Learning How to Learn Well

The research shows that taking breaks and giving time to process information is fundamental for learning well, all of which I need to retrain myself to do.

Jul 21, 2023

Learning How to Learn Well

I’m obsessed with learning. At any given moment, I’m reading a book, taking a class, researching something new. My relentless urge to learn is partially linked to my discomfort with being idle, but it’s mostly due to my obsession with knowing. There being so much to know and not enough time also doesn’t make my persistent need to know any better. What I’m really bad at though is sitting with what I’m learning and giving myself enough time to process it all, which is a huge component of learning well.    

This summer, I was unable to teach a summer English conversation class, which ended up being a welcome break. I didn’t know how tired I was until I had a few days without the low, constant anxiety of obligations and deadlines. The break was supposed to give me time to relax and enjoy the summer before my more intense English grammar class starts in the fall. My version of “relax,” however, apparently meant taking two classes—a distance education recertification course and a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging strategy certification course, neither of which would be considered relaxing at all—along with my full-time work schedule, my creative writing workshop, and several other happenings, like writing for this blog. 

Not only am I not resting, but I’m taking these rich, interesting courses that I haven’t given myself the time or space to enjoy the process of learning. Instead of being able to do the work well and explore the content deeply, I barely have enough time to do the coursework acceptably and on deadline. In fact, I’ve fallen behind in the course, and I haven’t given myself enough time to apply and reflect on my learning, which involves another quality I need to work on: Sometimes my best isn’t the best, and that’s good enough. Because of the situation I’ve put myself in, I must accept the quality of my work is also going to suffer.

The research is clear: Learning requires breaks. In a National Institutes of Health article, “Study shows how taking short breaks may help our brains learn new skills,” a study on learning new skills discovered that the frequency of replaying the skill while at rest was a “good predictor of variability” to which Dr. Ethan R. Buch says, “This suggests that during wakeful rest the brain binds together the memories required to learn a new skill.” So, taking the time to stop, reflect, and replay is directly related to how well a new skill is learned. The inverse implying that the lack of breaks means a new skill is learned less well. 

As I’m a good example of, facts unfortunately don’t change our minds. I first need to overcome my tendency to overload myself before putting the research-backed process for learning to practice. As these courses come to an end over the next few weeks, I already have a list of classes and other opportunities lined up, like a life coach certification course and a small business/freelancer starter class, despite my fumbling through the work I’m currently doing. It would seem that instead of trying a new approach, I’m continuing the same old pattern. 

There are so many things I’m learning how to do. I’m learning how to learn, learning to take my time, learning to enjoy idleness. Learning is a gift I give myself, but the destructive habit to be busy and “productive” has begun to distort the joy. Like everything in life, it’s all a process, and retraining myself out of these bad habits is itself a feat. My next step is evaluating what I can feasibly do and do well. If I can’t invest the necessary time, it’ll have to wait. And, I’ll have to work on accepting that taking my time is not only okay, but necessary.