A personal journey of lifelong learning, sharing resources, creating things, and trying to be better.

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A Comprehensive Guide to Self-Learning

Navajo Students Studying Mathematics at Day School | Source

How to unlock the full potential of a new era of education.

For the past few years, the world of MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) has become a fiercely large phenomenon. Across Medium and Reddit you can find great, comprehensive lists of free classes you can take:

https://medium.freecodecamp.com/the-best-free-online-university-courses-for-learning-a-new-world-language-ccf42ad1b5d5

This, however, is not one of those lists. With this new paradigm of learning, there comes the need to figuring out new methods of understanding and synthesising what is being learned. There is no curriculum, no consequences, no deadlines. This requires an exercise in self-reliance to institute. The student, in a way, must also learn how to become the teacher.

Creating lesson plan — let alone a learning path for yourself — is no simple task. And following through with it is another thing entirely. I am no expert myself, so take this rhetoric with a grain of salt. The examples I am going to be showing are only my own, as I’m using myself as a case study.

Use It or Lose It

This guide is meant as a way for you to take what you are learning and apply it in a meaningful way. It is not learning for the mere sake of learning — anybody can do that. In fact, that’s what is required of us throughout our schooling years.

The reason we forget what we learn in school is because we don’t use it in our every day life. In fact, that’s one of the biggest complaints people have in school.

Meaningfulness

One of the most effective methods to understanding the materials that you’re studying is to be passionate about them. This is the beauty of MOOCs — the idea that you can pick and choose to learn exactly and only what you want to.

Don’t jump into a new study without having a plan for it. Whenever you feel discouraged or frustrated, you can take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

There’s plenty of meaningful applications for learning new skills: to further your career, to find a new skill to freelance or moonlight with, or to contribute to a hobby or non-profit cause for the sake of goodness.

When you have a mindset of passion — of having a reason to learn and a future goal to look forward too — it is far easier to focus and digest material on a deeper level of understanding, beyond simply learning from rote.

Schedule
With so much choice and freedom, it can be easy to try to accomplish too many things at once, only to end up neglecting your studies altogether. This is why it’s so important to chart out a path for yourself once you figure out what you want to accomplish.

Ask yourself how much time you’re able to sacrifice and how much effort you’ll sincerely put into this. Once you have those answers, you’ll be able to plan your own curriculum of sorts.

An Old Prototype of My Schedule

The Elements of a Successful Course

I’m going to break down what I think are the most important aspects when you’re learning something new on your own.

1. The Lesson

The first step is the most important part, obviously. Whether you’re taking an online course, reading a book, or studying another way — you need the content to be able to learn it. However, it’s a mistake to think that this is enough. This is really just the beginning.

2. Note Taking

The second step is to go beyond the course. Note-taking is the most often used method of retention and synthesis of learning. There are many different styles of note-taking — from traditional, to Cornell, to mind-mapping.

The exacts of successful note-taking vary from person-to-person, but I find it’s very useful to begin to index your note-taking with what you expect the themes of your learning are going to be for that lesson, followed by reviewing what the most important things you learned at the end.

There is nothing wrong with a pack-rat mentality of keeping track of everything that you’re learning, so long as it doesn’t detract from you fully comprehending what is most important.

I also suggest that you take notes by hand first — for a few years I tried to take notes on my computer, and found that even though it made organisation and searching a breeze, I felt as though I retained less. Once you have the notes written out, though, I find that migrating them to the computer does help retention and organisation.

3. Flashcards / Quizzes

The third step to better your learning is to then take your notes a step further by converting them into materials that you can test yourself with. This is why it’s so important to make sure you have the most important material kept, so you can easily create Q+A’s for it.

Some courses already have quizzes, which is excellent, but by creating your own, you’re coming up with questions as well as answers.

For flash cards, I recommend the software Anki, and this guide for it.

4. Assignments / Projects

The fourth step is what I believe is the most important. Traditionally speaking, assignments are simply another part of the system. They are usually rather dry, and have no inherent value other than for the course itself.

But with MOOCs, you have the ability to push yourself to use the knowledge that you’ve gained to create your own projects that you can freely share and use. Apply your learn and thus gain something outside of the learning as the reward.

A good example of this is that I’m in the process of making a blog with Jekyll, which has the twofold benefits of learning web development, as well as having a place to document my other learning, which leads into #5.

5. Share Your Work

Once you have finished a course, you have not only have you improved your own learning by creating all of the above resources, but you now also have the opportunity to share them with others.

Create a blog or use other social media to share what you’ve learned and what you’ve made in the process. Find others that you can collaborate and study with. Build a community of learners and creators. There is no reason to go at this alone.

See Also: Show Your Work!

Additional Tips

  • The best skills to learn first are ‘meta-skills’, such as learning how to learn, time management or other skills that you can use in your studying.
  • Figure out a system and stick to it. Once you have a schedule made, find a way to link it to your created materials, as well as any other important information. (My personal recommendations would be OneNote for Windows, or using Sublime Text w/ Markdown for Linux.)
  • When you’re writing about what you’ve learned, don’t be afraid to add your own personal story or information — conglomerate multiple sources of learning for a more thorough discourse.

Style

OutcastSource

Create Your Own by Filtering Out Everything Else

The only thing common in the routines of every supposedly successful person is that they’re all different. You have to figure out what works for you. The worst outcome is trying to duplicate the schedule and habits of somebody famous — and then when it doesn’t work out — blame yourself and get demotivated. Results vary wildly. The specifics of success are not universal, and neither is anybody’s abilities or strengths.

It can be difficult to realize this when you read multiple articles claiming that there’s one thing that all successful people do — blog posts that say that everybody would benefit from a new, sensationalized pattern or practice.

What is universal are the abstract, conceptual foundations behind success. For example, figure out what you think is: 
1) Important to do.
2) Enjoyable to do.

Then, it’s a matter of figuring out how to carve out the needed time. This is wildly different for everyone. A lot of people looking for something more in life don’t have the luxury of extra time or income, and it’s foolish for so many writers to neglect this obvious fact.

Noise vs. Quality

In order to figure out what works for you, you need to spend time on you, and less on other things. Read less material that makes you doubt yourself.

In only a short amount of a time, society as a whole has gone from a sparse amount of information available to far too much instead. It’s far too easy to get consumed with consuming as much media as possible — but the amount of usefulness quickly plateaus.

Watch less television, read less articles (like this one), play less video games. Allow yourself to be extremely selective of what you expose yourself to on a daily basis —with the sheer multitude of media, there’s no need to subject yourself to anything low-quality or biased.

Ask yourself if what you’re consuming is doing one of the following:
1) Inspiring you — giving you motivation to do something good.
2) Educating you — giving you knowledge to do something good.
3) Entertaining you — giving you time to relax and synthesize.

If the answer is no to all of the above, then don’t be afraid to disregard it. You’re not going to be missing out on much. Use the time you’d regularly spend reading/watching/playing non-useful things to create instead. Or at least find something that does one of the above three things.

The Magic of Iteration

Notebook BesideSource

Publishing More Often

Write today, and write every day after that — but how should writing be published? As a creator, the responsibility for what you put on display is in your hands. While that responsibility is one that has extensive freedom, but still requires an amount of apt judgement.

There’s a fine balance in how often you publish what you write — it’s a double-edged sword. Nothing good comes from proudly displaying the first bad thing you come up with. Impulsively posting every thought you have to Twitter only can lead to a lot of white noise. Even worse than that, though, is thinking that nothing is ever good enough to show off at all. A lack of posting eventually leads to a lack of creating, even privately.

The Feedback LoopSource

This is where the magic of iteration comes in. There’s a concept in business called minimum viable product (MVP), which is the rough draft of a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future development.

I believe this concept can be applied to writing and any other creative work. When inspiration strikes and you have a good idea, work it out into something and then share it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be *good*. Reach out to others and ask for their response — ideas only grow stronger when they’re shared and ego is let go of.

And so when you stumbled upon something, show it off. Do this over and over again. A lot of what you do will fall flat or fail — but this is true no matter how much work you put into. There’s probably more luck in this equation than hard work.

Build up a personal repertoire — with iteration, you’ll eventually find that you have a large bulk of good work. Look for common themes and pick out what you consider your best. When you finally find something that resonates with a large amount of people — expand on it then. Do the methodical research others aren’t willing to have the patience to do.

Compile and release this more extensive work — it’ll pay off. This essentially leads to the same path as if you were writing something this large privately the entire time, but with the added benefit of having more feedback from others — and well as seeing what succeeded 
 and failed within the short-term.

Tracking for Good

Top Left: Total Productive Hours | Top Right: Total Miles Travelled | Bottom Left: Total Blog Posts | Bottom Right: Total Duolingo EXP

What I’ve learned using Beeminder religiously for a month.

For roughly the past thirty days or so, I have been experimenting on myself. I’ve attempted to diligently track aspects of my life. This has been me eating my own dog food, sort to speak — living the sort of quasi-motivational life that is feel-good on an abstract level. This is a case study, and these are my thoughts and results.

This is an update to my previous article:

https://medium.com/@brennanbrown/planning-better-e0d60edbe271

I. Initial Problems of Self-Tracking

While I have been a fan of self-quantification for several years, I haven’t ever taken a deep plunge into it. There are a few reasons for this:

Forewarning: I am not well-versed in data science, theses are just things I’ve discovered — the hard way — by taking a look what has and hasn’t worked for me.

  1. Bad Datasets. It takes a deep understanding of yourself and what tools you actually use throughout your day to know what metrics you should be keeping track of. (Eg. I failed tracking my to-do list on Todoist — only because I realized that I’m the kind of person that can only work well with my tasks on paper.)
  2. Lack of Meaning. Similarly, there has to be good reason to track what you track — there has to be some sort of beneficial help that tracking gives. A strong and value-based purpose will give motivation to keep regularly tracking.
  3. Lack of Deterrent/Encouragement. There should be an inherent penalty for not doing something you want to track, and a reward for doing it.
  4. Lack of Automation. For the most part, my datasets are collected with APIs or IFTTT, or have very simple and fast manual input. Data collection shouldn’t be a chore.
  5. Inconsistent Data. What you track has to be something that produce data on a consistent basis. If it’s too frequent, and you’ll end up too focused on tracking itself. If it’s too infrequent, you’ll end up forgetting about tracking at all.

All of these points are why I’ve discovered Beeminder to work so well for self-quantification. For the most part, the application does all the tracking for you. All you have to do is the work. Beeminder works as a sort of keystone habit, in that if you can get yourself into the habit of checking-in on Beeminder, you can use it as a starting point for any other habit you want to change or begin.

II. The Tao of Bees

  1. Figure out what you want to change in your life. All self-quantification tracking should initially begin with this. A solid purpose is everything.
    Example 1. I want to write more.
    Example 2. I want to be more physically active.
  2. Figure out meaningful quantification of that qualitative goal. Don’t let ambiguity allow you to slip — put an exact number on what you want to accomplish.
    Example 1. I want to write 100,000 words in a year.
    Example 2. I want to run/walk 500 kilometres in a year.
  3. Convert your qualitative goal into a daily system. Those goals above may seem daunting but they’re actually a lot more achievable when you break them down.
    Example 1. 100,000 words / 365 days ≈ 275 words per day
    Example 2. 500 km / 365 days ≈1,800 steps per day
  4. Figure out how to track this new daily system. There are plenty of apps and tools out there for specific metrics, usually with well-established APIs that allow for data to be transferred and charted easily. 
    Example 1. Utilize Draft.in to sync daily word count on Beeminder.
    Example 2. Utilize a multitude of fitness apps and wearables to sync daily step count on Beeminder.

III. What I’m Tracking

Gratitude: I simply write out one thing a day that I’m grateful for, and go through every previous data point to see what I’ve been grateful for in the past. A great benefit from having this be manual input is that it doubles as a daily check-in for me to my other Beeminder goals.

Writing: Another manual input, this being the amount of words I write per day, with each data point specifying what exactly I was mostly writing about. Usually either just daily journal writing or blog posts.

Blog Posts: Tracks the number of posts I upload to Medium. Unlike other activities, I retroactively added all of my older posts from Medium, and having that data in front of me really showed me how I really need to start publishing more.

Productive/Unproductive Time: Both of these are tracked via the time-logger RescueTime. I try to get a certain amount of productive work done each day, whether it’s writing, or programming, or reference/learning. I also try to limit the amount of time I waste on mindless and fruitless activities.

Fitness: Tracks the number of miles I travel, whether it’s walking, running, or biking. I’m using Runkeeper to track this, no fancy wearable. It doesn’t count all of my travelling, only when I specifically log an activity, which also gives me a GPS map of my route so I can see where I’ve gone that day.

Programming: Tracks the number of commits I push to GitHub (and other contributions like issues reported and pull requests). I admit this isn’t the best thing to track, as code shouldn’t be committed until it’s reached a point where it’s suitable to be deployed, but I’m currently working on Flatiron School’s curriculum, which automatically pushes my assignment labs to my GitHub account, which is pretty cool.

Social Media (Twitter/Instagram): This might be counterintuitive to some people, but I seldom use any social media. By tracking the photos I upload and the Tweets I write, I’m encouraged to look for interesting things that happen daily and share them with my friends and family.

Language Learning: Tracks the amount of EXP I earn on Duolingo. I’ve been trying to learn French for the past few years on my own, and it’s hard, but practicing a little bit each day has helped my retention far more than just occasional cram sessions.

IV. Daily System

Here’s an example of what my current day would look like, following the things I track on Beeminder. This is essentially putting the theory into practice, and pen to paper. The truth is that, other than programming, these habits don’t take up much of my day at all, and I actually end up having more time to relax or try something new because of it.

  1. Start the day off by writing what I’m grateful for and check on my progress on my current goals.
  2. Take fifteen or twenty minutes to practice my French on Duolingo and TinyCards.
  3. Go on walk or bike ride throughout my neighbourhood. Photograph anything interesting while out.
  4. Spend an hour or two programming. Learn something new, document it well, and then push it onto GitHub.
  5. Don’t waste time mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Reddit. Use screen time sparingly, and do something I actually enjoy when I want to take a break. (Watch a documentary, play a video game, etc.)
  6. Take a half hour to write in my journal or drafting a blog post.
  7. At the end of the day, write a Tweet about anything interesting that happened during the day.

V. Final Thoughts

  • Don’t commit to anything that doesn’t make you excited. The psychology of having free-will with your goals is essential. If you don’t feel like you’re doing what you’re doing for just yourself, it’ll feel like another chore. Don’t commit to anything because other people think you should. It’s only you.
  • Hold yourself accountable. I’ve put a a public link to my Beeminder account in my Facebook and Twitter bio, so anybody can see if I fail my goals. I also wrote this article. Use public pressure as motivation and a tool for good.
  • Nothing falls into place by itself. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle of the self, and it might not all click at once. There is no one-size-fits-all, what works for me might not work for you. What is universal is the importance of good values — if you commit to working hard, the law of serendipity will eventually favour you.
  • Your first try always sucks. Similar to above, don’t expect to nail anything when you first have a go at it. I’ve been using Beeminder for almost two years and just got the hang of it. The first draft of everything — not just writing — is going to be garbage.
  • Go slow. I didn’t try to start tracking everything at once. I started with the smallest and easiest (things I was already doing) and added something new once a week. If I found something wasn’t working after a week of tracking, I’d just delete it. No big deal.
  • The magic bullet of success is realizing there is no magic bullet. It’s just a lot of hard work, and figuring out how to be happy about doing that hard work.

The Way of Work

Untitled | Source

Understanding discipline for doing difficult tasks.

Awhile has past since my last post on Medium, I’ve been contemplating what I think is important, and what’s important to write about. This post is more of a reminder to myself — a reminder of why I do what I do, especially when I don’t feel up to it.

1. Hard Work

First, how do you make hard work starting working? How can essential tasks transition from unlikeable to exciting? Personally, the answer to this question came from the revelation that life is work. There is no way around this. Trying to put things off, in reality, only adds to the amount of work that will need to be done in the future.

Many people enjoy waiting until the last minute to begin — narrowly avoiding a deadline can build pressure and be motivating — but what if there’s a task with no fixed date? What about all the things in life you want to start, on a mental level, but never do because you get so preoccupied with what you need to get done in your day-to-day.

This is where balance is essential.

The neuroplasticity of our minds only diminishes with time. Our ability to learn new things declines with age. Each day we waste is a day we cannot gain back. As cliché as it is, you cannot wait for someday to arrive. You need to begin today.

2. Self-forgiveness

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” 
— Chinese Proverb

You may have been putting a lot of things off. You may have wasted a lot of time so far. That’s okay. The worst thing that people do is harbor guilt and self-deprecation due to the fact they’ve been neglecting to start what they’ve always wanted to do.

Shake off the dust, and start right now. Time is an arbitrary thing — it’s irrelevant if today is — the important thing is you start today. You figure out what the first step is and you take it.

This doesn’t mean you immediately plunge head-first into something new, as tempting as that might be. We are creatures of habit, and as such, we fall back into our regular routines after the novelty of a particular stimuli diminishes. The faster you try to commit to larger things, the faster you will inevitably burn out and become demotivated once again.

This is where balance is essential.

So begin today, but start small — baby steps. Think of what you can do not just today — but what you can repeat doing tomorrow, and the next day. What’s an activity that would only take fifteen to thirty minutes per day?

The hard part is doing it every day, the task itself gets easier, but you still need to do it every day. That’s what remains difficult.

3. Lack of Purpose

There are many of us alive today that have a radical amount of freedom, the kind that would be unimaginable to most people throughout history. As glorious as this can sound on an idealistic level, the reality is that most people find anxiety with this radical freedom, and will distract themselves from it.

People often create arbitrary restrictions around their life to avoid the lack of comfort there is in having so much choice in navigating it. With this freedom, they are also rarely prescribed any sort of purpose — or in other words, any sort of reason to do hard work in the first place.

We are all Sisyphus — forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down at the end of the day, for us to start our work again tomorrow. With this, I choose happiness, out of spite for the task ahead of me.

Any motivation, or purpose, for doing hard work can be ever-fleeting. You may never get the deserved recognition or money, you may never even become that good at something. But if you find peace with doing a task simply for the sake of doing it, you’ll be unstoppable. No amount of lack of results, or exhaustion, or criticism will be able to deter you, because it’ll all be irrelevant.

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