Learning is one of the greatest joys in life and it can also be critical to staying employable and keeping our minds healthy as we grow older. Even with the great rewards that learning promises, however, few of us put much thought into how we might be better at it.
Here are seven practices that will help you take your learning to new levels.
Commit to learning
Most people can get on board with the idea of lifelong learning, but few of us really commit to making learning a regular, focused part of our lives. Commitment means setting clear goals for what you what to learn, how you plan to go about it, and how long it will take. Write your goals and your plan down, and set a specific time each week for reviewing your progress.
Schedule a time for learning
We’re learning all the time, often without even knowing it, but when it comes to achieving focused learning goals, our minds appreciate regularity and rhythm. Carve out a specific time each day, ideally, always in the same place – to devote to your learning activities. Get rid of distractions like e-mail and your cell phone during this time and focus your attention on your learning goals.
I tend to write things down all over the place, which can make it very hard to retrieve the information I am looking for when I need it. Don’t fall into this trap. Determine a small number of specific places where you will store all of the materials related to your learning. Go digital to the greatest extent possible‚ among other advantages, this puts the power of search on your side. And you might want to try Web-based tools like Evernote for note-taking, or Penzu for keeping a journal.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
This one can’t be said often enough. We build and maintain connections in our long -term memory over time. For truly mastering a subject-area or skill there simply is no substitute for putting in the time to review and practice. Of course, this can’t just be mindless, mechanical repetition. You need to really focus your attention ‚ and ideally, your passion ‚ on what you are trying to learn.
Don’t do too much
Multi-tasking and information overload are the enemies of effective learning. The human brain is an amazing organ, but it can only do so much at once. If you want to be successful in your learning efforts, you will have to set priorities. This is a key part of the goal-setting already mentioned above. Determine which learning goals are most important to you now, set aside other goals for later, and eliminate things that really aren’t all that important to you.
Treat your mind and body right
Learning is a physical as well as a mental activity. We need enough sleep each night, 7 to 8 hours for most adults, to ensure that our brain functions properly. We need the healthy blood flow that aerobic exercise can help support to ensure that the brain gets enough oxygen. And there is increasing evidence that our diets can have a significant impact on our cognitive abilities. In short, eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep if you want to be a truly effective learner.
Leaving aside special circumstances like cramming for a test, we don’t learn well under stress. In fact, excessive stress over a long period of time can cause damage to the hippocampus, one of the parts of our brain that is critical for long-term memory. Living and learning are not about some grand, ultimate goal. They are simply about living and learning. Relax, and the learning will come.
Jeff Cobb is the founder of Mission to Learn where he blogs weekly about lifelong learning and self-education in a hyper-connected, Web 2.0 world.
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