How to Design Personal Learning Projects

In this 60-minute workshop we looked at how to deconstruct a skill, identify the fundamental parts, and learn enough to be functional within one month or 20 hours.
Ramses Oudt 9 min read
How to Design Personal Learning Projects

This is where you make a start with your plan for a month-long learning challenge. No matter the skill you want to learn, you can use these steps to gain clarity about what it is that you need to do in order to become proficient in a new skill.

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3:10 Why plan your learning projects

  • Learning is hard. It's easier to distract yourself with social media or television than to sit down and study. That's why you need to be deliberate about when you're going to spend time on acquiring the skills and knowledge that you desire.
  • When you reserve time and put it on your calendar to learn something new, you will subconsciously prioritize it.
  • When you plan for learning a skill, you can cut out the fluff and find the 20% of knowledge that leads to 80% of the results.
  • New to the skill? Prevent overwhelm by doing a short project of 20 hours of focused, deliberate practice. You’ll go from knowing absolutely nothing to performing noticeably well.

5:07 Drawing from Ultralearning and The First 20 Hours

  • What is Ultralearning?

    • Aggressive self-study strategy as described by Scott Young.
    • Applying the universal principles of learning to any skill.
    • Not meant to learn fast, but to reach your desired level of proficiency in the shortest time possible (be it a hacker or a master).
  • Why Ultralearn?

    • From How to Start Your Own Ultralearning Project (Part One):
      • "Ultralearning projects are hard. But the trade-off is that intense focus enables rapid learning progress. Eliminating distractions, learning the hardest parts first, driving at your weaknesses and investing concrete chunks of time all enable you to take a learning endeavor that you might normally imagine learning over a few years and compress it into a few months."

      • "Ultralearning can allow you to push faster through the frustrating parts and get more quickly to a level where continuing mastery is enjoyable and fun."

      • "Self-education is results-driven. It doesn’t matter which resources you use, as long as you get to the point. I could skip assignments I didn’t think would help me master the material. I could watch lectures faster if they were boring, rewatch them if I was confused. Optimizing for faster learning, in turn, also optimized for being completely engaged with learning.

        Ultralearning is more interesting because everything you do feels like it actually matters."

      • "Ultralearning is a skill. Once you’ve mastered the process you can repeat it again and again on anything you want to learn. It’s also a skill that’s becoming increasingly valuable. Workers are expected to adapt faster and faster to new ways of doing things. The best in the profession are earning ever more than the average. Flexible, rapid learners have a golden opportunity, while those who struggle to keep up are going to find it harder and harder to survive."

  • What does The First 20 Hours teach us?

    • The principles to decide your wanted outcome(s) with a skill.
    • An approach to deconstruct any skill and learn it in logical order.
    • Concrete examples of how to deconstruct skills.

12:40 How to scope a learning project

The principles below are taken from Josh Kaufman's book "The First 20 Hours."

  1. Choose a lovable project

  • "The best things that can happen to a human being is to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears." —Karl Popper

  • The more excited you're about your desired skill, the more work you'll put in, the more quickly you'll acquire the skill.
  1. Focus you energy on one skill at the time

  • Constant switching between learning different skills slows you down.
  • Focusing on one skill at the time means saying no to learning other skills—for now.
  • Put other things you want to learn on a someday/maybe list (GTD style).
  1. Define your target performance level

  • "A problem well stated is a problem half solved." —Charles Kettering

  • What does "good enough" look like? Or: How well must you be able to perform your desired skill?
  • Write a single sentence description of what you want to be able to do when you're done with your prioject. The more specific, the better.
  • Visualization helps to discover your wanted outcome.
  • Important: Mastery is not the goal of rapid skill acquisition. Shoot for capacity, not perfection.
  1. Deconstruct the skill into subskills

  • Deconstructing a skill helps to reduce overwhelm.
  • Break down your desired skill into the smallest possible parts.
  • Foundational subskills emerge as you deconstruct the main skill. Make sure you focus on those first.
  • Select the 20% of foundational skills that give 80% of the desired result (again, don't aim for perfection).
  1. Obtain critical tools

  • Most skills need specific tools to practice and perform well.
  • Ask yourself: "What tools, component, and environment do I need to have access to before I can practice efficiently?"
    • Follow-up question: "How can I obtain the best tools that I can find and afford?"
  • Preparing your tools and (practice) environment before you start learning a skill will save you a lot of time so you can maximize practice time.
  1. Eliminate barriers to practice

  • What barriers (time, equipment, environment) are there that could get in the way of practice?
  • Potential barriers and how to solve them:
    • High prepractice effort, meaning that it takes a lot of time of effort to set up your tools and/or environment.
      • Potential solution: keep your tools in a specific place, together, and easily accessible. Optionally dedicate a room (or computer) to your learning project.
    • Limited resource availability, for example because you have to rely on borrow tools or practice environments.
      • Potential solution: Acquire the equipment yourself, or make appointments way in advance so there's less up to chance (also acts as a forcing function).
    • Distractions, like the television, your telephone, other notifications.
      • Potential solution: dedicate a room/computer to your learning project or use apps that turn off any potential distraction.
    • Emotional blocks, such as fear, doubt, and embarrassment.
      • Potential solution: connect with fellow learners and talk about your emotional struggles while learning. Chances are, they experience the same challenges. Alternatively, push through fear for embarrassment with deliberate practice (embrace discomfort).
  1. Make dedicated time for practice

  • Nobody finds time; you need to make time. If you rely on chance to learn, it will never get done.
  • Set aside large, dedicated blocks of time to learn and practice. The more time for deep learning, the better.
  • Spend at least 90 minutes per day learning by cutting low-value activities—like consuming (social) media.
  • Precommit to complete at least 20 hours of deliberate practice, or choose another skill you do want to spend the time on.
    • By precommitting you're much more likely to push through the most frustrating parts of learning any skill.
  1. Create fast feedback loops

  • Fast feedback = getting accurate information about how you're performing, as quickly as possible.
  • Short feedback loops make it easier to connect the feedback to your actions, meaning it's easier to make adjustments.
    • Skills like programming have short feedback loops because of the errors that computers spit out.
  • If the skill itself doesn't give accurate feedback, coaches can give you immediate feedback and recommend adjustments.
  • The faster you can integrate feedback in your practice, the faster you'll learn the skill.
  1. Practice by the clock in short bursts

  • To avoid overestimating how much you've practiced or giving up too early, set a timer and practice until it runs out.
  • If you use a pomodoro timer, strive for 3-5 practice sessions every day.
  1. Emphasize quantity and speed

  • Don't aim to be perfect. Instead, focus on practicing as much as you can as fast as you can, while keeping "good enough" form.
  • Aim for 80-90% accuracy compared to your target performance level before increasing your practice speed.

33:10 How to choose learning materials

  • What topic am I going to learn and what is approximately the scope?

    • Before you can learn anything, you need to be clear about what you're going to learn and why you're going to learn it. No plan fails faster than one that has no motivation behind it.
    • You first need to gain a clear picture of your wanted outcomes before you can decide what you will precisely learn. The more specific your learning scope, the better.
  • How have others successfully learned this skill or domain?

    • Look on online forums or in your circle of friends and family for people who have already learned what you want to learn, and see what approach they used.
    • You don't need to emulate others, but as you speak to more experts you'll see patterns emerge of things you should learn.
  • What are the primary resources I'm going to use?

    • Define the books, videos, tutorials, classes and teachers you're going to use. Also define your starting point.
    • The more specific you are about what resources you will use when, the better.
    • Example: "Do three exercises every day from the book Python Crash Course"
  • What direct practice activities will I use?

    • Try to identify how you can use your new skill or knowledge as soon as possible in a real setting. If direct practice isn't possible, look for activities that mimic reality as much as possible.
  • What are my backup materials and drills?

    • To start off, it's good to select a narrow set of materials to learn from so you don't get overwhelmed. But, it's wise to have backup materials in case your primary materials don't cut it or don't cover something that you found to be important.

47:59 How to schedule learning activities

  • How many weeks will my learning project take?

    • It's important to determine the length of your learning project. How long will it take to reach your goals? Be realistic.
    • It's generally better to keep your learning projects short; between 4 and 12 weeks.
    • Short, intensive learning projects have a higher chance of success, as there are fewer potential interruptions.
    • If you want to build a large skillset, break up your learning project into smaller projects of a month each.
  • How much time am I going to spend learning deliberately each week?

    • How much time you can spend on your learning project is often dictated by your schedule.
    • Nobody has time, so you need to make time.
    • Take a careful look and see how many hours you can spend on the project, each , taking into consideration the total length of your learning project so you don't burn out.
  • When am I going to study or practice each day?

    • What days and times can you consistently dedicate to learning? It's important to make learning a habit, so find the same recurring spots in your schedule.
    • Adapt your learning moments to the type of learning tasks you'll be doing. Some skills benefit from short, spaced repetition. Other skills, like writing and programming, benefit more from longer sessions.
    • Think of specific days you have more time, or if you can reserve time for learning at the beginning or end of you days.
  • Have I reserved my learning sessions in my calendar?

    • When you schedule the hours of learning work you're going to put in, you get a sense of what's ahead. It'll help you see potential scheduling conflicts, and it will prime your mind to learn.
    • If you're willing to reserve time in your schedule, you're more likely to put in the time to study.

54:59 Next: Executing and reflecting on your plan

  • Focus
    • When am I focused, and when am I multitasking and distracted?
    • When am I skipping learning sessions or procrastinating?
    • How long does it takes to get into a flow state during a learning session?
    • How long can I sustain focus before my mind starts to wander?
    • For the type of learning activity I just did, should I be more concentrated for intensity or more diffuse for creativity?
  • Drill
    • What are the weakest points of my performance I should spend time focusing on?
    • What's the step in the skill that's holding me back?
    • When I feel my progress is slowing down and I feel that I need to learn too much, what are the smaller parts I can split the skill into?
  • Retrieval
    • How much time do I spend reading and reviewing, and how much time solving problems and recalling things from memory?
    • How do I test my skill or understanding to avoid the illusion of competence?
    • How can I make sure I can explain what I learned in a day, a week, or year from now?
  • Feedback
    • How do I get feedback on my performance?
    • What did I learn well during this learning session?
    • What did I not learn well during this learning session?
    • What 20% of the feedback am I going to use to improve next?
  • Retention
    • How will I remember what I learn now for the long term?
    • How have I spaced out reviewing what I learned now in the future?
    • What factual knowledge have I learned and how will I apply it?
    • What foundational part(s) of the skill should I practice more, even if I'd overlearn it?
  • Intuition
    • What parts of the new knowledge do I have to memorize, and how can I understand it more deeply?
    • How would I explain what I just learned to someone else?
    • Why is what I just learned true?
    • How does this knowledge relate to what I already know?
  • Experimentation
    • Where am I getting stuck with my current resources and techniques?
    • Where would it be beneficial to branch out and try new approaches to reach my goal?
    • How can I go beyond the basics and try out stuff others haven't explored before?

Additional resources

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