When I was in my twenties, finding time for learning was easy. Committing to doing the work could be hard, but there was always spare time. Now, as a father and business owner, I can relate to the struggle to find time to learn things.
My to-learn list is long and ever-growing. I have dozens of unread books in my library. I have a tab in my browser saving courses I want to watch. I have many new skills I’d like to learn and dozens more I want to maintain and master.
But, at the end of the week, there may only be few hours to learn. How do you fit it in? Below I’d like to articulate the strategies that have helped me find time to learn more things.
Strategy #1: Only Have One Project
A simple rule I follow is to only have one project at a time. If you want to learn tennis, painting and programming, pick one. You can always learn something else later, but if you find you lack time for one then you will definitely fail to find time for three.
What makes something a project? This can get a little fuzzy, but my definition would be that a learning effort is a project if it wouldn’t happen more or less automatically without effort. So if you’re an avid tennis player and would probably play a game or two a month regardless, that’s not a project. But if you’re new to the sport and need to practice drills for hours to get good enough to play, that definitely is.
Sometimes when I advise people with multiple pursuits to pick one project, they rebel. “But those other projects also matter to me!” they’ll say. Good. Then do them after you’ve made progress in one.
In practice, sequentially pursuing projects doesn’t limit your breadth. I think the resistance may be more owing to the fact that learning is hard, and by failing to commit to any one project, its easier to fantasize about the idea of learning it. Committing to doing one project first before another prevents this escape, but also allows you to make real progress.
Strategy #2: Make Learning Frictionless
If you have limited time to learn, you need to make learning as easy as possible to get started. The only exception to this trend is that, in making it easier, you don’t want to eliminate the actual practice you need to get good.
One way you can do this is by setting up your environment so you can get started immediately. If every time you want to practice, you need to spend twenty minutes pulling up equipment, then you’ll never practice unless you’re willing to commit at least an hour. Except a full hour might be hard to find in a busy life, so you never practice.
Some ways you can make learning frictionless are:
- Have materials on you at all times. If you’re reading, always carry a book or Kindle. If you want to draw, carry a sketchbook. Download materials on your phone so they’re ready when you are.
- Set up your working area so starting is instantaneous. If you’re painting, keep your easel out and paints premixed. If you’re programming, keep your window with the project open so you can click over and start coding. If you’re studying for an exam, keep the practice questions open on a desk, ready to start—even if just for ten minutes.
- Batch all the tedious starting work. Sometimes you need to do something unpleasant and tedious before you can get to the real work of learning. Setting up the programming environment to learn a new language, for instance, is one of the most annoying parts of a new project. Setting aside time to do this specifically will make it easier to take advantage of fifteen minute chunks you find to make progress.
Strategy #3: Integrate Learning with Your Life
Many projects fall off our schedule because, ultimately, they don’t align with the other sources of meaning in our life. Something that fits within your existing work, social or family pursuits may require some effort at first, but eventually it becomes something that’s hard not to do.
If you need to learn something for work, for instance, a good starting point is to ask yourself how you can make it mandatory for you to learn it. If you can get assigned a project where the skill is required, then it will be easier to learn than if the learning part needs to be done first, before any responsibilities are assigned.
Similarly, the hobby that integrates with your social life, learning something to do with your kids or applying a skill to make other parts of your life smoother and easier, is a key to making it last. When learning is disconnected from other things we care about, it tends to fall away.
Strategy #4: Remove Time-Wasting Alternatives
What makes reading hard is that Netflix is always a click away. What makes doing a programming project hard is that you could be playing video games instead. What makes speaking a new language hard is that your native language is also an option.
While we often act as if time itself is the biggest barrier to progress, effort is the more likely culprit. Many people are extraordinarily busy, but then somehow find time to spend hours watching television or playing on their phones. This isn’t to judge, but simply to note that finding time doesn’t help if the problem is fundamentally that it is too effortful to learn.
A useful strategy is to temporarily suspend any of the activities you normally spend time on: television, phones, games and social media. After a month, see which ones you want to reintroduce and keep off the ones you don’t miss. This not only saves time, but it makes the activities involved in learning less effortful by way of contrast.
The Drive to Learn
Finding time for learning is, ultimately, a question of motivation. I don’t think it can come about because there’s stuff you feel you should learn, or because you feel guilty for not reading enough books. Instead, I think the motivation to learn has to come from something that excites you instead—the idea of speaking another language, learning a new sport, mastering a difficult topic or being a better person has to interest you enough to make it worth it.
On Monday, I’ll be reopening my six-week learning course, Rapid Learner, for a new session. This course will guide you through strategies for learning more effectively, to make much better use of that limited time!