What to do before learning

It’s valuable to employ a multifaceted approach to learning. Whatever approach you take, in any substantial learning opportunity there are a few things you should consider before you begin.

Why? Because haphazard learning is about as effective as not learning at all. It leads to the learn-lose cycle.

1. Understand how you plan to use the knowledge.

Do you have a situation that you can apply the knowledge to? Or, are you not sure what the knowledge may apply to. Drastically different techniques are required to be effective based on whether or not you have a use for the knowledge.

2. Understand when you’ll use the knowledge.

In addition to what you’ll use the knowledge for, when would you use it? When would you apply it? In the next week, month, quarter, year?

It makes no sense to learn the details of something you can’t use right away. You’ll forget most of what you learn even within a few weeks of learning it. Wait until you need to use the knowledge to learn the details.

And from the big picture perspective, if you’ll be using the knowledge relatively soon, within say a few months. It’s better to wait to expose yourself to other possibilities. Just plan to do that in addition to getting into the details when the time arises.

If you don’t know when you’ll use the knowledge, then perhaps exposure learning is appropriate.

3. Understand the potential benefits

In addition to what and when, know why it will be valuable to learn this. Of course this is subjective. The benefits depend upon the context in which it will be applied. For example, is this for personal use or professional. And the benefits are just an educated guess up front.

What you want to avoid is marginal learning, learning that won’t ever prove valuable. Or learning where you haven’t articulated the value. Just because something is cool and everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean it’s worth your time.

And in the process of understanding why it will be beneficial, you can further constrain your learning investment to focus on attaining the benefits.

4. Treat learning as an investment

Now that you know what and why, you should be able to make an informed decision about whether or not it’s worth your time. Think of what you’ll get out of the effort you apply. Does it seem worth it?

5. Should you learn it

Ask yourself, should I be learning this? Is this something I should know, or is it something I should let someone else handle. Is it something I should learn to rely on someone else to help me with? Does it align with my personal and professional goals and accelerate those goals?

Just because you can learn something, doesn’t mean you want to learn it.

Keep in mind, learning is a means to an end, that’s what these questions are helping you discern. If learning is not the best means, use something else. For example, if you’re only going to need to do something once, why not outsource it? Or, if it’s not something you plan to make part of your own expertise, why learn it? Think of everything else you give up in the process of choosing to learn something, make sure it’s worth it.

6. Branch out

Chances are you’re really good at what you already can do. Whether professionally or personally. When is the last time you reached out to learn something outside your comfort zone? Perhaps even just outside your comfort zone?

Is this learning opportunity just an alternative to something you’re already good at? Is there anything else that would align with how you want to grow personally or professionally?

There’s comfort in pedantic learning. It’s easy, it appears valuable on the surface. You already use similar information so it seems reasonable you could use more of it.

But likely you’re good enough at this stuff and would benefit from branching out of your comfort zone.

7. Prioritize

Compare this opportunity to others. Are you maximizing your learning? Lower priority learning can wait. Does this learning fit into the objectives of what you’re trying to accomplish in the near term? Personal or professional. You can always defer learning.

8. Set an objective

From all of this information, set objectives. Draw boundaries to meet these objectives. What are your expectations? What do you hope to accomplish? How do you know when you’re done?

This isn’t meant to be a time consuming endeavor. A couple of minutes at most. This list is meant to provide a systematic approach to ensure learning investments are worthwhile. As you become comfortable with these techniques they will become second nature. It wouldn’t hurt to review this list yearly to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

9. Select a technique

Depending on your objectives, time frame, benefits, etc decide what learning technique will best suit your needs. For example, if you’re not certain of an actual use case or the benefits, you may want to employ an exposure based technique.