When I was in high school I had a boyfriend who was adorable and funny and later became a quasi-famous actor. One morning, he came to my house unannounced. I was in the midst of getting ready to go rollerblading (shush, it was the 90s). He tried to convince me to bag it and head to the beach, and I tried to convince him to join me and try rollerblading for the first time. He declined, and when I pushed for a reason he simply said “I don’t feel like learning something new today.” I laughed at the time and relented. But all these years later, I think of that quote often.
Because I spend a fair amount of time meditating on my internal thought processes, I have pinpointed the emotional arc that I experience when embarking on learning something new. Whether its teaching myself to use the sewing machine I received for Christmas, play Hive, or navigate WordPress, the story is the same.
First I procrastinate until the amount of effort I’ve wasted avoiding the task is greater than the effort of doing the task. Then I dip a toe in; skimming an instruction manual, doing a bit of online research, or posing a question to friends with expertise. This leads to feeling overwhelmed at which point I divert my attention to something I know how to do (checking email, snacking). Eventually, I tackle the unknown for real and push through, exhausting myself and sucking all the fun out in the process. Then, I recover, and eventually repeat a reasonable version of the effort until I’ve gained some mastery.
The fact that I’ve finally dissected this arc enough to understand my reticence at acquiring new skills has, in itself, been somewhat helpful. Recognizing in myself how, when, and why I derail in the face of new challenges has helped me devise a few ways to overcome my bad habits.
1. Git ready for learnin’
Once I’ve decided to try something new, I set aside time the day before to prepare. This might mean digging out my sheet music, setting up my music stand and tuning my cello but not actually playing. Or, it could be unwrapping and registering my Rosetta Stone DVDs, calling customer service when they don’t work, and testing the mic on my laptop but not actually completing a lesson. The nasty bits of administrivia that lead to the lesson can be derailleurs in and of themselves. Taking care of those as a separate exercise means they won’t muddy the fun of the activity itself.
2. Early bird special
Tony Schwartz says in this article that the time to tackle your most difficult challenge is the first 90 minutes of your day. Although not a morning person, I find I’m most creative and intellectually flexible before I’ve started to engage with the world. I liken it to how humans are taller when we wake up in the morning than at the end of the day when gravity has compressed us toward the ground.
Whether you’re going to create a new system for organizing your email or try a spin class, do it first thing. You’ll have less time to talk yourself out of it and more mental agility to absorb the experience.
3. Buy vs. build
Are you really going to teach yourself Ruby on Rails or might you need to attend a course? Is your fluency in Russian on track or would a conversation partner help it along? Have you been doing your daily pull-ups or would a personal trainer kick you into gear?
In my professional life, I help clients think about what to outsource vs. do themselves everyday. My consulting practice is based on the idea that it can pay to outsource aspects of a business. But how often do we make the same calculations with regard to personal growth? Estimate the investment you’re willing to make in learning a desired skill. Then consider that doing it for free (e.g. on your own) may result in not doing it at all. Calculate.
When I complete a milestone that I want to achieve, I reward myself with a run, an Amazon order, a TV show, or frozen yogurt – all things I enjoy and serve as deserved time away from the rigors of self-education. Note to teacher (that’s you): completing half the module does not entitle you to half a “30 Rock.”
Those are my hot tips for today. Now I’m going to speak some Spanish and reward myself with a yoga class. Class dismissed.