“The day you stop learning is the day you die…one way or another.”
That was my grandfather’s counsel. Though he never went beyond the 5th grade, he never stopped learning. He didn’t learn through academic environments, but paid a lot of attention to the world.
My counsel is to be a serious student of the world as you experience it, but also to create systematic plans to learn. This practice, more than anything else, will help you avoid the regret of looking back over the years and saying to yourself, “I wasted a lot of time, and could have learned so much more.”.
A learning plan is focused on learning new information – practice and feedback are important, too, but a learning plan is primarily about expanding your base of information. Your brain has enormous capability; some neurobiologists have estimated that a typical person could learn 7 facts every second for 200 years!
Professionals take charge of their own learning plans. They don’t wait around for someone else to define it for them. Professionals solicit help from others to accomplish their learning plans. How much time should you invest in a learning plan? Here’s my suggested target: 2 hours a week, 100 hours a year. To put that in perspective, 2 hours is 1.2% of a week. Think about how much you can learn in 100 hours!
For some people a steady 2 hours a week for a whole year is not going to work as well as a season of 5-8 hours a week. It’s your plan, so make it work for you.
Here is the four-step process for your learning plan:
- Decide what you need and want to learn.
- Identify sources of information.
- Schedule time to actually consume the information and learn.
- Assess the results, and update your plan for the next season of learning.
Easy-peasy! Naturally, I have some detailed recommendations to add.
Decide what you need and want to learn.
Apply the 80/20 rule – focus 80% in your strength areas, 20% in new areas. For the 80% of your effort, ask these two questions: What’s most relevant to your primary occupation and interests? What are strengths you can build upon by expanding your information base? Continuous learning in these areas gives you depth.
Focus 20% of your learning plan in areas that are completely different. This is your best strategy for developing breadth. What could you learn about architecture, cooking, motorcycles, film editing, ice sculpture, astrophysics, carpet manufacturing, 3D printing, etc. – areas which are completely new to you? Most professionals do not give much thought to new areas, and yet this information will seed tremendous growth in the future. Cross-disciplinary awareness is a strong foundation for innovation.
Identify sources of information.
The most common sources are:
- Webinars, teleconferences, podcasts, local group meetings
- Personal interviews with experts
- Books, magazines and blogs
Recognize your preferred modes of input and choose sources accordingly for efficiency – you almost certainly are either a reader or auditory learner. I can read text much faster than I can get through podcasts, for example, but I try to use audio and video materials to round out my reading.
In addition to the default approach that most of us have – a Google search! — don’t overlook your local librarian. They are experts at helping you find information and identify what’s most relevant to you. Also, Amazon reviews are good for helping you figure out if something is at the right level for your needs.
Schedule time to actually consume the information and learn.
Nine times out of ten, what gets scheduled gets done. Professionals block out time on the calendar for the important, but not urgent work, including learning.
You may have trouble breaking down a lot of material into “chunks” that fit your schedule. I encourage you to think “seasonally” and “piecemeal.” For example, if you want to learn more about architecture, find a book or some magazines in the field, and leaf through 2 chapters and one magazine a week over 4-6 weeks. Don’t overcomplicate the process.
For longer learning topics, create smaller milestones around focused areas. For example, shift your thinking from “get better at presentations” to “identify ideas to help me open presentations better”.
One final tip: Create an external reality to hold yourself accountable for results. I will often tell friends what I’m working on, and encourage them to ask me about what I’m learning. Another tactic is to plan to teach someone else about what you learn.
Assess the results, and update your plan to make 2015 your best year ever.
When you finish a learning block take a few minutes to assess how well it went. Were you satisfied with your effort? What should you do differently next time? Are there materials that you can pass along to others? I often find that I surfaced new things I want to learn about, and make notes about those interests for future learning plans.
You can do this. Don’t make your learning plan too complicated at first. Just pick one topic to learn about, find good materials, and schedule time to work through it.
Your learning plan is a living document. I set up a task reminder to update mine 3 times a year.
Do you have any other tips for developing and using learning plans? What’s been your experience?