Learning how to learn
The only truly “future-proof” skill isn’t a specific job qualification; it’s knowing how to learn.
If you empower yourself to do one thing in the near future, make it this: learn how to learn. As the jobs of the future will require multiple skillsets—weaving technical skills together with creativity, interpersonal skills, and adaptability—we can no longer afford to specialise. The most important skill of all will be the ability to diversify your toolbox.
“There is, I think, a case to be made for a new area of study to counter the monopathic drift of the modern world,” says the British writer Robert Twigger. “It might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields. It might also work to develop transferable learning methods. A large part of it would naturally be concerned with creativity—crossing unrelated things to invent something new. But it would not just be another name for innovation. It would, I believe, help build better judgement in all areas.”
That said, we can’t wait for academia to catch up. Before this new area of study formally exists, let’s start teaching ourselves how to do many things well.
Becoming an autodidact
You’re probably familiar with the term “autodidact,” which refers to an individual who teaches herself about a subject or subjects in which she has little to no formal education. Benjamin Franklin was an autodidact, as were Jorge Luis Borges, Eileen Gray, Gustave Eiffel, and Frida Kahlo. Bill Gates, who taught himself to program as a teenager, is an autodidact as well.
The original “self-directed learners,” autodidacts possess intrinsic motivation, self-determination, and a true passion for learning. We’ve all known at least one person who fits this description. We can learn to fit this description ourselves.
Self-Regulated Learning (SRL) strategies include things like goal-setting and structuring learning content, self-evaluation, putting rewards in place, group reflection, and note taking.
But we’re not often taught how to do these things well. One study found that although most students can correctly identify common SRL strategies, they don’t know how to put them into practice or when to use specific techniques. In fact, only a third of students who could correctly identify a learning technique as beneficial admitted to actually using that technique in their own learning.
Just because the future will require us to learn more, and more often, doesn’t mean we will know how. That’s why the only truly “future-proof” skill isn’t a specific job qualification; it’s knowing how to learn. We all need to become experts in Self-Regulated Learning (SRL). So where do we begin?
How to identify which skills you need
The first step in learning how to learn is deciding where to direct your efforts. What skills do you need to develop now, five years from now, ten years from now?
First, learn to identify trends and see where you fit into the shifting landscape. Chances are, you’ll have at least one existing skill that can provide a foot in the door.
For example, say you work in the education industry, as an educational consultant, course designer, or online tutor. If you’ve been paying attention to business news, you’ll see that companies are beginning to create internal upskilling and reskilling programs for their employees. You can position yourself as a learning consultant, or train to become a Chief Skills and Learning Officer (CSLO), to pivot your way into the future and stay one step ahead of the game.
Similarly, if you want to move into design but your background is in marketing and communications, take a UX writing course and pivot over to the UX world. If you’re interested in entrepreneurship but your background is in biology, lean hard into your research and data science skills and create a data analytics consulting agency. Want to become a software engineer mid-way through your social work degree? Take programming courses on the side, but also direct your formal studies in a way that supports your future vision: take on projects that allow you to showcase your people skills, as employers will increasingly be looking for software engineers who can work well with teams.
Follow organisations like the Institute for the Future and the New Media Consortium for the latest future trends forecast, and build a list of skills you want to have and skills you currently have that will help you get there.
How to make time to learn
“How we spend our days,” said the American writer Annie Dillard, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Best-selling author James Clear has written an entire book, Atomic Habits, supporting this view: “Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become.”
I find this way of thinking highly motivating, but I’ve also bought enough Bullet Journals and downloaded enough productivity apps to be slightly disillusioned with it. The most common refrain in the productivity-hacking world, “Just do a little bit each day,” sounds achievable in theory, but the reality is that life gets in the way and always will.
Is it possible to divide our days into perfectly segmented sessions of the things we want to do? Probably not. Still, we can’t let the occasional slip devastate us into giving up. How do we stay on the right track when time or energy aren’t on our side?
When it comes to adopting any new habit, we need to allow ourselves some wiggle room. But how much? Is a vegan who eats a burger once a month still a vegan? We need to be able to let ourselves slip and still know we’re doing what we said we’d do. How do we calculate this wiggle room?
I find that it helps when I’ve done the thing before, like with distance running: I know that even if I slip, I can get back on the train and run a fast half marathon because I trust myself to achieve the goals even with some slips here and there. I know I can miss up to two days a week if I’m training for a half and still stay in good shape, but if I go beyond that I need to re-focus.
Maybe time is your main issue. If you can only devote a few hours a week to the skill, for example during a self-paced online course, that’s fine too. It may take you longer to master it than if you had time to devote to it every day, but the important part is that you’re actively doing it.
Also consider that some skills, like foreign languages, can be developed very quickly in intensive practice sessions. Other skills, like distance running, cannot. Depending on the skill you’re trying to pick up, massed practice may work better than spaced practice, and motivation will look different for each of those approaches.
How to stay motivated
When you’re picking up any new skills, ask yourself two things: 1) What’s the reward? and 2) What’s the bridge?
What is the reward?
I have struggled to learn German since moving to Berlin. I took a few weeks of courses when I arrived so I wouldn’t be totally lost. Since then, it’s been a challenge. German doesn’t come easily to me the way French did. I kept thinking, “Can I do a crash course in one week? Hire a private tutor? Watch movies with subtitles?” Nothing worked. My motivation wasn’t there: I don’t need German for work and everyone in Berlin speaks English. Plus, I don’t know how long I’ll be there, so is it worth the investment of my time if it doesn’t come easily?
One skill I already have, which some people would probably consider harder than learning German, is distance running. I’ve been a runner for eighteen years. I’ve trained for four half-marathons and completed several long relays. Most weeks I run five or six days a week. It’s not a struggle to get myself out the door because I know what the payoff of running every day is. I know how great my body will feel as a result of running for one hour each day, and after increasing the mileage by running thirteen miles on Sundays. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling.
On the other hand, I don’t really know what rewards I’ll get from learning German.
The question I’m getting at is this: How do you stay motivated to learn a new skill when you’re uncertain of the pay-off?
Therein lies one of the driving forces behind the superpower of learning how to learn: figuring out how to conceptualise your rewards so that motivation stays high.
If you do something without seeing a reward or impact for it, it’s empty self-discipline. Which has its place, but it’s far more difficult than discipline tied to gratification.
When I think about it, the appealing thing to me about foreign languages is the feeling of communicating with another person: it’s like sharing a secret code. That’s my joy. That’s enough for me. So with German, it would simply be rewarding to me to be able to speak in German with another person.
That means my practice sessions would have to be oriented towards this for me to stay motivated to learn. They’d need to be engineered to cover topics that I’d normally cover in English. I could choose one topic: Running. I want to be able to have a conversation with my German friend in German about running. So I’d then spend my sessions learning running vocabulary and sentence structure until I could do this. Obviously, I’d learn way more along the way than just being able to talk about running. By crafting a hypothetical conversation, I’d cover grammar, vocab, numbers and such. But that would be the (very concrete) reward: a conversation about running in German.
What is the bridge?
New skills are intimidating only because you can’t see the bridge between what you know in daily life and this huge new field. German is overwhelming to me because I see how much ground I have to cover. But if I start with something I know is part of my daily experience, I can frame it within that and stay motivated. For me, the bridge is running. Or any other subject I talk about with people on a daily basis. It’s a better, more rewarding use of my time to start specific and tackle one thing than to cast the net wide and study more generally.
If you’re a designer interested in UX writing, ask yourself what skills you already have that can be your bridge into the new area. You already know UX; you just need to improve your copywriting portfolio. If you’re a biology researcher interested in UX design, consider becoming a UX researcher first and then working your way over to the design field. If you’re a writer interested in entrepreneurship, leverage your communication skills to work your way into marketing and communications, and open up a digital marketing agency.
How to learn efficiently
With that, here are a few ways to hone the superpower of learning how to learn.
1. Decide what you want to learn
Be mindful of what information you want to enter your mind.
Humans spend a lot of time consuming information and very little time deciding what information they want to consume and how they want to consume it. It’s tempting to try to absorb everything for fear of missing out. But that’s not possible. So learning to learn is, fundamentally, about deciding where to place your attention.
Make a list of the things you want to spend the most time attending to, things that deserve less attention, things that can wait, and things you’d like to shut out.
2. Work out before (not after) you learn
Yet again, the early bird gets the worm. To retain more of what you learn, neuroscientists recommend working out your body before your mind. It’s well-known that aerobic exercise spurs neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells. But researchers have found that neurogenesis itself isn’t always a good thing, as it can push old information off the memory circuit, so you need to be mindful of when you work out.
Neuroscientists at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto have found they can control whether rats retain or forget new information by changing when they exercise. If they exercise before learning, the rats retain the new information. If they exercise after learning, rats are more likely to forget that information. That’s because neurogenesis functions a lot like sleep, clearing away old memories to make room for new ones.
“More neurons increase the capacity to learn new memories in the future,” says Neuroscientist Sheena Josselyn. “But memory is based on a circuit, so if you add to this circuit, it makes sense that it would disrupt it.”
Get out the door early for optimal learning performance.
3. Build your self-control in all areas
In their new study, Just do it: Engaging in self-control on a daily basis improves the capacity for self-control, Dutch researchers found that our general capacity for self-control can be increased by exercising self-control in a specific area. In other words, it builds on itself.
“Self-control is considered a crucial capacity that helps people to achieve important objectives in the face of temptation,” the researchers write. “However, it is unknown to what extent self-control is a stable disposition that is unaffected by how often people engage in self-control, or more like a skill that develops and grows over time.”
Their study answered that question by tracking participants’ behaviour over a four-month period.
They found that “regular practice led to an improvement of medium effect size in self-control capacity” and that the level of improvement depended on “the actual times of practice during a specific interval” and not on previous beliefs about self-control or self-efficacy.
“We conclude that ‘just doing’ self-control is the underlying mechanism of increased capacity for self-control.” This means that every time you exercise self-control in one area, whether it’s limiting your caffeine intake or working out every day despite the weather, the effect snowballs and helps you achieve self-control in other areas as well.
So, if you want the ability to concentrate better on your work or studies, resisting the urge to check your phone or social media not only reduces distraction but also builds your capacity to focus on the right thing. It also makes it easier for you to get out the door for that evening workout.
4. Think positively—of others
Put another way: Self-transcendent thoughts make us more likely to engage in otherwise intimidating activities.
In a fascinating study led by researchers at U Penn, people were more likely to take on challenges when they were primed to feel compassionate toward others first. The challenge examined in the study was to adopt healthier behaviour, and researchers found that people responded less defensively to health messages (i.e. being prompted to exercise) if they first experienced feelings of self-transcendence.
Under normal conditions, participants responded defensively to the health messages. But if they were primed beforehand to think about the well-being of others, such as their children and other family members, they responded more positively.
“Focusing on values and activities that transcend the self can allow people to see that their self-worth is not tied to a specific behaviour in question, and in turn become more receptive to subsequent, otherwise threatening health information,” the researchers explain.
Use this logic to enhance your own learning: If you’re resistant to taking on a new skill, don’t wrap up your performance so much with your self-worth. Meditate first on the things you care about beyond yourself.
5. Learn the boring stuff while you’re in the flow
It’s tempting to learn what interests us first and save the boring material for later, but researchers at the University of California say you should learn the boring stuff alongside the interesting stuff if you want to retain it in the long run.
“Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it,” says Dr. Matthias Gruber, lead author of the study, in a Huffington Post interview.
When your brain’s curiosity flip is switched on, it’s as though you’ve cast a big net which catches all kinds of information—interesting and boring alike—and helps it stick. Use this to your advantage by switching to the “less fun” material while your brain is stimulated.
6. Swap learning styles for task styles
If you’re not aware already, here’s a news flash: learning styles theory is a myth. There’s virtually no scientific evidence to back up the claim that some of us are “visual learners,” “kinesthetic learners,” or “auditory learners.” For one thing, all humans are visual learners. We may have preferred thinking styles, says cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, but these don’t serve us when they don’t match up with the task at hand—for instance, if we’re reading a transcript of a debate instead of listening to the more emotionally charged audio version.
“The data show that people do have some propensity to use one or another mode of thinking, but people would be better off if they didn’t; rather, they should use the mode of thinking that’s a better fit for the task at hand,” he says.
As an example, Willingham cites a study where participants were asked to memorise sentences:
“Even if you’re a verbalizer, if you’re trying to remember sentences, it doesn’t make sense for me to tell you to verbalize (for example, by repeating sentences to yourself) because visualizing (for example, by creating a visual mental image) will make the task that much easier. Making the task more difficult is not a good strategy for motivation.”
Think about how the information you’re learning could best be absorbed, and design your study methods around it.
7. Use the production effect
The production effect is a memory trick that involves “performing” your learning by engaging with new material in multiple ways. You might try to memorise a new set of facts by speaking it, singing it, drawing it, or interacting with it auditorily or kinesthetically.
“Anytime you retrieve a memory item, it is an opportunity to re-learn it in a sense, and the information gets re-consolidated,” writes Dr. William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University. “So, if you speak, draw, or use another production effect during forced recall, you further strengthen the encoding and subsequent consolidation.”
8. Reflect on past learning
According to Oakley, there are two brain gears involved in new learning: the focused state and the diffuse state. The focused state is when your brain is concentrating on a specific task. The diffuse state is when you’re daydreaming or resting your mind, and that’s when a lot of processing happens, whether you’re aware of it or not.
“We’ve shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning,” says Allison Preston, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin. “We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come.”
She adds: “Nothing happens in isolation. When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.”
9. Identify the functional meaning of the information
“What enters into a memory representation (what is encoded) is determined largely by the perceived functional meaning of an item, and this in turn determines which retrieval cues will be most effective for memory retrieval,” say researchers at the University of Oregon and Arizona State University.
This means that if we picture having a conversation about the subject of an article as we’re reading it, we’ll better remember the information since we’re creating a reason to remember it.
10. Use fear to your advantage
Researchers have found that when we’re trying to accomplish something, there are two parts to the motivation process. In the beginning, we’re motivated by wanting to succeed; towards the end, we’re motivated by not wanting to fail. First, we imagine all the rewards we could receive by accomplishing the goal: status, wealth, personal growth, social impact. Later, we are driven by the idea that we might not reach it, and that gives us an extra boost of momentum.
You might adopt this mindset earlier on in the learning process to keep motivation high.
We don’t need to be intimidated by what the future holds for our careers if we stay proactive and invested in our own preparation for it. Even before we decide which skills to master next, we can streamline our education by stepping back and examining the learning process first. The time you spend learning how to learn now will save you time in the future, when the deciding factor between you and another job candidate may not be how qualified you already are but how qualified you can become.
If you want to future-proof your career and learn in-demand skills, we’ve got a variety of online courses available in Human-Centered Design, Business and Marketing and New and Emerging Tech.
Author: Saga Briggs. Saga Briggs is a journalist covering trends in learning, creativity, intelligence, and educational technology. Follow her @SagaMilena