9 Tips for Effective Self-Directed Learning

March 30, 2013
Year On TeamPower Skills

We all have things that we say we want to do—read more, become bilingual, or finally pick up that instrument—yet none of us do them. It’s not that we lack the motivation, or that we need to “try harder”. We have to realize that willpower is limited. Without a backbone of systems, we’ll never learn anything on our own.

I used to strut home from school riding a motivation wave, excited to work on my own projects. But then I’d spend the rest of the day browsing the Internet aimlessly. I learned very little until I established this system.

1. Focus: Get Over Multitasking Paralysis

I previously had a note on my phone that listed close to one hundred topics that I wanted to learn about. It was fun to flick through, but that’s all it was good for. I manically jumped from subject to subject—yo-yoing for a few days and then playing chess for a week—without getting decent at one thing.

It’s exciting, empowering, and whimsical to direct your own education. Still, it’s easy to get caught up in the adrenaline without buckling down. Maybe you’re afraid of committing to a single path. You say that you “don’t want to close any doors”. Understand that you’re probably going to live to be one hundred; you have plenty of time to learn. Stick to one topic at a time and focus.

2. Define and Give It a Name

Now that you’re not multitasking and have picked a field, you have some semblance of structure. You’re committed to “teaching yourself programming” or “learning to play the piano”. But this isn’t good enough. You’re not trying to make a flimsy New Year’s Resolution.

Good goal setting revolves around specificity:

“I’m going to learn how to build a blog with Rails!”

“I’m going to learn how to play ‘Comptine D'un Autre été, L'Après-midi’ on piano!”

It’s best to give this project a looming, impending deadline. Now you have a yardstick that can measure your success—or failure.

Also, there’s a mental shift that happens when you give your learning project a name. It makes it feel official—like it’s your child—and it will help you keep the commitment. Scott Young called his project the MIT Challenge. What will you call yours?

3. Assign Little Steps

You’ve selected a specific field and have a specific goal, but you should break it down into smaller pieces daily. Even these measurable, short-term goals are overwhelming. Write down one to two learning tasks you have to accomplish for the day and do them.

When tackling a new piece on the piano, you don’t start at the beginning and learn to play it from there. You break it down into hardest sections, or fractures, and pound the keys until they are set. It may be helpful for you to complete your hardest daily learning task first.

Deconstructing tasks into little steps is also great for habit formation. BJ Fogg at Stanford recommends that if you want to get yourself to floss your teeth, only commit flossing one tooth. This gets you to start, leading to the new habit.

4. Latch Onto Pre-Existing Systems

In this age, there is an overabundance of information. Creating a system for learning involves wading through a torrent of uselessness. Even if you manage to find the right resources, the order in which you should use them can be confusing. Luckily, someone else has probably selected and sequenced the resources for you.

For example, the sheer number of languages makes learning programming overwhelming. However, Mattan Griffel presents a framework in his talk “How to Teach Yourself Code”. He determined that Rails was a great place to start if you wanted to build things quickly. Then, he revealed the exact websites he used, the order he used them in, and the method he went through them with. You may not find this specific framework effective; it’s just an example of what to be on the lookout for.

There are a lot of informational resources available—most of them are terrible. The best resources are those that “teach you how to learn” a specific subject, filtering the information. Finding and investing in these frameworks is incredibly helpful in creating structure.

5. Test The Tactics

On a tactical level, there are many different tools and techniques that can help you structure your learning. Personally, I use the Internet blocking program Freedom, the Lift app, and the Pomodoro technique. I’m not saying that they will work for you—everyone is different. However, it’s important to test various productivity and accountability tools until you find those that work for you.

It’s also best to try out different triggers that will cause you to start working on your project. For instance, you could be cued to work on your project at a specific time each day, or you could anchor it to a pre-existing activity—such as starting after a meal. Changing your environment also works well. Would you learn better at a coffee shop? How about a library? Again, I don’t know exactly what will click with you; the main takeaway is that you should test until you find what works.

Also, keep in mind that they are just tools and tactics. Without applying deep strategy and systems to your learning, they are useless. Expensive running shoes don’t make the runner—pounding the pavement every night does.

6. Up the Stakes

It’s already clear that willpower alone isn’t enough if you want to achieve your goals. For even more insurance, consider this idea featured in The 4-Hour Chef—sign up for stickK.com. A “commitment store”, stickK operates on the principles that creating incentive and accountability are vital to achieving anything. Here is how you can use it:

  • Select a specific goal, which you should have already defined in the previous steps.
  • Up the stakes by picking an anti-charity. This is an organization that causes hate to seethe from your pores so furiously that you get into arguments about it in the Youtube comments section. If you don’t fulfill your goal, a set amount of money is wired to them automatically. Pick an amount that makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Get a referee who will hold you accountable. You should pick a friend who you know won’t waver—a stringent person who won’t let you get away with anything. They’ll pull the trigger on transferring your funds to the anti-charity if you don’t stick to your learning goal.

Thanks to loss aversion, this is very effective in creating incentive and structure. Most of you probably won’t sign up for the site because you don’t want to lose the money. And that’s exactly why it works so well.

7. Talk About What You’re Doing—But Not What You’re Going to Do

When you let other people know what projects you’re working on—when you unveil your work to the world—it seems more real. Blogging is one of the best ways to do this. Here, you can catalog exactly what you’re doing, the books you’re reading, and the tribulations you’re overcoming. This not only creates structure and accountability, but it also demonstrates performance to potential employers.

You can also use the obscene number of social networks to help with this. SitckK has a function that alerts your friends when you miserably fail. But don’t just tell people what you’re doing—show them! Post your short story, push your code to GitHub, and unveil your melodic masterpiece.

Still, you should be careful. As Derek Sivers contends in his talk, telling everyone your goals may make you less likely to achieve them. While feedback and accountability on what you’re doing are invaluable, congratulating yourself for things that you haven’t even accomplished is dangerous. Be aware of when you’re doing this. Then shut up and do the work.

8. Get Help From Your Peers

Without this step, the entire system crumbles. Self-directed learning isn’t solitary. Leaning on the people around you—and supporting them in turn—is one of the best ways to structure your learning.

Getting a referee was mentioned during the discussion of stickK, but having a friend to hold you to your goals works even without the anti-charity stakes. It’s even better if your friend is working on the same project that you are. There’s increased accountability, competition, and you can actually help each other when you’re stuck.

You’ve already told everyone what you’re doing, so hopefully, you’re surrounded by a cacophony of helpful inspiration. Still, you can’t passively wait for support to fall in your lap. To help create some structure, seek out like-minded groups. In terms of physical locations, coworking and hackerspaces are great. Meetup, as well as strictly online communities, are other obvious resources. 

Another great way to find support is to reach out to people you admire, and offer to work for them for free. They will be glad to exploit your youthful energy. Meanwhile, you can absorb everything you can from them. This is a principal way to find mentors.

Know that there are a lot of crappy people in the world. When you try to self-direct your learning, some people will try to drag you down. There is a classic rule—one that is remarkably powerful—that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Be indifferent to the negativity, and fill your life with people who will support you.

There are a crazy number of tactics you can use to build your learning community; just understand that you need the right support system, otherwise everything will collapse.

9. Measure Your Results

“What gets measured, gets managed.” - Peter Drucker

When you’re directing your own education, there are no tests to give you a concrete measure of progress. Consequently, tracking your work is essential—the glue that holds everything together. Not only does it give you satisfaction in moving forward, but it forces you to be aware of your screw ups. Luckily, if you follow a structured system, measuring your results shouldn’t be too difficult.

If you decide to try the previous steps, you’ll have beautifully fashioned goals that you can either reach or fail to achieve. This is good. You’ll also jot down daily learning goals that you can check off. At the end of the week, you’ll review if you’ve been meeting these goals—both personally and with your reliable friend. It may be helpful to track your time spent learning and calibrate accordingly. Some people go nuts with their tracking, but this is a very simple system that you can scale up if you choose.

In order to get a high-level understanding of your progress, you will have pushed projects online to receive feedback. You’ll receive cries of adulation, gentle nudges in the right direction, or brutal criticism. But know that nebulous numbers—which aren’t even a good measure of ability anyway—have been replaced by your creative output and the feedback you receive.

Measuring your progress, being self-aware, and creating accountability have all been running through this post. Tracking your results is built into this system. Still, it’s a topic that needs to be emphasized relentlessly when it comes to structuring your learning.


Learning new things is hard. Creating a structure will make it easier, but there will still be tough times. Your ability to succeed as a self-directed learner largely depends on your ability to delay gratification. Push, push, push—past the resistancethe dip, and the trough of sorrow. It will be worth it.

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