower is the trigger for brushing your teeth, and because of the trigger, you never forget to brush your teeth. Well, what will you do right before your learning habit? Is it right after you wake up? Right after your coffee? Right when you get home? A trigger that you do every single day is important.
- Make it measurable: By measurable, I mean that you should be able to say, definitely, whether you hit or miss your goal today. Examples: Practice scales for 10 minutes. Read 5 pages. Write 3 paragraphs. Each of those has a number that you can shoot for.
- Stick to it: Stick to this one goal for at least a month. Two months if you can bear it. Don’t start up a second goal during that 30-day period or you will endanger the success of your first goal.
2. Log it daily
It may sound trivial, but keeping a short, simple record of your daily activities can make a tremendous difference. It helps you see your progress; it helps you remember and reflect; and it can help keep you motivated, if motivation is a problem.
Make brief notes right after your daily learning activity. Don’t put it off, and say you’ll do it before you go to bed. As soon as you’re done, log it. No exceptions. And don’t make the log complicated — that will only make you resist doing the log. Just the date, time, and what you did. This simple approach to taking notes is very powerful. (Personally, I’m a fan of Moleskine Cahier notebooks for this purpose.)
3. Connect with others
I’m too much of an introvert to say you have to declare your goals and your progress towards them to the world. Besides, there is plenty of research suggesting that making your goals know can actually be counter-productive.
Nonetheless, most of us do benefit from adding a social element to our learning, and I think that connecting with others who share our learning interests – whether online or off – is a very important part of a successful learning habit. Connecting with others helps keep us more conscious of our learning goals, holds us more accountable to ourselves, and brings new perspectives and knowledge to our learning activities.
So, consider starting a blog – and commenting on other blogs. Find an online forum. Join a book group. There are any number of ways to connect with others in support of your learning habit. The main thing is to find ways to take action related to pursuing your learning goals and find support in a community of learners with similar interests.
4. Apply discipline as needed
The first three steps will take you a long ways towards developing a consistent, focused learning habit, but more may be needed at times. As I have noted before, “to master the ability to do anything requires discipline.” If you find you are struggling at times, you may want to try out these 7 Small “Mind Shifts” for When You Lack Discipline.
Master these four simple steps – which were adapted from Leo Babauta’s 4 Simple Steps to Start the Exercise Habit – and you will be well on your way to achieving your learning goals. Along the way, you may want to check out some of the other Zen Learning Habits posts here on Mission to Learn.