Self-Guided Learning that Works

Learning Cycle

My relationship with Self-guided Learning started in 2015 with a simple question:

JJ, if you have unlimited access to information, why are you not devouring it?

Who would have thought that a simple question would take me to innumerable adventures that took place across different subjects, parts of the planet, and schools of thought?

Yet, any question is rendered useless if we’re not willing to go down the rabbit hole of our curiosity to answer it.

But, if your curiosity entices you to dive into diverse areas (sometimes simultaneously), you may find it scary to follow it, knowing that many times you ended up completely distracted and wasted hours that could have been productive.

I’ve been there many times. It starts when a question pops up in the mind, then an “Ok Google…” starts the search, and it stops two hours later when I catch myself on YouTube watching funny videos. The end result: not funny. 

So, how to solve this?

After learning one topic per month, one day at a time, for more than 50 months, I have repeated the process enough times to understand the structure of how learning works.

That’s how I came up with this Self-Guided Learning Framework called the Learning Cycle.

The Learning Cycle

This is a framework for Optimal Self-Guided Learning. In other words, it is a map to help you navigate the rabbit hole.

Without one, we would get lost easily and then frustrated, and after, we’d go back to the comfort of our couch and Netflix nights. (Nothing wrong with it, just try not to normalize extreme forms of that behavior, please.)

When we design our day-to-day so that, instead of a career degree or a job promotion, learning itself becomes the reward, then we’ve essentially hacked a shortcut towards personal satisfaction.

Learning Cycle - JJ Ruescas
The Learning Cycle

Now, let’s talk about the 6 elements of this framework.

1. Consume

By 2008, it was estimated that the average person consumed 100,000 words per day, equivalent to 34 GB of information, an increase of 350% since the 1980s. Compared to our grandparents, we are more exposed to information in one day than they were in their entire lifetimes.

Quantity is the first aspect to consider; the second is quality. Similar to food, not all information is created equally. There is junk info and high-quality info. However, we rarely care about the quality of what our minds consume. If we’re not aware of this, we could be consuming information that will make our minds lethargic and stagnated.

The third aspect to consider is the format of consumption.

Every person has a preferable format to consume information, for example, some of us understand and remember better when we see an infographic. Other ones may do better with books. The point is to take full advantage of today’s information formats such as Podcasts, YouTube videos, digital and real books, mentors, etc., to achieve effective learning.

Lastly, in a digital era of constant and neverending distractions, we must learn to exercise our Attention Muscle

2. Consolidate

I find it fascinating when I’m in a restaurant line deciding what to get for lunch, and I get to the part of the menu that says: “Pick your Protein.

Clearly, they’re not talking about whey or pea protein, but instead of beef, pork, or chicken.

What I take from this is that we, as diners, have equated protein to one of the latter options. Similarly, many of us confuse information with knowledge.

When we consume food, our body breaks it down into nutrients that can be absorbed by our metabolism (like protein). In the same way, we are responsible for separating and classifying the ideal pieces of information to be transformed into knowledge, leaving the rest aside.

Not all the information needs to be absorbed, but some pieces can be categorized in Principles, Concepts, Tactics, Lessons, etc. These are the ingredients that make up our knowledge and are essential to generate our own ideas.

In essence, consolidation is digging up the dirt and finding those gold nuggets we can later capitalize on.

3. Store

Consuming information and consolidating it into knowledge is only the beginning of an effective learning process. Without a way to store and retrieve that knowledge in a timely manner, we would be wasting our time and mental resources.

Imagine this. There are always specific and relevant ideas that you need to store in your memory prior to certain situations so you can recall them in due time. Whether it’s an important school test, a business pitch, or performing open-heart surgery, you definitely want to remember what you need to do, not later, but when it’s required.

Therefore, the two important elements in play here are effective knowledge storage and rapid, timely retrieval. In other words, we are talking about an optimal memory process.

Our memory is the bridge that connects theoretical knowledge with the practical side of knowledge. Thankfully, there’s a wide variety of memory techniques that have been used and tested for millennia and are available to anyone. 

(To learn more about memory techniques, take a look at these interviews with Pablo Lomelí and José María Bea, two memory experts.)

4. Practice

Theory combined with memory is useless if knowledge is not put to the test.

Despite thinking that a subject is too complex to practice, it is necessary to find ways to exercise it. Otherwise, we would simply be victims of a “Knowledge Mirage”.

Practicing any skill undeniably requires that we eventually fail. This 4-letter word — fail — is the sole reason many people cover themselves under layers and layers of theory, without realizing that “to F.A.I.L.” (Fastly Acquire Important Lessons) is the way forward.

Once we reframe that perception, we come to understand that failure and success both are feedback that helps us to continually refine our knowledge, 

Unlike school tests, practicing and failing will not get us a low grade and hurt our self-esteem. Instead, it will show us the objective reality of our abilities at any given time. And it will depend on our mindset to determine if we abandon our learning mission or keep moving forward.

5. Share

The Learning Cycle is consolidated only when we share what we learn with other people.

Sometimes we fall victim to the Imposter Syndrome, and we believe that we don’t know enough of a topic to talk about it or that others will discover that we don’t know as much as we claim.

Acknowledging that we don’t know everything about a topic is a good starting point. It encourages humbleness and a Beginner’s Mind, especially when we plan to share with others what we’ve learned.

There’s no need to be a teacher, professor, or expert. We can share with our family, friends, and colleagues. And, if we’re lucky, they will ask questions that had not crossed our minds, nor that we have the answers for–yet.

Those questions will serve as the fuel for our curiosity. And that’s when we say again: “Ok, Google. What is…?” and we’re back to the beginning of the cycle, one more time.

6. Mindset

The previous five elements cover the mechanics of learning, that is, the techniques anyone can obtain and exercise. However, none of these are useful if we don’t have a solid mindset to lean on. Think about this:

How many times have you heard someone saying phrases like…

  • “I’m not good at numbers.”
  • “I cannot understand as quickly as others.”
  • “I have a bad memory.”
  • “I always fail to put what I have learned into practice.”

…I bet many times. And how many times did the same person ask these other questions

  • Are my beliefs correct?
  • Are there other ways to learn that I don’t know yet?
  • Who has already solved these problems and what can I learn from them?

… I bet seldom.

To really be effective when it comes to consuming, consolidating, storing, practicing, and sharing knowledge, that is, to be effective at the Learning Cycle, it is mandatory that we become aware of ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, our prejudices and beliefs.

It is not for nothing that meta-cognition, or understanding how we think, is what gives way to meta-learning, or understanding how we learn.

Therefore, the mindset is the muscle that cannot be measured. It is the one that goes unnoticed when things are going well and especially shows up in moments when nothing works well.

Finally, remember:

Success in any area is 80% mindset and 20% mechanics, and this also applies to learning.

So, what parts of the Learning Cycle do you need to optimize? Let me know which ones you’d like to talk about more and we’ll answer them in other articles.

In the meantime, Keep Learning!


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