Keeping To-Learn Lists

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I’m sure most people are familiar with a to-do list. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, hopefully you have at least one of these on the go, tracking your tasks on paper. But do you have a to-learn list? I recently decided my self-education system needed a bit of cleaning, so creating a to-learn list seemed like a natural result.

If you’re reading a few books a month, you’re already way ahead of most people. But just because you feel you’re doing better than average doesn’t justify a poorly organized approach to teaching yourself. I’ve set up a to-learn list as a way to ensure that the best books are at the top of my stack, not just the ones with the most current hype.

Benefits of a To-Learn List

I’ve just started with this to-learn list but already some of the benefits I see:

  1. Focus on great ideas versus the most popular ones. It’s easy to buy books only from the front of a bookstore. Saving your ideas can get you to push into different subjects that might take more searching.
  2. Split up your interests. If your self-education isn’t organized, it is easy to pick your favorite subjects even if 90% of the book’s material is old. Keeping a to-learn list allows you to explore subjects that are on the fringe of your current understanding.
  3. Create a more varied reading diet. Keeping a to-learn list can help you balance fiction with non-fiction, science with literature and blend different types of books so your reading list doesn’t get stale.

To-Learn Versus To-Do

A to-learn list can’t work the same as a to-do list for a number of reasons. The biggest is simply that a to-do list typically involves things that must be done. Going to work, cleaning your house and picking up the dry cleaning are all necessary. In theory at least, each to-do item you check off means one less to do.

Not so with a to-learn list. Each book you learn opens up the possibility for more learning. If you make a typical checklist format for your to-learn, then it could easily explode in size far faster than you could ever read.

Instead of a checklist, my to-learn list has two parts. The first is a huge brainstorm where I’ve written down everything I want to read and learn from Shakespeare to cognitive psychology, martial arts to being fluent in Hindi. This entire pool of ideas is unmanageable as a list, but it gives me a solid base to work from the next time I need to get more books.

The second part is a stack of about 5-7 ideas I want to chew through next. This is a little over a months worth of reading, and about the size I would need to take from the library or bookstore.

Bookmark It!

Whenever I get an idea for a subject I’d like to learn more about or an author I haven’t read yet, I write down those ideas on my notepad. I can then add this to my to-learn pool for more ideas of books I could read in the future.

To-Read Versus To-Learn

A to-read list is a good idea, but it only encompasses one form of self-education. Keeping a to-learn list means you also need to add in subjects and ideas that you can’t get from a book. Cooking, martial arts and foreign languages can’t be grabbed entirely off the page.


  • Andy Dublin

    Great idea. I do this on alison.com with courses. I find courses there I like and start the first page of it. This puts it on my courses list and I go back again and again and pick one that fits my mood to study. I’ve 8 courses completed already. Aiming for 20 by the end of 2016.

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