“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn the more I realize the less I know.”

Those words come from the movie, Yentl – a tribute to the joy of learning if there ever was one. Those words are the answer to the question (if ever asked): Why should we think about lifelong learning?

Humans are curious, and our world is constantly changing. A full life is supported by a wide-ranging knowledge base and a set of skills that we develop over time – knowledge and skill we need as part of our ongoing repertoire or to meet emerging work challenges or to engage in evolving personal pursuits.

While the concept of lifelong learning is having its moment because of the current avalanche of change, learning constantly over a lifetime has always been so. It’s useful, then, to take a focused look at how to engage in consistent, purposeful learning, especially in those arenas where developing and leveling-up skills is important to you.

You may have professional skills that you want to deepen. Or your field may be changing enough to require upskilling on your part. Or you may want to be the best leader you can be. Or maybe you maintain a deep interest about a specific topic. Or there are skills like woodworking, or parenting, or pickleball that you want to learn, strengthen, and maintain. Because you are interested, you’re likely to be developing these skills without making a clear plan to do so. But when time is limited and the quality of resources available is mixed (to put it kindly), relying on specific habits for lifelong learning can ensure you are making the progress you desire without wasted effort.

Here are some lifelong learning habits to consider incorporating in your repertoire if not there already. The first four habits are related to getting focused and ready to learn. The next four are about engaging in learning. All of these are underscored by habits which strengthen your ability to learn effectively and efficiently.

Setting goals

There are two important habits related to setting goals – one is to set them regularly, and the other is to set them in such a way as to drive your learning.

You want to consider possibilities and priorities on a regular basis – at least once per year, and possibly more often. This activity can be triggered by specific dates, like year-end, or your birthday, your organization’s development plan due date, or the start of a fiscal or school year – whatever is significant to you and has room for a substantial reflection and planning session (where you not only set goals, but also make plans – see below). You may even pause at the start of each new project to deliberately set learning goals in addition to laying out other tasks.

There are many recommended formats for goal-setting – SMART goals, learning objectives, the GROW model. But I find for intense or longer-term learning goals, the best approach is to identify your topic or skill and then describe what you want to learn in the form of a list of questions. This set of questions helps to guide your choice of learning resources and ensure that when you engage in learning activities, you have focused your intention so that you gain what you need. Over time, the questions may change, or your list may grow – that’s a good thing! It indicates that you are coming to understand foundational concepts and frameworks enough to have more informed questions.

Making plans

The internet provides a portal to a huge range of learning resources and access to people who you may never meet face-to-face. That’s a boon for learning, but also a curse – because, frankly, there are plenty of inferior, click-bait resources and slick, miracle-cure charlatans out there. That’s why slowing down to find the best resources and to make a plan is so important.

For truly impactful learning, make it a habit to find deep-dive resources and the most knowledgeable people. Look for materials in reputable places and get recommendations from people you trust. Always vet the source or author of the materials to be sure they have the credibility to be offering knowledge or advice. (See the Charting Your Course workbook for advice on the elements of a solid plan.)

You’ll find plenty to keep you busy… but take the time to prioritize. You won’t be able to engage with everything that’s available and you can use your key questions to guide your choices.

Allocating time

Finding time to engage in your learning activities is the most often cited challenge that people have. Our lives tend to be over-scheduled, driven by others’ needs, and stressful. Since the pandemic, many people have embraced scaling back work commitments to make more room for what’s important. Consider what you can do to lighten your schedule, eliminate time-wasting activities (looking at you, social media scrolling), and make time for learning.

Having some kind of dedicated time for learning is the most successful strategy. Some people reserve early hours or later at nighttime. Some block out time during their work days – just a few hours a week can help you make progress. Scheduling substantial periods can also be productive – one day a month to spend at the library, for example. It can also be helpful to fill in spare time with reading rather than with random internet surfing. Since you’ve already taken the time to find resources, you should be able to just pick up what’s next.

Optimizing your environment

Create a physical and mental space that is conducive to learning. Since I’m a book-reader, I find a quiet, comfortable spot with a cozy chair, a good lap desk, and a handy set of annotation tools is essential. That’s just one element of a supportive physical environment. Set up the technology you need, and shut out the technology you don’t need. In your learning space, eliminate or minimize distractions from external sources and from your own reflexive need to peek at notices or check posts.

There is no such thing as multi-tasking. If you are switching between checking email and engaging with an article or video, then you are doing neither one efficiently or effectively. Studies show a significant cost to attention-switching, notably in how much time it takes to get back into what you were doing after allowing yourself to be pulled away. Hearing the ping of incoming texts and notices has been shown to have detrimental effects on learning, even if you don’t pick up your phone to read them. (Leaving your phone in another room is actually best when you can manage it.)

Think about what you need to be able to give your attention to your learning project and do your best to create that environment for yourself.

Going deep

It is unfortunate that learning is relegated to the edges – expected to be quick, and fit into work, and just enough to get by. There are certainly times when an in-the-moment look-up and immediate application is appropriate, but that satisfies just a subset of our learning needs.

Many learning projects require more concerted effort. To gather the nuances of a topic or skill, you need deep-dive resources like books, or longer-read journal articles, or extended video series, or workshops and course work, or multiple resources with varying perspectives. You may also need challenging practice or application opportunities, and time to speak with experts or colleagues about what you are learning and how you are doing.

So get in the habit of going deep to learn nuances and details. Pass over the bulleted lists of one-sentence imperatives. And be careful about asking AI for a summary, as it has not been consistently reliable or accurate.

Engaging social support

Learning is a relational process. While you may often read/view/study alone, there’s still nothing better than engaging with other people throughout your learning project. Consider enlisting support from people who impart, people who engage, and/or people who inspire.

The people who impart are teachers, coaches, mentors, trainers, subject matter experts, and feedback-providers. People who engage are co-learners, collaborators, community members, and conversation partners. Don’t underestimate the need for people to talk to about your learning – and consider recruiting at least one person to be your booster – the one who’ll nudge you about progress even if they can’t help with your specific project. People who inspire are the thought leaders and experts in your field who you may find in the next cubicle, or at conferences, or in your social media feeds, or as authors of helpful books, articles, and internet content.

As part of your planning, consider what kind of human interaction will be most helpful to you, and then figure out how to engage those people along the way. Consistently seek out the social support you need.

Capturing learning

Create a system for capturing your learning. Monitor yourself and refine what works for you. Note-taking is something of a lost art when we have access to electronic storage. But it is an important element of learning, a first step in translating what you are absorbing into guidance for future action. Electronic tools can be very useful, but handwriting has its advantages. (It requires you to start to parse what’s important.)

Whether you use highlighters and pens to mark-up your reading, a notebook to capture key points, a blog or journal to summarize insights, or electronic notes to organize your resources (or all of the above) – your task is to make note of details – especially those that answer the questions you outlined in your goal-setting.

To make your notes more actionable, make it a habit to keep a running list of ideas, review your notes regularly to compile action steps, and create a job aid of sime kind to guide your work. Consistently employ a strategy to capture and synthesize your learning. Share your notes with mentors, colleagues, or teachers to verify your understanding. Revisit and study your notes to help you to remember and apply as needed.

Tracking progress

Along the way, you’ll want to keep an eye on whether your efforts are bearing fruit. And in a skills-based economy, it’s useful to be able to confidently share your skill portfolio. Both of these require routines related to tracking skill development.

Pause regularly to determine which of your questions are answered and which need further exploration. Assess whether you are making progress on what you wanted to learn. Ask for feedback from peers and supervisors regarding your demonstration of the knowledge and skill you are developing – do they see progress?

If you want to measure progress, you may be able to find a behaviorally-anchored assessment instrument that will help you to check the differences your learning is making. If not, you can develop for yourself some kind of checklist or quality review document that you can use as a check on your knowledge or skills. But don’t worry too much about an official measurement tool if you yourself can judge your sense of progress or if you have good feedback-providers who support your ongoing learning.

Developing learning skills

The last habit of lifelong learning is to constantly strengthen your learning skills. The list of skills that might be needed is relatively long, so I will cover these in a separate post. In short, you need skills that help you to glean knowledge from your learning activities, skills that help you to interpret and think critically about that knowledge, and skills that help you to recall and apply knowledge and skill in a variety of contexts.

Whatever the specifics, learning to learn is an ongoing process. It begins with understanding how learning works in the mind (and body) – what supports it and what hinders it. It also takes self-awareness – monitoring what works for you and what does not (based on outcomes, not gut feeling). There are always new tools that might prove helpful, and you’ll want to experiment with those that intrigue you.

Why develop lifelong learning habits

They say that the world belongs to those who can learn precisely because learning is an integrated, never-ending process. That last song from Yentl continues:

“Each step I take, each page I turn, each mile I travel only means the more I have to go. What’s wrong with wanting more? If you can fly, then soar!”

No truer words, boldly proclaiming that learning is the key to flourishing. Developing strong learning habits puts you in a position to do your best at whatever work or activities you wish to pursue.

 

* Yentl lyrics are by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The full song by Barbra Streisand is worth a listen.