Tactics for learning after formal education

Learning does not become less valuable just because you finish school or university. But it does become more difficult. A job, a family, or both now take up most of your attention. You lose the structure and curriculum formal education provides, the credentials that might have incentivised you, and the guidance of teachers and tutors.

What can you do to make it easier to learn effectively after formal eduction ends?11Which, by the way, you really should.

I have found the following tactics particularly helpful:

  1. Assess progress by what you can actually do
  2. Curate a list of learning goals
  3. Study in intense 25 minute sessions
  4. Read broadly
  5. Prioritise your health

Assess progress by what you can actually do

It is easy to fool yourself that you are learning. Reading a book, attending a lecture, and working through examples are not the same as learning. Learning is gaining the ability to do something you could not do before. Reading a book on leadership does not mean you can lead a team. Attending a lecture on storytelling does not mean you can tell a good story.

The first step towards effective learning is to assess your progress by what you can actually do. Not by how many books you have read or how many lectures you have watched. Those activities may be important, but only if they serve your learning. You make progress when you can do something of value that you could not do before – say, when you can lead a team or tell a good story.

To keep yourself honest about what you can do, test yourself frequently. Do not assume you can lead a team – lead one. Do not assume you can tell a good story – tell one. Eagerly seek out proof of what you can and can not do.22There are two ways that a human being can feel confidence. One is knowledge, and the other is ignorance. — Charles Darwin

This may seem obvious, but it is rarer than you might think.

Curate a list of learning goals

Learning is (usually) not a goal in itself. You learn things because they help you live a more fulfilling life. But there are potentially thousands of useful things you can learn and you don’t have time to learn them all.

Choose what you want to learn by curating a list of learning goals. The higher up the list a goal is, the higher priority it has. Express these goals in terms of what you should be able to do. Do not set deadlines – you can not reliably predict how much time you will need to learn a skill or when you will be able to spend that time.33Schools have deadlines, but I think that is usually a bad idea. David MacKay’s Everyone Should Get an A is worth reading (though I believe universities have better reasons than schools to have deadlines).

You are done when you can do what the goal says.

This list is your curriculum. Review it regularly and ensure it reflects what you want in life. Pick learning goals you are excited about, but don’t undervalue fundamentals. Without solid fundamentals, higher level skills will be weak and harder to learn.

Remember that skills fade and define goals with this in mind. Acing a test 3 months after studying the topic is a higher bar than acing it the day after an intense period of study. Your brain needs repetition to solidify a skill or memory.44Repetition will encourage the development of Myelin sheaths around your neurons. They increase insulation and therefore how easily the neurons transmit signals. See Deliberate Practice.

You can get some repetition naturally by prioritising skills you will use soon; alternatively, schedule artificial repetition to solidify what you have learnt.

Study in intense 25 minute sessions

How experts acquire skills is well researched and the answer appears to be deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a “training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.” (Ericsson and Ward 2007) This takes considerable effort, you can not sustain it for long, and it is not enjoyable.

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Csikszentmihalyi (1990)) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice …

Ericsson and Ward (2007)

To fight procrastination and increase intensity, study in (timed) 25 minute sessions.55Using this kind of session is popularly called the Pomodoro Technique.

These are short enough that you don’t dread getting started and can maintain intensity, but long enough that you can do something non-trivial. Remove distractions during the session.66In particular, turn off notifications.

Take a short break between sessions. Don’t change topics mid-session. If you get stuck, change topic for the next session and return to the original topic the next day (to give your brain some time to process it).

If you want to set targets to push yourself, do it in terms of how many 25 minute sessions you do each day. You can schedule them for specific times or keep them flexible, depending on your schedule. Two sessions per day is a great starting point.

Read broadly

One problem with defining your own curriculum is that you do not know what you do not know. Ideas for military strategy might help you build better products. Complexity theory might give you insights into how to better organise your company. You need a way to find skills that could be valuable to you. To do so, read broadly. Books and articles. Listen to talks and podcasts when that’s more convenient. Skim, dive deep, ponder, and discuss. Be curious. Keep an open mind.

Learning from books, articles, and other sources and not just your own experience is crucial because you get exposure to a much larger set of experiences and ideas that way.77This is also why how many years of experience someone has doesn’t say much about what they can actually do.

Learn from the mistakes of others. More importantly, learn from their successes. Authors, editors, and reviewers give you a huge amount of help in filtering, distilling, and interpreting the experiences of others.

Prioritise your health

When time is scarce, it may be tempting to prioritise studying over taking care of your body, but health is more important. It makes you sharper, happier, calmer, more energetic, better able to focus, and increases your chances of staying active into old age. In fact, aim not just for health, but for fitness.

People are different and there is lots of conflicting advice on how to become healthy. If you were to ask me, I would say: do short, high intensity workouts;88The stretched-out-on-the-floor-gasping-for-air-when-you’re-done kind.

do some form of strength training; regularly work on your mobility; minimise sugar intake; do some form of intermittent fasting; and sleep such that you feel fresh in the morning.

Start small. Good luck.

References

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1990. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance.” NY: Cambridge UniversityPress 40.

Ericsson, K Anders, and Paul Ward. 2007. “Capturing the Naturally Occurring Superior Performance of Experts in the Laboratory: Toward a Science of Expert and Exceptional Performance.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 16 (6). SAGE Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: 346–50.