Blend a self-learning plan into your habit

Posted: March 12, 2012 in Seeds
Tags: ,

Personally, I consider self-learning as a process. A process has to do with connected actions that transform inputs into outputs, nothing else. A quite underrated aspect is about choosing inputs and when to process them. This is what I define a plan. A plan is a written and sorted set of actions. Who writes it? At least a supervisor/manager, choose the appellative you like the most. Talking about self-learning you are the sole responsible for your plan and often the absence of a capable “scheduler” leads people to be adrift.

Making a plan is not simple. That’s because self-learning is freedom and freedom asks you to choose. You have to take into account desires, priorities, needs, limits. Realizing your limits is fundamental to go beyond and to improve yourself. Limits are valuable allies, what you knock down to reach your goals. But don’t be hasty, knowing your limits is important to make a plan.

Let’s forget abstract things for now, this blog is about experienced stories and practical things. The goal here is to show my personal approach to self-learning.

When I suggested you to gang with self-learning, I used to write things on sticky notes and whiteboard. Some time later I became aware  that a tool could help me. I have tried out lots of products dealing with “to-do lists” and I currently employ Toodledo (and it worth buying the pro version, just 10 €/year). Basically, it helps you to organize your tasks better than you can do with sticky notes! Since Toodledo supports GTD (a method for organizing tasks)  maybe I’ve taken my cue from it but I don’t know anything about it (I swear), so don’t keep on reading if you expect a discussion about GTD or another famous method.

Well, I use Toodledo in a pretty simple way and the most important steps follow below. First of all a bit of (my) terminology:

  • Task: clear doable action(example: “reading GotW#100 by Herb Sutter”);
  • Sub-tasks: syntactic sugar to express precedence and grouping among tasks;
  • Plan: written collection of tasks (sometime arranged in a timeline);
  • Folder: container of tasks (example: “Study”);
  • Context: category of task (example: “Posts”);
  • Location: physical place to do a task (example: “Home”);
  • Tag: property of a task (example: “C++”, “Sutter”);
  • Notebook: a container of notes (plain texts).

         

Raw Tasks in the Inbox

          —

As soon as I notice something interesting I make a task and put it in a special folder I made: the Inbox. This folder is like a buffer for “raw” tasks that have to be planned or rejected. A task shouldn’t stay in the Inbox for a long time. A task in the Inbox will be either:

  1. deleted,
  2. stored in the notebook (it remains a sort of raw task),
  3. enriched with meta-information (context, folder, tag, etc) and planned.

The Inbox is the single-point-of-access to the proper planning step.

          

Dealing with raw tasks

          

Toodledo allows you to choose defaults for new tasks, this makes it easier to create a raw task. You only need to set the default folder (Inbox):

Now you can use the quick-add-task functionality

and press enter:

Very fast and easy!

What about processing raw tasks? To answer you have to take into account your goals, priorities, time, etc.

Is the task really important? If no, delete it. Can be done? If no, delete it. Want you to collect more information about it? You can change it to a more specific task (next step) or you can make a note about it (it will be useful in the future, when the task will be more defined). Is it related to other tasks you’re working on? If yes, you can make it a subtask of another one. Etc.

You know your targets and you are the sole responsible of this kind of decisions. Choosing is hard, isn’t it?

          

Transforming raw tasks in achievable tasks

          —

This phase is really crucial. Here you have to enrich raw tasks with meta-information that make the task clearer and easy to understand. Things such as context and tag are quite simple, to find them you just have to categorize the action to do (e.g. “reading a Sutter’s book” for me is something like:  Context = Books; TAG = Sutter, C++).

What’s the deal with folders? That’s an interesting question. For me a folder is like a water flow, a stream. It’s something that couldn’t be stopped. This is why I don’t use the term “project”: a project is something that should be completed sooner or later. My current folders are:

If I wanted a coarser grane on (for example) Self-Learning stuff, I would split it in other folders. Now this is fine for me.

So what’s the difference between contexts and folders? I treat a context like a category. I repeat, this is fine for me, consider your way of studying and the tasks you want to complete. If you only read books, likely a context “Books” is useless.

Back to this step, tasks also need a handful of planning information, that (currently for me) are priority, due/start dates, status and location. When you decide these information you are developing the plan. This moment is definitely important and you should say no to seemingly tasty tasks. Considering the task T, a possible workflow:

  1. Is T really important? If yes go to step 3, if no go to step 2.
  2. Can you decide when to start/complete the task? If no then set Status = Someday and don’t care about other information (maybe choose a priority considering all the tasks). If yes then set Status = Planning, Due Date/Start Date = your choice, Location = your choice and set an adequate Priority.
  3. Can you do the task “now” – do you have free slot of time in a very near future? If yes then set Status = Active and set the other information. If your plan is “overflowing” then you might consider to “swap” an active task with T.

An important information I touched on is the location. Never underestimate all the physical places you can self-learn. Ideas: home, work, train, underground, bus-stop, etc. (different places probably correspond to different amount of available time). Like folders, you can refine locations. A tip: try to have at least one task for each location and if you want to put all your effort into doing a certain task in more than one location (e.g. home + train) then you could:

  • set a location and write in the notes section that you are also working on this task in another location, or
  • create a new location: Home & Train.
More information about status I employ:
  • None: used only for raw tasks;
  • Someday: not really planned, I’ll do it;
  • Planning: for me is like “planned”: I have decided when to do it, I have a start/due date;
  • Waiting: used when the task is waiting for another task (e.g. some videos to watch sequentially);
  • Active: I’m doing this task “now” (now = during the time I can spend to self-learn).

Finally, choosing among the combos will automagically “schedule” your task:

          

Breaking your plan

          —

You can think that a plan will stay the same until a task is completed or new raw tasks arrive in the inbox. Wrong. First, you have to periodically sum up your work, like a retrospective phase. What tasks have you completed? What about your long/short term goals? Are your priorities changed?

Second, it’s important to elect a sort of base of your plan. Time-based (your plan evolves in term of slots of time – “iterations”, if you feel at ease with this term), Task-based (specific tasks block the evolution of your plan), Goal-based (reaching goals is the driver, if a certain goal has a huge priority it can stop all the other tasks), etc. I like evolution and dynamism so I personally use a mixed mode: flexible amount of time (not fixed), goals and priorities drive my changes, I try to “break” my plan, doubting it.

I consider the last point precious: when you deal with learning, say at school, generally the teacher gives you a sort of feedback. Here, who is the teacher? You. Judging yourself is a way to have feedback. Good and bad results should be made evident.

Moreover, in addition to this retrospective phase, another key moment is when you look for new tasks and what drives this quest. Once again, choose your base and the answer will be plain.

          —

Beyond this post

          —

Here I have summarized the main concepts about my self-learning process (I have focused on the planning phase – choosing the inputs, remember?). I heartily recommend you to make your own, using a sort of task manager system (sticky notes suffice, but sometimes you may want more). Toodledo is cool and simple. I have just shown a tiny snapshot of this system and I suggest you to try it (the base account is free – I have a pro account because I uses subtasks and other little things). Views are one of the best reason to choose it – and the base version has got it!

Your plan should be literally blended into your life, this way you can go beyond a simple “studying a book” and the process of self-learning will be an important part of your habit.

I hope this post can be useful and remember that the trick is growing up without growing old!

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