As an engineer working in an education startup, learning is a familiar topic for me. At eSpark, we’re personalizing education for primary school students and we often visit schools, pore through data, and test our theories about how students really learn. It’s remarkably easy to get infected by the enthusiasm of our young students. But it’s also easy to get concerned by the anguish, anxiety, and difficulty that young learners go through. Learning is difficult.

But why is it difficult? And how can it become fun?

Here are some of my current thoughts about these two questions. I’d love to expand on this topic in the future, but let’s start small :) Tweet me at @gnarmis if you think I missed something!

Why is it difficult?

  • not valuing learning. Hey, if you don’t want to improve yourself, why would you want to learn anything? (I suspect almost all of us value learning).
  • feeling like a newbie. I think admitting you’re bad at something can be hard, even if you value humility.
  • fog of unawareness. What do I even do? How do I start?
  • when do I stop? when am I done?
  • time management. I don’t have enough time!
  • willpower management. I don’t think I can learn so much!
  • unwillingness to do long term planning. If learning something seems like a process that could take weeks, it feels too distant to feel important. Probably related concept: Hyperbolic Discounting.

How can it become fun?

  • savor the Aha! moment. That moment when you accomplish a small goal you set for yourself, or when you get a rush of understanding. It is utterly satisfying as a feeling. As a small test of this claim, remember a specific moment when you felt this in the past.
  • reduce the stakes. Just do one small goal for the next 20 minutes and defer further planning or goal setting until after the first small goal is completed or failed.
  • removing the roadblocks to blocking off learning time is a more important goal than probably everything else in your queue. Laundry, emails, cleaning, and work can wait. First, ensure you have some hours blocked off in the week to be alone in a quiet and comfy place to only focus on learning something (you probably already know what you’d like to learn during such a block of time).
  • fail early, fail fast, fail often. Being afraid of failure will make you not even try and that will increase the likelihood that you don’t succeed.
  • play to win. Don’t play to increase the likelihood of winning; that’s not winning. Your goal is not to feel like you’re learning, your goal is to actually learn. For example, don’t just continually try out books and tutorials about making websites, go out and actually make a website no matter your initial skill level. You don’t get points for trying, you get them for winning. (Of course, if you don’t try, you lose, so be welcoming of failure.)
  • step just a bit out of your comfort zone, but not too much.
  • keep brief notes. Bullet points to remember things when they become complicated enough to not fit in your head. Grab a literal napkin if nothing else, though it’s probably better to use Evernote or some such.
  • make yourself comfortable when you learn. Hot tea, couch, and cellphone on Airplane Mode (and a timer to calm your worries about overshooting)? Yes please!
  • block off more time than you need to accomplish your small goal. 150%, for some overflow room.
  • Randy Pausch’s talk about time management. Go watch it.
  • you can do it. Willpower management is tough, I think. Beyond the basics (diet, exercise, relaxation, socialization), I think one fruitful strategy is not thinking of willpower as a limited, conserved resource, and instead considering it a resource that is replenished when you feel yourself getting challenged. This is just the ‘growth mindset’ in other words. For example, if you’ve been trying to understand how 401(k)s work for 20 minutes and feel discomfort and tiredness, use that not as a signal that you can’t figure it out right now but as a signal that you’re finally approaching the moment when you figure out something truly new and useful and interesting. At least in my own experience, moments of clarity come after a string of moments of discomfort and puzzlement.

I notice I’m a little close-to-the-chest with writing posts. I don’t want to sit on blog posts until they’re “perfect”, so I’m noting here that I sat down for a couple of hours and wrote the entire thing on 2015-07-12. That’s the context. I might update it later and if so, I’ll be sure to update the addendum.