“Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.” — Alain de Botton
If someone randomly asked you: “What are some things you want to learn?”, you can probably come up with tons of answers. And that’s normal — all of us have an innate desire for new knowledge and skills.
But for many of us, our goal to learn new skills just stay as goals, and don’t become a reality. Or, we only pick up these skills when we’re forced to do so, like when we sign up for a class, or are thrown into a new project or job.
But we can’t always rely on being forced to learn. What we have to do is to be more purposeful & strategic about how we learn new concepts and skills.
If you take a look at some of the most successful people in the world, they all made it there not by sheer talent or luck, but by constant growth and learning.
They took the time to think about what they want to learn, how to learn it best, and how to schedule the time for it. Then, they doubled down in applying those learnings to create successful outcomes for them.
In this article, I’ll be outlining my framework on how I created a system for constant learning for myself. I’m writing this mainly for other students, who want to learn more about how best to learn the concepts/skills they want to learn.
Over the past 3 years, I’ve been able to make time to learn about concepts I’m really interested in, from growth hacking to Bitcoin and blockchain. I’ve also been able to learn a number of different skills for my career, such as UI/UX Design and Front-End Web Development.
These are things I thought I wouldn’t be able to learn when I was younger, but by using the right strategies and resources, I was able to. Now I’d like to share some of the steps you can take to learn new things constantly too.
“Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard.” - Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr
The most important step in creating a great environment for learning is knowing what to learn first. So you should make a quick list of concepts you want to learn, and skills you want to pick up, for the next few months.
Some possible concepts you can put are Bitcoin/cryptocurrencies, health & fitness, or mental health. Meanwhile, some possible skills are learning to code, how to get better at design, or learning a new language.
After writing or typing down your list, what you’d want to do is to rank and prioritize them. You want to rank them based on criteria important to yourself. Some criteria could include: “Will this help me in my career?”, “How passionate am I about this?”, or “How hard is it to learn?”
You can even do this on a spreadsheet, and put a score over 10 for each criteria, for each concept or skill. Or, you can just rank them by yourself intuitively. These are just suggestions to help you decide.
Ideally, you should be able to strike out concepts or skills in your list that aren’t that important to your career, that you aren’t as passionate about, or that are too difficult to learn in the timeframe.
You’d want to keep your list of things you’re learning limited to 1–3 things at a time, because that’s how you’ll keep yourself focused. Also, you’d want to make your list of things to learn to be more specific, so you’ll be more focused when you go about learning them.
The next step is to figure out what your learning style is, because that will determine how you can learn the most and the fastest.
There are many different ways to categorize learning styles, but a popular one is the VARK model, theorized by Neil Fleming. Fleming says that there are 4 main learning styles — Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic.
Visual learners prefer images and graphics more. If you’re the type who loves watching videos to learn, then you’re a visual learner.
Meanwhile, auditory learners learn best when they hear it, or hear someone speak about it. If you’re an auditory learner, finding a teacher or a podcast is the best way to go.
Read/Write learners prefer learning through reading words. If you love reading books, then you’re likely in this category. Lastly, kinesthetic learners prefer experiencing and practicing something to learn about it.
Of course, in reality, most of you will fall into more than one category. And, you’re likely to use more than one category to learn a skill or topic.
For me, I used to be a very visual learner — meaning I needed to watch videos, like online courses, to learn new concepts or skills. However, I’ve since learned to use podcasts/audiobooks and books/articles to learn as well.
So give some thought about how you think you’ll learn the best. For most people, videos will be the most effective, but podcasts/audiobooks and books/articles are also quite effective for learning.
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” — Niels Bohr
A better strategy is to find someone, hopefully within your network, or a respected writer online, who has learned that specific skill or concept you’re trying to learn.
Then, you can ask that person to recommend to you some paid or free resources he/she used and loved. Also, instead of reading a generic list of courses online, you can find articles by an author online, who can recommend 1 or 2 courses that he/she loved.
Of course, it’s best to find a resource that multiple people say is great. What works for one might not work for you, and there might be a better resource already. The point is to keep looking until you’ve found an article, book, video, or podcast that looks reputable, interesting, and informative.
One of the most important steps is to also schedule in the time to learn. Whether you’re a student or already working, you’re likely to already have a busy schedule. And that’s why it’s easy to slip up and not have the time to learn.
But whether it’s 20 minutes or 1 hour a day, all of us can devote a small portion of our time to learning. You can cut back on other non-valuable activities, like scrolling on Facebook or Instagram, to make time for learning.
For me, I make sure to listen to a podcast when I eat breakfast, or read a book on my phone or laptop while waiting before a class. I make sure to spend most of my free time learning, and I’m sure you can too.
“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” — Booker T. Washington
When you find yourself immersed in a new skill or concept, it’s best to be learning it with someone else too. That way, you can keep each other accountable. You can share to each other anything you find unclear, or just have someone to motivate you.
What’s even better is if you can find someone to check up on your progress, and give you advice. When I was learning about UI/UX design, I was lucky enough to have a mentor — my friend Alexis. If you’re wondering how to find a mentor for yourself, you can read this article, written by Alexis himself.
While I was working on a website design project, Alexis would look over some of my designs, point out where I was lacking in, and give me advice on how to improve. Having that fast feedback loop allowed me to improve really fast, and I encourage you to find a team or person that can mentor you or learn alongside you.
Of course, even if I’m very focused on productivity, I can’t help but use social media too. It’s how I keep updated about my friends, local news, and school-related updates. However, I’ve also made sure to redesign my social media feeds in a way that value-adding content pops up.
I made sure to like the pages of publications, like TechCrunch, which writes about tech news and updates. I make sure to read or bookmark any design or career-related articles on Facebook, especially those shared by my friend Alexis. I subscribe to YouTube Channels like The Verge and Vox, both of which make really great, informative videos.
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” — Mortimer Adler
Lastly, one of the best ways to fully learn a concept or master a skill is to teach that skill to others. This is a method popularly called The Feynman Technique, named after Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist.
The Feynman Technique basically is about doing 4 steps. The first is to pick a concept you’ve recently learned. Next, you should write or say an explanation of the concept, but you need to notice where you struggle to explain the concept.
After this, the third step is to look up resources that can help you explain the concept better. Then, after researching, the last step is to change your explanation to make it simpler and clearer. You can repeat steps 2–4 until it’s simple enough for your audience.
I’ve noticed how in my own life, it’s the talks or workshops that I’ve been invited to give, or the concepts I’ve needed to explain to others, that I’ve mastered the most.
For example, I had to learn the concept of journey mapping as part of my internship at Shopee last summer, because we had to make a journey map for the company. I researched as much as I could about the concept, and I proceeded to make notes, and then make the journey map.
A few days later, my friend Pierce happened to message me, asking if I would be willing to give a workshop — on Journey Mapping. What a coincidence.
I saw the workshop as an opportunity to master the concept more, so I accepted it. I prepared as much as I can, writing out what I’d say, and seeing where I needed to explain things more. Now, after having given a workshop about it, I’m a lot more confident about the topic.
Once you’ve learned what you set out to learn, and once you feel you’ve mastered the skill or concept enough, such as by teaching it or writing about it, then it’s time to move on.
Revisit your list of things to learn by doing step 1 again, and move on to the next items to learn. Or, look for things to add. Have fun with it!
All in all, there really is no excuse for not learning regularly. There are a myriad of ways you can learn new skills and concepts, and you can spend as little as 20 minutes a day to doing so.
If you’re the type who needs to be forced to learn something, then I suggest you choose a class or course, online or offline, that forces you to learn your desired skills/concepts. Or, you can take an internship or do freelance work that lets you learn and improve in that skill better.
If you’re the type who is too busy with work or school, there is still no excuse. The time you spend eating or commuting can still be spent listening to a podcast or watching an informative video.
If you need to destress, there are tons of videos that are both funny and informative. I love the Silicon Valley TV show exactly for this reason.
So there really is no excuse. Of course, if you’re not used to spending this much time for learning, you can take one or two days off to recover.
But after a while, you’ll get used to constantly learning, and you’ll see how it can be so satisfying to learn. So go out there, use the steps in this article, and be more strategic about learning.
It can be a lot of fun.
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Brian Tan is a 21-year-old UI/UX designer and writer from Manila. He’s also the Vice President for Human Resources at User Experience Society, the first student organization for UX Design enthusiasts in the Philippines. Get in touch with him at [email protected].