How to Learn Something New

The Learning Process

How many times have you thought, “Man (woman?), I wish I could learn how to play piano/karate/basket weaving (insert your own new hobby desire here, obviously).”

I know I do all the time. And a lot of times (read: all the time!) it’s a struggle to understand where to start, how to get into it, and what to do. It all looks daunting. There’s so much to learn about everything!

Step 1: Watch Limitless, get NZT.

Just kidding.

So what are the steps to learning something new? I struggle with this a lot, but I always come back to my tried and true methods for learning things. There IS a method to madness. Before I lay mine out, I would suggest reading some books on change, which is both a mental and emotional process. One of my favorites is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

The Method

So let’s follow a simple method. Your first thought is “Wow I really want to learn this! Let’s do it!”. Then you start researching how to get started. You get easily overwhelmed with the amount of information, decide it’s not for you, and then you just turn the TV back and and kick your feet up.

Don’t do that! It’s really easier than it seems. Step one is to get started. Don’t worry about where you start, the key is to start learning some things, applying them, and writing them down. Begin organizing some thoughts on the matter by taking notes. The key here is to engage your brain and emotions into the new skill or hobby. Because when you do this, you create an emotional connection (a very strong driver of habits) as well as engage our ever-so-powerful subconscious mind.

You’ll probably still be overwhelmed and feel like you’ll never get it, but don’t worry about that yet. Push those thoughts out and just enjoy learning a few tidbits here or there and engage your mind as fully as you can into it. Disregard your plan to learn, how to go about things efficiently, and generally admit you know nothing about what you’re doing. This is always the first step.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity

Once you start doing this, your emotions and your subconscious mind will be making some behind the scenes deals that you won’t realize. They’ll start acting on the new information and organizing, understanding, and developing an approach to the new inputs. This is what that part of the mind was designed to do. To maximize this, we need to engage regularly and consistently (say 5-10 minutes a day) to get that fire stoked. Then we must feed the power of that mind through rest and sleep. We have to take the time off and get enough sleep to allow the mind to start wrapping it’s little fingers around the concepts. It needs to create a new category and filter for this information, through which it will start understanding it better (this is a process called reticular activation). Sleeping is like an amplifier for the subconscious mind, and without sleep it will be like trying to run a marathon without training.

What you’ll find now, is after an initial period of time that may be a day or two up to a couple weeks, you will begin to see patterns and have understanding of this new jumble of information like you didn’t in the beginning. Your subconscious mind will begin feeding your conscious mind it’s work, and you’ll be able to consciously configure plans and understandings of the material. It is this part of the process that most of us (myself included) always think we need to start at, and when we can’t wrap our little conscious minds around it, get frustrated and quit. Don’t be that person, allow our brains to pick up things the way it’s naturally supposed to!

So the next step is to now take your conscious understanding and to begin to develop further ideas and plans around learning it. What do you know so far? What do you NOT know? And realize there will ALWAYS be things you DON’T KNOW that you don’t know. These will come later. But for now, we want to start constructing an organized plan for our new activity. First, what are your goals? What have you learned that you like and don’t like? Does anything about this hobby cross-pollinate with other things you have learned (this is an incredible way to advance the process that will be discussed later)? Create a plan that works for you.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity

Once you have a semblance of a plan, the next logical step is to start acting on that plan. This step is incredibly powerful and often misused. There is an optimal way to execute a plan, and it may not be what you think. Practice makes perfect is a commonly heard, but often misunderstood phrase. To get better at anything, obviously we must practice. But the key is the frequency of that practice, not it’s volume. For instance, two different approaches to learning something may be:

  • Practice new skill 4 hours every Saturday
  • Practice new skill 10 minutes every day

Which one is better? The first gives you 4 hours of practice a week. Wow, you will probably get way better, right? The second is only 70 minutes of practice a week. Ugh, that’s like, WAY LESS TIME. Well, that second one will allow you to learn something MUCH more quickly than the first. Why is that?

Because with the second method, you are using all the systems of change and learning to their maximum potential. These are a plan of attack, your subconscious mind, and your emotions. By constantly engaging these, we create new neural pathways much more quickly in the mind that form habits (emotions). Then, our subconscious mind is constantly receiving new information to further understanding of material, and it will work on this constantly for you throughout the day, and especially in your sleep (make sure you’re getting good quality sleep, which is a topic unto itself). Think of the subconscious mind as interest on an investment (cross-pollination of subjects going on here!). Daily practice is like compounding interest, whereas weekly practice is simple interest. You will get more out of your investment by compounding it. The investment is the skill, and the interest is the frequency of practice.

So, we need to create a frequency schedule. Not everyone has time every single day to practice something. But I would highly recommend not allowing more than 3 days to pass before practicing the skill again if you are serious about learning it. Start small, with 10-30 minutes of practice more frequently.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session

Now we have our machine running. We’re hitting on all cylinders, getting our emotional minds engaged (creating desire and interest), our subconscious minds engaged (amplifying understanding), and our conscious minds (being able to actually execute the skill). Keep up this schedule until you come to your next “ah-ha”. Keep learning new things, keep practicing. Your mind will tell you what to do next very soon. Eventually, it will say, “hey, you should have been doing this all along, add this to your plan!” Planning is, and always will be, an iterative process, not a one-and-done idea. As you practice, a better plan will manifest itself, and so it’s time to revamp the plan.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session
  • Step 4: Update your plan to include all new information you have

Now, you are traveling at about 50mph on the learning curve. You’re getting better, you’re understanding more deeply, you’re obtaining a level of mastery of the subject. How do you reach the next level? You NOW need to up the volume. Your mind is now growing stronger on the subject, and it needs more nutrition to feed it. The nutrition here is the volume of information and practice.

I would recommend first adding in additional days of practice before adding in more time each day. So if you had three days a week of practice, first increase it slowly until you can get to ideally seven days before increasing your amount of time each day (Note: this is dependent slightly on the type of activity; if it is a physical activity, you need to take into account the fact your body physically needs time to rest, so if it’s strenuous, you actually don’t want to get to seven days, and perhaps 3-5 days is the ideal frequency). So perhaps you’re practicing seven days a week now. It is at this time that you should increase the volume of time, so perhaps go to 30-60 minutes a day. Obviously this is individual to each person, so you’ll need to keep practicing to find your optimal amount of time you can stay engaged and actually learning. If you find yourself getting disinterested, note how much time you spent practicing and just move onto something else. This is your subconscious mind telling you it’s full of info for the day, and it’ll need a break of input to sort it all out.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session
  • Step 4: Update your plan to include all new information you have
  • Step 5: Increase training frequency and information volume

Wow, NOW we’re getting somewhere. You’re probably a black belt at this point.

Not quite. Here we are again at another crossroads. You’ve probably learned something you didn’t know you didn’t know finally. Holy crap, is that embarrassing. You mean I’ve been practicing wrong the ENTIRE TIME? Don’t get disheartened. This “failure” is one of the, if not the biggest part of learning (Les Brown has some great speeches on this). You have reached an amount of understanding that allows you to look critically at what you’re doing and understand you’re doing it wrong. Have you wasted your time? Obviously not, look at how far you’ve come already! It’s at this time that it’s time to revamp the plan again. Add or subtract what you need to, keep training, and we’ll get to the next plateau.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session
  • Step 4: Update your plan to include all new information you have
  • Step 5: Increase training frequency and information volume
  • Step 6: Revamp your plan again

The Madness

We’re at a point now where you’re fully engaged in this activity. You’ve created real neural pathways that keep you focused on it, learning new things, and getting better at physically executing the skill. Now that we’ve created the method, what’s the madness?

The madness is simply that it’s a never ending process. “Mastery”  is relative. Perfection cannot be obtained. And this always trips us up. We think we have to be perfect and we think mistakes mean we should quit.

If you change your mindset to one of never quitting, you will truly become a “Master”. This is merely a mindset of always learning, getting better, and accepting mistakes and failures as learning processes. As long as you know that you always have room for improvement, you will be on your way.

So what do you do during the madness period? You repeat Steps 5 and 6 as often as you need to. Constantly change your frequency of training and learning to optimize what works for you, and revamp your plan as often as needed to make sure you’re focusing on the right things.

You’ll find that what you’ll start noticing is that there is always a lagging part of your skill. In everything in life, we have a limiting factor that, unless improved, will not allow us to push forward. So the trick is to improve this part of the skill until you are better at it, then find your new limiting factor and work on that. That’s what is happening when you practice and revamp the plan.

Summary

So follow this plan and I promise you that you will find yourself able to learn new things as easily as anyone. The biggest step is Step 1. Get started, and you will figure it out along the way.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session
  • Step 4: Update your plan to include all new information you have
  • Step 5: Increase training frequency and information volume
  • Step 6: Revamp your plan again
  • Repeat Steps 5 and 6 constantly as you find your limiting factors to continue perfecting your skill