If you read into the background of notable people who are exemplary lifelong learners, you can find some common ground  – they read quite a bit, they set goals, they experiment, they cultivate curiosity, they schedule time for learning projects (rise early, set aside time before bed), they walk or exercise when they need to think. Not a bad list of ideas for lifelong learning if you want something to emulate.

If you see yourself as a lifelong learner, or at least someone with specific learning needs, you can decide to incorporate these and other habitual activities into your own routines. The list of possible learning habits is endless:

  • Commit to reading x books per month (or listening to books via a streaming service) – lining up several on the same subject might accelerate achievement of a specific learning goal
  • Invest in a streaming service that features documentaries or courses in a variety of subjects (e.g. PBS, MasterClass, Skill Share, Great Courses, Coursera, etc.) – then plan to watch at the same time every week
  • Regularly listen to interesting podcasts
  • Obtain a subscription (or feed) to specific journals or magazines and review them as they come in (I use Feedly to queue up new items from specific journals and think tanks)
  • Develop a robust list of luminaries or subject matter experts to follow on a social media platform that you use often (an effective way to turn your Twitter feed into a force for good)
  • Invest in attending a conference with some regularity (pick one per year, or one every other year)
  • Keep a notebook for inspirations and insights you want to apply, and review that regularly to make sure some of those insights convert into action (I’m keeping a notebook for marketing advice, for example)
  • Plan to meet with others in your field to talk shop over coffee or lunch (or over Zoom as the case may be for the time being) – or get to know people from other departments or entirely different fields just to get a more in-depth view of their world – you might even line up people who can give advice on a specific topic you wish to learn
  • Explore a new subject every year by reading into it, going to museums, talking to experts, and in some cases, trying your hand at doing something with your new knowledge and skill
  • Set aside one day per month (or more) as a dedicated learning retreat, or regularly block shorter spans of time on your calendar for digging into what you want to learn
  • Start a blog or learning journal to articulate your insights and views
  • And the list could go on…

Some of these habits may be directed at deepening your expertise in a specific knowledge base or skill (related to work or not), or you may want to form habits just to satisfy an itch to learn, a more expansive curiosity about subjects about which you know little.

“Lots of research shows that we tend to be overconfident about how easy it is to be self-disciplined.” ~ Katy Milkman

How to form new learning habits

You may be able to easily put these activities on a list, but it’s another thing altogether to form them into habit, or indeed to make any change you want to make in your behaviors. It may sound good as a new resolution, but it can be tough to keep up when your life is demanding. I was inspired to think about that a little more carefully these last few weeks as I read Katy Milkman’s new book, How to Change: The science of getting from where you are to where you want to be (Portfolio/Penguin, 2021).

There’s a lot of good science in the book (there should be, Dr. Milkman is a professor at The Wharton School with a long history of research in this area). The bulk of Dr. Milkman’s research-based advice is meant to counter the barriers that get in our way: procrastination, impulsivity, forgetfulness, lack of confidence.

I read the book with a mind toward seeking to make learning a habit. We learn all the time, of course, but I work frequently with people who are pursuing self-directed learning projects, and they often need to develop new habits around learning in order to ensure that the effort they put into their projects results in changes in how they work.

Here’s some of the good advice Katy Milkman offers:

Make a fresh start

There’s a reason why making resolutions is associated with the start of a new year – there’s something freeing about drawing a line between the old you and the new you. But January 1 is not the only significant start date you might consider – think about using the start of the school year, your birthday, the first day on a new job, the beginning of Spring, your work anniversary, etc. as your fresh start date. Leading up to your fresh start, set specific goals and make plans on executing them so that you are ready to reinvent yourself (or at least some of your behaviors) when that start date comes around.

Link your new behavior with an existing habit.

There are two ways to do this, temptation bundling and cue planning. Temptation bundling helps you to get past your own resistance – associate your new habit with something you want to do. Maybe you decide to start listening to podcasts when you are on your daily run. Or you can plan to get together with a friend to pursue your new learning. (That’s my plan; a friend and I have both wanted to learn to knit; so we committed to a monthly crafting day, satisfying our need to catch up with one another and our desire to practice knitting.)

Cue planning is using something you do regularly as the cue to engage in the new activity. For example, I regularly plan my upcoming week on Friday, and I can use that as a cue to block out specific learning time or name specific learning goals for the week. When reading a book, take the end of each chapter as a cue to jot down a few notes on insights before you go on. Use the first of the month as a cue to review your learning notes for things that need action.

Plan and track your learning

Research shows that it pays to break your larger learning goals down into smaller ones. If you plan to read 10 books per year, plan for one per month (with some spillover baked in) or plan to read 45 minutes per day. The closer, smaller goals feel easier to accomplish and are more likely to be completed. Also plan in contingency – what you’ll do if a goal isn’t reached (rather than simply give up). If you keep track of goal accomplishment, or more specifically lack thereof, you can identify and address barriers earlier.

Research also shows that giving yourself rewards and penalties can add a little extra incentive to stick to your plans. Give yourself a special dessert when you finish a book, or – for added incentive – promise that you’ll contribute to a cause you abhor if you miss your goal.

Emulate the best learners in your circle

It’s great to read tip sheets (like this one 😊), but better still to hear about personalized approaches from peers or to watch and learn from other people like you. Katy Milkman calls that “copy and paste” – and research shows that is more successful than being taught a list of techniques from an expert third party. To that end, what can you share that works for you? Drop me a note with your most successful strategies.

You have my best wishes on your fresh start!

Do you need a sounding board for your strategies for making learning a habit? Take advantage of my complimentary consulting to open a conversation with me.