11 February 2019

My Learning - Part 16 - Optimal conditions

Finding time

Finding time is actually quite easy:
I have a hard limitation of 24 hours to spend every day. If I cheat too much with my sleep I won't get much out of the rest of the hours so roughly 8 hours are dedicated to sleep. Now there are 16 hours left. During these hours I can basically do whatever I want as long as I have the resources necessary.

Obviously I have to be careful how I use parts of that time if I want my important relationships to last, my kids to thrive and have food for tomorrow but even with three young kids I'm pretty free to spend these 16 hours the way I want. So I prioritize and since e.g. family and friends are prioritized higher than learning new stuff, learning new stuff won't get all those 16 hours.

That being said there are a few things I can do, related to time, that greatly impacts how much I learn:
  1. I can stop spending time on things with lower priority
  2. I can minimize the time I spend waiting
  3. I can do other tasks more efficiently
  4. I can make my own education more efficient
  5. I can incorporate learning in more prioritized activities
Let's take them one by one; first I can stop spending time on things like video games, board game design projects or programming projects (not related to learning) or I can do these things together with my kids or with friends so I get to do them without "wasting any time from learning and other higher priorities".

Second I can be more direct in my decisions. For instance after dinner I might wanna write on this blog post but I also want to spend time with my wife, if that's important to her that day. What often happens is I end up in some kind of limbo where I basically wait to see if my wife wanna do something without really doing anything meaningful while I wait. In these scenarios I can either use that waiting time to get some house keeping out of the way or I can straight up ask her which cuts the waiting time significantly.

Next up is optimization; I can do the other activities (like house keeping) more efficient. One way of making this happen is minimize multitasking, another is to remove unnecessary steps or simply skip whole activities. This is obviously a huge topic in and of itself but an interesting one that helps free up time for e.g. learning.

Related to that is optimizing my learning. This is basically what this whole series is about but just as a reminder: When doing the most effective learning actions (which are often the scariest for some reason) I get a lot of extra time I can spend on either more learning or on other things that are important to me. The less time I feel like I can spend on my learning the more important the quality of my learning activities get.

Finally I can try to incorporate learning in things I prioritize higher. Some great examples of this is learning together with my kids, practice on my kids (kids are excellent to practice coaching on for instance) or hang out with friends who are also passionate learners.

Work time

Also related to incorporating learning in more prioritized activities: I try to get my work to fund my education as much as possible:
  • Many employees don't use up their education budget meaning, from a budget perspective, it's a better deal for my employer to spend some extra bucks on my education than on my salary. Since I spend parts of my salary on education anyway there's some potential here.
  • I'm clear about my ambition and how much spare time I spend on education and try to back this up by doing public activities like organizing learning events or by sharing useful material with colleagues. This seems to make my employer more interested in investing in my education.
  • From the perspective of my employer a more expensive course seems like a better deal than a long one (time is money). So outside of work I generally spend more time but less money while at work I let my employer send me on fewer courses in exchange for them sending me to the ones I think are the best even when they cost a little extra. Win-win.
  • I take a very active role in my education at work. I make sure I know who the relevant thought leaders and teachers are in the business and if they have any courses planned in Linköping/Sweden/Europe. I also research the courses before I ask my manager so I can present a good business case for what it would bring the company (and myself).
  • I organize learning activities at work. This way I get to be a part of them and generally there's a lack of initiatives like this so it's appreciated by my employer.
This doesn't mean I go to tons of courses or spend an insane amount of work time educating myself but it means I get to attend the courses I think are best both for myself and the company as well as get the opportunity to participate in more learning activities at work than most.

Finally, just to be clear, this actually makes a lot of sense for my employer (as in: I'm not just using them):
Education is hard and few spend their spare time learning about learning, learning about teaching or staying up to date with courses in various topics. So the fact that I do all this makes me a valuable resource to the company when it comes to education for everyone, not just me. So the extra perks I described above is more a by-product of me offering a service to my employer rather than me putting up demands.

Making time

I've taken some very deliberate decision in my life that helps me create that extra time for learning.

First off I try to get up early in the morning (alarm set to 5 AM). This gives me some extra time before the rest of the family wakes up. Getting use to this wake up time was surprisingly easy; the two tricks I used was to simply get up at 5:00 no matter when I got to bed (made me adjust the time I went to bed pretty quickly) and the second was to never snooze.

I use to be able to have some time available after 7 PM when the kids had went to bed. Now when they're a little older that time is slowly shrinking though.

Next there's travelling. Before I travel anywhere I make sure I've prepared books I want to read, pods/audio books I want to listen to etc. I also often take an extra early bus to the railway station/airport. This way I don't have to stress and I get some extra time to read while waiting.

Finally my wife works as a nurse so she often works during evenings, weekends and public holidays. This means there's time available when my wife is working and the kids are either with friends or play with each others.


I constantly manage my time so I have somewhat of a balance between maintaining my important relationships, finishing various "musts and shoulds", maintaining myself and maintaining my learning. If I fail doing this I can end up in situations where I don't have enough time to learn things (which badly impacts my motivation to learn) or too much time, meaning I've "stolen" time from other activities that are more important in my life.

Balance however doesn't mean a strict schedule to follow. For instance, if I did have a set amount of time I could spend on education completing this blog series would take ages. Instead it's more about stopping myself every once in a while and ask:
  • Is there balance right now between family, friends, job, my well-being and my learning?
  • No...
    • Well, is that okay (for now)?
    • Do I need to check with someone, like my wife, to ensure she's okay with it?
    • What are the consequences of my current imbalance and am I okay with those?
    • What will I do to correct this imbalance later?
And yes, I've failed asking these questions many, many times in my life... but I try.

Answering these questions not only helps me avoid unhealthy imbalance but also make me feel less guilty which removes a pretty strong distraction from my learning (assuming I've been honest in my answers and acted based on them).

Where I typically learn

Göran Bakken has inspired me to look into creating an engaging "learning place". I'm not there yet though. Instead I try to always carry around the learning tools I need (e.g. notebooks).

So at home I use the kitchen table because it's the best place to sit if I want lots of space but I also sit in our bedroom, I sit in the walk in closet upstairs where I have my computer, I sit in the sofa when I try to mix learning time and time with my wife and finally I spend a lot of time listening to online courses or podcasts while washing the dishes, preparing food or while loading the washing machine.

Apart from that my kids have several activities and when waiting there I try to have e.g. a book ready so I can mix skimming that book with watching my kids ice skate, wrestle or dance.

When traveling I always bring my noise cancellation headphones which allows me to create a good focused learning space where the noise level would normally distract me. This is great for e.g. airplanes or when waiting in terminals.

Finally hotels usually have pretty good desks or beds where I can work. However, I try to book most evenings for dinners or other activities with learning buddies or other interesting people when I'm traveling.

Learn about learning

What learning about learning does is it makes learning more fun because I get results faster and since learning about something creates motivation for that thing I'm motivated to learn more about learning as well as practice the learning skills I've picked up.

Some topics I've explored are general theory around learning and teaching, learning hacks, spaced repetition learning, time management/productivity, how to read books, how to conduct experiments, information retrieval, flow, positive psychology, coaching, note taking, neuroplasticity, how the memory works and finally observe anyone who seems like a great learner.

Low effort

I've touched on this topic before but let's dive a little deeper. An important part in making learning happen for me is making the effort required to start as low as possible. Here are a few examples:
  • Have the books I want to read at home (borrowed from library or bought)
  • Initiate contact today with people I want to include in my learning tomorrow
  • Have a training rig set up and ready
  • Know where to look for more material when I'm done with whatever I'm studying now
  • Remove distractions
  • Not too much content to choose from; taking decisions takes effort and options make it harder for me to stay focused on the resource I'm currently using:
    • Limit the number of books I have ready at home
    • Limit the list of books I might want to read later
    • Limit how many podcast episodes I have downloaded/in my playlist
    • Limit the amount of blog post suggestions I'm exposed to
    • Limit the number of concepts I plan to research
  • Keep a list of experiments/exercises I want to try after I've e.g. read about a topic.
  • Have a clear learning routine so I don't have to think about that

Background music

I use to think that background music helped me study but some experiments I conducted on myself suggested the opposite. Due to that I only listen to music when it's needed to remove other distracting sounds and I only listen to instrumental music (I can't seem to avoid focusing on lyrics). Typically I use music designed for relaxation, meditation or studying as well as background noise designed to improve productivity.

My favorites right now are "Study music for Focus" and Noisili (train, rain or bird song).

Often when I use my noise cancellation headphones I turn on noise cancellation but no music/sound.

Inner conditions

I've already mentioned sleep and I've experimented a lot with different sleeping times, different ways to wake me up (I like my wake-up light), different room temperatures and physical stuff like different pillows (love my memory foam pillow with good neck support). Can't say that I've come to too many conclusions more than experimenting is good and it's something I'll keep doing.

Next I should take better care of my body and I just don't know why I find that so hard. I use to be a very sporty person, I like running and I love basically any sport that involves a ball... but I've become lazy. I know more exercise is great both for my health and learning ability, I just need to convince myself that again... by the way, a fun method I used when I wanted to get myself to run was to learn about running: I read "Born to run" and learned about training routines, oxygen absorption, running posture etc. which worked... maybe I should read "Born to run" again...

Finally I've started to get more and more interested in techniques like integrated mental training and self-hypnosis. I've also experimented quite a bit with mindfulness and meditation over the years but never established a long running routine. Those however are topics I'd like to revisit as well.

I guess this whole chapter about inner conditions can be summarized with:
This is a work in progress...


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