Over the past few months, I’ve put some time into improving how I learn, and I’d like to share some of that in a series on “metalearning” (learning how to learn). While there are many things I want to cover, from mental models to specific tools, the underlying logic will be to look at learning as a process. Taking a process focus has several benefits - let’s walk through some of the biggest to kick off this series.
First, an assertion: bettering your process is the best way to get better at learning. Sure, you could work harder, do smart drugs, or try any number of things to learn better, but I think process is the way to go. Why is that? For one, I’m a former consultant, so I loves me some process design. More seriously, I like processes because they are effort-based, holographic, and compoundable. Let’s step through those:
Effort Based - processes are not defined by what outcomes you achieve, but rather by what work you do to try to get there - that means that you can focus more on what’s under your control and less on what’s not, because life happens
Holographic - if you improve one piece of a process and leave the rest alone, you still improve your overall work. You can largely separate out improvements into discrete chunks and work on one at a time, which is helpful for building habits and sustaining motivation
Compoundable - Since processes focus on getting the work right, rather than only on the outcome (which likely includes factors outside of our control) and you can work on one piece of that work at a time, every improvement you make builds on all previous improvements. Further, since processes are an explicit way of looking at the work you do, you can find where processes influence each other and improve those connections, making both processes better. If you set a goal of losing 15 pounds, once you’re there, you’re done. But if you build a process of living healthier, every tweak you make to your diet, exercise, and sleep will add up until you’re living a significantly different life.
A process is a sequence of specific, repeatable actions, or a collection of such sequences.
Processes don’t have to be documented, but doing so makes them clearer and easier to make better. You’ll also notice that processes need not be habitual - though it’s best to make the most important ones habits.
With the definition above, we already have some processes we follow to learn - we just might not know what they are, and we might not know how well they work (or don’t). So, what’s the first step for making them better? Write them down. To do so, I’m a big fan of mapping them in a diagram (again, former consultant). If you don’t know process mapping, you might check out some of the finer points, but if you’ve ever seen a flowchart, you know enough to get started.
If visuals aren’t your speed, lists or outlines will often do the trick. Since these are our own personal processes, we’re not trying to make them readily usable by anybody. Instead, we want to get to a level of clarity where you, and more importantly, you in the future, can pick it up and know what it means.
To start with, before you think about any ways to get better, you might find it very helpful to map out your “as is” learning process - or at least a subset of it. You might pick one thing you do to learn - say, reading or taking notes or the like. Whatever you pick, write it down in all its messy, haphazard glory. If you already see stuff that you want to change, hold off for now - you want to start with an accurate picture of where you are today. Whatever flaws your current learning process might have, if you’ve been honest and careful in documenting it, it has one, huge positive in its favor: you actually follow it. The so-so approach you do is better than the perfect one that you abandon.
Once we’ve got our process down on paper, we can start looking at bettering it. The rest of this series will go into lots of nitty-gritty details, but here’s a few overall thoughts:
First and easiest, make it a system you will truly follow. Look for things you mean to do, but never follow through. Then make these easier. In the long run, you will likely fail at anything that feels too hard. I’ve talked before about The House that Cleans Itself and its twofold wisdom of setting “good enough” goals and making the right thing as easy as possible. Find ways to make it easier to consistently get close to what you’re after. Find it hard to read for 30 minutes every day? Try 5. Never have your book? Get the Kindle app on your phone.
Next, look for things that you find hard or irksome, even if you consistently do them, and look for ways to make them better/faster/easier. Getting rid of the bad will likely help more than adding new good stuff, most of all when you’re starting out. Pain in the ass typing your notes? Find a way to export them automatically. Miss writing something down because it’s a hassle to get your notebook? Buy a smaller one you can keep in your pocket. Sometimes forget to go over flashcards? Get Anki and set a reminder.
Finally, look for “processes” that are poorly defined. Maybe your “as-is” process just says “Read books sometimes.” In which case, good for you for accurately documenting that. Your next step might be to give yourself some bare-bones steps, like: “1) Find a book that sounds interesting, 2) Skim it to confirm I want to read it, 3) Read it and take notes.” Just by adding those steps, you now have three specific areas where you can look for improvement moving forward instead of the big and fuzzy “reading.”
As you’ve no doubt gathered, there’s a lot of ground we might cover in this series. So I’m not entirely sure where we’ll go. That being said, some of the topics I’d like to dig into include specific learning processes, digital and physical tools, quirks of how the brain works (and how to use them), thinking tools and methods, and selecting learning materials. With such a range of things to talk about, we’ll have to settle for breadth over depth, but I want to really tie together the way that a process-focused approach can help your learning efforts across the board. If any of these topics really get your motor going, please let me know and share your favorite resources.
Last modified on 2019-03-15