Learning is a strange experience to me. I love it when I can finally use my knowledge in work, for fun or just to impress somebody, but the process of getting there is usually painful. There is a whole lot of obstacles and issues along the way that feel like these strange monsters than need to be defeated to get where I want to be (it’s totally not just a gimmick to get you interested in this post).
This post is my attempt to describe the most common problems I faced and how I tried to overcome them. I’m not an expert in this field nor I claim that I will give you tools to learn anything in 4 hours. This is just a kind of personal list of problems that some may find relatable and maybe will not feel alone in this scary world. Many of those problems are not actually learning specific but also affect other areas of my life.
So let’s start with the first monster.
King Procrastinator, a.k.a. I will start tomorrow, I promise
The first step of learning something is of course finding the will to start. And it’s usually the most difficult one. There is always something more attractive on the horizon and I can always promise myself that I will honestly start tomorrow (spoiler alert: I probably won’t). I have postponed things so many times that I probably should get a medal (or at least a nice diploma).
The easiest solution is to not overthink it and just start right away… but it’s easier said than done. Particularly if you are secretly as lazy as me. To fight this I try to think how learning this particular thing will make me happy. This might be a language that will allow me to go some place nice, learning an instrument that will allow to play a serenade for my wife or a new tool for work that will get me more money. If I build this picture in my mind, there is a greater chance that I will do something regularly rather than just drop it after few tries or not even start.
It also helps to set a some kind of a deadline at the start (especially if the thing is not very pleasurable). This may be something like “I want to give a beautiful painting to my parents on their next anniversary so I need to get there before that” or even simply some date that I can agree with my employer for learning new technology. This may not work for everyone, but I found that even if it is a bit stressful it can help a lot by providing a target.
It is also quite easy to trick my inner laziness by starting really small. Most areas are complicated and have multiple layers to them. So it helps on focusing on a small thing and just going with it e.g. when learning a new programming language I just open editor and start with simple “Hello, world”, for drawing I would just take a piece of paper and start doodling. This is actually what I’m doing while writing this post. I had problems starting but then one day I just sat down and started writing simple ideas. Before I noticed, I already had a few paragraphs and some bullet-points. Climbing large mountain is scary, but when you start with a small step you’ll be halfway there in no time.
I found that while starting is hard, the actual process of learning is quite pleasurable. That’s why it is important to make things as easy to dive into as possible. I try to keep tools that allow learning right by my hand and not hidden at the bottom of a drawer. This way I can use any free time to just do it. Although it is usually more productive for me just to have a time slot planned in advance. This way, after short while it’s almost natural for me that 8PM is coming and it’s time to start learning. My body almost reminds me of this when it becomes a habit.
A common excuse from learning for me is the activity of gathering materials. I’m addicted to buying things before I start learning. It’s almost as if having six books or more shiny equipment will magically make me better at something. Sure, it can sometimes make the learning process nicer, but in the end it is just putting things off for later. It is just a trick to make me feel that I’m doing something without actually doing it. Even the simplest tools are good enough to get started. So now I try to treat buying new things as a reward - when I get better at guitar I will buy a new shiny one.
Since I’m lazy (did I mention this already?) I try various things to trick me and this new TV show can simply be my reward after finishing a task. After eating this terrible frog first, the sweet reward will taste a lot better. The feeling that I actually did something important before diving into another brainless activity is quite a nice one to have.
MechaDemotivator a.k.a. I actually started, but not making any progress
Ok, I am doing things to learn something, but when I stop to think about it, I feel like I am not making any progress. I’ve found that these are usually the main reasons for me:
- It’s actually still too early to tell
- I’m not systematic
- I’m not actually practicing
Apart from laziness, my second biggest problem is impatience. I want to know everything immediately. This is not helping in learning as the process usually takes time.
This results in a vicious circle where I lose motivation because I don’t feel I made any progress and without motivation I won’t keep going. In such cases I try to remind myself that patience usually pays of. At least it did multiple times in the past. This is tricky, I admit, because I tend to not trust myself (I promised that I will learn to sail so many times, but I still did not - see, untrustworthy?), but sometimes it works.
Other thing that shows me that I’m actually improving is keeping track of what I did. This allows me to go back and see what a n00b I was a month ago. It can be an earlier drawing, but for programming the easiest thing is an old app. This really shows how much better I’ve become.
If it didn’t, then the problem lies elsewhere. This might be that I’m just not too systematic. I think that I’m doing a great job, because I spent half of my Saturday reading a thing, but then again I only did it that one day and had a break for a month. Persistence is the key. Doing something for 15 minutes every day, is usually better than single 8 hours chunk a week. It helps in developing a habit and also reinforces what I already know. Going back to topics I read the following day (and then the following week) helps me memorize it better. I’m usually good at understanding things shortly after I saw them, but one night of sleep can immediately take all I learnt away from me (nasty knowledge-stealing gnomes!). Going back and re-reading or practicing some things usually helps.
I also try to immerse myself in something when I’m learning about it. I spend time reading forums, blog posts, watching videos whenever I have some free time. Even if I don’t fully understand everything, I’m making myself familiar with the terminology, see problems that others had and remember where I can look for some answers.
Another reason for not making progress for me is actually skipping the practicing part. Many times in my programming life, I thought I understood something because it looked really simple when that guy or girl did it in the video, but trying to do it on my own made it clear that some parts were really tricky or I just zoned out and did not listen carefully. Practicing is one of the best way to find gaps that I still have in my knowledge. The other is trying to explain it to someone.
Remember when I said that 15 minutes is enough (well, you should – it was just 2 paragraphs ago)? An important prerequisite is being focused and removing distractions. I usually stop practicing when I feel tired or start thinking about this strawberry cake from my son’s last birthday because then learning will just not make sense. I will not remember it anyway. Putting away your phone and focusing for 15 minutes a day is not that difficult.
What also allows me to focus is making notes. I actually prefer to learn by listening and rarely go back to my notes (and my handwriting is so bad that I would probably think that those were just seismometer print outs) but writing things down when I’m listening to something allows me to focus more. Otherwise, I tend to turn off my brain after a short while and… think about weird stuff (like would it be legal to ride a horse around town).
When all fails, finding someone I can learn with (or be taught by) is really helpful but if you are anything like me, prepare for the attack of…
Self-Esteemosaurus a.k.a. what if someone finds out that I can’t do it?
This monster becomes active especially if I try to become better at something that I should already know because of work or previous education. There’s also this thing I noticed (or probably read somewhere) that the older you get, the more barriers you need to overcome to learn / do something publicly. A child does every thing that comes to their mind (sometimes even before it comes to their mind I feel) without any fear that it might be stupid. Maybe walking with closed eyes is actually the next big thing that nobody else thought of before (or it may actually lead to bruises, but you never know).
These low inhibitions make kids learn everything so quickly and discover the world at a great pace. Now, I’m so far from that time that I can’t even pretend I remember anything about this period, but I can say that I’m frightened, be it consciously or subconsciously, if I need to do something publicly or learn something with help from others. The internet gives a lot of tools to learn anything at your own pace and without being seen, but at a cost of not being properly motivated (I’ll do it tomorrow) or not doing it properly (it’s quite difficult to learn surfing by watching Point Break).
In such cases, what I try to remember is that the other side, teachers or peers you are learning with, will more likely be supportive instead of judgmental. They often have the same fears - impostor syndrome is a thing. We often think that others know much more than us, but usually it is just a projection that we do based on the slices of information that we get. I have this feeling all the time that someone will poke holes in my knowledge and discover I’m just not as good as I should be. Often it pushes me to fill those gaps, but yes, it is also paralyzing sometimes.
Finding someone who will learn with you is really great and if you have that someone, you are very lucky. It’s likely that one of you will help with motivation when the other has a worse day. If I don’t have that help, I try to find other ways. As I mentioned in the motivation section, reading forums usually shows where others struggle as well. And makes me feel better that something is actually quite difficult and it’s not just me. Then, there’s also possibility of hiring a teacher. For one, paying for something will likely make you more motivated (I’m looking at you gym subscription!) and also such person can help with self-esteem issues.
ConfidenceDestoroyah a.k.a. why am I even bothering?
This is a close cousin of both MechaDemotivator and Self-Esteemosaurus. Sometimes I have this thought where I doubt that I will learn this thing. This is when I try to go back to the original question and think why I started this awful process in the first place. Learning is usually frustrating, because most often it goes like this: beginnings are fun - I am highly motivated, early steps are usually easy and I’m making nice progress, but the the middle part sucks. I hit the plateau. I can’t find materials to make further progress, because most of them are made for complete beginners. This is also where improvements become really minor. It’s hard to stay motivated. I don’t have a true remedy for this, but this is when I just try to push on and go back to my earlier materials to remind myself that I’m actually still getting better.
I also try to remind myself that I don’t actually need to be a master of everything. I try learning new things to the point that makes me happy (it also helps with burnout). If I just keep doing it regularly I will eventually become better. It is often discouraging when I already learnt a lot just to find that there is still so much to learn. This is actually a good thing I think. It shows that I am more aware of the field. It can also be dangerous in that you can get lost in this vast area and focus on unimportant topics. That’s why it’s good to actually do something with this knowledge: build a useful application, play a song, paint a picture. That way you will know that you already have tools to achieve something. Otherwise, you can end up chasing some illusory goal of knowing everything in a field and getting demotivated or feel stupid. Nobody knows everything probably.
Then there’s also this funny thing that happens to me from time to time, when I wake up and feel like I forgot everything I knew and I have two left hands (or a left hand and a left foot instead of my hands altogether). This is just how it is sometimes. The good thing is that it can actually mean that you will soon reach another milestone and the brain is trying to piece some puzzle pieces together. Worst case, it can also mean that you are making space for new knowledge.
Another thing that helps me when I feel dumb is to try and use different sources. Maybe the one that I was using in the first place is just above my current level. If I don’t understand something in programming, I usually make a note about this, but still go through the rest of the chapter because maybe some further example will click. If not, I then search for different sources explaining the thing (video, blog post, broadway musical) and this usually helps me get unstuck.
Finally, sometimes there comes this sad realisation that no matter what I do, I actually don’t enjoy something and I’m not getting better. And that’s fine as well. There’s so much in this world that if we did not fail and leave some things behind we would never found the one that makes us really happy (and would never become a pottery master). If you gave something an honest try and it did not work out, maybe it’s ok to let it go.
And (not so) spectacular conclusion
This is actually just a tip of the iceberg. There are still lots of other things that are a challenge for me (how to focus on proper things instead of just getting into more and more details, how to learn when it is not fun but I still need to do it, various learning styles). It just shows how many problems there are with learning and why it is actually a very complex process. Overthinking can make everything seem terrifying. I think that being aware of my weaknesses and understanding that I can overcome them (and how) makes the fun aspects of learning more visible. This may be just enough to keep me motivated to achieve my goals and make my life easier. You just need to be aware that these monsters are there, waiting in the shadows and that’s fine. Let them be and keep going. Find motivation, be persistent and don’t let doubts consume you. There’s so much to discover.