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Most of us have a passion to learn something new — whether it's advancing our skillset, picking up a new hobby, or just taking on an entire new learning experience. But unless you're incredibly dedicated to it, learning something new is surprisingly hard to stick with. Here are a few ways to make your new habit stick.
We've talked about plenty of different resources for learning on your own. The problem isn't that the data and classes aren't out there and freely available, it's coming up with the dedication and structure when you don't have a government debt hanging over your head. A recent Open Culture survey shows a number of the most common reasons people don't complete online courses, ranging from the time required to complete a class to simple old learning fatigue. Most of these problems are easy to deal with.
While you might show an interest in something that doesn't mean you'll always stick to it. So, I spoke with Kio Stark, author of the recently released book, Don't Go Back to School (the book should be available on Amazon this week as well) about how to come up with a self-education plan you'll actually stick to.
Find What You Actually Want to Learn About
First things first, you need to figure out what you're actually interested in. That seems easy on the surface, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly what you want to learn or what skills you want to develop. For that, writer Annie Murphy Paul recommends you dig into a few different things to pique your curiosity:
In his 1994 paper, George Loewenstein noted that curiosity requires some initial knowledge. We're not curious about something we know absolutely nothing about. But as soon as we know even a little bit, our curiosity is piqued and we want to learn more. In fact, research shows that curiosity increases with knowledge: the more we know, the more we want to know. To get this process started, Loewenstein suggests, "prime the pump" with some intriguing but incomplete information.
Obviously, this is a step that many people can skip — if you're already interested in something, go for it. Otherwise, resources like Khan Academy, MIT's Creative Learning Lab, Lynda or our own Lifehacker U are great places to start priming the pump to find what you'll learn next.
Figure Out How You Learn Best
We all learn a little differently, and while we're fans of learning by doing, you can't always do that with everything. If you're struggling to keep up your learning routine, Stark recommends pinpointing how you learn:
It's incredibly important as an independent learner that you understand how you learn best. This is something I heard from the majority of my interviewees. It took a bit of trial and error to figure that out, but it was worth it. They felt that their self-awareness was essential to their success at learning, and also made it more satisfying.
Not everyone is the same here, but once you have an idea of how you learn best, you can formulate a plan that gets you there. Stark explains:
Some people prefer to learn on a defined path (syllabus) and others prefer to wing it. Winging it, for the people I spoke with, means starting with the thing you're curious about and letting yourself follow the tangents you need in order to understand what you're interested in or master the skills you want. So, again, some self-reflection really matters.
We've heard this before, and while trial and error is never fun, trying out alternate methods of learning is the best way to focus in on how you want to learn. If one class, manual or project isn't doing it for you, try another one. Sites like Khan Academy are great for some people, but if you're not into it within the first couple of weeks, try another service, or just start winging it once you have the basics down.
If you're the type to prefer the more rigid structure of a syllabus, make sure you create a plan for studying and stick it on your calendar just like you would if you were actually paying for university classes. You can usually fit learning into just about any schedule, even when you're at work. Picture: intenteffect/Flickr
Learn By Doing Whenever Possible
In most cases you're going to learn best by doing. That means practising programming by actually making a program or learning a new language by speaking it. If you're having trouble getting over the learning hump and sticking with it, you might simply need to provide better context for the process. Stark shares the example of a filmmaker:
One way that happens is when you're learning something in a real context. I interviewed Jim Munroe, a novelist who started making films. He says he learns best when he's actually making something, and there are consequences to his decisions, including failure. He said if had learned the principles of filmmaking by being told them, he wouldn't have understood them in as deep a way, or learned the the reasons for the "rules" and when it can be effective to break them.
It's essentially practising in a way where you're still learning, and that might include simply expanding the process so you're learning multiple skills at once. Just remember that you're bound to hit a barrier at some point where you feel like you're not learning anything or you're just a little burnt out. It's not that big of a deal. It's possible to break through that barrier with a break or a change in how you're learning.
Find a Community to Learn With
It's no secret that many of us tend to learn a little better when we're surrounded by other people who are just as interested in the subject at hand. If you're struggling to stick with a learning program because of the inherent isolation of learning on your own, Stark recommends finding a community of like-minded people:
The other piece of infrastructure you need is a learning community. You'll learn together, and a community gives you feedback on what you've learned and how well you've learned it, plus motivation to keep it up. You're also responsible to your community. For example, I talked with Molly Danielsson, who started a business making composting toilets, and learned everything she needed outside of school, including science, product design, and legal issues. She and her partner got involved in the eco sanitation community right away, and decided that "in order to stick with our crazy plan, we had to start telling people about it so they'd hold us to it." It worked.
It's surprisingly easy to find a group of people to learn with in just about any field. Hackerspaces are great for DIYers messing around with electronics or building materials. For everything else, a service like Eventbrite can point you to events with like minded people and communities. Picture: Mitch Altman/Flickr
When all is said and done, it's also important to know when to quit. If you're trying to take on a new skill, learn a new hobby, or you're just expanding your knowledge, sometimes it doesn't end up being as interesting as you thought it would be. That's OK, but if you're still interested, and you're just not able to make a routine stick, the above tips should help. Remember, learning on your own is almost like a habit that requires a schedule and your attention. Even just 15 minutes a day can ensure you're sticking with it, and if you can get yourself started you're more likely to stick to it.