Learning is itself a skill – just like riding a bicycle or swimming is a skill. Treating it as a skill, and working to improve that skill is essential for almost all careers, but especially important for careers in Information Technology which require constant upkeep with new trends and technologies.

First of all, why should you listen to my advice? Actually you shouldn’t – as I wouldn’t be giving my own advice or “wisdom”.  I’d instead be presenting ideas from academics and scholars who have professionally studied human memory, brain development and learning. Also, these are the ideas I used to attain two CCIEs and numerous other certifications.

Researchers have figured out the most superior and proven ways of learning. In this blog post, I am attempting to simplify and condense those ideas to be relevant to the typical IT professional – and really anyone else who want to learn anything! In essence, all the ideas are actually very simple, and most are even common sense, but, now we have the benefit of knowing that they are also scientifically proven to improve learning.

Short Version:

  • Make goals
  • Make a schedule
  • Make time to study during office hours (in addition to off-hours)
  • For certifications, FOLLOW THE EXAM TOPICS VERY CAREFULLY
  • Learn from multiple sources using multiple methods
  • Take breaks, reward yourself and time your breaks
  • Learn to nap and nap at least once a day
  • Review, review and review once more!
  • Take care of your body

Details:

  • Make goals!
    • Make 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 5 year, 10 year and 20 year goals.
    • Write these goals down (put them in a Google Docs or some other easily accessible location)
    • Share these goals with significant people in your lives – partner, parents, children, close friends, etc.
    • Review and re-write these goals every 6 months
    • Make two sets of goals – one set for personal projects, plans, etc. and the other for professional – giving each due importance

 

  • Make a schedule!
    • Goals outline broad targets – like achieving MCITP, or CCNA or CCDE or CISA or any other certification, while a schedule outlines daily, weekly and monthly short-term plan
    • Aim to study at least 5 hours a week if you are studying for an entry level certification
    • Advanced or expert level certifications (such as CCIE) require at least 15 hour weekly time commitment – more the better.
    • Without a schedule, you may take 1-2 years just to get a CCNA, but with a schedule, you can realistically do it within a few months
    • Share the schedule with family, friends, your boss and coworkers, etc. – so they help you stay accountable to your schedule
    • You can use this template for your study schedule

 

  • Make time to study during office hours (in addition to studying off hours)
    • almost every boss, with some very rare exceptions, would be thrilled and supportive of you learning new skills as long as they are somewhat related to your current and potential future roles
    • with understanding and permission of your manager/supervisor, schedule 2-10 hours a week of REGULAR study – so that could be 1 hour each on Tuesdays and Thursday or two hours or more every weekday
    • schedule your study time in your calendar – so that your time doesn’t get booked up
    • Attempt to study in groups with your colleagues. This will help create a culture of learning and training in your organization. Compete with your colleagues to complete certain certifications, etc. Ultimately, both yourself and your organization will benefit!
    • keep study time flexible – skip a week of studying when a project deadlines is imminent, but, catch up on that lost study time when you have more cycles
    • study with a goal of what skills or certification you want to achieve. Avoid studying too many different subjects at the same time – that will not be productive

 

  • For certifications, FOLLOW THE EXAM TOPICS VERY CAREFULLY
    • vendors base the exam questions 100% based on the exam topics listed on the official certification website, such as this CCNP ROUTE Exam (Cisco login may be required)
    • Put the exam topics in a spread sheet, and make sure to learn every exam topic at least three times – you can use this template

 

  • Learn from multiple sources using multiple methods
    • It’s scientifically proven that learning through multiple methods (visual, auditory, tactical, etc.) significantly improves comprehension and retention
    • If working towards a certification, use sources from at least two different vendors. They will teach the same subjects in different ways that will improve retention and may also cover topics that the other vendor doesn’t cover, improving overall breadth and comprehension
    • Use at least two different types of learning resources – for example, use Video/Online learning resources and written material like books/ebooks
    • Study two different subjects at the same time. For example, if you are studying for CCIE Routing and Switching, and you are studying for four hours on a particular day, spend two hours on Multicast and another two hours on BGP – and mix and match different sub-topics. This will help keep things interesting, but also improve long term retention.

 

  • Take breaks, reward yourself and time your breaks
    • Study in 20-25 minutes segments, taking a timed 5 minute break after every 20-25 minutes. Use a timer on your phone to stick to this schedule.
    • Reward yourself during the 5 minute break – browse your favourite websites, play with your kids, go for a short jog with your dog, have a snack
    • Take a 30 minute break every 3.5-4 hours
    • Again, reward yourself during the break for the studying you’ve done. Eat, take a nap, play video games, go for a jog, etc.

 

  • Learn to nap and nap at least once a day
    • napping will do wonders to your short-term and long-term memory, your energy level, your attention span, elastic intelligence and your life in general
    • napping is also a skill, just like learning and riding a bicycle – and it can be learned and practiced with amazing results.
    • napping can be learned in about a month

 

  • Review, review and review once more!
    • Review what you have learned at 4 or 5 different intervals
      • in two hours
      • two days
      • two weeks
      • and then again in two month
    • Reviewing using the above method is scientifically proven to improve retention to several years.
    • If you were to continue to process to 4 months, 8 months and then a year, it would improve retention to a lifetime!

 

  • Take care of your body
    • Stay hydrated and fuel your brain
    • When you are studying, your brain can use as much as 30% of your body’s energy
    • Your brain effectively requires water, sugar and protein for metabolic activity, so, during your breaks, reward yourself with fruits, shakes, and other treats that have these key ingredients
    • Always have a bottle of water handy to keep you hydrated
    • Get your 6-9 hours of sleep! Sleeping any less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours can be detrimental not only to your mental health and long-term retention, it also causes a host of other physical and mental problems over long-term. Optimal sleeping time varies with age, gender and physical health, but, 6 hours is the absolute minimum you should be aiming for regardless of these variables
    • EXERCISE!

 

If you are interested in learning more about human memory, learning behaviour, concepts like schemas, fluid memory, long-term memory and an in-depth look behind the advice and ideas presented above, I’d highly recommend reading the academic work “Human Memory” by Gabriel Radvansky.

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Source: “Human Memory” by Gabriel Radvansky.
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