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5 Key Focus Areas for Enhancing Life and Learning

I have found the following to emerge again and again as areas of life and learning that need continual attention and reinforcement for the dedicated lifelong learner. They are areas I continually work on myself.

To be clear, these are indirect strategies – they don’t have to do with the content of your learning or with activities specific to learning (like for example, effective note taking or testing yourself). Rather, these are more about establishing and maintaining a solid foundation and receptivity toward learning. I’ve also included some additional resources with each. Enjoy.

Mind the Body

We tend to undervalue the connection between our physical well being and our desire and ability to learn. That’s a big mistake: there is abundant research to suggest that sleep, exercise, and nutrition all impact learning in significant ways. It’s worth investing time and effort to improve in the following general areas:

  • Sleep

    It’s well established that the average adult needs between 7 and 8 hours a night, every night – which means most of us need more than what we are getting. Among other benefits, sleep helps us to consolidate learning and form long-term memories. And being well-rested makes us better able to pay attention – a necessary precursor for most learning.

  • Exercise 

    We haven’t yet found all of the “whys” when it comes to the connection between exercise and learning, but clearly exercise helps boost cognitive function and it can contribute to better memory and recall. Aside from those benefits, regular physical activity simply makes you feel better – which can help boost overall motivation – and it helps support good sleep habits.

  • Diet and Nutrition

    The debate around “what to eat” seems to be never ending, but clearly both mind and body need good nutrition to perform at optimal levels. My recommendation is not to chase after “super foods” or give in to the latest supplement fad. Rather, focus on eating a varied diet that covers the major food groups, don’t eat too much, and if you need to, try to drop any excess weight you are carrying.

For additional information and tips see:

Cultivate Focus

I’ve become more aware over the past year of just how easy it is to become distracted and unfocused in our efforts to learn and grow. Maybe the Internet, smart phones, and other modern conveniences are making the situation worse; maybe every age has its equivalent of these distractions. Regardless, learning tends to require a certain degree of attention, focus, and consistency, so it makes sense to develop strategies that help. Two keys strategies include:

  • Reflection 

    We’re constantly taking in new information and experiencing new things. That’s as it should be, but finding meaning in it all and maintaining a sense of direction and purpose is very difficult if we don’t take time to pull back, contemplate, and connect the dots. I recommend doing this for at least 10 to 15 minutes daily and carving out longer periods of reflection throughout the year.

  • Mindfulness

    This is a new one for me. In spite of a longstanding interest jun Zen Buddhism, it has only been in the past year that I have begun meditating with any regularity. Specifically, I’ve been pursuing mindfulness meditation. There is quite a bit of research suggesting the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, but one of the longer term benefits I find most attractive is that the mindfulness you cultivate through dedicated meditation practice begins to spread into your everyday life. The awareness, attention, and overall increase consciousness this shift produces can contribute significantly to our effectiveness as learners.

For more on focus, see:

I also recommend Leo Babauta’s excellent manifesto Focus (Free and premium versions available). For mindfulness, there is no better starting point than Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners.

Tend Your Networks

Humans (even introverts like myself) are social beings, and most of our learning is socially influenced. That being the case, it makes sense that the quality of learning in our lives is directly impacted by the social networks we maintain. That includes our tight, active networks: the family, friends, and colleagues we rely on and interact with regularly. It also includes our loose, often relatively passive networks:the people whose blogs we read or who we follow Twitter, for example. It is important to pay attention to and “tend” both of these types of networks. Tending includes:

  • Feeding

    Getting real, long-term value from your networks requires contributing value to them. It’s worth periodically asking yourself what value you have contributed recently to the networks that are most important to your learning.

  • Growing

    Growth for the sake of growth (something many popular social networking platforms seem to encourage) is not of much value, but it is important to continually seek out people whose ideas and influence can stretch you. What kinds of people would it be valuable for you to connect with in the coming year, and how will you go about it?

  • Pruning 

    Any good landscaper or arborist knows that carefully trimming old growth is one of the keys to ensuring robust new growth. The same applies with social connections. I find this is particularly important with loose connections. I periodically evaluate the blogs I am reading, for example, cut quite a few, and seek out new ones that are more in line with my current learning needs and goals. The same can be true, though, of our closer connections: sometimes real growth means the people you have been hanging out with before aren’t going to be the people you hand out with going forward.

For more on networks, see:

Build Self Esteem

I’ve come to believe this is the most important point in this list, but I’ve put it fourth because I think the previous three points serve as a foundation: it’s hard to maintain high self esteem if you don’t feel particularly good, are unfocused, and aren’t surrounded by a supportive network. And I think it is impossible to learn and grow to the fullest extent possible if you don’t have a healthy regard for yourself. Two key concepts apply:

  • Growth Mindset

    Stanford professor and psychologist Carol Dweck has demonstrated through years of research that the key factor separating successful people from less successful people is simply the belief the former have in their ability to learn and grow. Less successful people have a “fixed” mindset, a belief that whatever ability they have is innate, and can’t really be changed in any significant way. Once they hit the wall, that’s where they stop. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, view hitting the wall as a learning opportunity. They pick themselves up, evaluate, learn what they can, and keep going.

  • Competency 

    Learning – and ultimately, success, however you define it – is a series of small wins. That may seem obvious enough, but a failure to recognize our own progress, our own “small wins” is often the chisel that chips away at self esteem. I feel like the concept of competency has hit tough times lately. We hear so much about “mastery” and the need to be remarkable. While these are, no doubt, admirable goals to aim for, it is by building competency in small steps along the way that we fuel our motivation and construct a solid foundation for future learning.

More on the growth mindset and competency. (I have not really written directly about self esteem before, but plan to do so in the weeks and months ahead.)

I also recommend Carol Dweck’s book Mindset as well as Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do, which discusses competency and its relationship to motivation.

Master Your Time

I think you have to decide the first three really are priorities in you life, and you have to have a sufficient sense of self worth before you can really master your time. But master your time you must if you want to learn deeply and effectively.

By “master” I don’t mean that you have to become obsessed with productivity and “getting things done.” Nor do you have to slavishly set and labor towards goals. You do, however, have to take seriously the idea that time is your most precious asset – both for learning and for life in general – and, as such, deserves not to be squandered. There are four key components to mastering your learning time:

  • Block

    First, you have to consciously set aside time for focused learning and defend that time ruthlessly. Put it on you calendar. Do not treat it as optional. Do not let other activities bump it around or off your schedule. This is your time, and you deserve it. (See “Build Self Esteem” above.)

  • Chop

    Be realistic about what you can accomplish during any given period of time. On any given day, for example, it is hard to focus on more than one or two major ideas or projects, and it is hard to accomplish more than a few smaller tasks if you really want to remain mindful and attentive and maximize your learning. Chop your list ruthlessly to the few things that are most important right now. (See “Cultivate Focus” above.)

  • Chunk 

    Within the time you set aside for learning activities, provide time for pauses and rest. The human brain can only maintain attention and focus for so long before it needs some relief and diversion. As a general rule, plan on no more than 40 minutes or so of focused activity at a stretch, followed by 10 to 15 minutes of rest or less intense activity before starting another more focused session.

  • Calibrate

    Finally, you will need to adjust and calibrate all of the above over time to find your own sweet spot. The main trap to avoid is trying to accomplish too much and, as a result, becoming demoralized and potentially losing confidence (see “Build Self Esteem” above). Remember: small wins ultimately lead to success. The goals is progress, not perfection.

More on time and learning. (I haven’t actually written much about this before, given my general aversion to the productivity industry, but I’ve decided it’s time to get over that and do more in this area soon):

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So, those are some key areas I focus on, both in my own life and learning and in my writing here. What about you? How will you address the above areas in your own lifelong learning in the coming year? On what other areas will you focus? Please comment and share your thoughts and plans.

About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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