Keeping To-Learn Lists


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.

  • Dave

    Also, a to re-read list is a good idea.

  • Jean Browman–Cheerful Monk

    Great idea! I have a long list in my head. I never thought about writing it down.

  • jd

    Good rundown.

    I’m a fan of scannable lists. I create separate scannable lists for outcomes (to do, to read, to learn … etc.) At work I use posts in Outlook (easy to update and scan in the preview pane). At home, I use simple notepad files.

    Checklists are such a simple, but undervalued or under-used daily tool.

  • nXqd

    Yes, to-learn list is a great tools. And It should be combined with your todo list.
    I’ll find a way to intergate all things in one place ( My notebook 🙂 )
    Thanks Scottyoung for great ideas :p

  • Dror Engel

    very good idea
    scott -could you publish some capture of your current learn list include the brainstring part?


  • Scott Young


    I did it on a paper, so I only “captured” about 5-10 books from my massive on-paper brainstorm. Here were a few that I wanted to tackle in the near future:


    -The Wealth of Nations
    -Guns, Germs and Steel
    -Omnivore’s Dilemma


    -Faust Part II
    -King Lear and Macbeth

    …to name a few.

  • Karen Gibson

    […] Many of the issues Scott mentions in his blog I see my own college student grappling with also. […]

  • Carmen

    I keep running lists of books and movies that catch my attention. If I hear about a book/movie from a friend, newspaper, online, whatever, if it interests me it goes on the list. I use the lists to help me decide what movie/book to go for next. I’ve been doing this for years and find it helps me improve the quality of the books/movies I choose. Every January I set aside the old lists and start new ones. There’s so much junk out there we need to find ways to steer ourselves toward the higher quality. This approach helps me, and it’s fun.

  • Emile Petrone

    Great points…Keeping it varied is a great way to learn many different things during the day. Once I started getting disinterested, I like to move from one subject to the next. It is funny how much school really does influence your life…

  • Kent

    I use Amazon wishlists and make up separate ones for History for example and go on tangents from there.

  • Liinda

    I’m an avid reader and keep a list of books I’ve read an a Palm memo. I rate the books and write a brief note about each. I also enter titles I want to read and haven’t gotten to yet. I bullet the unread titles and erase the bullet and add a rating and note when I’ve finished the book. Fiction, non fiction and professional titles go on the list so in some ways it is a “things to learn” list and a great personal history also.

  • Reginald Reglus

    This is great concept. This has encouraged me to revise my list. I am an avid reader but sometimes I don’t log what I’ve read and what I plan to read. BTW, a great place to get ideas for areas of learning isfrom books like the “Daily Dose of Knowledge” and the “Intellectual Devotional”. This can help make sure your learning covers a wide variety of subjects.
    Another way to increase your learning is to make sure you share the knowledge you are gaining with others. The more you teach, the more you learn.

  • Andy Dublin

    Great idea. I do this on 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.

  • Andy Dublin

    Great idea. I do this on 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.