Exercise Your Mind Like You Exercise Your Body

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In this article, we cover:

  1. How to make learning a part of your routine
  2. How to learn actively instead of passively
  3. Applying your learning to your day-to-day work and life
  4. The importance of finding accountability and support for your learning habit

Every morning at 9am, Simone Biles -- arguably the greatest gymnast ever to compete in the sport -- is at the gym.

For hours, she trains in her sport: routines on the mat, routines on the beam, routines on the bar. She completes exercises intended to target the specific muscle groups she’ll be using in her sport, goes through strenuous stretching routines to maintain her flexibility.

Each week, she also supplements her gymnastics work with general fitness activities to keep her body strong -- called cross-training -- and pushes her body through activities like running and biking and swimming.

She trains three hours every morning, and three hours every afternoon.

Biles has raw skill and talent that makes her such a gifted gymnast, but it’s her work ethic and consistency that allows her to take advantage of those gifts and makes her such a successful athlete -- in her case, seven olympic medals. 

The same is true for athletes all around the world: the most important thing that separates the pros from a casual hobbyist is their commitment to consistency. That same principle holds for any type of activity -- including learning.

Just like you exercise your body to keep it strong, so too must you exercise your mind -- and the best learners and knowledge workers approach their content consumption with the same consistency and dedication as an athlete. 

Approach your learning like an athlete approaches exercise

If an athlete approached their exercise indiscriminately -- went to the gym when they felt like it, chose their exercises randomly, quit when they got bored -- they’d never see results.

It’s the athlete who has a focused training plan who sees improvement in their performance, both in the gym and, in turn, in their sport.

In the same way, as a self-directed learner -- and a citizen of the information age -- you want to exercise your brain. You’ll see the biggest improvements in your questions, your thinking, and your knowledge if you regularly exercise those parts of your mind.

More importantly, regularity begets results. When working out becomes a habit, you get stronger. When learning becomes a habit, you get smarter. 

There are a few keys that make an athlete’s training routine so effective:

  1. Regularity
  2. A goal-focused approach
  3. Consistent measures of effectiveness (is the work I’m putting in actually driving meaningful results?)

In the same way you take care of your health by exercising your body, so too should you take care of your mind through mental exercise. There are a few things you can do to see results:

  1. Make learning a routine
  2. Make learning active, not passive (learning how to think critically)
  3. Apply your knowledge to your day-to-day life
  4. Find accountability and support

In this article, we’ll break down how to do all five of those things.

When you make learning part of your routine, you prioritize keeping your brain sharp and your knowledge base strong

Make regular learning a routine

There are two reasons having a routine is so important:

  1. It prioritizes learning
  2. It habituates learning

When we have so many pulls on our time, prioritization is important. There are a multitude of things constantly vying for your attention. Only the things you prioritize will get done.

When you make learning part of your routine, you prioritize keeping your brain sharp and your knowledge base strong.

You can prioritize your learning by:

  1. Making learning part of your daily schedule
  2. Creating time blocks within which you learn (e.g. “these 30 minutes every day are for exploring my curiosity ”)

Creating specific times within which you learn helps guarantee that learning happens. More importantly, it also starts to build a habit around learning -- and habits are extremely important. As James Clear says:

“You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

When things are habits, you don’t have to think about them. You don’t skip brushing your teeth because you’d rather be watching Netflix. You brush them every night because it’s a habit so ingrained you don’t have to think about it.

In the same way, you want to make learning a habit.

Let’s put this into practice

Choose a set time every day to block 30 minutes for learning -- perhaps in the morning or evening right before or after work, or during your lunch break. The key is to just choose a specific time and then stick to it consistently. Think of a time when you feel most free of obligations and distractions.

Treat your learning time like you treat your job. You wouldn’t show up for your job 5 minutes late. Don’t show up late for your learning time either.

And remember -- learning has to feel fun, even if it’s scheduled. Don’t lose the exploratory spirit of play. All you’re doing is prioritizing spending time on it, because it might have been neglected for too long. Simply start with a question you have about the world or specific topic, and explore what intrigues you.

Actively learn, don’t passively learn

A good exercise routine isn’t passive. An athlete doesn’t go for a stroll and say they’ve exercised, and the same holds true for learning. Skimming through an article and calling it a day is far less valuable than critically engaging with one idea and truly challenging your mind.

A good learning routine pushes you to actively think about things, grapple with new information, and reflect on your existing ways of thinking. You’ll see the best results when you’re actively engaging with the content you’re consuming.

There are a few ways you can do this:

  • Take notes. Write down your own thoughts and insights and spinoffs from the content you’re consuming. This engages your brain and triggers reflection. 
  • Highlight important information. Take note of the key ideas being shared. Ask why they feel highlight-worthy to you. Make a note. 
  • Draw connections between ideas. Note the parallels between the content you’re consuming and other things you’ve read or heard. Explore how the ideas might relate to each other. 
  • Ask questions. Learning how to critically think is important. What do the ideas being presented make you think about? What questions do they leave you with?

You can also learn how to use mental models and critical thinking exercises to help you think through the content you’re consuming.

The comprehension mental model we use at Edvo is a good place to start. In this model -- intended to make sure you’re critically comprehending what you’re consuming -- you break your notes down into three categories:

  1. “This suggests” (the key points the content seems to be making)
  2. “My thoughts” (your own key insights or opinions on the topic)
  3. “My questions” (the most important questions you’re left with after consuming the piece)

Mental models can be used as frameworks to break down ideas in all sorts of ways. You can use them to organize your questions, formulate opinions around an idea, or draw conclusions in any number of areas.

Let’s put this into practice

Next time you consume a piece of content (hopefully in your scheduled learning time!), highlight the important points, take notes on your own insights and ideas, and use the comprehension model to break down your thoughts once you’ve finished consuming the piece.

If you complete these two exercises (setting a time for learning, and actively engaging with the content you consume), you’re already well on your way to building a strong learning (and critical thinking!) habit.

Apply your knowledge in your day-to-day activities

Going to the gym and working out every day is hard, but when you start to see results -- rising strength numbers, changes in your physique, greater stamina in your day-to-day activities -- it all starts to feel worth it.

In the same way, when you start to see the benefits of your learning, the discipline required to keep it habituated becomes easier and easier to maintain.

There are a number of ways a consistent learning habit can start to show up in your day-to-day life. To name just a few:

  • Your learning begins to apply to your conversations. You share things you’re learning about in your conversations with other people -- and as a result, begin to develop the capacity to have higher-level conversations.
  • Your learning begins to apply to your work -- especially your problem solving. You’re able to draw ideas from the things you’ve learned to solve problems on the job.
  • You begin to see your learning cross-reference itself. You read an article on a topic, and you see parallels between it and a podcast you listened to a month ago. Your own thoughts on the topic develop -- and in turn, learning becomes even more fun.

Another great way to start to see the benefits of your learning is by talking about it. 

Share the things you’re learning publicly, in both conversation and on social media. People love talking to other interesting people, and people notice when you’re learning something interesting and new. When you share the things you’re learning, you begin to develop a reputation for knowledge on the topics you’re discussing -- and you don’t need to be an expert to see the benefits of talking about the things you’re learning.

Let's put this into practice

As you’re learning, start talking about the things you’re learning in your day-to-day conversations. Even better, start posting about the things you’re learning on social media. Think about this as the ultimate critical thinking exercise -- pushing yourself to rearticulate the things you’re learning, and then having conversations about them.

You can share fun facts, interesting insights, links to content you’re enjoying -- whatever feels right. The only important key is to be talking about what you’re doing!

Find ways to get accountability and support

Sometimes the best way to stay consistent with things is to find accountability.

This is why people decide to get fit by joining a gym or a workout class. Exercise is challenging and uncomfortable. When you have other people there to support you, it can make it easier to do the hard thing -- lift the weight, hold the stretch, push through the cardio for one minute longer.

In the same way, maintaining consistency can be challenging -- especially when you’re tired, or you have other distractions vying for your time. Having an accountability partner can help you keep up the learning habit.

Find people with whom you can share your intention for learning, or the learning itself. Find friends you can talk to as you walk through critical thinking exercises around the content you’re consuming, or with whom you can have conversations that challenge your mind.

Join a book club, find a forum on your topic of choice, or start a meetup group. Even better -- if you’d like accountability in your self-directed learning, you can join Edvolutionists, our community of self-directed learners. 

Whatever avenue of accountability you choose, use your community to help support your self-directed learning habit -- and to help you become a regular and effective learner!

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