zen habits : breathe

Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges

By Leo Babauta

On Friday, I issued the 30-Day Learning Challenge for June, and you responded incredibly: more than 2,600 people have signed up, and the list is still growing!

As a thank you for joining me, I thought I’d write a couple bonus learning articles this month (in addition to what I’m creating for the Sea Change Program) — this one on tips for learning specific things, and another in a week or two from now. Today I’ll look at your top eight most common learning challenges.

Before we dive into specific learning challenges, let’s talk about some general ideas for this challenge:

  1. Set a specific time for your daily learning session. Block off 10-15 minutes (or more if you have it) and set reminders so you don’t forget.
  2. Focus on learning just one thing this month. Yes, I know, you have 10 things on your list. But for now, it’s better to stick with one.
  3. Find some free learning resources on the Internet to start with. No need to go crazy and buy a course or a bunch of books/DVDs yet. There are amazing free learning resources if you look for 5 minutes.
  4. Make yourself retrieve the information you’re studying. Don’t just read or watch videos — actually use it. Quiz yourself. Put it into practice. Do this regularly so you’re forced to retrieve it before you forget.
  5. Don’t be afraid of hard work. The best learning is difficult. If you only do the easy stuff, it won’t be meaningful learning and it won’t last long.

Now let’s dive into specific learning challenges!

Meditation

What a wonderful thing to learn! Here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. Find a really simple meditation technique if you’re just starting out. Simply sitting and counting your breath is a great way to start.
  2. If your mind wanders, try to notice the wandering. Gently return to the breath.
  3. A tip from my teacher, Susan: When you notice your urge to get up from meditation, don’t follow the urge, just sit there. The second time you have the urge to get up, don’t get up. The third time you have the urge, go ahead and get up. This helps you to notice urges and not need to act on them.
  4. Don’t be afraid to really work to concentrate on your breath. A lot of people allow meditation to be a time when they just sit and think quietly, which is fine, but if you really want to learn meditation, practice concentration. Put some effort into it!

Languages

I’m no master of languages, but I’ve attempted some learning and I’ve talked to people who are much better at learning languages than me (Benny and Tynan, for example). Here are a few things I suggest:

  1. Practice every day. If you can get into the habit of practicing for at least 10-15 minutes a day, you’ll get better even if you suck at it at first.
  2. Make yourself use the language. Don’t just listen or read, and don’t just repeat language tapes — actually find ways to use what you’ve learned. Talk to a language partner (you can find ones online), use it throughout the day whenever you get the chance, take online quizzes.
  3. Use the Anki flashcard system. It’s free, there are lots of language flashcard sets available on the Anki site, and its spaced repetition is the best method for learning available. Do your flashcards daily, even if you suck at first. You’ll start learning inevitably.

Programming

I’ve done a bit of learning with programming (dabbled in Python, PHP, Ruby, Javascript, all are good for beginners), and though I’m far from any kind of knowledgeable programmer, I’ve put in my share of beginner learning. And I’ve actually made some (very simple) working scripts and apps!

Some ideas:

  1. If you’re a beginner, start with a resource like Codeacademy. There are actually numerous courses online, all great — just make sure that they’re having you apply the knowledge they’re giving you, not just reading or watching videos. That’s why I like Codeacademy — they make you write actual code right away.
  2. Once you get past this stage (where you learned the basics of the language), you’re going to need to make some working programs. This is the hardest stage by far, because you know the basics of the language but not how to actually make a program work. Find some super simple projects to work on — a little beyond “Hello world” but nothing too hard. Just implement one feature of that project, and get it running. Then another. Force yourself to the knowledge you’ve been exposed to, not just read/watch some more.
  3. Internet searches are your best friend. Stuck on something? The answer is online — just do a search. Stack Overflow is a great place to find the answers to your question — it’s probably already been answered, so search before asking. But don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  4. After you make your first simple program, make something a little harder. One at a time, learn how to create a user database, how to make a login, how to display on a webpage, etc.

If you’re more advanced than this beginner stage, you don’t need my advice!

Drawing/painting

I’ve also dabbled in drawing, though I really suck at it. That doesn’t stop me from making suggestions!

  1. Sketch daily. Bring a pad around and sketch simple things you see.
  2. Watch a free online tutorial each day, and actually practice what you learned in the tutorial.
  3. Work on the basics: how to draw lines, circles, eyes, then faces. Practice the basics every day until your pencil control gets pretty good.
  4. Post your daily sketches online somewhere. You’ll be amazed at how motivated that makes you, and how much progress you’ll see over time.

Musical instruments

OK, I’ve never really learned to play anything, except piano as a kid (not very far). I’ve only dabbled in guitar, but my kids have taught themselves to play, so I’m obviously highly qualified to give out advice:

  1. Again, there are tons of online video tutorials. Watch one, then actually practice it!
  2. Learn three chords to start with: G, C and D. There are a billion songs with just those chords. Once you’ve learned how to do them, find a song that uses these chords and learn to play it! Using the knowledge will help solidify it.
  3. It takes a ton of practice to get even a little competent. That’s OK, keep at it! You’ll find it getting easier over time. When you do, learn a new chord and a new song.
  4. Play for your friends/family. Tell them you suck, so they don’t expect Stevie Ray Vaughan to show up in their living room, but playing for others makes you focus and really try to learn something.

HTML/CSS

I taught myself basic HTMl and CSS, and Zen Habits is a WordPress theme I coded myself. OK, it’s not that advanced, but the basic skills I learned have helped me a ton with my online projects. And it’s not hard to learn!

  1. Again, for absolute beginners, Codeacademy is a great place to start. They walk you through the basics while you actually put what you learn into practice as you learn.
  2. Build a basic site. Find a tutorial, and actually put a site online.
  3. Learn how to use your browser’s developer tools, and look at the HTML/CSS of really simple sites you like. Rip them off.
  4. I started with a free WordPress theme, put up a live site, and just kept making changes to the CSS until I liked the style. Then I learned to change the PHP tags of the theme until it was structured the way I wanted. Then I deleted a bunch of things (backing up my files first) until I had only the most basic things. Many themes these days use advanced PHP functions to make the site work a certain way … I recommend starting with the simplest themes you can, without a lot of custom functions required to make it work, because those are easier to understand.

Sports or martial arts

I don’t know anything about martial arts, and I recommend a teacher for that. But some of the things that apply to sports would apply to martial arts as well, I would think. What do I know about sports? Not a whole lot, though I’ve taught myself to be fairly OK at basketball, and I’ve taken up running, cycling, triathlon, Crossfit, and strength training at various times in the last decade.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Find some good online videos with the basic mechanics, even if you already know a bit about the sport. I’ve been watching basketball shooting mechanics videos, and it has shown me some things I’ve been doing wrong.
  2. Take what you learned in the videos and actually practice it. Do some drills. If you can, record a video of yourself practicing so you can watch the video and see where you’re going wrong. If necessary, post the video to an appropriate online forum for your sport, and ask people to tell you what you’re doing wrong.
  3. Play an actual game (or spar, if you’re doing a martial art). Don’t just do drills, but play in an actual game against opponents, even if it’s just a casual pickup game. Playing in a tournament or league is even better — it’ll force you to really practice, and you’ll learn much more. You’ll also find out where you’re weak and then you can work on those areas more.
  4. Be patient. The basics take awhile to master. Having a coach who can not only teach you drills and other techniques, but watch what you’re doing and make suggestions, is always a plus. But you can start out by yourself, trying to get some basic competence at the fundamental skills. That takes a lot of practice, but after awhile, you’ll start to get some muscle memory going, and it’ll be a lot easier. It’s like learning to walk: you’ll be shaky at first, fall down a lot, but eventually you won’t even need to think about it.

Subject like history or math

I’ve studied various subjects that interest me, but I don’t consider myself an expert (I’ve never gotten a PhD, for example). That said, I will make a few suggestions:

  1. Quiz yourself before you study something — yes, you’ll get a lot of things wrong, but it will make your learning even stronger, because when you get to the answers in your study, you’ll recognize them as things you don’t know and make some solid connections with that knowledge.
  2. Quiz yourself regularly. It helps to take a quiz right after your study session, but also a couple days later, and a week after that, etc. This regular habit of forcing yourself to retrieve the knowledge will be difficult, but will interrupt your forgetting and make the learning last longer.
  3. Again, use the Anki flashcard system. It’s free, there are lots of subject-based flashcard sets available on the Anki site, and its spaced repetition is the best method for learning available. Do your flashcards daily, even if you suck at first. You’ll start learning inevitably.
  4. Join a study group. There are lots of other people studying what you’re studying, and surprisingly, they’re online! This will help motivate you, help you when you get stuck, and deepen your learning because you’ll make lots of connections between what you’re learning and the interactions you’re having with people.

OK, there was some repetition in these different areas, but that’s great! It helps with learning, you know.

I’ll give you another article on learning in a week or two. If you haven’t signed up for the Challenge, do it now!


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