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Learning Journal

The best defense against constant change is constant learning. Invest in a deliberate, personal approach to learning and increasing your skills, based on a learning journal.

Pain Points

  • I feel that new technologies and techniques are passing me by; there’s always something new that I don’t about.
  • I don’t have any time to learn new things.
  • The only learning opportunity I have is corporate training/L&D programs.
  • Techniques I’m using when coding aren’t enough for the challenges.
  • I feel we’re doing everything right but nothing works.

Benefits

  • Ability to stay current, keep resume and skills relevant to current marketplace
  • Ability to bring latest cutting-edge techniques to solve real, everyday problems
  • Engage a virtuous cycle of improvement (each small improvement creates next level of improvement, spiraling upwards)

Assessment

Are you deliberately learning?

  • I have a regular time and place to invest in my learning and skills (10 pts)
  • I have a time and place set up, but don’t do it consistently (5 pts)
  • I invest in learning only when something comes up (0 pts)
  • I don’t bother to learn anything new, ever (-20 pts)

Considering your actions over the last week:

  • I can demonstrate progress of new things learned (5 pts)
  • I feel like I’ve learned new things but don’t have anything concrete to show for it (2 pts)
  • I don’t feel that I’ve learned anything new (0 pts)

Application

✓ Critical ❑ Helpful ❑ Experimental

Adoption Experiment

Steps to first adopt this practice:

Setup

Record the following items in your Learning Journal. Download a simple version to print out yourself.

  1. When and where is your scheduled learning time?
  2. What are your initial S.M.A.R.T. goals? Include a diversity of topics.
  3. What do you envision for now, next year, five years out?
  4. Schedule a time to re-evaluate and re-balance three (3) months from now.

Trial

  1. Use the “Don’t Break the Chain” technique to ingrain this habit
  2. Keep a steady pace for at least 30 days
  3. Log sessions and notes in your Learning Journal

Evaluate Feedback

  1. Are you able to maintain a commitment to investing in yourself?
  2. Are you making demonstrable, visible progress?

What Does it Look like?

The best defense against constant change is constant learning. But not just hit-or-miss learning of random topics as they come up. Instead, you want to work on a more deliberate, personal approach to learning and increasing your skills. Just like in the financial world, always “pay yourself first.”

A Learning Journal can be a physical notebook, such as a Moleskine or spiral bound notepad, or an electronic document such as a Wiki or plain text file, or in a note-keeping system such as Evernote. How you record your notes and intentions is not particularly important; use whatever is most comfortable for you and that you’ll actually use.

To help you be more deliberate in your learning, you’re going to take the following steps:

  1. Set a Regular Investment
  2. Use S.M.A.R.T Goals
  3. Diversify Topics
  4. Create a Plan

Let’s look at each of these.

Set a Regular Investment

It’s important to make a deliberate investment in your learning, in your career. That means working on it regularly. It’s helpful to set up a ritual to get into the habit: pick a consistent and quiet time and place to work, away from distractions of family, job, social media, and so on.

Once you get there, you don’t want to waste any of your precious, carved-out time trying to figure out what to do. Instead, figure out ahead of time what you’re interested in, what you want to work on, what your next steps should be.

Use S.M.A.R.T Goals

It’s far too easy to make a list of sweeping, grand goals, such as “I want to learn functional programming” or “I want to be agile.” Neither of those is going to work very well for you. Instead, use the consultant’s trick of S.M.A.R.T. goals–goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-boxed

So instead of “I want to learn functional programming,” for example, you might phrase that as “I will write ‘Hello World’ in Elm by next week.” Elm is a functional programming language for front-end web applications. That’s specific: it’s a particular functional language. The idea of a “Hello World” program is measurable, it either works and displays the string Hello World or it doesn’t. This goal is probably attainable, “Hello World” in any language is a suitable beginning step. It’s relevant to your goal to learn functional programming, and it’s time-boxed as you’ve specified a deadline for yourself.

Diversify Topics

The next thing to consider is whether your choice of topics is appropriate. Certainly you want to focus on areas that are necessary for your current work environment, or that will be important to your career in this job or the next. But don’t forget diversification: branch out to include topics such as:

  • new programming languages / development environments
  • new techniques (functional, pipeline vs objects, MVC and MVVC, reactive and async, etc.)
  • ideas from different industries
  • non-technical topics (management, psychology, economics, etc.)

Create a Plan

That list is perhaps getting a little longer and more daunting now, it’s time for a plan. You’ll want to think a little more long-term, and decide what you want to do:

  • Now: what’s the next action you can take
  • Next Year: what do you want to accomplish by next year
  • Five Years from now: it would be impossible to be specific this far out, but in more general terms, where do you see yourself? Think about what might be different in your career, and what you’d like to be doing, five years from now.

Rebalance

Finally, as with any plan, the plan itself is garbage ;) No plan survives contact with the enemy. But the planning itself is essential.

Over time you’ll need to take a look at your plan and make corrections. You tried that technology, but it didn’t work out. You discovered this other new and shiny thing that looks better. The market has changed. Some other skill is now in hot demand, and this other skill less so. These are all normal and expected changes, you just need to adjust your plan to match the latest version of reality.

Make a date for 3 months from now to revisit and revise your plan. Add that to your calendar. In your re-planning session, repeat these steps, including adding a date 3 months from then to revised your plan again.

Congratulations, you are now ahead of most of your colleagues.

Making it Stick

It takes more than thirty days to ingrain a new habit. The key to starting any new habit is to touch it every day, even if only for a minute.

Comedian Jerry Seinfield advocates a technique he calls:

Don’t Break the Chain

Put up a large calendar on the wall. As you engage in your new habit, however briefly, mark off that day on the calendar. A large, visible calendar serves as a constant reminder to engage in this new activity daily—don’t break the chain.

Within a month or two, it will become a new habit.

Record Progress

Use the Learning Journal to record your progress. Make a note of each session at least, but also keep track of questions you have, tips you’ve learned, resources you’ve found. Keep track of things you want to investigate further: topics you’re not sure about, new terminology you’re not familiar with.

Add subject matter notes as well. Don’t be afraid to record different things in different styles or formats. For example, “recording a session” may be no more than just putting the date and time at the top of a fresh page. Notes on a new programming language or framework might look like a bullet list. Other topics might be better captured using a mind map or other diagram. Use color to capture associations.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite notes for clarity. Rewriting can help significantly strengthen neural associations in your brain and will help keep your understanding fresh and up to date.

Warning Signs

  • Spending a lot of time but not seeing any benefit
  • Sticking to safe, familiar topics
  • Not forming a regular habit
  • Overdoing it and neglecting job, family, health

Growth Path

  • Share what you’ve learned recently at a brown-bag lunch with your teammates
  • Present the topic at a user group meeting
  • Create a video on the topic and post it
  • Speak at a conference
  • Write a book

For more on mind maps and learning in general, see Pragmatic Thinking & Learning: Refactor Your Wetware (Hunt, 2008).

How to Fail Spectacularly

  • Believe that you know everything you need to know already.
  • Don’t take any responsibility for your own learning. Rely on your company or luck only.
  • Use the excuse that you’re too busy to improve anything.
  • Believe your current job, company, or industry is safe from disruption.

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