Continuing Education: Tips For Learning New Skills

When author and speaker Josh Kaufman and his wife had their first baby, he knew he needed to find another approach to learning in his now-limited free time.

In his TEDx talk, The First 20 Hours (based on his book of the same name), he talks about his journey to re-learn how to learn, by breaking down the learning curve and understanding which skills are needed to ramp up that curve quickly.

He uses the example of learning to play the ukulele, but the techniques he talks about are applicable to anything from learning a new language to teaching yourself the skills you need to change your career path. It’s definitely worth a watch!

For many people, the main barrier to picking up a new skill is finding the time, and breaking down the huge nebulous skill (“learn to code”) into bite-sized chunks.

As you tackle a new skill, keep these tips in mind:

  • Have an end goal: Stay motivated by understanding just why you’d like to learn something. Will it advance your career? Enhance your travel experience?
  • Focus on learning just one thing at a time: It may be tempting to jump in and try to learn everything at once, but you’ll stick with your learning habit – and retain more information – if you just choose one thing.
  • Put your new skill to use: Try to use the materials you’re learning. Simply memorizing facts won’t do much. Try to regularly use what you learn each week. Quiz yourself, practice with a friend, or review your notes.
  • Track – and celebrate – your progress: Keep track of milestones to see how well you’re doing, and then celebrate your progress. When you’ve passed one milestone – say, the beginning unit of Spanish lessons – take yourself out for a celebratory Peruvian dinner.

Make time to learn

How many times have you said to yourself, “I’d love to learn how to do that!”? You may think you’d never have the time to learn French, play the piano, or become a Photoshop guru, but if you look I bet you can find plenty of little pockets of time throughout your day.

To get yourself in the habit of learning, set a specific, short time for your learning session, like 15-20 minutes every day. Choose a time and place, like on your afternoon break or every morning during breakfast, and then commit to learning during that time every day for a week. After that week is up, check to see how you did and revise your plan if necessary.

If it’s a mental skill rather than a physical one – say, you’re trying to learn a language – take advantage of those odd moments we all have in our days. Rather than checking Facebook on your phone for the fiftieth time while you’re waiting for your frozen burrito to cook, pull up a flashcard app like Anki or StudyBlue.

Seek out reliable, bite-sized resources

If you wanted to learn Latin in the past you needed to seek out a tutor, take a class, or muddle your way through a Latin textbook on your own.

These days the internet is teeming with amazing resources to help people learn everything from how to replace their alternator to how to play the violin.

  • GovLoop Academy is filled with video lessons on topics from citizen engagement and open data to personal development. Longer topics are delivered in segments that are between 4 and 7 minutes long, perfect for watching on a quick break.
  • Khan Academy has videos on subjects from history to organic chemistry, in engaging snippets that let you learn at your own pace.
  • Duolingo is a fantastic resource for learning languages. It’s free, and the gamified format and optional reminders help keep you on track. There are currently nine European languages offered, with another dozen languages in beta mode.
  • Academic Earth and Coursera both curate online courses from universities like Harvard and Oxford, on topics from biology to blues guitar.
  • Lynda.com is a fantastic source for educational videos, particularly for designers and developers. Along with teaching fundamental skills, the videos are great for learning to use software like Adobe’s Creative Suite, Microsoft Office, and Final Cut Pro.
  • Podcasts are great ways to learn something on your commute, while cooking dinner, or just whenever. Here are 10 to get your started, but it’s easy to find others based on your interests.

Summer is a fantastic time to tackle a new skill. Personally, I’m going to use Duolingo to teach myself French in anticipation of that (still unplanned) trip to Belgium and France my husband and I have been talking about for years.

What are you going to learn?

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