At every stage of life, learning or “sharpening the saw” is important to first achieving and then maintaining personal happiness, engagement, and well-being. It is the 7th Habit of Highly Effective People, as noted by Stephen Covey in his best selling book on the subject of personal leadership. This seems easy when careers are young, natural curiosity is sharp and learning is part of the job description. Gradually learning fades into the background when distractions are persistent and attention is elsewhere.
Continuous and persistent learning is a habit that requires careful cultivation. Once established, it will create an upward spiral of mental progress that develops new ways of thinking and opens doors of possibility. Think of the following mantra: Commit – Learn – Do. Then use this roadmap as a guide.
- Establish Goals. What outcome would you like to achieve? Would you like to become an expert in your chosen field or in one particular aspect of your profession? Do you want to broaden your knowledge base or learn an emergent skill? Maybe learn something completely new or different? Pick a long-term goal and then break it down by setting objectives to achieve over the course of a month, a week or a day.
- Develop a Learning Community. Join an organization focused on the topics you’d like to learn. This can be a professional organization, book club, or group of like-minded friends. Consider an on-line community or a formal class or degree program. Joining with others will increase your commitment and add social engagement and fun.
- Ditch the Distractions. Set aside dedicated time for learning and minimize distractions. Find your daily “sweet spot” of receptivity and focus. Avoid the temptation to multitask or stray from the subject. Put disrupting technologies out of reach. Have a notepad by your side to jot down distracting thoughts for later follow-up. 30 minutes of concentrated attention pays dividends over an hour of multitasking.
- Explore Alternate Learning Environments – Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access. They allow students to tap into the resources of major educational providers with the flexibility of working remotely. Podcasts and audiobooks can turn commuting time into personal development time or enhance learning with the stories, lessons or examples of others.
- Implement Learning Immediately. It is important to reinforce learning with doing. Watching videos or reading books without opportunities to reinforce or build upon the new knowledge base will have only short-term value. Learning fades into the background of your memory bank without reinforcement. Look for opportunities to use your knowledge on the job by initiating new projects or collaborating with work associates.
- Celebrate Progress. Avoid waiting until you are perfect to celebrate. Little spurts of progress add up over time. Focus on the process of getting better. Measure your progress and stimulate your enthusiasm by celebrating the ground you have already covered.
Commit – Learn – Do. We are born with natural curiosity and the desire to learn. But the demands of work and personal life can get in the way and dampen that curiosity. Be a Lifelong Learner by recognizing the energizing power of curiosity and commit to cultivating the habit of learning.