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What do I want to learn about learning?

Although the project of writing a topic-focused blog/book is temporarily on the back burner, I’ve been thinking about what I want to learn about learning so that I can squeeze it into little bits of time here and there. This way, I can keep an eye out for learning opportunities, questions, and books that would be worth exploring.

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Making a high-level map of what I want to learn helps me keep it in mind. A one-page visual summary like this catches my eye more than a simple text list or outline. There are twelve items here, so I might focus on one area per month. Let me think about what each area means and how I can learn it…

  1. Map a good path/course for learning (guide questions, sequence, …): It usually makes sense to learn things in a particular order. This is part of the value offered by teachers and coaches. A good curriculum organizes ideas so that they build on previous ones, and individualized learning plans can focus on the most useful things to learn first. Like the way a curriculum includes recommended reading, a good map also includes the resources that can help people learn the specific topics.
    • Success: I can organize learning maps for things I know (ex: how to learn Emacs or Org). I can plan learning maps for the things I want to learn, with feedback from more experienced people who can help me make sure the sequence makes sense and that I’m using the best resources.
    • How: I can learn this through practice, especially if I can compare the maps I make with other people’s versions. I can learn this through feedback from coaches.
    • Explore: What are some ways you can “tinker” with a new topic? How can you recognize when you’re trying to climb a cliff that’s too steep and find alternative routes, versus dealing with something that will yield to persistence?
  2. Find and use the appropriate resources: There are different kinds of resources, and resources can be of varying quality or appropriateness. Effectiveness is learner-dependent, too. For example, I do well with books, but I have a harder time with video or audio, and I have a lot to learn about working with people. Using the right resources can accelerate learning, while using poor resources can set me back.
    • Success: I can quickly identify key resources based on other people’s experiences and recommendations, adjusting the list depending on availability and my  preferences.
    • How: I can work on getting better at preliminary research. I can estimate how useful a resource will be and what I aim to get out of it, and then compare that with the results. I can work on getting more effective at learning through different channels through practising, reflecting, identifying weaknesses, and building on strengths.
    • Explore: How can I learn from a coach? How can I get better at learning from free courses? How can I make the most of what I can learn from books?
  3. Take more effective notes: Notes are a great way to condense and personalize knowledge as well as integrate what I’ve learned with other things I’ve learned before.
    • Success: I keep different levels of notes: details, summaries, and maps that integrate ideas with other topics. I can review my notes easily, refreshing my memory and following up on questions or ideas. I might not remember everything, but I can usually find things again, and I can see where the gaps are.
    • How: The Cornell method looks interesting, so I might try that for detailed notes. I also want to get better at organizing and reviewing my electronic notes, and at mapping the connections between ideas.
    • Explore: How can I manage different levels of notes well, so that I can dive deep or get the overview as needed?
  4. Integrate new knowledge with old: It’s one thing to learn, and it’s another thing to integrate what you learn into what you know so that you can see where the gaps, conflicts, or synchronicities are.
    • Success: I note follow-up questions and ideas after learning something. I fill those in with further study and cross-references. I have a syntopical index like the one mentioned in How to Read a Book.
    • How: Practice, practice, practice.
    • Explore: How can I map what I know and what I want to learn, and then connect that with the building blocks?
  5. Improve working memory and concentration: This is useful when learning complex topics like programming because I have to hold different chunks of information in my head. Also good for popping the stack in terms of tasks, conversations, and so forth.
    • Success: Dual n-back test performance? Less task-switching? Oh, finishing more stuff instead of getting distracted mid-way…
    • How: Practice, mnemonics.
    • Explore: How can I get better at remembering sequences and dealing with distractions?
  6. Improve long-term memory and retention: My associative memory is pretty good, so if I can remember a hook into something, I can usually get enough information to find it again. I’d like to get better at remember
    • Success: I’ve memorized key information such as phone numbers, basic recipes, and important skills.
    • How: Spaced repetition, mnemonics.
    • Explore: What’s important to store in my own memory? How can I get better at doing that?
  7. Recognize learning opportunities: Squeezing more learning out of every moment! Even in routines, there’s always room to learn more.
    • Success: I can recognize and take advantage of learning opportunities, getting over the barriers of boredom (for routine tasks) or emotion (for difficult moments).
    • How: Process improvement for routine tasks, reflection for difficult times
    • Explore: How can I improve my routines? What can I do to handle difficult times even better? Where do I run into diminishing returns or over-optimization, and where should I move on?
  8. Translate learning into changes: Book knowledge isn’t everything. I’ve got to do something with it too. That way, I don’t just take a book’s word for it. Instead, I can find out whether something really works for me, and I can annotate it with my experiences.
    • Success: I’ve slowed down my learning pace so that I test and integrate more of the knowledge that I pick up. I define clear objectives and commitments before learning something so that I know the time will be worth it.
    • How: Practice, reflection, scheduled decision/learning reviews.
    • Explore: What small actions can I take to integrate what I learn into how I live? How can I keep track of what I’m learning and what the results are?
  9. Observe and reflect: Life has a lot to teach me if I remember to look. Noticing what’s unusual–or what’s absent, which is harder–can lead to lots of learning.
    • Success: W- is a great role model: he’s more observant than I am, and he follows his curiosity in learning about lots and lots of things.
    • How: Practice and feedback. Spot-the-difference games in real life? Asking more questions, too. Coaching, perhaps?
    • Explore: How can I look at my life with an outsider’s eyes? How can I become more attentive and observant using visual thinking or other skills?
  10. Recognize and test assumptions, differences: When I make decisions or learn about things, it helps to see what I’m taking for granted.
    • Success: I can articulate my assumptions and devise simple tests. When learning something, I can use critical thinking to think about what assumptions are embedded in the learning and identify situations where the lesson may not be valid.
    • How: Practise by analyzing and testing my decisions, and then reviewing the results. Read critically.
    • Explore: Can I find or come up with a framework that will help me identify more of my assumptions? How can I do small tests?
  11. Adapt to changes: This is related to recognizing assumptions and differences. Real life can sometimes change too slowly for me to notice when my assumptions are no longer valid. Learning includes getting a sense for when things may have changed so much that I need to reconsider things.
    • Success: I have “tripwires” that trigger re-evaluation and additional learning. I periodically practise zero-based thinking.
    • How: Practice and reflection.
    • Explore: What scenarios should I watch out for, and what early warning signs can trigger re-evaluation? How do I make sure I don’t miss those signs?
  12. Share what I’m learning: I learn a lot in the process of sharing what I’m learning, and I can help other people learn as well.
    • Success: I have a smooth process for sharing what I’ve learned and what I’m learning. I incorporate people’s feedback and ideas into my learning process.
    • How: Blogging, drawing, putting together presentations, etc.
    • Explore: How can I make sharing more efficient or more effective?

This will be fun. If there’s anything you’d particularly like to learn more about, or if you can help me learn some of these things more effectively, please feel free to comment!

If you want to follow my journey so far, check out my learning-related notes on Flickr and on my blog. Enjoy!

Using Emacs to figure out where I need to improve in order to type faster

I’ve been thinking about how to type faster than 110wpm, and digging into the specific factors that I could improve. In particular, I wanted to get a sense of:

  • my theoretical top speed
  • whether alternates or rolls are better for me
  • how quickly I can twitch, measured by single-key repeats or two-key alternations

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By using totally artificial typing tests (ex: type “thththth…”) instead of word-based ones, I can explore the relationships between character combinations and speed without worrying about hitting SPC, sounding out words, correcting errors, and so on. Since I can do the tests in short sprints, I can rest enough in between to minimize my risk of RSI.

Using Emacs to test my raw typing speed

I haven’t come across an online typing test that gives the kind of stats I want, or even a per-character or digram breakdown. I thought about writing a Javascript-based typing timer, but I figured it would be less work to cajole Emacs into measuring what I wanted. Here’s the code:

(defun sacha/timer-go ()
  "Quick keyboard timer."
  (interactive)
  (insert "GO\n")
  (run-with-timer 3 nil (lambda () (insert "\n")))  ; for warmup
  (run-with-timer 15 nil (lambda () ; 12 seconds + the 3-second warmup
                           (let ((col (- (point) (line-beginning-position))))
                             (insert (format " | %d | \n" col)))
                           )))
(local-set-key (kbd "<f7>") 'sacha/timer-go)

This prints “GO” to show you that it’s running. You have three seconds to warm up, so you don’t have to worry about wasting any milliseconds after M-x sacha/timer-go (or F7, the keyboard shortcut I bound mine to). After the warmup, Emacs adds a newline and the “race” is on. There’s a 12 second period of actual typing, and then Emacs adds the number of characters you typed. When you see that, you can stop.

Twelve seconds is a useful number for estimating typing speed because the conversion from characters per minute (CPM) to words per minute (WPM) usually uses a factor of 5: CPM / 5 = WPM. So the number of characters you can type in 60 seconds / 5 is probably the number of “words” you could type in a minute.

Note: L and R refer to left and right hand. I’ve also numbered the fingers with 1 being the thumb and 5 being the pinky. The patterns I used are based on a Dvorak keyboard, but that doesn’t matter as much. You can probably figure out what the equivalent patterns are on your preferred keyboard layout.

Limitations: I didn’t do any special calculations to deal with errors (there were many doubling or transposition errors multi-character sequences), so the actual CPM will be lower. Also, repeated character sequences are definitely not normal and have quirks of their own. It’s interesting to establish the range and see the kinds of errors that show up when I go faster than I’m comfortable with, though.

Pure speed

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
keyboard mashing -none- (mashing) 379
keyboard mashing -none- (mashing) 379
keyboard mashing -none- (mashing) 354
R side mashing -none- (mashing) 245
L side mashing -none- (mashing) 217

If you don’t care what you’re typing, it’s easy to type quickly. This is just about how fast my hands go if I don’t have to think about which finger to activate. This mostly ended up as alternating left- and right-hand rolls (ex: aoeusntoahuesnto). Because I didn’t have to precisely alternate, two-handed mashing resulted in more characters than one-handed mashing. Interestingly, my right hand is slightly faster than my left.

Alternates versus rolls

4-key combinations

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R-side 4-key roll snthsnth 232
L-side 4-key roll aoeuaoue 201
L 3 & 2, R 3 & 2 eutheuth 164

3-key combinations

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 187
L 5, R 4 & 2 andand 184
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 182
roll R 3 nthnth 176
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 170
roll L 3 oeuoue 166
roll L 3 oeuoeu 164
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 159
roll R 3 nthnth 152
R 3, L 4 & 3 toetoe 140

I expected rolls to be faster than alternates, but it turns out that alternating works out fine too (“the” and “and” on a Dvorak keyboard). Same-hand rolls had fewer errors than alternates, though – timing can be tricky when doing high-speed repeats. That can be partially handled by autocorrecting “teh” to “the” and similar transpositions. I use an AutoHotkey-based autocorrect script, but it screws up the typing tests I like, so I can’t take advantage of it then.

A roll-optimized keyboard layout might be more effective. 3- and 4-character rolls like the ones I tested aren’t that common in actual typing, but it might be possible to find keyboard layouts that are better-optimized for the languages I use. I’ve read that Arensito, Capewell, and Colemak focus more on rolls and alternating rolls, so they might be worth a look.

Two-character pairs

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
alt L and R 1 uhuh 139
L 5, R 5 asas 137
R 2 & 3 chch 135
R 2 & 3 thth 134
L 2, R 3 tutu 130
R 3, L 4 toto 129
L 2, R 2 uhuh 128
R 1 & 5 xsxs 126
L 2 & 3 eueu 124
R 2 and 5 shsh 115

Two-character patterns are slower than three-character patterns, probably indicating that there’s a small delay as I think about repeating things. Alternates and same-hand two-character pairs seem to work okay. Even for same-hand two-character pairs, I get the occasional doubling or transposition error.

Single-finger twitching

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 2 hhhh 79
R 3 tttt 76
R 1 mmmm 75
R 4 nnnn 74
L 2 uuuu 73
R 5 ssss 71
L 3 eeee 71
L 4 oooo 65
L 1 kkkk 64
L 5 aaaa 61

Single-finger keypresses (no automatic repeats) are slow. Good thing I don’t have to do them that often. If this represents the speed at which I can send an impulse to my finger and have it do something, this might be a limiting factor for my typing speed, which is compensated for by alternates and rolls.

Three characters with repositioning

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 3, L 2, L 2 cupcup 67
R 3, L 5, R 3 catcat 66
R 2, L 4, R 2 dogdog 64

Moving my fingers takes time too. Also, did you know that there are typing equivalents of tongue-twisters? I can’t type “ranranranran…” a long time without it turning into rna and other permutations. Maybe my brain gets hiccups.

Interrupted combinations

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 4, L 4, R 3 notnot 63
L 4, R 4, L 3 oneone 57
L 5, R 4, L 3 areare 55

Alternating hands is actually pretty tough if you have to care about timing. Oddly, this is slower than repositioning. Maybe it’s because the repositioning helps me remember where I am in the word when I’m repeating it, so natural typing will be a different case.

Wrap-up

Chunking seems to make a big difference for me. 4-character combinations tend to beat 3-character combinations and those tend to beat 2-character combinations, unless there’s some timing involved. Common combinations (the, and) are easier to type. If I can get better at chunking words into syllables, that might help. The most common digraphs are TH, HE, AN, IN, ER, ON, RE, ED, ND, HA, AT, EN, ES, OF, NT, EA, TI, TO, IO, LE, IS, OU, AR, AS, DE, RT, and VE (source), so that might be good to look at next.

Twitching or moving individual fingers are slow operations, so being able to “look ahead” and move my fingers to the right spots while I’m typing the first few characters helps. Muscle memory also helps minimize errors. Also, maybe finger dexterity and agility exercises?

I’m probably in the region of Diminishing Returns here. I could spend hours inching up my typing speed… or I could spend that time doing other things. Now that I’ve identified specific areas to look into, though, I might be able to set up exercises to take advantage of interstitial time. For example, while I’m reading a book, I could do finger dexterity exercises (pausing, of course, if I feel any hint of strain – I’d like to avoid RSI if I can).

On another note, testing my theoretical speed in this way reminded me a little of how we used to play Decathlon on the computer as kids. (Was it Microsoft Decathlon? The screenshots look familiar…) Somehow our keyboard survived the rampage back then. =)

Next steps

Because alternation can lead to typing errors or slowness for me, I might look into Colemak, which optimizes for single-hand rolls. Still, I’m pretty happy with Dvorak, and the Colemak FAQ warns that the switch might not be worth it. Another thing I’m looking into is Plover, which lets you do stenography using a regular keyboard. My laptop keyboard can’t easily do some of the combinations and I’m more visual than phonetic when it comes to words, so it might be a challenge to learn.

The easiest win will probably come from training my speech recognition software to recognize my words more accurately. I’ve been dictating book notes to my computer. This is great because it reinforces the key points of the book in my memory, trains the computer, and helps me practice clear diction. I’ve gotten to the point of using speech recognition to take notes during my first pass through a book, editing after each paragraph. I feel that the accuracy is gradually improving. I make fewer edits as I learn how to speak the way the computer wants me to and I teach the computer to understand the way I speak.

Besides, an average of 107 wpm on Dvorak is fast enough to let me get words out of my head and onto my computer, and I can focus on what I want to say instead of how to type.  There’s plenty more to learn about how to write efficiently. Time to go back to David Fryxell’s How to Write Fast (While Writing Well)! So it’s interesting to dig into what my rate-limiting factors are when it comes to typing faster, but it’s even better to focus on how I can think faster (although speech recognition will still be useful for the benefits mentioned above).

Have you analyzed your typing? What did you learn?

Image credits: Keyboard with time (Cienpies Design, Shutterstock)

Thinking about how to type faster than 110wpm

shutterstock_127525793What would typing faster be like? What would help me get there?

10fastfingers.com says that my average typing speed is 104 wpm (over 13 tests), with a peak of 112wpm. This is on Dvorak, which I taught myself in 2003. On QWERTY, I’m slower (85-90wpm) and definitely not as happy. I like the way Dvorak alternates hands. I learned QWERTY instinctively and Dvorak properly, so I have much better finger-use on Dvorak.

Having recently discovered the typing practice feature on 10fastfingers, I’ve been working on getting rid of the backspace instinct. This is one of the keys to typing faster: increase your speed beyond accuracy, and then let accuracy catch up. Incidentally, the same trick works with speed-reading, where you need to push yourself to read faster than you can comprehend.

I could use AutoHotkey to make my backspace key useless. Hah! For good measure, I’ll disable my left Control as well, since I need to get used to using Caps Lock instead. I tried setting Backspace to SoundBeep before, but that got in the way of mapping something else to Backspace. That’s why the keyboard shortcuts are playing musical chairs.

Backspace::F13
F13::SoundBeep
LCtrl::SoundBeep
Capslock::Control
F12::Backspace

Shut down that typing inhibitor and you’ll type faster, or at least that’s how the theory goes.

I’m somewhat concerned that this will result in Training The Wrong Thing. After all, practice is just as good at solidifying mistakes as it is in improving performance. ;) (Practice Perfect is an excellent book – have you read it?) Still, since I’m supposed to reread my blog posts for typos anyway, I guess it can’t hurt.

Typing speed isn’t my bottleneck, though. It’s thinking speed. But since that seems to be harder to improve (maybe games? improv?), I can work on other aspects instead.

I occasionally experiment with speech recognition as a way of speeding up input and making phrases more natural. So far, I’ve discovered I’m definitely not used to talking my way through a topic, although I’m sure that’ll yield to practice. Dragon’s model of my speech is getting good enough that I can use it to dictate notes from books with minimal editing, which comes in handy when I’m taking notes on books that aren’t interesting enough to sketchnote in full. (I didn’t dictate this blog post because my headset is still recharging.)

Outlining is going to be a big help too, I think. I’ve got blog posts scheduled up to September. It’s now super-easy for me to sit down and start writing, knowing where the post fits in the grand scheme of things. A number of people have expressed interest in the Accelerated Learning with Sketchnotes idea, so I might go ahead and prototype parts of it to see how that works out. =)

As for code (the other place where typing speed really pays off), I find that the more I learn, the less I need to write. Increasing my productivity is more about understanding the problem or idea, knowing about (and applying!) good practices, and making the most of available tools and libraries.

But it’s still fun inching up one’s typing speed, just because. I know people who type at 120wpm+, so clearly, it’s possible. Still, RSI is a real danger (I know people who’ve mostly had to stop typing, although this is a different set of people!). Don’t optimize this too much. ;)

It might be fun to spend a few weeks seeing if this is a skill that yields to deliberate practice. Do you want to try the deliberate practice experiment with me so that we can combine our results? It probably looks like a 10-15min daily practice session (10 minutes of typing practice, and a few tests).

I’m also curious about the Colemak layout, which is supposed to have better rolling. I’ll learn that eventually. =)

First, I have to get used to the weirdness I’ve imposed on myself (no Backspace key, no left Control key). Then it’s off to the races!

Image credits: Training (CartoonResource, Shutterstock)

What’s your typing speed? Have you steadily increased your speed, or have you broken through plateaus? How?
Update – August 19, 2013: Mel Chua suggests stenography (http://plover.stenoknight.com/). That looks promising, especially once Stenosaurus becomes available. Things to start learning next month!

Thinking about how I can use Evernote more effectively

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Every so often, I go on a tagging and filing spree. It took me a couple of hours, but I finally cleared the 700+ items that had piled up in my Evernote inbox. I was thinking about how to get even better at this because Timothy Kenny told me how he has a virtual assistant file the notes in his Microsoft OneNote notebooks.

Is my filing really worth it? Is it something I value enough to pay someone else to do? Could I explain what I wanted clearly enough so that other people could do it? Could I benefit from organization even if I’m not the one organizing things myself?

Before I dig into that, I should probably examine this question: What do I use Evernote for, and what could “better” look like?

Here’s a quick summary of the different reasons I use Evernote:

Type of note Description Organization Improvements
Sketchnotes Collection of my sketchnotes for easy searching Shared notebook, tagged by type Fine the way it is
Inspiration Interesting sketchnotes, images, and web designs Notebook, tagged by technique Tag and file when clipping, identify key areas of focus
Visual library Visual thesaurus / sketches of abstract and concrete stuff Notebook, titles updated, duplicates merged Improve workflow – delegate titling?
E-mail archives Keep important information no matter which e-mail inbox it’s from None at the moment; notebook and tags Tag and file when forwarding
People, conversations Quick notes from my mobile Notebook Add full names; consider Evernote Hello for mobile input?
Ideas and thoughts Quick notes from my mobile Notebook Should have weekly task to review and act on; separate from main Inbox?
Actions Quick notes from my mobile, when I’m away from Org Notebook Should have weekly task to review and act on / copy into my Org file
Cooking Recipes, usually with pictures Notebook, tagged by technique or dietary considerations Review periodically; update when cooked
Wishlist Resources to buy after more consideration None at the moment; tags, probably Tag and file when clipping
Reference books Books held by the Toronto Reference Library, to request next time I’m there Notebook, search Go to the library more often
Letters Scanned letters so that I can review correspondence Notebook, tagged by person Fine the way it is
PDFs Makes PDFs more searchable Inbox, occasionally tagged Use Web Clipper to specify tags and file in Notes right away
Blog posts / casual browsing Interesting things that might be useful someday, especially for related items Notebook Use Web Clipper to file in Notes right away
Other sketches Scanned sketchbook pages so that I can review Notebook Fine the way it is
Private notes Things that I might want to remember or write about someday, but not yet Notebook Have an outline?
Blog post ideas Inspiration, drafts, links, images, checklists Notebook, some tags Add links to outline?
Business and personal receipts Back up business and personal receipts; possibly be able to search through them Notebook; tags, or just use folders on my drive? Decide where to do the organization; have an assistant retitle before import?
Blog research? Clipped pages so they’ll show up in Google Search and related notes, and so that I can review them even if the source disappears (payoff > 2 years) No organization; search by keywords or sourceurl: Clip, but remove from inbox quickly

I have different types of clipping activities:

  • A. Researching a topic, which results in lots of clips related to a single topic. Usually in preparation for a blog post or as a way to answer a question.
  • B. Casual browsing and clipping based on blog posts, news items, or other things I come across; roughly topical (ex: skill development), although may be tagged and filed in different places
  • C. Saving reference material from email or websites, which should be filed
  • D. Adding notes on the go using my phone, which should be reviewed and acted on or filed when I get back to my computer
  • E. Automatically clipping things based on external input, using services like IFTTT to archive my blog posts.

There are several strategies I could use to manage my Evernote collection. I can choose different strategies based on the results that I want. Here are some possibilities:

  • A. Spend a few extra seconds tagging and filing things when I clip them. Advantage: I touch something once, so I don’t have to recall the context of an item.
  • B. Capture everything into an !Inbox, then file shortly after clipping. Advantages: I can select multiple entries and tag them give them the same tags, and copy all the note links in one go.
  • C. Capture everything into an !Inbox, then file weekly. This is my current strategy. This isn’t working out too well – things pile up.
  • D. Capture everything into an !Inbox, then teach someone to file.

I think strategy B will give me a good improvement in performance without me needing to bring in someone else.

One of the areas that I could generally improve in is integrating the notes into my outlines and plans. Instead of just collecting the information, maybe I can use Copy Note Link and then spend some time adding those links to my outline. Alternatively, I can copy the source URL right then and there, find where it fits into my outline, and paste the link. If org2blog respects comments, I could even use that as part of my workflow.

If I were to outsource more tasks in order to improve my effectiveness at learning, I think I’d gain more value from finding someone who can speed-read like I do, filtering through lots of cruft on the Internet to find high-quality resources. They could then clip those pages into Evernote for my review. That might be worth an experiment or two… Let’s find out how that works!

How I learn: 16 things I’ve learned about mindset and process

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How do you learn? What’s your process like? What helps you learn more effectively? Timothy Kenny put together this learning profile based on almost 30 of my blog posts and pages throughout the years. Some of his observations are still true today, while others are a little out of date or incomplete. (For example: I’m back to feeling a visceral horror at the thought of marking up my books, and I don’t use a special keyboard.) Since quite a few people are interested in learning about learning, I thought I’d write about what I find helpful and how I want to improve.

MINDSET

1. It starts with attitude

I learn better when I’m learning something I care about and I can celebrate small successes. I can see this difference more clearly by looking at where I’ve had problems. I’ve struggled with learning when I didn’t start off with that engagement and feeling of possible competence. In my English literature classes, I felt like a fake trying to write critical essays. (“Irony? I don’t do irony, I’m a programmer!”) In calculus, I fell behind in memorizing and understanding different principles, so it was harder and harder to catch up. Most of my consulting engagements were fun, but I hated dealing with enterprise software stacks or Microsoft SQL Server administration because feedback was slow and I didn’t have that small kernel of confidence to build on.

Sometimes, when I’m trying to figure out something complex (say, statistical analysis, D3 Javascript visualizations, tax rules in Canada), I remind myself: other people have figured this out before, so I’ll probably be able to do so too. That helps.

When I catch myself making excuses why I’d have a hard time learning something, that’s useful information. I’m avoiding it for a reason, sometimes several reasons. What are those reasons, and what can I do about it? I don’t allow myself to say that I can’t learn something. I have to face the facts. Either I haven’t broken it down into a small enough chunk to learn, or I don’t care about it enough. If I don’t care about it enough, then I look for ways to work around it. I don’t have to learn everything, but I need to believe that I can learn what I need to.

Tip: Watch out for your excuses. Deal with them, or be okay with dropping things you don’t care about.

2. Work with your brain, not against it

We learn in different ways. I find it difficult to sit still and listen, so I fell asleep in many of my university lectures, and I’m not really into online courses or podcasts. My memory is fuzzy, so taking notes and searching them helps a lot. I can find it tiring to concentrate on one thing for more than four hours, so I keep a list of things to learn more about. I love reading, and I love trying things out for myself. Spaced repetition seems to work well for me in terms of memorizing, while small tasks work well for me in terms of learning something new.

Tip: Know your brain’s quirks and limitations, and work with them.

3. Embrace uncertainty and intimidation

It’s hard to learn when you don’t know where to start, what’s involved, or what’s possible. I’m learning to embrace that uncertainty. Uncertainty is awesome. It means there’s lots to learn. You don’t have to completely resolve uncertainty – small experiments can give you plenty of information.

Intimidation can be good, too. Even if a topic looks too large to handle, if you can break it down into smaller chunks that you can learn and you celebrate that progress, it can feel fantastic.

Tip: The important thing here is not to avoid the topic just because you don’t know enough about it. Get your teeth into it and start chewing. That’s the point of learning, after all.

4. See learning opportunities at many levels

If you can get better at recognizing learning opportunities, then you can wring more learning out of the same 24 hours we get in a day. This is mostly about mental friction. For example, Canada Post recently lost my passport. I could spend time and energy getting really annoyed about that (which wouldn’t do anything), or I could focus on learning from it. Everything is a learning opportunity.

It gets even better when you can recognize multiple levels of learning opportunities. The same experience can teach you many different things. For example, attending presentations can be a hit-or-miss experience. Sometimes I go to an event and the presentation covers something I already know, or the speaker isn’t engaging, or there’s not enough time for Q&A. Many people would think that’s a waste of time. But I get a lot of value even if the talk doesn’t meet my expectations: drawing practice, connection opportunities, raw material for blog posts and communities, reflections on what would make the presentation more effective… It’s like getting several hours’ worth out of one hour.

Tip: See each experience as a learning opportunity, and wring out of it as much as you can.

5. Think about thinking, learn about learning – observe and improve your processes

If you can reflect on and observe yourself, it’s easier to improve how you work. Words help you understand and communicate. I read books and research papers on thinking, and recognizing my processes helps me articulate them and tweak them.

PROCESS

6. Break things down into small chunks, and write down your questions

You have to start somewhere, and besides, it’s more fun when you can celebrate along the way. A question is a good unit to work with. You can break large questions down into smaller questions. I try to get things down into questions that I can answer within four hours. Questions give you focus, and they often suggest ways to answer them as well.

Writing down your questions helps a lot. It means you never run out of things to learn, you don’t have to worry about forgetting an interesting idea while you’re focused on something else, and you can review your progress as you go along.

7. Reduce friction

Make it easy to learn. For me, annoyance, frustration, and intimidation cause mental friction, so I try to avoid them unless I can use those emotions to fuel my motivation. It’s worth reducing environmental friction, too. Make it easy to get started and keep on going. For example, I’m learning Japanese. I have Japanese flashcards on my phone so that I can learn anywhere instead of needing to be at home with a textbook. Set things up so that learning is the path of least resistance.

8. Experiment

It can be surprisingly easy to try something out with minimal risk and see what happens.

I like thinking about the grand experiment of life. Worst-case scenario, even if one of my experiments turns out badly, my notes might be able to help someone else make a better decision.

9. Notice the unusual

Getting into the habit of making small predictions will help you notice when things are different from what you expect. More learning opportunities there!

It’s also useful to look at familiar things in a new light. Anything can be amazing if you look at it from the right perspective. I’m working on learning how to fix a rice cooker, and rice cookers are pretty darn cool.

10. Build in feedback

Learning is faster when you have quick, reliable feedback. This is one of the reasons why I like programming so much: you can do something, see the results, change it a little, and see the new results. Whenever possible, build short feedback loops into how you learn. (Hmm; I should see about experimenting with having an editor again…)

11. Take advantage of other people (in a good way)

Other people have probably learned what you’re trying to learn, so learn from them if possible. This is why I like reading books and blog posts, having mentors, and asking questions. One of the surprising benefits of having a blog is that other people help you remember really old posts, too.

12. Do something with what you learn

It’s not yours until you do something with it. You can start by summarizing it in your own words, but the best thing to do is to apply it to your life or make something with it. Then you’ll have better questions and you’ll understand it more.

13. Relate what you’re learning to what you know

The human brain is really good at association. If you start a sentence with “_(thing that you’re learning)_ is like _(something you know)_ because…”, chances are that you can finish the sentence easily. Seeing the connections helps you build your confidence and lets you take advantage of transferrable skills.

Don’t believe it? Here are some examples from my life: sketchnoting is like computer programming because they’re both about simplifying concepts so that I can communicate them with a limited vocabulary and a logical layout. Writing is like biking because it helps to have a map of where you’re going, but you can take different routes to get there, and you can make some interesting discoveries if you try different routes.

Analogize away.

14. Take notes and review them (and share them, if you can!)

People’s brains are terrible at remembering things. I can’t remember the details of what I did last week, much less what I learned four years ago. Take notes so that you can remember. This applies even if you can easily go back to the original material, like books, presentation slides, or videos. Sure, you might have a copy of the content, but you might not remember what you felt, what you decided to do about it, what you learned, what you were surprised by, and so on.

Writing notes that other people will read forces you to understand things better. I find that visual notes capture less detail, but are faster and more fun to review, so I take lots of them.

15. Practise continuous improvement

Tiny improvements can lead to big changes over time. Experiment. Try things out. Notice where you’re doing well, and where you can improve. Tweak the way you learn.

For example, I’m learning more about outlining now. Looks promising!

16. Celebrate progress

This makes the journey fun. Notes and plans help here too. Every so often, take a look back and see how far you’ve come, and plan a little ahead so that you know where you want to go next.

So those are some things I’ve learned about learning. I’ll write about specific tools and techniques in a future post. More about reading, outlines, sketchnotes, mindmaps, transcripts, asking, and so on – next time!

Update 2013/07/22: Here’s my breakdown of different skills involved in learning.

Thinking about small talk at networking events

There’s always something happening in Toronto, and I go to one or two events each week. Most events have a social portion where people network. I’ve found this part difficult in the past. I tend to treat events as mainly opportunities to catch up with people I already know from the Internet or previous interactions, with the occasional introduction to someone new or a serendipitously overheard conversation that leads to more thoughts.

When it comes to meeting new people, I find it easier to focus on what people are interested in or what people need, and to promise to send them my notes from the event. That’s what I wanted to share in the The Shy Connector. Now that I’m moving even further away from the standard model of people who go to these events, it would be great to figure out how to structure the conversation in order to give the most value. If I let the conversation take the path of least resistance to the “So, what do you do?” question, it seems to end up going nowhere particularly useful.

Basic thoughts I can focus on:

  • People are interesting and have fascinatingly quirky details. (Ex: JJ’s story about shipping his car to Europe.) Learning about these things lets me understand more about life, and possibly discover people I want to keep in touch with along the way.
  • I might be able to help people, such as by researching a topic of common interest and blogging about it.
  • People can be difficult to keep in touch with, so it helps to find a good excuse to take the conversation forward. Sharing my notes is one way to do that. If people blog, that’s usually a great way to learn more about what they think. Not that many people blog, though.

What do I really want out of these small-talk conversations? I’ve enjoyed it the most when people recognize me from previous events’ sketchnotes or my blog, and we can launch into a conversation with a clear, common interest. I can’t always have that, and I should take the initiative to make other people feel more comfortable. What do I want?

  • I want to learn from other people’s perspectives.
  • I want to find particularly fascinating people (for example, people who love learning and continuous improvement) and learn from them.
  • I want to help people save time by sharing what I’ve learned.
  • I want to learn along with people by exploring topics of common interest.

For the next few events I’m going to, I’ll try these conversational approaches:

  • “What are you looking forward to learning?” There must be some reason why people are picking this event over other things they could do with their time.
  • “What do you plan to do with it after the talk?” This might be a little harder, but it will be interesting to find people who plan to translate ideas into actions.
  • “Have you been to other events like this?” Comparisons can be enlightening, too.
  • “What else would you like to see presented?” Might turn into blog post or presentation ideas…