How To Learn Anything

I remember when I first became interested in personal development. Like many people I tried to read every book that came out in an effort to “learn it all.” I never took action on the things I “learned” because I figured that if I just kept reading I’d become a genius and things would just fall into place.

But they never did. Something I didn’t understand, was that there’s a difference between “learning” a lesson and internalizing it.

Think back to when you took Driver’s Ed in high school. You likely spent a couple weeks in a classroom “learning” the rules of the road and how to drive, but what happened the first time you actually got behind the wheel?

If you’re like most people you were probably a horrible driver. Why? Because all you learned in the classroom was theory. Unfortunately for your teenage self, theoretical knowledge doesn’t produce results. Experience does.

You can “know” all the theory in the world, but without experience that knowledge is worthless. Reading books is great, but you’ll never internalize, and understand things on a deep level until you gain reference experiences by actually going out and doing them.

Does This Mean Studying Theory Is A Waste Of Time?

Not necessarily. If you’re actually applying the things you read they can be quite beneficial. Think of theoretical knowledge as your framework of reality. It gives you an idea of what’s possible, and the actions you need to take to make those things possible.

If you’re trying to become a professional basketball player then studying the shooting form, and exercise routines of the greats can give you an idea of what you need to be doing to get to that level.

Watching them may give you ideas of how you can spend your practice time more efficiently or the exact skills you need to work on, but ultimately the thing that’s going to decide how far you’re going to go is the time and effort you’re putting in at the gym everyday.

Analysis Paralysis

Now the problem with a lot of people is that they spend all their time researching and analyzing the best course of action, but they never actually take action.

I first had the idea of starting a blog in April 2011. From that moment I knew blogging was going to be a big part of my life one day. I spent every hour of my free time researching personal development and blogging everyday for almost two years before I finally launched in February 2013.

And you know what? I still started out as a sucky blogger. I was clueless when it came to promoting my blog despite studying marketing techniques for almost two years. Even if I would’ve known how to market myself it wouldn’t have mattered because most of my posts were crappy 200 word articles of things I had simply rehashed from other bloggers.

But because I was willing to consistently write sucky posts and get feedback from other bloggers I learned more in my first month of blogging than I did in the previous two years of research.

I’m still not a blogging juggernaut by any means, but after showing up almost everyday for six months I’m finally beginning to write great posts here and there, and in another six months I’d predict that the majority of my posts are going to be great. I can’t even imagine the quality of stuff I’d be posting if I started two years ago.

The thing is, I’d still be an absolutely rubbish blogger if I’d never started my blog and continued to spend all my time researching. This is a nice story of course, but it brings up an important question. How do you actually escape analysis paralysis and begin taking action?

Typically people get caught in analysis paralysis because they’re one of the following types of people.

The perfectionist

It’s good to have high standards for yourself. Your life typically is the sum of the things you tolerate. However, when you’re getting started with a new skill you need to be willing to detach your ego from your work.

Regardless of what you’re trying to learn, you’re probably going to suck in the beginning. This isn’t something to be proud of, but if you’re excessively critical of yourself you’re going to hurt your ego and as a natural result you’ll find yourself doing whatever it takes to avoid having to perform that skill.

I think the best advice I can give you here is to temporarily lower your standards. If you just started playing basketball last week it’s fine to want to be the best player in the world, but you also have to recognize that other people have been playing basketball a lot longer.

You’re probably going to get smashed the first time you play 1 on 1. You might not even score. However, as long as you’re willing to work hard and accept that you’re going to suck for some period of time you’ll quickly find yourself improving, and if you maintain your hunger you very well may become the best in the world one day.

The Fraidy Cat

If you’re not the perfectionist you’re likely the fraidy cat. You know what you want, but you let fear paralyze you.

Perhaps it’s fear of failure, or maybe you’re afraid of what your friends are going to think of you. Maybe you’re even afraid of being successful. It doesn’t matter. The reason you’re scared of whatever you fear is because it’s human nature to be afraid of change.

In the past changes in our environment often threatened our survival. We had a much better chance of surviving in a static environment than a dynamic one so if you found yourself in a consistent environment your brain would try to keep you there.

The problem now, however, is our brains haven’t had time to adapt to the modern world. We’re still built to survive rather than thrive, so we tend to get comfortable and resist change whenever we’re in an environment our survival isn’t being threatened in.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or two trying to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. The biggest thing I’ve learned? It’s a skill, not something you’re born with.

Everyone’s scared to leave their comfort zone. That’s why it’s called a comfort zone. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ve got to leave it to live your dreams. Fortunately, the more you leave your comfort zone, the more it’ll expand.

It’s a lot like lifting weights. Things that may be difficult for you now, can one day be easy if you’re willing to train consistently. That’s a big if though.

Your comfort zone is also a lot like lifting weights because you get weaker if you go too long without pushing your limits.

The two keys here are starting small, and consistency. If you’re not used to leaving your comfort zone I recommend you start with things that only make you slightly uncomfortable.

If you’re socially awkward don’t worry about asking a girl on a date. Just make the commitment to say hi to a girl. The next day give one a compliment. The day after try holding a conversation with one.

It may take you a couple weeks or even months to ask out a girl on a date, but that’s not the important thing. What’s important is you’re building an upward spiral where you’re constantly challenging yourself to do better. Even if you’re not progressing quickly you’ll still be making consistent improvements which is a lot better than most people.

Regardless of your goal, find one small thing you can do to move yourself a little closer to it. It may make you a little uncomfortable, but do it anyway. Focus on starting your upward spiral today. All of us feel fear at times, but the thing about the greats is that they don’t let it paralyze them.

The Lost Little Boy

If you’re the lost little boy you’re lucky as this is actually the easiest type of analysis paralysis to escape. The reason you’re procrastinating is simple. It’s because you’re goal isn’t something you actually care about. It’s doesn’t align with your values.

Typically this is because your goal isn’t actually your goal. It’s something your friends, family, or society is pressuring you into. Your parents can want you to become a doctor as much as they want, but if you don’t care to become one it’s not going to end well.

If you take the path without a heart you’re unlikely to make it through medical school, but even if you do and manage to become a doctor you’ll still feel bad because you’ll know you could’ve followed your dreams and become something much greater.

If you find yourself in this position the best thing you can do is find out what you really want. Take some time for yourself and think about what you want to do with your life. Think about the legacy you want to leave behind and how you want to change the world. Also think about how you can do this in a way that’ll align with your values.

After you’ve spent some time thinking, create new goals for yourself, as well as a plan to achieve them. If you’ve done the previous steps correctly you should feel little resistance when taking action towards your goals.

If at this point you’re still getting a lot of resistance you either set the wrong goals, or you’re one of the other types of analysis paralysis people as well.

Taking Action

Once you’ve worked to eliminate your limiting beliefs taking action becomes much less difficult. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but if you’re willing to put in the effort taking action will no longer be the insurmountable task it once was.

Now regardless of what you’re trying to learn I recommend starting very small. If you’re trying to learn Spanish flip through flashcards for 5 minutes per day. If you’re trying to become a blogger write 100 words per day.

You probably won’t be making much progress towards your goals at this pace, but that’s not what our initial focus is on anyway. All we’re worried about is building the initial habit.

You can try to jump straight in and study for two hours or write 1,000 words per day, but regardless of work ethic it’s very unlikely you’ll experience any level of success. You’ll almost certainly reach those targets more quickly by gradually increasing the difficulty of your habits rather than just going for it.

If you’re trying to learn Spanish study 5 minutes per day the first week, 10 per day the second week, and so forth until you hit your desired daily total. If you try to work your way around this gradual increase you’re nearly guaranteed to find yourself back at the beginning.

Plodding Vs Bursting

Once you’ve use the gradual progression strategy to adopt your desired habit you have to consider whether plodding or bursting would be a better method of learning and internalizing it.

Plodding is a strategy used where something is typically implemented into your daily routine and you attempt to learn a little about it everyday. Bursting on the other hand is immersing yourself in something sometimes to the exclusion of everything else in an attempt to learn it as quickly as possible.

Most people naturally have a natural preference between plodding or bursting, but some activities also lend themselves to a specific strategy.

Bursting is often more effective to learn complex things such as a foreign language or social dynamics, because it allows a part of your brain called the reticular activating system (RAS) to focus on tiny details it wouldn’t otherwise notice.

Fortunately, once you develop your social skills or learn a foreign language to a level you’re satisfied with you can put it in maintenance mode and stop being so immersed in it to the exclusion of other things in your life.

Of course, not all activities lend themselves well to bursting. Take dieting for example. You can eat as healthy as you want 3 weeks per month, but if the final week of every month you’re eating junk food and drinking a six pack every night you’re not going to be nearly as healthy as you could be.

Other Key Things To Keep In Mind

Besides gradually building your habits and deciding whether plodding or bursting is a more appropriate there’s also several other key factors to keep in mind when learning something.

You Need To Love It. I’ve already mentioned this in the previous steps, but it’s worth repeating. If you can’t enjoy the process it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to commit to it.

You Need To Have A Bigger Purpose. Although it’s definitely possible to do things just for yourself I’ve found using other people to be perhaps an even more powerful motivator.

When I’m struggling at the end of a workout the last few reps aren’t about making my abs look a little more chiseled. They’re about doing the best I can possibly do and inspiring others to do the same.

When I’m tired and don’t feel like writing a blog post I write anyway because along with clarifying my thoughts, and building my self-discipline it has the potential to change someone’s life, and that’s huge. Regardless of what you’re trying to learn or do, using other people as motivational leverage will often be the difference between failure and success.

You Need To Use Your Pain As Leverage. Things aren’t always going to go your way. Sometimes girls will reject you or other bloggers will say you’re a sucky writer. Don’t get bitter though, get better.

Each time you fail or go through a hardship use that as motivation to work even harder. I’m not a big fan of Lebron, but I love the man’s work ethic.

I remember a few years back his team got knocked out of the playoffs, but he didn’t use that as an excuse to feel sorry for himself. He was back in the gym the next day working on the cracks in his game.

You are going to fail, and when you first start learning something you’re probably going to suck at it, but never let that get you down. The willingness to fail repeatedly is what’s going to get you to success.

Evaluating Your Actions

Taking mindless, consistent action toward some goals will work great. There’s lots of things you can learn simply by doing them everyday. If you sing the Spanish alphabet 10 times everyday you’ll learn it eventually regardless of your specific memorization strategy.

However, other things can’t be learned as mindlessly. If you’re trying to develop your social skills you can go out as much as you want, but if you bang your head against the wall and keep doing the same things you always do you’ll inevitably continue to produce the same results.

In the case of more complex things such as social dynamics, public speaking, or broad concepts like appreciation and forgiveness you need to have a game-plan for improvement.

You can give as many speeches as you want, but if you’re not willing to admit your strengths and weaknesses, or take constructive criticism from others you’re not going to go very far.

Different lessons require different lesson plans, but there’s several principles you need to keep in mind to use constructive criticism productively.

You Need To Be Brutally Honest With Yourself. You can’t learn something if you’re not willing to admit you don’t know it in the first place. Detach your ego from the things you’re trying to learn.

If you’re trying to learn how to talk to girls don’t let a rejection damage your self-esteem. Typically she’s rejecting your social skills, not you. You can be a completely amazing guy, but if you don’t know how to express yourself and properly project your personality you’ll get rejected because the girls will never know what they’re missing.

Don’t write off all girls as being idiotic sluts who don’t know what they want. You’ll never develop your social skills or improve your results if that’s your attitude towards them. You need to be willing to admit that you’re the problem, not outside circumstances.

Take Constructive Criticism. The willingness to fail repeatedly doesn’t mean banging your head against the wall. If that’s all you do you’re just going to hurt yourself. Equally important as the willingness to work disgustingly hard is the ability to take constructive criticism.

You can’t learn things if you’re unaware you don’t know them. Brutal honesty with yourself can help identify some cracks in your game, but ultimately you need some outside form of feedback. We all have blind spots, and you need someone, preferably a coach or mentor to help you identify what’s in yours.

Apply The Criticism You’ve Been Given. They say that advice is typically worth what you paid for it, and this is for two reasons. Obviously because you can typically access more knowledgable people when you have money to exchange for their wisdom, but also because of the significance you’ll place on their advice.

Most people are unlikely to take free advice because they don’t have much invested in the application of that advice. However, if you paid $999 to attend a seminar that gave similar advice you’re much more likely to apply simply it because you have an emotional investment in it and don’t want that advice to go to waste.

I’m not saying you need to pay thousands of dollars for information you get could get for free online, but what I am saying is that you need to find something that motivates you to take action on the advice you’ve been given.

This motivation might come from other people, using your pain as leverage, or just love of improvement, but you need to find something that allows you to cultivate it.

Taking Breaks

Although sickening work ethic is great, it’s simply not possible to operate at 100% efficiency 100% of the time. Regardless of what you’re trying to learn taking the occasional break will likely benefit you. Besides preventing burnout, taking breaks also allows your subconscious to process the things you’ve been learning.

Do you remember cramming for tests in high school and forgetting everything a week later? Part of the reason this happens is because you were probably never interested in what you were studying, but another reason this may have occurred is because your brain never had time to process the information.

When you learn something it goes into your short term memory. If your brain considers it to be information worth remembering it’ll sort it into your long-term memory, but this doesn’t typically happen immediately.

For the most part it happens while you’re sleeping, but if you cram in too much information at once, or neglect to sleep an appropriate amount there’s a good chance whatever you’re trying to learn will be lost before it’s properly stored.

Taking breaks will also benefit you because it’ll allow the incubation effect to take place. If you find yourself spinning your wheels trying to learn a new juggling trick, or develop a certain social skill then taking a break will help you because it’ll allow your subconscious to distance itself from the problem, get another perspective on it, and work on a solution while you’re focused on other activities.

When To Take Breaks

Of course, there’s a very fine line between taking breaks to prevent burnout and taking time off purely out of laziness. Where this line should be drawn depends heavily on what it is you’re trying to learn.

Some activities require more recovery time than others. You’re likely to become socially exhausted if you go out 7 nights a week for several months. You’d likely be much better off going out 5-6 nights per week. However, other things such as meditation, and being grateful are best practiced everyday.

It really depends on the activity and your specific situation. However, regardless of what you’re working on you probably already know deep down how much you should be doing it. You just need to be brutally honest with yourself 😉

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