Personal Development September 05, 2017

Recipes for learning

How to build a lifelong learning habit

Today’s work environments are complex and sometimes even overwhelming. Just doing a good job isn’t enough anymore, we have to keep up with the latest developments and changes to our modern economy. This – as well as new ways of collaborating – keeps our days busy. But we shouldn’t forget: change and transformation will continue. This is why taking care of your personal development is more important than ever, in order to stay professionally relevant. Moreover, organisations provide a development frame with training programmes and other learning initiatives, but they ultimately leave people in charge of their own development. So take charge of it yourself because no one else will do it for you...

Intellectual activity and learning is fun. Yet we have a job, a family and other distractions. The danger is staying in the mode of “I should learn how to xxx” or “once this project is over I will start xxx”. The truth is that if we don’t develop a habit of learning and dedicate time to it, we simply won’t do it. And this is a lost opportunity to upgrade our skills and enrich our lives. It’s also a shame, as we are living in a great time for learning. Never before, has it been so easy to access new knowledge.

But why do we struggle this often to continue with our learning resolutions? The thing is that learning requires focus and discipline. Repetition and regularity play an important role too. This may seem boring, but it is inevitable if you are serious about it. So instead of pushing yourself to do something for your personal development once in a while, you should try to cultivate a learning habit. Habits have the great advantage that they come naturally to us; we do them without thinking. They save us energy and time spent on decision-making and exercising self-control, which is tiring and makes us give up. With a sticky learning habit, you achieve consistent progress and fulfil your larger goals.

So how do we make learning a habit? What tricks can we use so that learning becomes second nature to us?

Here are our four actionable steps:

  1. Make your choice

    First of all, define what you want to learn and what you want to master after this. Be aware that your intrinsic motivation will decrease quickly if you chose a topic that is not relevant for you. For instance, is there a field you’d like to improve in? Or are there any new topics you’d like to pioneer in? Research suggests that “dreaming big” is fine for formulating a goal. Do so and break it down into little “sub-goals” to get started.

  2. Drop an anchor!

    We all have reliable habits based on our lifestyle and context (e.g. work days, weekends or holidays). Typical habits are things like doing meditation after you get up, putting your kids to bed at 8pm etc. The good news is that we can use these habits as anchors to trigger a new learning habit. If you pick one of your routines as an anchor you can build another “link in the chain” by adding your new learning habit.

    To help you chose the right anchor think of a very reliable habit you have. If you want to do your behaviour once a day, for instance, pick an anchor that only happens once a day (e.g. “after your morning meditation or after having put the kids to bed...”).You should pick something you always do and it should be a precise event. So what would be the best anchor for you related to your new learning behaviour?

  3. Create a recipe

    Your learning goal is set and you have picked one or several anchors to trigger your desired learning habit. Now it’s time to create the recipe that you will practice at a certain time with some specific ingredients:

    After I (your real-life habit/anchor), I will (new behaviour you want to learn).

    Suppose you want to improve your negotiation skills, your recipes could be:

    First recipe:
    Every morning after I’ve had my morning coffee, I will spend 10 minutes reading the latest reference books/articles.

    Second recipe:
    Before putting my kids to bed at 8.00 pm, I will attend a negotiation training course from 18.00 - 19.30 on Wednesday for ten weeks.

    Third recipe:
    After our monthly team session, three other colleagues and I will spend an additional hour sharing best practices regarding group negotiations. We will do this at least 3 times.

  4. Eliminate “let’s skip it” moments

New habits are fragile. This is why you have to eliminate any barriers that may lead you astray. “Let’s skip it” moments are when you find yourself thinking “It’s not worth the effort!” When this happens, check your goal, anchor and related habit and find out where things start to break down. Testing and adapting your recipe is part of the learning process!

Finding a recipe that works reliably is the real challenge. This won’t be possible without trying things out and adapting. But once you have properly established your habit, you’ll find it hard to break.

What about you? What learning habits have you created?

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