Top 12 Active Learning Strategies For Busy People

Sustained success in any area requires continuous learning. It goes without saying that to succeed in a job or business, one needs to keep learning pretty much nonstop—read books, attend seminars and conferences, and continually seek new responsibilities. You’ll have to find active learning strategies.

The same can be said about parenting or relationships—books, conversations, continuous personal reflection are a must if you want to be fulfilled in this area of your life. The same is true of your health—eating better, exercising better, and understanding and dealing with any diseases that may come your way often requires learning new knowledge.

What learning strategies can one employ, particularly those suitable for a person with a busy schedule? Ideally, this learning would be active to ensure you thoroughly process the new knowledge instead of just skimming a book or an article.

So-called New Year resolutions exemplify our common failure to change, and it also pertains to learning new skills. We get carried away by a shiny new idea, be it learning Chinese, taking martial arts lessons, or meditating only to realize that we have neither time nor motivation to sustain it. Daily sessions become weekly, which then become biweekly, and so forth until the whole initiative is but a distant memory.

How can we—real people with real limitations and obligations of busy adult lives—most effectively learn whatever skill we set out to improve?

1. Sort Out Commitments

You should sort out your commitments by making an internal commitment. Decide that the new skill is very important and that you will do whatever it takes to make progress. For best results, write down your commitments.

Also, you should learn to scale down other commitments. After all, we only have so much energy, yet we always aspire for more.

A specific technique is “one in—one out.” If you cannot seem to find time for working on that new skill, pick something else you have been doing regularly that you are prepared to let go of—at least for the time being.

2. Adopt a Long-Term Orientation

Active learning strategy involves adopting a long-term orientation. Daniel Coyle describes a fascinating study of kids studying piano in his bestselling book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

The study demonstrated that having a long-term orientation, such as ”I am going to be learning this skill for ten years or the rest of my life,” as compared to a short-term orientation, such as “I am going to be learning this skill for the next few months or years,” had a dramatic effect on one’s learning progress.

While the number of hours invested into daily practice was also significant, children with a long-term orientation who practiced for half an hour each day mastered the skill as well as those with a short-term orientation who were practicing for up to two hours every day! Unfortunately, the study did not detail how one could cultivate this kind of long-term orientation, but knowing it is important is surely a start.

3. Learn Without Motivation

People naturally rely on motivation and make great progress when they feel pumped and optimistic. But then another day comes and they are not feeling it. You must remember that your mind keeps learning automatically, whether you feel like it or not. So, whenever you are not feeling motivated, behave as usual—dive right in!

Moreover, you can try to organize a bootcamp for yourself. Studying Chinese? Piano? The art of selling? Either way, dedicate a few full days or even a few full weeks to focus on the new activity nonstop. For best results, participate in an existing training program or hire a coach.

Continuing with the same idea, joining a regular training regimen is best in terms of both accountability and structure. While not all training programs are high-quality and aligned with your goals, the method is powerful nevertheless.

You can also start reading books about your field. Books are supplementary to more active kinds of learning but are very important nevertheless. If you feel your progress has been plateauing in recent months, look for a new book. Just make sure it is a good one.

4. Talk About the Skills You Want to Develop

Ideally, you will have experts as your teachers and mentors, but even ongoing casual conversations with skilled practitioners can help sustain your progress. Even talking to random strangers about your field can still be helpful.

Don’t be afraid to discuss technical details. If you are learning Chinese, talk to everyone you meet about linguistic nuances. If you are studying martial arts, talk all day long about fighting and self-defense.

5. Be Picky About your Knowledge Sources

“Googling” answers is fine for a quick factual question, finding entertainment, or even sparking your creativity. Yet, this is not the way for making consistent, in-depth progress.

Just as you did not learn the high school curriculum by googling random facts, you are also not going to acquire a solid knowledge base by following this method in any other area. Find reputable books—or better yet—a reputable teacher, then learn from them.

It’s best to learn from the best. It definitely helps if you have a teacher or a mentor and if they are highly knowledgeable in the field. Better yet, find those who are also great at teaching students similar to yourself.

You can also attend conferences and other events. Meeting others in the same field and engaging in a structured multi-day program cannot but boost your progress. While a single weekend event can never bring the same results as sustained daily effort, it can broaden your horizons and help ensure your efforts are going in the right direction.

6. Participate in Competitions or Performances

Any competition or any public performance will challenge your current level of skill and push you to new heights. If anything, you will discover where you stand. Participating in competitions or performances is a must in having an active learning strategy.

You can also aim to obtain certifications. This is not useful if your skill level is high. However, if you are just getting started, many fields have designated levels for beginners. Even if you do not need to get certified, it can be an interesting way to once again test your current level as well as to systematize your knowledge.

7. Introduce Leverage

If you are not putting in the hours, set some rules to “punish” yourself, whether by denying yourself certain pleasures or by having to donate a certain amount of money. For best results, use a friend or a mentor who will hold you accountable. If you respond better to rewards, those can work as well.

8. Practice Using Time-Efficient Exercises

Many fields have key skills that can be efficiently practiced in just a few minutes a day, so long as you bring a lot of effort and concentration to this practice. Stay in the forearm plank for 2 minutes. Meditate for 3 minutes. Go through a 10-minute singing warmup.

Such time-efficient exercises are also great in keeping the momentum going during periods when you cannot commit to a more involved regimen.

9. Volunteer Using Your New Skill

Even if what you are learning is not directly contributing to your income, there may well be a way to do it for free—whether by singing at a charity concert, becoming a language partner for a recent immigrant, or teaching kids at a community center. Volunteering is an active learning strategy that will help you practice your craft. There is hardly a better way to solidify learning than by using it to help others.

Many different platforms exist for matching volunteers with opportunities. Some such as VolunteerMatch are generic and have every kind of opportunity under the sun. Others such as the Taproot Foundation focus on opportunities for volunteers with business, finance or marketing skills. The United Nations has a wide range of skilled volunteer opportunities in many different countries.

10. Use Visualization

Take a few moments—or a few minutes—to imagine performing your new skill perfectly. This exercise can be practiced in a quiet room, before going to sleep, as well as immediately prior to performing the activity in question. For some people, this technique works very well, but for such results, it also requires significant effort.

Imagery has long been used in sports and in the performing arts, such as by the dancer Erik Franklin.((Eric Franklin: Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance )) However, the same techniques have found their ways in many other domains—from business to parenting.

An expert on male sexuality Bernie Zilbergeld had been recommending imagery exercises to help couples improve their love life. Some of these are described in his book The New Male Sexuality. Visualization has also been used for teaching language.((British Council. Teaching English: An introduction to using visualization))

11. Journal About Your Progress

Jot down notes about your progress, on a daily basis or whenever needed. The notes can describe your long-term goals, debrief any particular event, whether a success or a failure, summarize lessons learned and things to do differently in the future, or those can just be random observations related to your learning process.

This technique is highly individual and takes a lot of experimentation, but many top performers swear by it.

12. Never Give Up

Perhaps the most important strategy is to keep going. If your approach is wrong but you keep trying, keep putting in the work. Eventually, you will make a correction and get on the right track. But if you give up and quit, future progress is impossible.

Educational theorist Paul Tough became famous largely because of his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. In the book, he argues, citing some compelling evidence, that grit, or perseverance, matter so much more than intelligence.

Adults could also receive Tough’s message and focus on perseverance before considering any other “active” learning strategies. As success expert Brian Tracy puts it, without discipline, no method for achieving success works. With discipline, every method works.

Concluding Remarks

The busier we become, the more important it is for us to keep learning.

The tips above contain several helpful suggestions. However, the most important one is to commit to finding time for this learning and to never give up. Good luck!

More Learning Tips & Strategies

  • Passive Learning vs Active Learning: Which Is More Effective?
  • 4 Learning Strategies Quick Learners Master But Never Told You
  • 8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More
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