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HOWTO: Learn Stuff Efficiently

I enjoy learning new skills and technologies on my own, and it occurs to me that there isn’t a lot written on the subject.

I’ve been developing this approach for about 20 years and here’s a brief summary of what I find works for me.  It may not work for you, and that’s OK.  But give this a try, refine your own technique, and share what works!

  1. Choose a topic/technology outside your comfort zone.  This is self-evident; you can’t expect to learn anything new if you’re working in a sandbox you’ve already mastered.
  2. Make time for yourself.  Lots of it.  You can’t expect to dig into a topic deeply if you’re distracted by email, phones, tax deadlines, bills, dinner, family, friends, and bathing.  Seriously, these things have to take a backseat, you’ll come across as a recluse, and people will hate you.  Accept it.
  3. Set a goal.  It might be as simple as a “Hello World” or something more complex.  However, it should be something you think you can attain and which will make you happy to see completed.  So, choose something reasonable and within reach.
  4. Code until you get stuck.  Keep pushing small, obtainable goals until you get to a point where you are baffled or sleepy.  This is the time to take a nap.
  5. Before you take a nap, read something.  Your brain runs threads in the background while you’re sleeping.  Don’t waste that CPU power thinking about Angelina Jolie.  Instead, search for guidance on the thing that’s got you stuck (either with a colleague or online), or read (or re-read) a chapter in a coding book that’s relevant.
  6. Sleep until you wake up.  This might be 3 hours, 6 hours or 8 hours; your brain will sleep for as long as it needs to process the information you’re trying to absorb.  NOTE: At this point the thought of having a regular sleep schedule should make you giggle.  You should sleep and code when you feel like it, which likely will not be on any particular schedule.
  7. As you fall asleep, meditate on the questions you’re trying to answer.  The intense concentration available to you as you are nearing sleep will enable you to define and isolate the problems at hand, and this will provide a kind of “normalized grist” for your brain as it prepares to do your heavy lifting for you.
  8. When you wake up, you will have some answers.  You may not have all the answers yet, but you should have some fresh insights that will enable you to blast past your last impasse (wow).  This should give you some encouragement and allow you to repeat the cycle (3-8) again.

I’m presently employing this technique to learn Objective C and Cocoa Touch for the iPhone, and it’s working great.  This is the sort of thing that society will not allow you to do continuously (unless you’ve evolved a significant number of support mechanisms) but you should be able to get away with it at least some of the time.  It delivers great results for me.

And for those of you to whom I owe emails, bear with me; I will get back to you shortly.

  • http://gerry.afitspot.com GerryRosso

    Thanks for the geat information. I’m trying to learn so many different things right now. This will be very helpful.

  • http://www.ixoye.net God_Zilla on Twitter

    Too bad the norm is to stick you into an 8 to 5 box. Thanks for reminding me what it takes to accomplish something outside of the box.

    “Box, what box? I don’t see no stinking BOX.”
    -=God_Zilla=-

    “Boxes are for people who have too much stuff.”
    -=God_Zilla=-

    “What you say on Twitter is there for Google to see.”
    -=God_Zilla=-

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    As this is really a coolest gadget that i  have ever had, gr8 shuffle…