How to get good at what you like, fast.
Continuously improving your skills at work, in your hobbies, or as a way to pass the time while avoiding social contact, can open new possibilities and even keep you healthier. Your brain works better, and you also practice the skill of learning, which makes getting new skills even easier. Learning effectively is not as easy as just opening up a book, and diving right in, however. If you want to structure your learning in a way that gives you the most benefit for your time, you should become a “full-stack learner”.
Build Your Stack
In computer programming, the term “full-stack” refers to programmers who can create the full product, the consumer-facing front end, the behind-the-scenes back-end, and the bits that get the two to work together. As a learner, your approach should be comprehensive, incorporating experience and practice, involving as many of your senses as possible, and using the resources available to you to make learning efficient.
Create a Learning Plan Using SMART Goals
This is a rare case of a cliche that bears repeating. Setting effective goals for your learning is essential to getting what you want out of it. By creating Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals, you give yourself a better chance of success.
A specific goal gives you something tangible to gauge your progress. “Getting better in music” is vague. How do you know when you’ve achieved it? A specific goal like “play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata №14 from memory without missing notes or dropping time” is a goal that makes it easy to see your progress. This goal is also measurable, as you progress from sight-reading to memorization, and mastery of the piece, you can see how well you are doing. If last week you missed 10 notes and had to stop 3 times when playing, you know your practice is paying off when you only miss 7 notes and stop only twice.
Achievable goals help keep up your motivation. If you’ve never touched the piano, Beethoven’s sonatas may have to wait for a more realistic short-term goal, like playing the relevant scales without stopping, while keeping time. Finally, relevant and time-bound goals are once that motivate you (if you don’t care for music, learning the sonata is not relevant to you), and keep you moving forward. You could, theoretically, learn the sonata over the course of 14 years, plinking at the keys off and on, but chances are that you would abandon the idea altogether.
When you create your learning plan, figure out what you want, why you want it, and how realistic you are in getting to them in a time period that makes sense. Whether you’re learning for fun or for work, setting your sights on the right goals helps the rest of the stack fall into place, and keep you oriented in the right direction.
Organize and Group Your Resources
The internet (or even the local library) has more information than you can process in a meaningful way. Luckily, most skills have a documented path toward achievement. If you want to paint a portrait, you have to learn perspective, proportions, sketching, composition, color theory, etc., in order to structure and create a painting resembling the subject. These skills are discrete and practicable. Approaching a new skill can be intimidating if it’s done in a monolithic approach of “I’m going to learn to paint”. By breaking down the skill into individual steps, you make the learning curve far less steep for yourself.
Luckily, you don’t even have to break down the process by yourself. Use the expertise of others to structure your learning program. You can find curricula created by coaches and professors to get a general outline of which skills and topics you need to learn. Just reading the chapter headings of a comprehensive textbook can give you significant insights as well. A basic sanity check from someone who knows better is always an option as well. By asking a community of professionals whether your learning plan makes sense, you’re likely to get useful feedback and maybe even learning resource tips. By getting in touch with an online tutor, whether it’s for a hobby like music, or professional skills like Python, you can get help from a skilled professional guiding you away from time-wasting traps and detours, and towards a fast, efficient route to becoming proficient in your desired skill quickly.
With the help of professionals, communities, and learning strategies developed by others, you can create your unique, tailored study strategy, and find resources that are relevant to your goals. With the learning structure in place, you can pull together books, courses, and online resources into a systematic approach to learning the skill that is uniquely designed for you.
Use Productivity Tools to Stay on Track
Once you’ve organized your study structure, give yourself deadlines in order to stay motivated. Make a schedule and checklists to keep yourself on track towards your goals. Digital productivity resources available for free can help keep you focused. Setting aside time to study and work on your skill in a calendar with reminders can help keep your focus on your learning goals.
Keeping searchable digital notes is also useful. With tools like Notion, you can create an easy to access and navigate database of knowledge. By taking what you’re learning and organizing it in the way that makes sense to you, you are engaging meaningfully with the information. This helps memory. You can also extract and package your learning into easy to review, bite-sized chunks that makes remembering what you’ve learned a lot easier.
Use Spaced Repetition to Improve Recall
Speaking of remembering what you learned, there is a lot of consistent research that explains how and why we remember or forget information. We also know a lot about how to prevent forgetting of the things you’ve worked so hard to learn. By using spaced repetition, a method of reviewing information at specific intervals that makes long-term memory of information nearly effortless, you can make sure that what you’re learning stays solidly remembered for years.
While this method of learning can be practiced with paper flashcards and boxes, there is a convenient, easy-to-use, and free digital solution for your computer and phone. The Anki flashcards app (and its mobile cousin AnkiDroid) can help you memorize anything. With community-created decks, you can even find something new to learn, though making your own, personalized flashcards is likely to give you the most help in remembering.
Engage With Enthusiastic Communities
Humans are social creatures, and a shared interest can create life-long friendships. As you’re delving into an unfamiliar skill, being alone can hamper your progress, and even get you to give up. By finding inspiration in the community, you are able to share what makes you passionate about your learning, as well as discover effective resources and learning tips that can help you succeed in your project faster.
Of course, studying alone, without distractions can be much better than studying in a group. The actual engagement with the skill and material may need to be done in solitude. Even then, the community can be a great source of inspiration and support in your learning journey. Whether sharing insights or commiserating over frustrations, knowing that you are not alone can make a significant difference in your resolve to keep learning.
Here, too, a tutor or mentor can be key, helping provide guidance and support through the rough patches. Whether you are set on learning by yourself or go the group learning or even school route, it’s easier to get by with a little help from your friends.
Teaching someone else is the most powerful way to become confident in your knowledge. The act of preparing a lesson, or explaining a concept often forces you to clarify what you know. When trying to explain an idea coherently and logically, you will quickly find the lapses in knowledge or understanding that will help you refine your grasp of the subject.
To benefit from this effect, you don’t even have to be a teacher or a tutor. Just taking what you learned yesterday, and making a short YouTube presentation or podcast can help add that little bit of pressure to get your facts straight, and present them well. What’s more, you would be helping someone just like you who learned something different yesterday. You don’t have to be an expert to share knowledge. Even if you are wrong in your understanding, some knowledgeable soul may come along and point out the lapse, helping you further improve your understanding.
Test your knowledge and your methods
Testing can bring back uncomfortable memories from school. The pressure of testing can actually be harmful, especially when administered in a thoughtless way. A poor grade or even the mere stress of the test can be emotionally damaging to a child, and miserable for the teacher. And yet, how can you tell whether you’ve actually learned anything?
Dale Carnegie famously said, “Knowledge isn’t power until it’s applied”. The best way to test what you learned (as well as your learning methods) is to apply that knowledge in practice. If you followed the advice of setting up SMART goals, knowing that you have achieved what you wanted should be easy. By applying your knowledge to the real world, you can gauge how comfortable and effective your skill has become. Seeing results outside of the classroom or study context can also feed the reinforcement loop of relevance. Once you’ve been able to perform that sonata or paint that portrait to the desired result, you know what it takes to do it. The next one will be easier, and the next one after that even more so.
By rewarding yourself with real-world results, you are building confidence, and making learning easier for yourself and others. As you learn something you care about and share that knowledge, you help build a robust learning environment for yourself and your community.