Tips and Tricks for Becoming a Lifelong Learner
All through college and in my first writing job, my work horse was an old black Corona typewriter. Things were a little fancier at the corporate headquarters, where I clacked out copy on a state-of-the-art IBM Selectric.
This article is coming to you via my iPad and a little foldable keyboard, both of which fit in my handbag. I store my words in the cloud and whisk them away on the World Wide Web.
If someone had told me 40 years ago how much I’d have to learn to be in the game 40 years later, I’d have been scared. I may have ditched the whole wanna-be-a-writer dream and married the farmer from my little home town. He was a nice enough guy.
Instead, without formal training, I’ve figured it all out well enough. We all have. You should see my 88-year-old mom rocking her iPhone, summoning her Uber driver and chatting with TiVo customer support.
Our learning curve has been a hairpin over the last four decades. Good learners have survived the trip better than those guys sitting in the back of the class.
That Carpenters song We’ve Only Just Begun should be a fight song for our generation just as it was the theme of my high school graduation. If we plan to make the most of our wisest decades, school is never out. Our learning muscle needs exercise just like our gluteus muscles.
Tips and Tricks Pull Learning Out of the Hat
In college, I was lucky to land a job in the campus Reading and Study Skills Center. My victims were mostly big and tall guys worried about maintaining academic eligibility. I hope there’s at least one NFL or NBA player out there who remembers me cheering: “You can do this!”
I learned simple tips like keeping an eye out for multiple choice answers with “always” and “never,” skimming a chapter to pre-learn before reading it and using mnemonics to help with memorizing.
Maybe you’re just learning or relearning to read music. “Every Good Boy Does Fine” mnemonizes the notes on the lines of the musical staff. Here’s one we all use to help with our spelling: “I before E except after C.”
Alliteration can help us memorize steps in a process. Here’s how I use “P” to square off with WordPress: Plan, Post, Publish and Pray. I’ve got a lot to learn about online publishing, and I know the only way it’s happening is if I park my gluteals in the chair and focus.
Productive procrastination is my biggest challenge. I should vacuum (always). I can chop the veggies for tonight’s dinner. Stop that, I scold myself. Sit, focus, learn.
Chunking away at blocks of information is less overwhelming than tackling material all at once. A concentrated 45 minutes works best for me. No internet, no phone calls, no snacking.
Then I can take a break to lift the weights on the floor by my desk or walk to the post office. The exercise will boost my brain power for the next 45-minute sit down.
The World Is Our Oyster. Slurp It!
When I turned 50, I decided to get my real estate license as a backup if I ever needed one. My learning muscle was a little rusty, and I found that using more of my senses helped me learn unfamiliar material.
Say you retain five percent of something you hear and ten percent of something you read. If you both read and listen, your learning may double again.
For the real estate course, I scanned and then read and took notes on the material. Then I vocalized and recorded key points from my notes.
For example, there are 43,560 square feet in an acre and a square mile is 640 acres. I listened to my notes first thing each morning on the days leading up to the exam. I passed!
A musician doesn’t wait until the day of the concert to learn the music. She paces her practice over days and weeks. Cramming just doesn’t work, though you won’t convince less than stellar students. Spaced study or practice helps retention just like spaced strength training tones our muscles.
Making best use of our best hours is important too. I’m a lark so I save my morning hours for my best thinking. I don’t answer email until lunch. My afternoon slump is when I should get out the vacuum. But sometimes I like a nap more than clean floors.
Figuring Out What Floats Your Boat
I have the occasional need to use Excel, but not often enough that I’ve really learned it. My sister is a whiz and has always helped me calm the confusion. But the first time I was able to do a simple formula, add a column here, move a row there, I felt powerful. OMG, I did it!
The sense of accomplishment that comes with figuring something out feels so good. The dopamine flows, the pride swells, the confidence rises.
Accomplishment should be enough motivation to encourage continued learning. But once we’re learning for our own reasons, not because a job or degree requires it, we have to dig a little deeper for our motivation.
Going on an international trip is great motivation for learning a new language. I know a guy who bought a car made in the year he was born so he could learn auto mechanics. His wife wasn’t happy about losing that space in the garage.
A friend of mine is taking a class in jewelry-making so she can stake space at the Sunday beach market. Life is good.
Besides knowing learning is good for our brain health, we are most motivated when we’re learning what we love, when learning itself is pleasure and not a chore at all.
Relearning to play the flute or mastering whole wheat dumpling wrappers makes my heart happy. I wish Excel or WordPress or vacuuming did that for me.
What’s your motivation for learning something new? How do you stay focused? When is your best time of day to flex your learning muscle? Please give us your motivation stories so we can all benefit from them.
Terri Edmund White is an innkeeper on Anna Maria Island, Florida. She enjoys life with her husband Jim and their cats, adopted from the Humane Society of Manatee County. A former corporate writer and editor, Terri is currently penning her way to her 100th birthday and has started a 100 Year Project website to write about the journey.