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08 Jun 2017

79. HOW TO LEARN

Learning is a skill in itself, so before getting stuck into any learning activity take some time to ensure you’re tackling it in the most time efficient way.

Words: Jeremy Snape, Sporting Edge

Given the sheer bulk of information awaiting your digestion or the complexity of the skill you’re endeavouring to master it’s tempting to dive in headlong without delay. But pausing to understand how you learn best and what barriers you might face along the way can mean you make best use of your time in the long run.

Before you do anything else, establish that you have the right mindset for learning. You shouldn’t need to be force fed, you should want it, be curious and proactive about learning new things.

There needs to be an acceptance that you are not the finished article and an understanding of how learning can bridge the gap between your current and desired states. As Lord Coe said to me, “The very best performers have an insatiable desire to find out more about themselves, even if they don’t know what’s around the corner.”

DRIVING FORCES

Understanding why you want to learn is also a good starting point. Consider, for example, whether you are learning purely to achieve a formal qualification, to fill a skills gap, to please or impress others or just because you love finding out new things.

Your career goals and the kind of leader you want or need to become will determine the skills and insights that you require. Self-awareness about who you are and where you want to get to is therefore especially important and can guide you on where to make the fastest gains.

Improving your self-awareness also gives you the chance to reflect on your preferred style of learning, because we all engage with and digest information differently according to its means of delivery. For example, some of us prefer to see teaching written down and memorise information best by writing it down, while others need to hear it spoken or try it out physically.

We all have the capability to learn from each of the styles, but we are usually dominant in one, so figuring out which methods work best for you can help you make the most productive use of your time.

SMALL STEPS

The complexity and sheer breadth of what you need to learn to meet your objectives can be daunting, so it’s wise to break down those goals and the subject matter into smaller chunks. Once broken down into its component parts it will feel more manageable and you can create a realistic roadmap and time plan for getting there.

While you might not relish the added pressure, giving yourself a deadline for reaching each landmark towards your final goal can help to keep you focused and avoid the temptation to procrastinate or give up entirely.

It can help here to ‘think in ink’, making notes as you go along that you can refer back to. When you go out of your comfort zone and explore new areas your brain will be spinning with ideas, so jot them down along with any key bits of information that have really stood out. When it’s in print it exists and you can also photograph your notes and attach them to an email. Making voice notes also works well as an informal, hands-free way to preserve what’s in your head for a later date.

MAKE MISTAKES

We often view mistakes as setbacks, but some of our greatest lessons come from failure. That’s because our motivation to avoid shame and humiliation tends to be much more powerful than our drive to achieve success. Painful experiences often fuel our need to improve, showing us that we have more work to do and often highlighting the areas where that improvement is needed.

The path to mastering a skill is a steep one and the closer we get to the top, the harder it becomes to improve. It’s important to appreciate that it’s the striving that brings the satisfaction, not just reaching the top. Our quest for perfection is great as long as we can tolerate failure and find new ways to progress.

KEEP IT FRESH

It’s natural for the attention to wane when you do the same thing over and over, so it’s important to break the boredom cycle. Keeping some variety in your learning, whether in the venues, people or styles, helps here as it means different parts of the brain are stimulated. Neuroscientist Tara Swart experienced this when she was invited to visit an art gallery while studying for her final exams. “I had been reading text for so long and couldn’t face reading any more or staring at another screen,” she says. “But as I walked into the art gallery I could feel parts of my brain waking up; it was like a massage for my brain.”

In practical terms this could mean the difference between writing some notes in your office, having a discussion on a training ground and listening to a podcast in your car; the subject matter may stay the same but even simple things like moving desks can avoid things feeling stale.

PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT

Malcolm Gladwell suggested that it takes 10,000 hours of repetitive practice to perfect a new skill. Although it’s a nice number I think it can be done faster, but what is certain is that repetition will ingrain the skill. Your brain is malleable and shaped in real time by your experiences and thoughts. When you think or move in a certain way you are connecting different decision-making and reward pathways in your brain, and when these neurones fire together they wire together. Repeating the same movement patterns causes pathways to develop into broadband connections, which soon create automatic habits. This is why it’s better to do no training than to do bad training.