My Current Learning Workflow

One thing I cannot emphasize enough (even during a pandemic) is never stop learning. Whether you are trying to upskill, trying to learn a hobby, or trying to learn a lifeskill like cooking or gardening, it’s important to have a learning process. As I am slighly obsessed with Alteryx, I refer to it as my learning workflow.

This workflow has completely developed over time. In fact, I have learned more efficiently in the last year than I had in the last five years – and those were some pretty impactful years. Also, the questions I ask and how I execute my plan today will certainly change in a year or so. The reason I bring that up is because no matter the specifics of how I am learning, the process still fundamentally works the same. And this is not my own personal method, these actually contain elements of advice from Thomas Frank, Matt D’Avella, and Dr. Barbara Oakley. (Side Note: even though I am about to lay out my workflow, I highly, highly, highly recommend reading/following their work).

While I lay out the generics, I will take you through a specific practice of using this. It boils down to 5 critical pieces:

Identify

Just like the graphic above, Identify is all about questions. You can relate these to SMART goals, but I encourage a good enough mentality over perfection. When I want to really learn something new like a language, music, or some complex subject like knot theory, I spend time trying to understand exactly how I want to learn this. I also find it extremely easy to learn if it is already a part of who I am or who I want to become. You should not force yourself to learn something you are not remotely passionate about – and why would you?

It is also very important to prioritize at this stage if you have multiple goals, which you most likely will. Even if it’s not a learning topic, your learning time will compete with family time, physical workouts, actual work, social life, spiritual life, and any other activities you hold near-and-dear. I am a firm believer in balance in all of these areas (per Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), but that is an admittedly difficult feat. That’s why you need to know just how important your learning goal is to you. If it is of mediocre interest or doesn’t serve you, then you will make a “pie crust promise” – easily made, easily broken (I’ve seen too much Mary Poppins lately because of my son, I admit it).

Plan

Much like the Identify stage, Plan is all about when you are going to execute on your motivations. Here, you will need calendars, alerts, timers, and any method of note/timekeeping you feel comfortable with. Again, it is important to make sure you have already prioritized where you learning fits into your overall life as you let out your timeframes.

To start, I recommend to plan learning goals 2-3 months out with milestones you want to have completed, and then plan multiple 2-week sprints of learning to fill those months. For instance, if you are learning French like I am, you would say “by the end of the quarter I want to have a conversation with a native French speaker,” but by these next two weeks you are only going to learn 50 words and 5 sentences around general conversation. After these two weeks, you would then plan another 50 words and then maybe try to set up a conversation with a pen pal. By the 3rd iteration, you should repeat that process again, gradually adding a little bit more vocab and then building up to actually having a conversation. (Those of you who have weight-lifted before might think of learning like micro-progressions for your mind). Along the way, you can make adjustments if your current sprint falls through. This whole methodology loosely follows agile software development methodology.

My final note on this is plans are much like the Death Cab for Cutie song “What Sarah Said.”

“And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time .”

Keep in mind, we can wish as much as we want but even the best of plans can fall through. However, good planning is iterative and not inflexible. It’s important to not get too locked in or too upset when things go wrong. Planning is obviously tricky, especially nowadays, because plans change and our best of intentions can fall to the wayside when the unexpected arises. I’ll talk more about how to handle the unexpected in the Set section below. But, for now, know that you need to set up the hurdles you are going to jump and what your planning sessions need to be when you are going through your learning workflow.

Set

I can tell you that tomorrow I plan to wake up at 5 AM, work out, eat a healthy breakfast, and study French for an hour. But when I wake up at 8 AM, chug 2 cups of coffee, and barely mumble bonjour, it doesn’t mean my planning was bad, it was just my execution. If we set ourselves up for success, then we can expect that even an 80% success in our plans will be better than even our most efficient, non-planned days.

In the scenario above, if the night before I laid out my workout clothes, made sure I had multiple alarms set, had my apps or notebooks at the ready on my desk, and put away the dishes so that way I knew exactly where my pots and pans were, I would have a phenomenal start to my day. The odds of me failing would not be zero, but they would definitely be greatly reduced. This is the importance of Setting.

Like I mentioned above, you can plan and plan and plan, but you need to have a proper workstation to complete your tasks. You cannot focus in chaos. You cannot complete a workout when your mind is too worried about the next task. You need calm, you need clarity, and you need order. Creating a place to work is extremely important for both workout junkies and writers, so why should it be any different for avid learners? Also, it is important to not only have a physical space but a mental one as well. I meditate for at least 5 minutes every morning (if I can do more, I will, but having a toddler who depends on you certainly puts a damper on morning routines). This clearing of your mind sets your mental workstation ready to absorb everything you are about to do. Along these lines, as you have ideas or things that you want to come back to, it’s important to have a notepad or note app to capture your ideas and get them out of your head. I can’t tell you how many times I have started something only to be distracted by what I need to do later. Using a note app will allow you to bring back those thoughts later when you are actually working on that task (and when it is relevant to work on!).

Work

So you’ve got everything set up, you know what you want to do, and you know why you want to do it. What is keeping you from working on it? Lack of motivation and distractions are the typical culprits. But how do we fight them? With some good ol’ behavioral psychology.

My favorite mental mind-game to play is the “Pain & Gain” game. You can set thresholds, micro-goals, and milestones to then reward yourself with something you would much rather be doing. Personally, I have used Habitica for the goals that are absolutely no fun but are important to my future goals (I’m looking at you Calculus and Linear Algebra). By setting a goal of “Getting to Chapter 10” or “Getting five double integral problems correct in a row”, I then reward myself with something I truly enjoy, like movie time, my favorite food, or playing video games. (Warning: it is easy to fall into the trap of too much reward and not enough work towards the goal, so you have to keep yourself accountable on your work/reward time!).

A note on distractions: This should be part of your Set planning, but it can also happen during your work. You get an unexpected email, an old friend texts you, or your toddler magically wakes up from a nap after only laying down for 5 minutes. Keep in mind there will be fires you need to be put out and it is unfortunate when you have to stop. But it is not the end of the world, and you can try to renegotiate with yourself for time later. For now, push these tangents off when you can and handle the urgent items right away. Also, if you find yourself easily distracted by friends or your social life, get some social media-blocking apps, soundproof headphones, or move your workspace to somewhere with less foot traffic to keep yourself on track.

If you ever feel lost in your work, go back to your Identify stage and see your whys for doing what you are doing. Maybe you can hang those in your workspace or put them as your desktop background so you can keep your mental energy up. Also, if you are interested on more motivational tricks, there are plenty of other examples you can find via Google search, including one called The Impossible Game.

Review

Whew, what a session! You got everything you wanted accomplished, right? You really understood that research paper, that economics book, that multivariate calculus problem? If you did, write down what you remember and summarize your notes. If not, write down what you remember and summarize your notes. If you’re somewhere in between, write down what you remember and summ… you get it. This is a trick popularized by Richard Feynman, a noted theoretical physicist. Basically, by writing down what you remember after a learning session, you are solidifying your mental connections to the topic, greatly improving your chances of remembering what you just learned. This is also great for further review at the end of the week, sprint, month, or quarter.

In the grander scale of things, a review session should be done at the end of the week, sprint, and quarter to make sure you are on track and still passionate about what you are learning. I have gone down rabbit holes of learning only to find out what I was studying wasn’t actually what I needed (this mostly happens with technology like software or packages). And if you feel like you lost time because you studied it, I can assure you that you did not. You learned something new, you worked on refining your learning process, and you may be able to recall something about that “dead” subject later in life.

Put Into Practice

I’ve done a lot of talking, so let me give you the real world application of how I have used this process:

  • Identify:
    • A lot of problems I see involve optimization and other Calculus topics, which I am weak on. I should probably learn more Calculus.
    • I have a couple of books, free Coursera courses, Brilliant courses, and Khan Academy courses ready to dig through.
  • Planning:
    • On Average, I can only commit 3 hours per week to learn Calculus. I have availability either early in the morning, around lunch, or after 8 PM to study. Weekends are a hit or miss with family.
    • Learning Calculus will open a lot of other doors to more advanced topics and programming. I need to know this pretty well, so to me, it is more important than my social media life, but not more important than my family or my phyisical well-being.
    • I decide that I will study every Tuesday/Thursday evening and early Saturday morning (for catching up). I also use apps like Brilliant and Khan Academy to do “minuteman” learning consisting of 5-10 minutes here or there, if I have time.
  • Set:
    • Working from home, I already have a workstation, but that is set up for my day job. I will use my tablet to learn and take notes using a lap desk on my couch. I also have a nice “standing desk” that is my mantle if I need to set up a laptop.
    • I can get distracted by looking at my phone, so I make sure to keep that away from me or use a “blocker” app like Forest to keep me focused.
    • I use headphones to let others know I am unavailable at the moment.
  • Work:
    • I use the Coursera courses and take notes on my tablet. Easy as that!
    • Again, I will limit distractions or use Forest to keep me focused.
  • Review:
    • Immediately after the session, I open up a new page with the date in my notebook and write down as much as I can remember from what I just learned.
    • After a couple sprints of learning about Derivatives, Integration, and Infinite Series, I take down as much as I can remember. I make notes for what I need to work on.
    • At the end of the quarter, I review my work and decide this is something I should still continue to study. But now I can focus more on topics like Riemann approximations or L’hopitals Rule instead of the overarching goal of “Calculus”.

A Final Word

I use a lot of different apps to make my workflow work and I am happy to share the technological aspects of those (maybe as a follow up post). But technology changes. Integrations of apps can change. Our times they are a-changin’. So it is important to focus on the overall process and results of learning rather than having the killer app to get the job done. If, at the end of the day, you can easily recite or teach what you have learned, you have done the job. I hope this process serves as a vehicle for you to meet your learning goals for the year and it helps bring a bit of order to the chaos we are seeing during this pandemic.

What are your thoughts? Have you implemented something similar? Please leave a comment below letting me know or you can email me directly at andrewderbak@gmail.com.

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