I love learning a new skill. I love exploring a new subject, and I love developing an eventual sense of mastery. Luckily, one of the strategies I use to boost my career and keep my CV up-to-date is to concentrate on developing an in-demand skill set. An up-to-date skill set is essential in the job market, but unfortunately, learning a new skill requires a significant, consistent time investment. It can be difficult to find the time for learning when we lead such full lives, even if you are incredibly enthusiastic about the subject matter.
In my quest to learn new things, I’ve wasted time by starting a couple of online courses and never finishing them. From my experience, the times that I’ve failed to finish an online course are the times when I also haven’t been realistic about the amount of time needed for each course and the consist effort that I needed to put in. Luckily, I’ve been able to learn from these attempts, and now my overarching strategy is not to rely on my willpower alone, but to try and automate my learning. The strategies below help me to do that.
1. Setting a goal — a meaningful goal.
When I’m trying to motivate myself to study rather than to watch Sex and the City re-runs, it helps to have a very clear reason why I’m studying. For example, I’m currently learning Spanish on Duolingo because I’m going to Barcelona in August. I’ve got the very strong incentive of not wanting to get lost when I arrive, and so I’m diligently doing my 20 minutes of practice a day. Having a clear goal of why you are learning what you are learning, and how it will help you in the future, is really helpful if you are tackling something which is really hard.
2. Setting a clear study plan.
Once I have a clear goal, it’s also very important to define what I want to study. One of the drawbacks to using free or low-cost learning options is that there isn’t anyone telling you exactly what you need to learn. I try to turn this around and spend time constructing a study plan that suits my needs exactly. I visit blogs and find recommended Coursera courses. I also go beyond browsing online courses and find books to read; I also follow the subject matter of specific blogs. Most importantly, I figure out how I’m going to demonstrate competence in this new skill of mine.
3. Limiting myself to one skill at a time.
As someone who loves learning, I want to learn everything all at once. I want to learn to code, to cook Thai food, and to understand the history behind sustainable cities. After trying to devote myself to learning several skills at once, I’ve firmly committed to prioritizing what I want to learn (according to the value that the skill or knowledge would add to my career or my life) and focusing on learning that one skill alone. Sadly, this means that I will probably not become a pottery wizard this year, but learning to code is probably more useful to my life right now.
4. Incentivizing myself.
Sad to say, the course that I’ve actually spent the most time on is a course that I’ve paid for, even though I began taking it during a very busy period at work. My financial investment in the course motivated me to finish it, despite the distractions and challenges (so I didn’t waste my money). What I’ve learnt from this is that I respond to incentives, so I use them in my learning. In order to avoid budgeting extra money for incentives, I link already planned (or free!) treats to my learning milestones. For example, I postpone a manicure until I finish a book or promise myself a walk when I’ve finished half an hour of studying.
5. Using my commute.
I spend an hour and twenty minutes on the train every day. I usually budget about 20 minutes for vegging out on the way back from work. This leaves an hour to use for study. That comes out to five hours of dedicated study a week. And honestly? I feel much better about my commute when I know that it’s being productively spent.
6. Schedule at least one evening of learning a week.
That means setting aside time the weekend before for an evening where I stay in and don’t watch a TV series or do job-related work. Even allowing for an hour to relax and eat, I can comfortably do two or three hours of studying. My designated day for learning is Monday. That way, I can bask in my achievement for the whole week. As a bonus, staying in to study is a great way to save money.
7. Friends supporting friends.
An accountability buddy is a great form of motivation, and I lean heavily on my friends who are trying to learn skills as well. This is particularly useful if we are both trying to learn the same skill. If we are not learning the same skill, we are still immensely useful to each other on an emotional and camaraderie level. My friends and I check in on each other’s learning goals, schedule study dates with social study breaks, and celebrate progress together.
8. Use strange bits of down-time.
If I’m waiting for a friend or for a meeting, I use that time to read a quick article, go through a vocabulary list, or do a quick exercise on CodeAcademy. One of the ways in which I do this is by putting a useful app on my phone. I’ve already mentioned Duolingo, but the Kindle app is also really useful if I’m busy reading an e-book (which is also convenient reading for my commute).
9. Removing Distractions.
This is not so much about finding more time, but about using the time I have wisely. I try to conscientiously ban myself from checking social media while I’m studying. I find that the Pomodoro Technique really helps me to increase the amount I’m actually able to get done while studying.
This means that I can maximize the time that I do manage to carve out of my packed schedule, which is a huge victory when it’s so easy to always say that we “never have the time.” We can find the time, we just have to use it well.
Hannah Schultz is an instructional designer with a passion for helping people to develop vocational skills. You can check out more of her writing on her blog, Thoughts On Learning.
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