What's on your Learning List?

Series: growth December 04, 2011

How do you track and decide what topics you want to spend time learning?

For a while, I didn’t have a real good solution. Something would trigger me to remember “Oh yeah! I really wanted to learn more about that”. I would spend the evening doing busy learning - it seemed like I was learning but I really wasn’t.

Instead of trying to do Deliberate Practice, I’d fool myself into thinking I was investing my time wisely by reading blog posts and examples but not actually doing much of anything.

Soon, the enthusiasm would pass and my progress would stale. Rinse and repeat for a new topic the next time inspiration struck.

Enter the Learning List.

I can’t remember if it was an exercise from Pragmatic Learning and Thinking or something I heard from Merlin Mann on Back to Work, but the idea is to take 10 minutes and dump everything you want to learn onto a sheet of paper. Don’t stop to rank the items or debate whether or not you really want to learn something, just record your stream of consciousness and get it on the page.

Once it’s written down, you can let your mental garbage collector do its thing. You don’t need to worry about what the name of that one library you wanted to play with was or keep track of the five new technologies you wanted to learn.

Here’s the list I made a few months ago: (with picture to prove I actually wrote it down on paper!)

##Topics to learn

  • Non-s*** Javascript (*)
  • Node.js
  • CoffeeScript
  • Enterprise Rails + toolchain (*)
  • Processing/visualizations
  • Shopify templates
  • Better design
  • HTML5 Single-page app
  • Redis
  • Backbone.js
  • Nginx
  • Payment gateways
  • How to finish what I start (*)
  • Ethernet with Arduino
  • Vim

You can cluster topics together and see where there is overlap. Overlap is probably a sign that the topic is one that you really want to learn. For me, I saw that Javascript was a common theme - Node.js, CoffeeScript, backbone.js, single-page apps, and the enterprise-level Rails toolchain are all linked.

The items that I starred were things that I kept coming back to - topics that I frequently found myself wishing I knew better. These are the items that I should focus on first.

But the biggest gain I got from writing the list was the realization that there were topics that I didn’t even think about or spend any further time on. For some reason, I got really excited about Shopify templates one week and I haven’t thought of again since I looked back at this list. It is obvious, in hindsight, that I wasn’t really passionate about it and wasn’t going to have the drive to see it through to the end. This same logic applied to several more topics: Payment gateways, Vim, and Arduino.

It feels like a weight has been lifted off my mind when I can mark off topics. I found this technique to be very helpful when dealing with the inundation of information to learn.

So, as we approach the start of a new year, I encourage you to take some time for personal reflection and try making a Learning List. If you do, let me know - I’d love to see what’s on it!

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