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


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 Some of his observations are still true today, while others are a little out of date or incomplete.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.


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.


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.

Visual book review: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast (Josh Kaufman)

The idea of learning a new skill can be overwhelming. If you break the skill down into specific things you can learn, it becomes much more manageable. Tim Ferris used this to hack cooking (video) by dissociating it from shopping for groceries or cleaning up. Josh Kaufman’s new book The First 20 Hours fleshes out how to rapidly learn, illustrating it with stories, examples, and practical tips for a wide range of skills. A key insight? You don’t have to be amazing, just good enough to enjoy the skill, and 20 hours is enough to get you there if you learn effectively. (Even if it turns out to be more complex than that, stick with it anyway, and then see where you are at 20 hours.) Click on the one-page summary below to view or download a larger version. 20130705 Visual Book Review - The First 20 Hours - How to Learn Anything... Fast - Josh Kaufman Feel free to share this visual book review! (Creative Commons Attribution – I’d love it if you link back to this site and tell me about it. =) ) It should print out fine on letter-sized paper, too. The book is both practical and entertaining, especially if you’ve been curious about some of the areas he covers in his chapters. =) While the advice is common sense, the application of the advice makes it interesting – and the stories might nudge you into taking similar steps towards the skill you’d like to develop the most. Besides, the book has stick figures in the chapter on yoga and shell commands and a Ruby tutorial in the chapter on programming. Not that many books can pull that off, although if you’re the type who reads things like travel books for just one chapter, you might grumble about paying for all the other chapters you’re not interested in. 20 hours isn’t going to make you an expert in something, but it might get you farther than you think. Intrigued by the ideas? You can check your local library to see if they have a copy, or buy your own: The First 20 Hours (affiliate link). What I’m going to do with this book One of the benefits of this experiment with semi-retirement is that I have the time and space to explore what I’d like to learn. Not all of it at once, but I can certainly make decent headway on a few skills I want to improve. I rarely start from scratch, so it’s not that I’m really spending my first 20 hours on something – new interests are usually offshoots of something that I already do well or enjoy, because unfair advantages lead to other unfair advantages. I like programming, writing, going through flashcards… I even get along with accounting.

    The biggest new thing that I don’t yet intrinsically enjoy is strength training, which (as the name indicates) is probably more about


    – my body has to adapt to it, and that takes time.

So, let’s pick another skill. Something that I haven’t dived deeply into, but that I’m curious about. Some candidates:

  • Creating animated videos (and not cheesy fake-written ones, either)
  • Programming speech recognition macros (NatLink)
  • Visualizing data with D3.js or other visualization libraries

Of the three, I think visualizing data with D3.js will be the most fun for me. I can break that down this way:

  • Manipulate the data into a form that’s easy to work with in D3.js
  • Create typical graphs
  • Create custom graphs
  • Add interactivity
  • Use D3.js for non-graph applications
  • Integrate the visualizations into web apps or blog posts

In terms of barriers, it’s really just about sitting down with some data and the documentation. I’ve worked with D3 before. I just have to practise enough to grok it. The most important skill to master first, I think, is creating typical graphs. If I get that into my brain, I can imagine custom graphs and other applications from there. So learning this skill might involve doing “programming kata”: take an existing data set and visualize it in different ways using common chart types. It’s also useful to look at how other people are breaking down skills and learning them. Duncan Mortimer (who I think is the same as the Duncan Mortimer behind this WriteOrDie mode for Emacs?) wants to write blog posts better. He came up with this list of skills that he wants to work on in terms of blogging:

  • Choosing a topic
    • Brainstorming
    • Asking yourself questions
    • Topics that choose themselves — blogging what you’re learning or as you’re learning
  • Drafting the post
    • Structure
    • Avoiding editing while writing
    • Writing quickly
  • Editing the post
    • Textual tics
    • Restructuring
  • Publishing the post
    • Scheduling posts for future publication
    • Uploading to the hosting service
    • Adding categories and tags; making it ‘discoverable’

I’m also interested in writing more effectively. For me, the key things I’m working on are:

  • Outlining: Planning the structure before I start writing. Doesn’t work for all the posts, but I might be able to use it to speed things up. Practice: Flesh out my sharing outline (hah, you can even send patches or make suggestions through the issues queue) as a separate activity from writing. (See how I’m doing so far in terms of time.)
  • Illustration: Coming up with a hand-drawn image to illustrate my blog posts nudges me to think about the key point or idea in the post, and it’s good practice for sketchnoting too. Practice: It’s like adding an item to my blogging checklist to quickly sketch an image if I can.

Anyway, here’s the book again if you’re curious. Disclosure: I’ll get a small commission if you buy anything from Amazon using the links in this post, but you could also see if your local library has the book. (I got this one from the Toronto Public Library!) Check out for more info. Like this? Check out my other visual book reviews!

For another visual take on this (pretty colours!), check out Cynthia Morris’ summary. Enjoy!

Practice Perfect: Calling your shots

Practice Perfect is a book packed with tips for deliberate practice. One of the ideas I’ve been trying from the book is the practice of calling your shots by telling people what you are trying to do. For example, I recently helped some colleagues revise their presentation proposals for an upcoming conference. In addition to posting my versions of their abstracts, I also wrote about the specific things I was trying to do, such as highlighting contrasting ideas and writing with potential attendees in mind. By telling people what I wanted to do, I made it easier for people to understand the differences, and they could come up with even more effective ways to say things.

Calling your shots is an excellent way to help other people learn. It builds your understanding of your own skills as well. It can also lead to interesting discussions, and you might learn a few things along the way.

If you’re the one asking for help, it can be difficult to see what people have changed and why. It’s much easier to learn when people point out what’s different and share the reasons. Next time you ask for help and get a simple answer, try digging into the differences to help you understand things better. You can also call your own shots while learning something. When you write down or talk about what you plan to do, you’ll be more prepared to correct things if the results aren’t what you expected, and other people may be able to offer suggestions as well.

Give it a try!

Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better (Amazon affiliate link)

Tips for making the most of the Toronto Public Library

The Toronto Public Library saves me thousands of dollars of book costs and opens up an amazing trove of knowledge. Here are some of my tips for making the most of this wonderful library system. What are yours?

You can borrow more than just books. The library has a wide collection of magazines, audiobooks, and videos. Check out the DVD shelves of your library for recent releases, or browse the periodicals to see what catches your eye.

You can request items online and have them delivered to any branch. You have access to all the circulating books in the system. With a library card, you can request items and have them delivered to a branch. The library will hold the items for a week. If you don’t pick up the items within the week, they will return to circulation. (Watch out for the new $1/item fines.)

Check out electronic resources, too. The library offers e-books, downloadable audiobooks, online journals, databases, and other resources.

Avoid overdue fines by returning items even after hours. When a library branch is closed, you can return items through the book drop slot. These items will be counted as returned on the last day that the library was open. For example, if a book was due on Saturday, but you put it in the book drop slot on Sunday while the library was closed, you won’t pay any overdue fines. If Monday is a public holiday, you can even return it then.

This is one of the reasons why I check out most of my books or renew them on Saturdays, so that I have Sunday as a grace period.

Renew strategically. If there are no other holds on an item, you can renew it, over the phone, or in person. It’s easier to renew items online than over the phone. Even if you can’t renew an item because of an existing hold, try again closer to your due date. Holds may be filled by other people’s returns, allowing you to renew your copy.

Books can be renewed for 3-week periods, and videos can be renewed for one week at a time. I believe the renewal period starts from the day that you renew the item, so don’t renew things too early or you’ll waste the extra time on your account. I usually renew my items on Saturdays (see above). I wrote a Perl script that checks items due in the next week and renews whichever items it can.

Associate other people’s cards with yours in order to pick up books for them, or to borrow on their account. Ask a librarian for a consent form and present both cards. My husband borrows items from the library too, so we pick up books for each other if needed. This has come in quite handy when I’m on a book-reading sprint, too, as I sometimes exceed the limit of 50 checked-out items.

Ask about passes to get free admission to city attractions. Some libraries distribute passes for museums and other attractions. There can be quite a line-up for popular places, so ask the librarians when the passes are released and plan accordingly.

You can find materials in many languages. Learning a new language, or pining for movies and books in your native tongue? Check out the library’s collections for books, videos, and other items in different languages.

Ask librarians for recommendations. Librarians are happy to answer questions and point you to more resources. There’s also a Q&A service that you can get to on the website. Talk to your librarians, and you’ll learn a lot.

Check out events at different libraries. Many libraries have regular events: book clubs, group exercise, even yoga sessions. These events tend to be free or inexpensive. Find out if any of these match your interests, and have fun!

Check out tech resources. The library offers computers, printers, photocopiers, and scanners. Check out the free WiFi, too.

Book meetings. The library has many meeting rooms that people can rent for reasonable fees.

Support your local library. You can get tons of value from the resources at your library. Give some of it back.  =)

Do you use your library a lot? What are your favourite tips?

Visual metaphors: Balance

I’m working on improving my visual vocabulary by collecting metaphors. This turns out to be an interesting challenge. I’ll add more text to this blog post later, but in the meantime, here are some of my notes about one word. Click on the image to view a larger version.


One! And there are so many other concepts to play around with… =)

Six ways I’m learning how to get better at drawing sketchnotes


Joel wanted to know if I could share any tips on kickstarting and continuing sketching practice, so I thought about my process for getting better at drawing. Here it is!

Collect inspiration: With the growing popularity of sketchnotes and visual communication, there are plenty of great examples on the Net. I like checking out Sketchnote Army and Ogilvy Notes for inspiration. I often search for sketchnotes using Google Blog Search or Google Image search. I use Evernote to clip the ones I like so that I can search for them using text.

I look for inspiration elsewhere, too. Shop displays sometimes have interesting colour combinations, and paintings and photos are also great for colour and composition. Cartoons and comics give me visual metaphors and humour. I pick up ideas from books and presentations, looking for good things to share and interesting ways to share them.


Compile a notebook: I use Microsoft OneNote to collect parts of the different images that inspire me: title treatments, visual metaphors, colour combinations, techniques, and so on. I like using OneNote for this because the keyboard shortcut (Win+S) is an easy way to capture part of the screen, and because OneNote makes it easy to organize elements on pages within sections of a notebook. Text labels make it easy for me to search the notebook for the keywords I’ve added to each of the images. Organizing the elements like this means that I can quickly find a specific element or browse around for quick inspiration.

Build a library: Background templates, reference photos, and reusable elements (parts of  past drawings, for example) help me work more quickly. I can paste them in from my OneNote notebook, image searches, or my photos and files. I can also use Add Image to add a file as a new layer. I can then adjust the opacity, scale and rotate things a little, and trace the image or use it as the basis for a different drawing. I sometimes use a light grid as the background when I draw, as my lines and text tend to skew upwards if I don’t. I’m planning to collect stick figure and cartoon poses so that I can draw people with more detail and flair.

Because Autodesk Sketchbook Pro is a raster program, I lose some detail when I scale images up and down. Still, the library is great to use for guides or templates, and it’ll grow in usefulness as I draw and save more.

Colour combinations are good to save, too. I like seeing how other people use colour to highlight their work, and I’m gradually getting the hang of it. Autodesk makes it easy to save the colours I like, and there are some colours I find myself returning to often.

I’m also working on creating my own brushes for certain effects. For example, I liked the way some sketchnotes used dotted lines to connect ideas, so I experimented with Autodesk to see if I could make my own. My brush is somewhat translucent instead of fully opaque, but it will do for now. =)

Experiment: There’s so much to experiment with and learn. I’m trying out different ways of hand-lettering, playing around with the letter forms and what feel they evoke. I’m experimenting with colour, line widths, layouts, whitespace, and flourishes. I’m playing around with different ways to learn and summarize information.

I’m a long way off from settling into one style. Who knows, I may end up experimenting with this throughout my life. This is a good thing.

Learn how to use your tools: I also invest time into learning and experimenting with tools. Over the past few days, I’ve been going through the trial versions of Autodesk Sketchbook Designer, Adobe Illustrator, and Manga Studio EX. In terms of pen-friendly computing, I still prefer Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, although I wish I had some of the capabilities I saw in the other tools! I like reading the documentation and watching other people’s videos because I often learn how to work more effectively.

Practice deliberately: And of course, there’s practice. The more I draw, the more comfortable I’ll be at drawing, and (probably) the better I’ll be, too. It’s not just about drawing new things. Deliberate practice – going over and over small things – helps a lot, too. For example, I often fill a page with freehand circles. Then I add eyes, nose, and mouth to each of the faces, playing around with different expressions or trying to get the same expression each time. I also draw lines, as I find those hard to do (my hands are a little shaky). Tracing helps me learn more about drawing, too.

Those are six ways I’m working on learning how to draw better. How are you learning?