Improving my learning approach

During the last months I reflected a lot about how I am trying to learn new things, the tech stuff in particular. This article explains how I started replacing my former naive and tiring way of learning with a more practical and paced approach.

Let me give you some context first: At the end of the last year I deliberately decided to take two months off from client work. Most of the last three years I have spent working on large client projects and felt too tired to consume much new tech alongside. So I wanted some time to catch up and work on my own projects – basically sharpening the saw.

Do you feel me?

Don’t get me wrong: I learned tons of stuff working on these client projects, but not exactly the topics I felt I should be focusing on. My backlog of things I wanted to read, podcasts I wanted to listen to and conference talks I wanted to watch had grown to a point where consuming all of these became almost unattainable.

I love working in the web industry as it gives me a chance to challenge my thinking and knowledge basically every day. Yet this becomes stressful and tiring when you start feeling like you are missing out on something. This is me sounding like a complete moron, nevertheless I do not seem to be the only one and the fact that “JavaScript fatigue” became quite a topic in 2016 shows that there is a case here.

When you are into tech nowadays and eager to stay up to date with the hot shit™ your streams become floods. ​ Guess what happens when you peel the onion of untapped knowledge? Your horizon grows and so do your lists of things to read, watch and listen to.

Make it actionable

The first and foremost point to deal with this is to ​make all of these items actionable. ​ This means to categorize and filter based on where and when you will actually apply the desired knowledge. Major benefit: Your learning will be more effective and amplified by putting it into use. It feels like Captain Obvious talking here, but I fall into the trap of not doing it this way time and time again.

How does it work? Think of it as a ​GTD​ approach for the things you are interested in: ​ Inbox Zero for your reading and watch lists. ​ Your milage may vary, but to give you an idea of how this looks in practice, here is what I am doing currently:

  • Each of my side projects is a project in Things.

  • I collect all incoming links using Instapaper.

  • Categorization and quick-reads are done in ReadKit, which looks like this:

    My categories in ReadKit
  • Every week I groom the lists and apply the links to tasks in my projects.

  • The posts that are not applicable stay there for a week or two, get read or not and are finally stored on my Pinboard.

An example: During the last weeks I collected six articles and videos about GraphQL. I know they will come in handy when I get to the API part in one of my projects, but right now they just clutter up the reading list. Grooming my “article backlog” I stored them as notes in my “Evaluate API options” task for the particular project.

You tuck away the articles you want to consume, connecting them with tasks that actually move you forward. You immerse yourself in the topics when the right time has come and when you are able to put them into context and action. This way you do not learn stuff to have it in stock for some day later. Which is when you will have most likely forgotten about the details anyways.

Again: This sounds really obvious once you have done it, but this advise comes as a relief for everyone who is struggling as I was. I became comfortable with this approach pretty quickly by shifting my mindset: ​ View this shelf full of exciting new technologies as a queue you can pull from; not as a evergrowing snowball that you have to stop rolling downhill.

Reflect and write about your learnings

In 2017 I want to try to enhance my writing and the way I approach it. Instead of covering only the topics I feel comfortable with and know my stuff about, I first and foremost want to cover my learning processes. This is why I am writing this article and how I started to grow my series of posts about Elm.

Even though I can publish the articles, share them and possibly help others, the long-term outcome might be self-serving: By reflecting the things as you write about them, you research, dig deeper and learn even more. Writing these articles takes time, but it is time well spent as it gives you a deeper understanding of the topics and your learning process.

One more thing you will notice when you reflect and groom your lists of stuff to learn:
Libraries, frameworks and trends come and go. We have the opportunity to work in an exciting industry that moves and changes quickly. We cannot and should not try to stay up to date with all of what it has to offer. Learn what you really need to learn and are able to apply. Get familiar with the underlying fundamentals of the things that matter to you.

And above all: ​ Enjoy this process.