Just like your body, your brain needs to be reg­u­lar­ly looked after, fed and trained.

7 min read

Opin­ions expressed by Entre­pre­neur con­trib­u­tors are their own.

Own­ing a Busi­ness 101: Stream­line your oper­a­tion to pro­vide more val­ue to users. Late­ly, I’ve been think­ing about this idea and how it might apply in the learn­ing con­text; whether we should apply the same “lean” approach to our knowl­edge acqui­si­tion and squeeze more val­ue from what we learn. It’s a method that experts call agile learn­ing, and it also entails unlearn­ing infor­ma­tion that is no longer use­ful.

Learn­ing agili­ty is a more dynam­ic and smarter approach, trim­ming the fat and leav­ing the most valu­able infor­ma­tion. So when I for­get for the umpteenth time where I left my keys, per­haps that’s not a bad thing. Maybe I’m just mak­ing room for more use­ful data.

To be com­pet­i­tive, entre­pre­neurs must be able to learn with agili­ty so they can adapt and advance in an ever-chang­ing mar­ket­place. Stud­ies have found that learn­ing agili­ty is even more impor­tant than job per­for­mance. Here, six strate­gies for devel­op­ing your capac­i­ty for agile learn­ing.

Relat­ed: The 4 Abil­i­ties Required of Agile Learn­ing

1. Make reading your default mode.

As Har­ry Tru­man once said:

“Not all read­ers are lead­ers, but all lead­ers are read­ers.”

A pil­lar of learn­ing agili­ty is con­tin­u­al­ly con­sum­ing infor­ma­tion, and there’s no bet­ter way to do that than read­ing. Not only does it expand my vocab­u­lary and intro­duce me to new sub­ject mat­ter, read­ing also helps me dis­cov­er new ways of think­ing. I read to learn about new men­tal mod­els, for exam­ple, which give me tools for pro­cess­ing and orga­niz­ing the world of infor­ma­tion around me.

For a long time, I made excus­es for not read­ing more mate­r­i­al that didn’t per­tain direct­ly to my work. I was try­ing to scale my start­up and still spend time with my fam­i­ly. Who can find the time? But at a cer­tain point, I start­ed read­ing dur­ing the “between” times: between meet­ings, on the train, over break­fast or even lis­ten­ing to audio­books dur­ing my lunchtime walk. That way, there was no need to find the time — I already had it.

Every­one is busy. But if Mark Cuban reads three hours a day and Bill Gates fin­ish­es one book a week, then I can, too.

2. Learn deliberately.

There are three types of learn­ing: acci­den­tal, con­scious and delib­er­ate. The first kind hap­pens to us, e.g. you’re walk­ing down the street and see a sign for a new stream­ing ser­vice. The sec­ond kind is when we learn but not nec­es­sar­i­ly pur­pose­ful­ly, like via read­ing the paper or watch­ing the evening news.

The third kind, delib­er­ate learn­ing, is when we’re active­ly try­ing to acquire new infor­ma­tion. Our atten­tion is focused and think­ing is sharp. And ulti­mate­ly, we intend to incor­po­rate this mate­r­i­al into our exist­ing frame­work and be able to access it lat­er. To become an agile learn­er, it’s impor­tant to make a habit of learn­ing delib­er­ate­ly. And because only you know which lessons are most rel­e­vant to your work and your future, each individual’s auto­di­dac­tic path will be unique.

3. Learn in short, regular intervals.

It’s cru­cial to set aside time for that delib­er­ate learn­ing every day, and a lit­tle bit goes a long way, espe­cial­ly if you stick to a reg­u­lar habit. Though on aver­age, knowl­edge work­ers spends just five min­utes on learn­ing each day, experts rec­om­mend ded­i­cat­ing between 30 min­utes and an hour per day.

To make the most of your study ses­sion, entre­pre­neurs and Har­vard Busi­ness Review con­trib­u­tors Josh Bersin and Marc Zao-Sanders rec­om­mend main­tain­ing a to-learn list, advis­ing: “Write down a list of con­cepts, thoughts, prac­tices and vocab­u­lary you want to explore, book mark them in your brows­er and add them to your list. You can lat­er explore them when you have a few moments to reflect.”

Learn­ing in small but reg­u­lar time allot­ments is effec­tive because they are brief, and there­fore sus­tain­able, but also con­sis­tent, help­ing to con­tin­u­al­ly cement recent­ly acquired infor­ma­tion.

Bene­dict Carey, author of How We Learn: The Sur­pris­ing Truth About When, Where, and Why It Hap­pens, is also a pro­po­nent of the idea that knowl­edge should be con­sumed in bite-sized quan­ti­ties.

As he writes:

“You can water a lawn once a week for 90 min­utes or three times a week for 30 minute. Spac­ing out the water­ing dur­ing the week will keep the lawn green­er over time.”

4. Learn from others with experience.

If you want to learn any­thing faster, start by tap­ping some­one who has per­son­al expe­ri­ence with that sub­ject. And if they’ve mas­tered it, even bet­ter. Entre­pre­neur and author Tony Rob­bins cap­tured this idea per­fect­ly:

“The fastest way to mas­ter any skill, strat­e­gy or goal in life is to mod­el those who have already forged the path ahead. If you can find some­one who is already get­ting the results that you want and take the same actions they are tak­ing, you can get the same results. It doesn’t mat­ter what your age, gen­der or back­ground is. Mod­el­ing gives you the capac­i­ty to fast track your dreams and achieve more in a much short­er peri­od of time.”

This “mod­el­ing” tech­nique, as Rob­bins calls it, enables us to learn from the expe­ri­ence of oth­ers, includ­ing any mis­takes, and save time in our own jour­ney. Not to men­tion, it’s more fun and ener­giz­ing than learn­ing alone.

Relat­ed: The Key to Every Suc­cess­ful Busi­ness Is Agili­ty

5. Cross-train between subjects.

In the past, peo­ple thought suc­cess came through spe­cial­iza­tion, or achiev­ing mas­tery in a sin­gle sub­ject. As the say­ing goes: Jack of all trades, mas­ter of none. That way of think­ing is anti­quat­ed at best and self-defeat­ing at worst. As Vikram Man­shara­mani wrote for Har­vard Busi­ness Review:

“Cor­po­ra­tions around the world have come to val­ue exper­tise, and in so doing, have cre­at­ed a col­lec­tion of indi­vid­u­als study­ing bark. There are many who have deeply stud­ied its nooks, grooves, col­oration and tex­ture. Few have devel­oped the under­stand­ing that the bark is mere­ly the out­er­most lay­er of a tree. Few­er still under­stand the tree is embed­ded in a for­est.”

Today, peo­ple are increas­ing­ly rec­og­niz­ing the val­ue of becom­ing “expert gen­er­al­ists” — under­stand­ing the for­est. Because, as Vikram writes, “our high­ly inter­con­nect­ed and glob­al econ­o­my means that seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed devel­op­ments can affect each oth­er.”

What’s more, we learn bet­ter and with more agili­ty when we can forge con­nec­tions across bound­aries and trans­fer knowl­edge from sub­ject mat­ter to anoth­er.

6. Practice.

Final­ly, like any skill, your capac­i­ty for agile learn­ing will improve with prac­tice. For­get the notion that some peo­ple are born bet­ter learn­ers. As Dr. K. Anders Eric­s­son, an expert on expert per­for­mance, explains: “Peo­ple believe that because expert per­for­mance is qual­i­ta­tive­ly dif­fer­ent from nor­mal per­for­mance, the expert per­former must be endowed with char­ac­ter­is­tics qual­i­ta­tive­ly dif­fer­ent from those of nor­mal adults. This view has dis­cour­aged sci­en­tists from sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly exam­in­ing expert per­form­ers and account­ing for their per­for­mance in terms of the laws and prin­ci­ples of gen­er­al psy­chol­o­gy.”

With few excep­tions (e.g. height and the abil­i­ty to play bas­ket­ball), most fac­tors that deter­mine our per­for­mance aren’t genet­i­cal­ly pre­scribed. Eric­s­son and col­leagues argue that “the dif­fer­ences between expert per­form­ers and nor­mal adults reflect a life-long peri­od of delib­er­ate effort to improve per­for­mance in a spe­cif­ic domain.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, your effort vis-a-vis learn­ing should be delib­er­ate. But don’t con­sid­er it anoth­er task to add to your rou­tine. Instead, think of agile learn­ing as a lifestyle, one that will improve your busi­ness and hope­ful­ly enrich your life.

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