Usually, to learn how to cook a delicious soufflé, you’d pick up a French cookbook. To learn how to play guitar, you might watch a video on YouTube. To learn how to speak Mandarin, maybe you’d take a class. What you don’t do is spend time learning how to learn in the first place — and that’s a mistake.
Learning is a process, and learning how to learn (known as meta-learning) should be the skill that precedes all others. Fortunately, this process can be broken down into three easy steps: learning what to do, learning how to do it, and finally, doing the thing.
Knowing the principles and strategies of effective learning will maximize the time and energy you put into anything else, as well as optimize your work in improving and mastering your chosen craft.
So, how should you follow these steps? Let’s take an overview of the learning process and examine the model you can follow to make the best of it.
Step #1: Learning What to Do
First comes “learning what to do.” Think of this phase as studying the cognitive side of things.
If you get into poker, for instance, you first have to learn some theory — rules, hands, betting — before going into the practice. You need to gain a high-level understanding of the skill you’re trying to acquire.
Two steps take place in this learning stage: understanding and memorizing. Though related, they are different cognitive processes that need individual attention. Understanding is about making sense of information and memorizing is about internalizing it. You can understand everything taught in a book, video, or lecture, for instance, yet not remember most of it days later. In the same way, you can memorize the information without understanding it.
Both scenarios are limiting. Effective learning requires that you understand and memorize what you study, at least to a degree, as you move into practice.
Step #2: Learning How to Do It
From “learning what to do,” you go into “learning how to do it.” Think of this phase as the practical side and application of the theory you studied in the previous step.
Here’s where you develop your abilities through practice. You’ll work on a few pieces of your craft at a time and progressively put them together. This phase is the essence of learning any skill, and it’s where you’ll put most of your time and effort.
For example, if you learned the basics of poker in the previous step, now is when you’d go through some practice rounds, learning to fold or bet depending on the hand you have and the other players’ moves. At this point, you are not playing a formal game, you are just putting theory into practice to develop basic proficiency.
Step #3: Doing the Thing
Finally, after “learning how to do it” comes “doing it.” Here’s where you put all your learning and practice into action.
“Doing it” is the execution, performing the skill. If you’re learning to play poker, this is when you would sit down to the table to play real games. If you’re learning to sing, this would be singing for your own enjoyment or for an audience. If you are in martial arts, it could be a friendly match or taking part in a competition.
This step is meant to solidify what we learned during practice and to provide us with valuable feedback so we know what’s working and what needs more work.
Putting the Process Together
To recap, you should put the process together like this:
You begin by learning what to do: understanding and memorizing the theory and basics of what you want to learn.
Next, you move into learning how to do it. Here’s where you put theory into practice and develop the actual skill.
And finally, you do the thing. By putting your skills to use, you’ll solidify your learning and get valuable feedback to keep improving.
When you break down your chosen skill into the three steps described above, you can learn and master anything faster and more effectively than diving in with no plan.
For more advice on maximizing your learning capacity, you can find Learn, Improve, Master on Amazon.