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.
Are you deliberately learning?
Considering your actions over the last week:
✓ Critical ❑ Helpful ❑ Experimental
Steps to first adopt this practice:
Record the following items in your Learning Journal.1
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 Moleskin 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:
Let’s look at each of these.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
For more on mind maps and learning in general, see Pragmatic Thinking & Learning: Refactor Your Wetware (Hunt, 2008).
Download a version to print out yourself at [growsmethod.com/downloads/LearningJournalHandout.pdf ↩