Five (Free) Life Hacks to Stimulate Learning

life-hacksThis article was originally published on the FCR blog on September 29, 2016. Click here for the original.

Several months ago I watched Cooked, a documentary series by Michael Pollan on Netflix (highly recommend). In it he uses the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water to talk about the origins of food. In the Air episode he talks all about the process of making bread and the fact that you really only need four ingredients— water, flour, salt, and the wild yeast from the air.

To make a long story short, my mission this summer was to make my own sourdough bread. It started with making a sourdough starter which I did by combining flour and water and then allowing the yeast from the air to eat the sugars in the flour causing it to ferment. Once the starter was ready, I combined it with flour, water, and salt, gave it time to rise, and the end result was delicious bread. Well, after five or ten loaves that didn’t rise I finally got the hang of it.

Why do I tell you that story? It all has to do with learning something new. It was some time ago that I realized a steady diet of video games and ESPN wasn’t helping me make any progress on that dusty stack of books sitting on my bookshelf— many of which contained skills that were essential to doing my job well.

While sports and video games aren’t bad, the way they fit into my life far outweighed any time spent on personal development. This lack of balance was keeping me from making progress on my personal and career goals. That initial realization and many small life hacks along the way have helped me inject learning into my lifestyle. Here are my five learning life hacks:

1. Swap sports radio for podcasts

For much of my working life I’ve spent at least thirty minutes of time in the car each day. Much of that time was spent listening to people on sports talk radio either speculate about who would win a game or commiserate about all of the reasons the team lost the game.

My life hack was to transform thirty minutes of sitting in traffic into thirty minutes of learning. I began exploring podcasts of which there are many for every topic under the sun. I personally enjoy a number of customer service and business shows but also love just about anything NPR produces (TED Radio Hour, Invisibilia, This American Life). Also, don’t forget about audio books— many of which you can check out for free from your local library.

2. Swap 1 Friends rerun for 2 TED Talks

I may be dating myself a bit but let’s just say I’ve seen a lot of Friends reruns in my lifetime. The danger in watching them on Netflix is that once they start, it’s really hard to turn them off.

The life hack here is to swap out a Friends rerun for two TED talks. The beauty of TED talks is that experts in a particular field of study boil down their life’s work into 18 minutes or less. You’re getting the best of the best about that field of study. Anyone can endure just about any topic for 18 minutes. These short talks also give you a great launching point for topics you might want to dive deeper into. I would also add the myriad of great documentaries on Netflix to this category.

3. Combine learning and exercise

We’ve already talked about learning and driving. The next life hack is to combine exercise and learning for a workout for your body and your brain. On your next walk or run, fill your mind with podcasts or TED talks. You know my dusty stack of books? I actually bought a (really) cheap exercise bike on Craigslist and enjoy reading a book for 30 minutes a couple times a week while pedaling. If you’re anything like me, you’ll fall asleep if you try to read on the couch after work. Exercising adds much needed energy and focus to that reading time.

4. Combine learning and breaks

I so often spend lunches and breaks sitting and catching up on social media. The life hack here is to try to inject learning into your breaks— especially something that will inspire you to finish the day strong. You may not want to devote your entire break to TED talks or podcasts. Instead, use this time to read a few blog posts. There are tons of great blogs related to customer service, business, and beyond and most articles can be read in five minutes or less. Oftentimes when I sit down with my computer during these times, I set a goal of reading 3-5 articles before looking at other things like social media or email.

5. Schedule learning

There are so many things that pull at our attention on a daily basis. Whether we’re at work or home, there are a billion reasons not to spend our time learning and developing ourselves. The life hack here is to plan your learning ahead of time with the use of a calendar. Plan how you want to spend each of your breaks and set goals for what you want to accomplish when you get home from work. I find it even helps to plan when I want to go to bed and that really helps with the whole Friends rerun issue (Sleep is important!). If you’re into games, checkout Habitica and gamify your development goals.

Ultimately, our goal here is to develop better habits, and unless you’re superhuman, this won’t happen overnight. In the words of Bob Wiley, it’s all about baby steps. Keep making small progress with these life hacks and be sure to take time to look back periodically to celebrate how far you’ve come. Like learning to bake bread, some days you will fall flat (and the occasional binge watch is still ok). But rise the next day and take another shot at it. You’ll be better for it.

Show me your bookshelf, or the courses you take, or the questions you ask, and I’ll have a hint as to how much you care about levelling up. ~Seth Godin

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