Learning new things can be difficult. I’ve already discussed that, so I won’t dive into it again. What I’d like to talk about are a few tools that can help ease the pain as you begin your adventure in learning something new.
The most important tool for learning is the brain. That’s a given. There are, however, a few psychological tools that most of us probably don’t consider when learning that can empower our brains to learn faster and retain information better.
Curiosity is probably the most effective tool you have for learning. A curious mind doesn’t accept a simple answer. It wants to know, not only the what, by the why and the how. Walt Disney is noted for saying,
We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
If curiosity is the wick of the candle, then excitement is the wax that keeps it burning. Excitement for learning a new topic will help you get through the really difficult parts. Trust me, there will be difficult parts. A lack of excitement is why you hated linear algebra—or whatever class you hated.
I quoted Aaron Hillegass’s advice for learning new topics in a previous post. What I didn’t quote was the sentence that preceded his advice,
The second trick is to stop thinking about yourself. This claim doesn’t make much sense out of context, so I implore you to read the full quote. Mr. Hillegass is saying that you lose site of the goal—learning something new—when you focus on yourself. I couldn’t agree more, and that’s why I think selflessness is so important when learning something new. It’s not about you; it’s about what you’re learning.
Sleep deprivation has some really nasty side effects, although it can be used to cure depression. There is, however, a direct correlation between getting more sleep and better grades in school. That’s why sleep is the most important physiological tool at your disposal for learning.
A healthy diet has been known to result in better scores on standardized tests, greater attention spans, and less hyperactivity. I won’t go into any more detail on this. Just remember that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
If you would know how a man treats his wife and his children, see how he treats his books, has long been one of my favorite Emerson quotes. Not just because I’m meticulous with my books but also because I love my wife. That said, it brings me physical pain to watch someone treat a book maliciously—tearing its cover, dog-earing its pages, tossing it to and fro with no concern for its well being. Okay, it doesn’t bring me physical pain, and I’m not overly concerned with how others treat their physical possessions. I am, however, a firm believer in treating books with some respect. They’ll last longer, and you’ll, therefore, be able to reference them for years to come.
Post-It flags are a great investment for more than just keeping books in pristine condition. They allow you to mark off certain sections for quick look up. It’s a better approach than dog-earing a page because you can pinpoint the exact location of what you’re marking, jot a small note on the flag, and never put the book in harm’s way.
Another extremely useful tool is a book stand. I read a lot of books about programming languages, and every author strongly suggests—as do I—that you actually implement their code. This can be quite cumbersome with a book that is prone to close when left unattended. A book stand holds the book at a good angle for reading and keeps your pages held open. There are plenty of options to choose from, ranging from inexpensive to ridiculously overpriced. I use the Easi-Reader Bookstand. It’s inexpensive, folds up for easy storage, and doesn’t get in the way of page turns. It Just Works™.
The following tools are very specific for the material I usually ingest, namely programming languages and general technology books. I like to keep notes, mark my progress, and rate what I read at Readernaut. Readernaut is the resource for bookworms. Give it a try. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.
Every Mac ships with a great little application called Dictionary. Chances are you don’t have the English language completely memorized, and while contextual clues are a great way to guess a word’s meaning, it’s better to know for sure.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are hundreds of tools that can aid you in learning. This is just a list of tools that I find extremely useful. There are a lot of different learning styles. Be pragmatic in your approach. You might find the way you were taught in school wasn’t the best fit for your brain. Learn well and enjoy.