Habits are learned through rewarded practice. Some habits are completely unconscious, for example: checking your phone when you experience a moment of boredom. You may not have realized how much this has become a habit in your life (as it has in mine), simply because our phones are very good at negating that feeling of boredom (negative reinforcement reward).
Some habits are acquired through deliberate practice. For example, if you play a sport or a musical instrument, you probably have created a warm-up routine to “get ready” to perform. When you perform well after your warm-up, you feel good (positive reinforcement reward).
My recommendation for optimizing your learning habits is to follow what I call the 3 Aces:
Become aware of the habits you’ve built up around learning (both the deliberate and the unconscious). Some of these might include studying using notecards (deliberate), reacting emotionally to feedback (unconscious), maintaining a todo list (deliberate), ignoring certain items on it (unconscious). There are many deliberate and unconscious habits we form over time. Several of them come from the educational system we were born into, our families and friends, or our challenges and triumphs and the stories we tell ourselves about them. Get curious about these habits and make a list of the ones you’re already using. Label each habit you practice as “deliberate” or “unconscious.”
Once you have a list of your current habits, you want to access them in a way that allows you to build in more opportunities for deliberate practice, feedback collection, and self-reflection. Every learning habit can be made more powerful by introducing or increasing the amount of practice, feedback, and reflection. How can you access your habits? Let’s use an example from the above. Let’s say you’re looking at your phone for the 30th time today.
Reflection: Why did you start looking at it? Were you looking to learn some piece of information or were you simply bored?
Feedback: Let’s say you were just bored or anxious, turning that moment of boredom or anxiety into a moment of curiosity would create an opportunity for you to learn something.
Practice: Each time you look at your phone and realize it was out of boredom or anxiety, recall the things you’re curious about and learn something new about one of them. This will turn an unconscious habit into a deliberate learning practice. You can do something similar with many of your unconscious habits. As for the deliberate ones you picked up in school or at work, think about how much feedback you collect while performing these habits, or how much reflection you do throughout, or how much access to practice opportunities these habits actually give you. If you can increase the amount of any or all of these in your current habits, they will improve your access to learning throughout your daily life.
Learning something new often feels like going to the gym or working muscles you haven’t worked in a long time. Your brain has to deal with a lot of chaos when you’re learning something new. Without getting into the nitty gritty of the cognitive science of brain mechanics, let’s just say that when you expose your mind to new information or concepts, your brain goes into overdrive trying to connect these new ideas to thoughts you’ve had before. The result can be a lot of chaotic “synaptic firing” and this, like the “twitching” of your muscle fibers during exercise, requires energy and feels to you like work. Sometimes that work can feel like stress or strain, and often times it’s easy to get distracted by things that don’t or turn away from the work. I’ve tried four times in my life to learn to play piano. I’ve failed each time because at some point, it got too strenuous and I decided to go learn something else that I believed would give me greater reward (like the financial reward of acquiring work-related skills or the “runner’s high” of exercise). The next time I learn to play the piano, I’m going to set up a habit of accountability in my practice. I will hire a piano instructor (seek mentorship), I will learn and practice with a friend (create a community of practice), I will schedule my practice sessions and record the times I make it and the times I miss (track time spent). But most of all, I will build in the fun and joy of improvisation (create and manage rewards), because without that, I would likely give up my dream of one day playing in a jazz band (personalize the goal).
In short, you already have many of the habits you need to successfully learn every day of your life. All you need to do is start becoming aware of them, accessing additional feedback, reflection, and practice opportunities, and holding yourself accountable for the brain training you want to do. Improving your learning habits each and every day is a very learnable and rewarding habit in and of itself. Good luck, and always remember to have fun!
For more research and insights into deliberate practice take a look at Peak. And for more research and insights into the value of feedback and reflection take a look at How Learning Works. Finally, for more research and insights into the communities of practice take a look at Situated Learning .