How to Make the Most of Your Learning Time

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In this article, we cover:

  • How to stay focused on the internet
  • How to figure out what your goals are
  • The relevance litmus test (how to make sure what you’re doing is valuable!)
  • How to reverse engineer your goal
  • How to put all of this into practice

We’ve all been there: you’re curious about something, so you type in a Google search.

You open the first search result -- a decently-detailed article from a reputable source. You skim the article and get a basic answer, but not as much as you were looking for.

You go back to Google, scroll through the results again, end up on a Wikipedia page, and go down a hyperlink rabbit hole. Three degrees of separation later, you’re reading about (and thoroughly engrossed in) an entirely unrelated topic.

This process is fun -- and you’ve probably learned some really cool new things -- but you’re not really sure how useful that time you just spent was, nor how much of it you’ve fully understood and retained.

To use the internet effectively -- and to learn efficiently -- you want to have a better approach for browsing the internet -- one that involves a system and, more importantly, goals that get you to your desired results.

How do we stay focused when the internet is distracting us from all sides?

Literally everywhere we look on the internet, there are links to click, questions to answer, and information to consume.

It’s so easy to go down internet rabbit holes and never end up learning anything focused or useful at all. (Ever open your browser looking to learn about fungibility, and end up learning about Gisele Bundchen’s morning routine, why avocados help burn fat, and three weird tricks to clean your keyboard -- but nothing even remotely related to economics?)

The internet is a booming marketplace, and our attention is the thing for sale. Algorithms are designed to do anything but keep us on track -- hey, you, check out the five most shocking outfits from this year’s Met Gala!

Even if the algorithms can’t entirely shatter your attention, and you enter the internet intending to learn about something specific, it can be hard to get focused or figure out where to start:

  • Google searches provide a plethora of options, like a choose-your-own adventure
  • Articles you find via search engines can be interesting, but not necessarily helpful in answering your questions
  • Everything is designed to keep you scrolling, and therefore distracted -- learning passively rather than actively

We usually let the internet guide us, not the other way around -- and that makes a big difference in our ability to learn effectively.

Goals help you to learn with a purpose

Goals are the best kind of litmus test for your learning time, because everything you do either aligns with your goals or it doesn’t.

When you have a goal, you’re working towards a purpose, a desired end result.

They allow you to sort every piece of information you encounter into categories:

  1. Does this blog post I just opened help move me towards my goal? If the answer is yes, awesome. Keep going.
  2. Does it not move me towards my goals? If so, stop reading it and go do something else.

At Edvo, we’ve tried all different kinds of self-directed learning, and we each have our own learning styles and preferences -- but we’d all agree that learning with a goal in mind is usually the most effective way to approach self-directed learning.

How do you figure out what your learning goals are?

There are many different types of goals you can set. Some of our favorites: curiosity goals (I want to understand X), project goals (I want to be able to complete X task for Y purpose), and external goals (I want to learn how to do X thing so I can go do it for Y person/company).

An example of a curiosity goal: I’m really curious about how basic websites work, and I want to understand how different servers and sites communicate with each other across the internet. 

An example of a project goal: I want to learn how to build a website on Wordpress, so I can build a personal website and house some of my photography.

An example of an external goal: this company has a poorly-functioning website, and I want to learn how to use Wordpress so I can build them a new one.

With a curiosity goal, your only objective is to satisfy your own curiosity. With a project goal, there’s typically a skill you want to gain so you can go build or accomplish something. (Learning some guitar to impress your crush? Learning basic woodworking so you can build yourself a bookshelf? Learning to juggle because you’ve always wanted to know how?)

An external goal is set in response to some external need or circumstance (often but not necessarily tied to your professional work), where you see an opportunity and want to build skills in order to capitalize on it.

For any type of goal, the best question to help you define it: how will you know when you’ve obtained your goal? Is there a question you’ll be able to answer? A task you’ll be able to complete?

Your answer to that question becomes your north star.

Reverse engineer the goal

Once you’ve set a goal, you need to figure out what you have to do in order to attain it. That’s when reverse engineering comes in.

Reverse engineering means starting from your end point (rather than where you are now), and work backwards through the steps you’ll need to complete.

Start with your goal (we’ll use “building a Wordpress website” here) and work your way back. You want to have an aesthetically pleasing portfolio site, so you’ll need to know how to build a portfolio page (complete with images!). You also share your work across social media, so you’ll want to figure out how to add live feeds from your Instagram account somewhere on your home page. And since the whole point of your website is showing off your photography, you’ll need to learn how to add some really stunning images (probably your favorites!) to the home page as a header or a background.

Then walk another step back. In order to build a portfolio page with images, you’re going to need to figure out how to build pages and add different elements or widgets to those pages.

And in order to do that, you’re going to have to figure out how to use Wordpress in the first place.

And in order to figure out how to use Wordpress, you’re going to need to set up a domain and start your site. That’s the first step that’s required to complete everything else -- so that’s your starting point.

Whatever your learning goal, you want to break down the process chronologically (in order to do X, I must be able to do Y. In order to do Y, I must understand Z).

Don’t stress the details with this -- you’ll figure those out as you go. Your reverse engineering can be as simple as a set of questions -- How does X work? What does Y mean? You’ll keep adding to your list as you go, so don’t stress about figuring it all out right away.

Once you’ve figured out what you need to learn, you’re ready to get started.

Once I’ve reverse engineered my goal, how do I get started?

Parameters are one of the best things to help you work (like the adage, “constraint breeds creativity”). Parameters keep you focused, help keep you accountable, and help keep you productive.

Your goals are one of those parameters -- I need to learn about X, Y, and Z -- and like we talked about earlier, you can use them as a litmus test for your learning:

  • Formulate a question
  • Make a search
  • Open a webpage
  • Ask if it moves you towards your goals
  • If it does move you towards your goals, keep going
  • If it doesn’t move you towards your goals, go back to the drawing board
  • Study until your question is answered, then rinse and repeat

Once you’ve set goals, however, other parameters can be helpful too. A few of our favorites:

  1. Deadlines (I’m going to have this done by X date)
  2. Time intentions and goals (I’m going to study for 20 minutes daily, or do an hour of Pomodoro sessions)
  3. An external objective (I want to be proficient in X before I have an interview with Y)
  4. Routines (I’m going to spend time every evening learning about this, until I’ve attained my goal, and then I’m going to choose a new goal to spend my evenings on)

The more specific your parameters, the easier it will be for you to adhere to your plan and make meaningful progress towards your goals.

Here’s where to get started:

  1. Choose something you’re curious about
  2. Formulate a question around it -- How do I do X, or Why does Y act the way it does? This becomes your goal.
  3. Reverse engineer your goal. What do you have to complete in order to accomplish it?
  4. Find the resources you need, and check if they actually align with your goalSet some type of parameter around your goal
  5. Get started learning!

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