4 principles to help you learn more effectively

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There are countless skills you could spend time mastering. Learning how to learn should make the top of your list though. If you are able to refine your ability to learn, the other skills will be a cinch.

Gone are the days when the only way to get a quality education was via formal education institutes. Self-learning is bigger than ever, and it doesn't look to be going anywhere. This is thanks to the ubiquity of information provided by the internet. The vast wealth of quality information available online is mind-boggling. Having an effective method for gathering and synthesizing this information is crucial.

The following principles will help you to become a better student, and master the art of learning.

Have a goal

Don't set some nebulous goal like "Learn to code" or "Learn about Finance". These are too vague and have no defined success criteria. The most important thing about sustainable learning is setting a goal, and keeping it in sight.

Define what success would look like for you, and work backwards from there. You can always adjust this as you go, it isn't set in stone. Instead of "Learn to code", be more specific. "Learn enough JavaScript to make my personal website". Instead of "Learn about Finance", how about "Learn enough about personal finance to understand and put in place an effective monthly budget".

Try to keep the scope of any single goal small so that it remains achievable. Don't decide to "Learn Nuclear Physics" and then give up after a week when you realise what a massive undertaking that is.

Know how you will use this information

Human brains are a funny thing. They are capable of storing vast amounts of information, but only when the circumstances are right.

Synapses are the physical representation of memory in your brain. They form and strengthen through use and repetition. To keep information and store it for long-term use, you need to build synapses. This process is easier when the information you are trying to store is relatable. If you are learning something new, with no frame of reference for how it will help you in the long run, or how it relates to what you already know, forming new synapses and linking this information into your existing memories will be harder.

To combat this, having a plan for how you will use this new information, and where it fits into your knowledge and skill set is important. If we take a look at the earlier example of "Learn enough JavaScript to make my personal website", we can see the context for this information right there in the goal. You want to make a website. You know what a website is and how they work from a high level, but now you want to dig in and learn the inner workings. Having this frame of reference will allow you to construct a more robust mental model, and keep the information far easier than if you dive into the deep end and have no way to build the information upon what you already know.

Take Initiative

As with anything worth doing, the key to success is consistency. Nobody can learn for you or force you to learn. Your learning and development is your own responsibility. You may be fortunate enough to have resources made available to you to assist you in your endeavour. Some companies offer workplace L&D programmes. If yours doesn't, don't fret. There are enough free and affordable resources available that it is a non-issue. One thing which you might be lacking is time.

A lot of us lead busy lives, and finding a chunk of time to dedicate to learning can be tricky. For some people, waking up at 4 am is an option. Maybe negotiating with your boss to dedicate some time to learning is a possibility. Whatever your situation, there is a way you can make it work. If you resolve to better yourself, you will find the way that works for you.

Everything in moderation

Too much of anything is bad for you. This is true for physical exercise, and mental exercise too. Make sure that you balance your learning efforts with adequate rest and recovery time. We know synapses are important for forming and retaining memories and skills. Sleeping is an important part of the Synapse creation and maintenance process. When we sleep, our minds and bodies undergo important routines to make sure everything is in working order. Our brains clear out built-up waste products and strengthen new and existing synapses. Without sleep, your learning capacity plummets. Do not take time out of your sleep cycle to focus on learning, find the time somewhere else if you can.

This barely scratches the surface of the wonderful world of self-learning, but hopefully, it is enough to inspire you to take the leap, and actively work towards cultivating knowledge of your own accord.

Comments (2)

Emily Boston's photo

Hey Cameron Pavey, great article. Please tag this post with "General Programming" for more reach.

Cameron Pavey's photo

Thank you for the suggestion! I've added the General Programming tag now.