Like you, I struggle to set aside time to learn new things.
Time for learning needs to be extended, uninterrupted, reflective, and allow you to play with things in ways that modern workplaces, life, and task management time doesn’t. What’s my answer? Bowling Nights.
Let’s start with work. Since most people now depend on their jobs to be the source of training and learning. I’d argue, like Cal Newport, that the curse of the modern workplace is finding uninterrupted blocks of time to get things done and focus rather than shuffling information.
While knowledge economy companies try to set aside time for their staff to learn, and bake it into how they should be spending their time, it’s still hard (I can speak from experience that your staff often use that time to catch up on the things they would not get done otherwise.). And fact is, no one should be depending on the arbitrary whims of workplace time or budget to exclusively deliver your learning outcomes. Often what you learn on the job is more about making you more valuable to the company rather than more valuable to yourself. While there is a Venn diagram overlap on those things, it is not always 1:1, and depending on where you are in your career or interests, might even be counterproductive if it’s career pathing to something you want to move away from. It’s only very enlightened companies or great managers that are willing to let you roam beyond those confines into skills for your life or larger career arc.). So, beyond work, how do you find time to learn stuff that’s completely outside of something you could justifiably count coup on for the job? Outside interests, or say, something that looks like pathing towards a career change?
Bowling Nights are your answer.
At one point in America, within my childhood memory even, people spent one night a week, every week… bowling (terrify, I know). Yes, bowling. That thing where you get together with a bunch of people in sketchy alleys, with rental shoes, cheap beer, and throw large balls at sets of pins. In fact, there’s even a book about the fact that the decline in bowling has been indicative of a general reduction in community, closeness, and caring in US society (the argument is compelling).
The fact is, everyone used to be able to find time to spend at least one night a week doing something, totally outside of work and family, which was, well… not exactly the most productive pursuit on the planet.
My perhaps simplistic answer to the question of where you find the time to learn is you take one night a week and dedicate it to learning. 3 hours. 4 if you can push it.
After work and you’ve put the kids to bed and until you shut things down for the night and do whatever you ready-for-bed ritual is. Pick a topic (or topics), lock yourself away, and just focus on uninterrupted time for learning. That’s it.
So, how do you use this to learn new things? I suggest three guidelines.
- Be Consistent
- Be Deliberate
- Be Concrete
1. Be Consistent
I’m not even sure when I started using the (poor) joke of calling it my Bowling Night, but when people would ask me to do something, I would literally reply,
“Can’t. That’s my Bowling Night.”
(It was Mondays). Of course, it was a come-on to explain the fact I carve aside that time for learning, and more than a few people would give me an eye-roll or obviously judge me a killjoy harshly, but the fact is almost everyone accepted the fact.
The hard part is fencing off that time and actually saying no. Actually, check that… the hard part is when you have to say no to things you want to do. It was dead easy to avoid after-work commitments I didn’t want to do anyway. Social things, in particular, are very, very hard to avoid. Particularly when your cool AF friends are doing something absolutely epic (and they’ll do it without you that night rather than reschedule).
Until this is a habit you know you are not going to break, or are capable of shifting to other nights in the week without disruption, my advice is suck it up and miss things. Yeah, it hurts. You’ll need to timeshift That Great Show. Your partner, friends, or kid(s) will be confused when you lock yourself away in the home office, or head to the library or coffeeshop to not be with them.
When you’ve got enough discipline it feels uncomfortable and dead weird if you aren’t having a Bowling Night in a regular week, you can experiment with shifting a thing to a Tuesday or another day, as long as you keep the habit. Once is fine, same as missing a night once due to good reason, but never twice in a row.
Invest in a Bowling Night.
Like all long-running habits, it’s easy to start, the trick is consistency when life happens. Use the usual hacks and prep for whatever night you use.
For myself, I literally leave work, head to the gym, and then taxi home, ordering take out on the way so I could hack or study things for a consistent 3-4 hours before calling it a night.
Stick with it. Some nights will just suck. Learning is not a defined input/output process. I guarantee you some weeks (months!) will feel like you’ve learned nothing until you have the perspective of a year later and you realize how much that time contributed on another topic. I often think of everything as laying a foundation for what I build on in the future (in fact, it’s sometimes hard since foundational stuff is often the most important, but hardest compared to more advanced, cooler topics.)
2. Be Deliberate
You do need a bit of planning. Be deliberate and specific in what you want to learn.
One thing I wish I’d done from the very start was think about a study plan for each thing I wanted to learn, particularly for wide-ranging and advanced topics where I may have a specific long range goal. Yeah, I know… a study plan?
Especially if you’re going to possibly spend a year on a long running learning project (and I’d argue to become competent enough to be dangerous in anything you really need that amount of time.), you need to break it down into the things you need to understand to effectively demonstrate knowledge (if not downright mastery), and explicitly study those things… and it will be hard at times. Start with foundational items and move onto more complex topics (in fact, studying it from the perspective of how things might have happened historically gives you both context and a solid base as a default if you need a suggestion on how to start with that.).
As an example, on a particularly complex set of topics I wanted to learn I did stuff out of order because some were more fun and (way) cooler. Big mistake. New, cooler stuff was much, much slower and vastly more frustrating because I did not have the proper base to easily understand the shorthands, notations, and concepts for the newer stuff. I spent a lot of time doubling back to backfill knowledge and understanding which probably woudl have been easier if I’d gone in sequence.
3. Be Concrete
Use Projects or Accomplishments as Guideposts.
On harder, long-running topics, it’s critical to keep motivated.
When you do get into the habit, sometimes it feels like some topics are a grind. You feel like you’re not learning or progressing (you are, it just does not feel like it), so I found it was often a good idea to connect monthly progress with some checkpoint that allows you to unambiguously demonstrate that you’re moving forward. Something concrete you have delivered in the month or the quarter 9depending on complexity).
For example, learning Go, I delivered harsh. For Rust, I built a game. For genomics, I sequenced a DNA strand algorithmically. To show I understood CRISPR, I made a bacteria photophospheresce. For some current work in astronomy, I’m working on a paper I hope to publish. As well as a large project to (try to) demonstrate research outcomes at scale in the domain.
My advice here is connect your learning to something very concrete. Resist the urge to define your learning through reading the books, listening to the lectures, or doing the course exercises. Yes, you have to do that too, but you’re going to learn the most through the application of your new-found knowledge. There is a big difference between taking a Coursera course on machine learning and delivering an actual production model to a real-life problem that was not pre-buried in the sandbox for you to discover during the course.
You need a concrete deliverable or string of deliverables, separate from the learning materials, that points towards clear, unambiguous progress (and to be honest, these things look great on your github or your CV if your longer term goal revolves around career learning).
So, beware the lure of just putting in the time but not applying your learning. Unapplied learning are generally lost quickly. believe me, it’s actually a bit terrifying how quickly we forget new knowledge. Making things concrete aids in learning and retention.
And this is in addition to the benefits of making you feel like you’re actually progressing and accomplishing something if your learning is highly abstract.
Another thing to avoid is to simply define a goal such as “Learn Rust” or similar diffuse, fuzzy goals. Tie it to some sort of outcome so that you can demonstrate you’ve achieved your objective. For example, “Learn enough Rust to build a Rogue like video game.” Describe the gain you will have or be able to demonstrate in the goal.
So, Bowling Nights are your friend. Make it a habit and reap the benefits though you need to match it with a concrete plan and consistency. Track it in a consistency graph as you get started and don’t beat yourself up when you go off the rails every once in a while (really… just get back on them.).
Learning is not making widgets. Time in does not necessarily equal learning outcomes out.
At first, you’re going to think all this time means you’re going to crush your learning outcomes. Most people grossly over-estimate what they can get done in a month (I know I do even with plenty of anchors to calibrate me.). The good news is though, most people grossly underestimate what they can accomplish in a year.
So, be ambitious but reset realistically. I’ve already had to reset my expectations out about a year in at least one of my longer term goals and how to build on it, simply because I need a lot more time to acquaint myself with the foundational knowledge necessary to succeed. I’m looking for other ways I may be able to start with my more limited knowledge set as an alternative, but also willing to do more work to get to where I think I need to for making myself successful and competent.
I hope this post was really useful to you. People, especially managerial friends and colleagues, keep telling me they never seem to have time to work on their skillsets has been a recurrent theme since covid ended, so I’m hoping this habit hack gives you an idea of how you might be able to fold more regular learning into your life. And yes, it’s still hard. In fact, for some people who have dependents or other challenges, it might be even more difficult, but hopefully the concept gives you some ideas of how you might riff off it to accomplish the same effect: a regular learning habit.
If this post was useful to you, lemme know if you did via mail or elephant below. Especially, curious to hear about how you might have other systems that you incorporate to ensure you are learning outside of on-the-job or explicit work learning that may be duplicated by others. Interested in what works and is working for people. Feel free to mention or ping me on @awws on mastodon or email me at email@example.com.