Adopt Personal Learning Habits

This collection of personal learning and cognitive habits will help you learn more, faster. These suggestions are just that, feel free to start with these ideas and expand as you discover what works for you.

For more information in this area, see Pragmatic Thinking & Learning (Hunt, 2008).

Pain Points

  • You find it hard to learn new things, even when taking the time
  • Good ideas come to you, but don’t go anywhere
  • You find pieces of paper with partial great thoughts on your desk, but don’t have a clue when you wrote them, or why
  • You get stumped. Problems arise and you have no ideas how to address them


  • Learning becomes your personal superpower
  • You master new technology and techniques more easily
  • You can capitalize on great ideas and insights


  • You learn new material deliberately and can review your notes and summaries quickly and effectively (Major Boost)
  • You carry a notepad and jot down insights all the time (Significant Boost)
  • You stay focused on a series of similar tasks and resist inappropriate interruptions (Boost)
  • You learn new material well enough, but notes are not useful or nonexistent (Boost)
  • You carry a notepad but rarely use it (Setback)
  • You do not carry a notepad or anything similar (Setback)
  • You constantly flit from task to task (Significant Setback)
  • You never learn anything new (Disaster)


✓ Critical ❑ Helpful ❑ Experimental

Adoption Experiment

First steps to create this habit:


  1. Get a notebook or something similar that you can carry with you always
  2. Plan on using SQ3R (see below) for the next book you want to study (see LearningJournal).
  3. Get supplies for mind-maps and note-taking


  1. When an interesting thought or insight comes to you, jot it down
  2. Periodically (at least once a week, daily is better) go through the notebook and process your notes
  3. Use SQ3R (see below) to read the next book you’re studying
  4. Create a mind-map for the topic

Evaluate Feedback

  1. Are you getting interesting insights from the notebook or morning pages (see below)?
  2. Do you find SQ3R or similar techniques helpful when studying new material?
  3. Does limiting multitasking make you feel more effective?

What Does it Look like?

Do Not Multitask

Human brains are not built to multitask. Various studies have shown that it can take twenty to forty-five minutes to resume a task after an interruption (see TeamWideInteruption).

Email is a pernicious source of interruption; try sending less of it. The less email you send, the less you’ll get back. Personal contact is higher bandwidth and more effective. If you have to use email, you can set the tempo for the conversation. If you reply immediately, you’ve set the expectation for that conversation, which may or may not be appropriate.

Don’t context switch

Don’t context-switch. For any work queue (bugs in a database, emails, tasks on a Kanban board), work through that queue only. That is, don’t constantly switch tasks. For instance, you might find developing a new feature gets interrupted by a bug fix, which gets interrupted by new email, which gets interrupted by a text message, which gets… If you try to do many things at once, you may find none of them get done.

Mental lists are cognitively expensive. Don’t try to keep lists in your head, write them down instead.


You’re never “done” learning and you’ll never know “enough.” Learning is a lifelong activity, and so is “un-learning”—tearing down old mental models that are no longer accurate or useful. Learning is a messy, complex process, and does not include a straight line to success. You don’t know what you don’t know, and use discovery, exploration, and invention to learn and progress.

You have to deconstruct old mental models

New knowledge will invariably invalidate older, ingrained ideas, and it can be a real challenge to throw out “old” ways of thinking. For example, when object oriented programming first became popular, new OO programmers still wrote imperative code even in the new language. You can see the same thing with new functional programming attempts: trying to write in an OO or imperative style instead of embracing the very different functional idiom.

Read deliberately

Instead of just reading technical books, blog posts, or watching videos, take a more deliberate approach, such as the SQ3R technique:

  • Survey — scan the table of contents, any chapter summaries, outlines, etc., for an overview of the work
  • Question — note any questions you have, specific things you want to learn, concepts you aren’t clear on
  • Read — the work in its entirety
  • Recall — take notes, isolate core facts and essential processes that seem important
  • Review — reread, expand notes, discuss with coworkers, reading group members, folks at the next meetup, etc.

Learn by practicing

A training course, seminar, or book will only get you to a novice level at best. You only really learn by doing, with continual practice.

Learn by doing and reviewing

Make sure you have an opportunity to practice what you’re learning, whether it’s with at work, using open source software on a home system, or volunteering for a charitable organization.

Just “doing it” isn’t enough, of course, you need to constantly review your progress and get feedback from your practice so you can adjust and grow your capabilities.

Do and review to grow

Carry a Notepad Always

Because of the structure of the brain and its networked processes, your best insights and creative ideas will likely hit you when you are not in front of a computer, or engaged in any “foreground” task. Instead, these insights arrive when the Default Mode Network (DMN) is activated, when there is little to no cognitive demand. You need to carry something with you at all times to capture every idea, question, insight, comment, curiosity, etc.

Henri Poincaré, the famous mathematician, was known to pose a problem to himself, then walk away from his study for a leisurely stroll around the grounds. In the middle of the walk, an insight would come to him and he’d quickly return to his office to capture it, solving that problem and proceeding to the next one.

Step away from the keyboard for the answer

You can use an expensive Moleskin-style notebook or a cheap spiral pad, index cards or even just a folded piece of paper with a mini pencil. But have something that always in your pocket, always ready for that idea.

Because if you don’t write it down, you will forget it.

Make mind maps, wikis

Taking notes is just the start. Learning requires content creation: notes, summaries, mind maps, highlights, cheat sheets, post-it flags, recipes, code fragments, How-To’s; whatever you need.

Mindmaps are a great tool for capturing and exploring ideas and insights.

Keep track of good ideas to get more of them

It’s best to create mind maps by hand, not on a computer. Hand-drawn mind maps engage large-motor functions and involve more of the brain—it’s a more fluid and dynamic exercise than filling in text fields on a device. On paper, there’s always room to squish in something extra. Assigning different colors and textures might illuminate new relationships and generate insights as well.

Harness hypnogogic insights

The hyper-prolific inventor Thomas Edison often took naps with a cup of ball bearings in his hand. Just as he’d drift off to sleep, he’d spill the cup and the clatter would wake him up, so he could write down and capture whatever thought he had at the moment.

Hypnogogia is the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep when the brain often reveals insights and thoughts arising from background processes. Edison knew this to be a rich source of creativity and problem solving.

Harvest your best pre-conscious thoughts

A more modern version—no ball bearings required—is the oft-taught technique called Morning Pages. First thing in the morning, before getting out of bed, reading email, or anything else:

  1. Write 3 pages, longhand (no typing)
  2. Uncensored, do not leave anything out
  3. Do not skip a day

It might take a while to reveal anything useful, but subjects have reported amazing and helpful insights, ideas, and approaches by using this technique.

How to Fail Spectacularly

  • You spend all your time studying and no time putting it into practice
  • You spend all your time practicing the “easy parts” and not trying the next, harder level
  • You spend all your time in learning and discovery and not enough time in delivery or refinement (See ThreeTrackAttack).

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