How to build sustainable habits for lifelong learning

What is lifelong learning? How is it different from regular learning?

Lifelong learning is defined as self-initiated and ongoing learning. It means learning - not for a test or to master something specific, but rather to always be in the process of learning and growing. Lifelong learning is being invested in learning for your entire life. And while this is a general mindset that can be cultivated, I’ve found that building a routine is key to ensuring that lifelong learning is part of your life.

I’ll give you an example of what a lifelong learning routine looks like in my life.

It’s a regular morning on a regular day. I wake up at 6am, sit up slowly and drink the cup of water set out on my bedside table the night before. Hydrated and refreshed, I get up and make my way to the kitchen. The counter is sparkling clean and my favorite tea is already laid out for me from the night. While I boil water, I grab a homemade blueberry oatmeal muffin. As I sit down to drink my tea, I pull out the business blog I’ve committed to reading every morning. By the time my muffin is gone, I’ve finished the business blog and head off to shower for work.

Learning can be habit, like your morning coffee
Learning can be habit, like your morning coffee

This is one version of a lifelong learning routine. Learning which is intentionally woven into my everyday life. Staying up to date on the business world wasn’t something that came naturally to me but when I made the career move from education to high tech, I realized I was missing a lot of background information. While I understood the immediate requirements of my job, a lot of the business centered conversations happening around me were foreign to me. I wanted to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, but I knew that it wouldn’t be as simple as just reading a book or watching a documentary. It would mean staying on top of industry trends, understanding both the terms people were using and the subtext behind them. This wasn’t something I could learn in one shot. There was no crash course I could take that would train me to think like a business person over the weekend. No, that would come from consistently reading business updates from respected analysts. This would fall in the category of lifelong learning, an ongoing process of learning.

But how could I make sure I did this consistently? No one was keeping track and there were no clear deliverables, like a deadline or a test.

And that’s why I built a morning routine around it. One which is so easy and personalized that it’s actually fun to keep. By the way, everything about that routine - the muffins, the tea, even the clean countertop - is the product of a lot of trial and error until I found what lifelong learning routine worked for me. But I didn’t mind the time commitment, because I knew that a strong routine was the only thing which would ensure I actually did my reading every morning.

And it really worked. Those consistent 15 minutes a day helped this former business ignoramus feel confident to join debates on current antitrust lawsuits, speculate companies’ long term strategies for differentiation, and remark on what is true innovation in a business model. And it was all because I’d found a way to make sure I worked on it, 15 minutes a day, one morning at a time.

This, in a nutshell, is my personal philosophy towards lifelong learning. Anyone can do it, it just takes the commitment to build good habits and practices.

So how can we build lifelong learning routines? Here are four principles that have been working for me in my personal lifelong learning goals:

Lifelong learning tip #1: Let the past go

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes: “The best time to plant a mango tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

When it comes to lifelong learning, the phrase “the second best time” holds a lot of power. Most of us are, to some extent, perfectionists. We are constantly evaluating our actions in terms of “success” and “failure.” This creates a binary system where something that isn’t success is, by process of elimination, failure. And because lifelong learning is a self-initiated endeavor, it’s hard not to mourn the time we could have spent learning something new.

The mango tree proverb offers a powerful alternative. We can acknowledge that we should have planted the mango tree 20 years ago. We should have started learning that new coding language months ago. But we didn’t. So, the next best time to start is now.

There’s no room for perfectionism in a lifelong learning routine. There’s only room for trial and error, compassion, and perspective.

Lifelong learning tip #2: Live below your means

From an economic standpoint, there are two types of lifestyles a person - or indeed a business - can lead. The first is living above one’s means and the second is living below them.

Living above your means, or “living large,” means spending your entire income each month. For a lot of people this means going out often but then not having leftover money to travel or invest in good technology or a hobby.

Some types of learning require us to “live above our means,” in order to master a new skill or cram for a test, we often need to draw on finite resources of mental energy, intellectual capacity, and often sleep. We often “spend” more than we have, meaning that - even if we succeed - we get burnt out quickly.

This is great for short-term goals, but isn’t sustainable if we want to build a lifelong learning routine.

Living below your means, on the other hand, is spending less than you have. From an economic standpoint, this means that your day to day lifestyle will be simpler and less extravagant, you’ll be able to save money for things like vacations and investment opportunities. I like to think of lifelong learning as “living below your means.” Because lifelong learning means finding ways to learn that don’t drain your finite resources.You can incorporate your lifelong learning pursuits into a relaxing morning routine or while you're making dinner. In fact, when done the right way, these lifelong learning routines can actually generate more energy by keeping your mind active and engaged.

Lifelong learning means creating goals and routines that are so achievable, they are only remarkable in their cumulative power. And so these routines need to be sustainable, enjoyable. It can never be at the expense of a good night’s sleep.

That’s a golden rule in my book - if you’re losing sleep over it, it’s only good for a short term goal and not sustainable.

Lifelong learning tip #3: Aim for 25% success

This example applies more to developing good habits in general, rather than specific lifelong learning skills. However, I believe the two are connected. Lifelong learning is dependent on developing good habits and routines.

This is the story of how I became a 25% cleaner person. I’m not, by nature, particularly organized. However, when I first decided I wanted to establish a morning routine to help me become a better lifelong learner I knew that waking up to a messy kitchen would not put me in the right mindset.

So I made a plan. There were four steps, to be done every night.

Step 1: Clear and wipe down the counters

Step 2: Empty the dish drying rack

Step 3: Put away anything that shouldn’t be out

Step 4: Sweep and wipe down the floors

I decided to spend a week on Step 1. Once I had been consistent with wiping down the counters every night, I would add on Step 2. And so on.

Well, Step 1 was a great success. But Step 2 wasn’t really. I would always find excuses not to empty the dish drying rack and the new habit never really gained momentum. After a few days, I kind of gave up on it.

However, to this day I still wipe down my counters every night before I go to sleep. Which means I wake up every morning to a kitchen that, at least partially, sparkles. As I predicted, this always helps me start the day with a burst of energy that I can translate right into learning.

So, if you had to evaluate me on my success in achieving my goal of a cleaner kitchen you would have to give me a 25%. After all, I only succeeded in making one out of four steps part of my daily routine. Now, I would never accept a 25% on a test or a work assignment. But, there are two reasons why I’m 100% ok with a 25% score on a lifelong skill.

The first reason is that the positive matters more than the negative. My point here is that when we receive a 25% on a test, we focus on the 75% we missed out on. However, in lifelong learning we need to retrain ourselves to focus on the good we have received. The goal isn’t always to get to 100%. In fact there is actually no 100% when it comes to being a clean person or an educated person. Even the 4 step plan I had made was completely arbitrary, man-made by none other than yours truly. In reality, there will always be more to accomplish, so the point is never to get to 100.

And the second reason that I’m ok with my 25% score is that the test isn’t over. What I learned was that I could accomplish 25% of my daily goal before I lost steam. Which is ok, because I’m only human and implementing routines is really and truly very hard. So, when I feel ready to up my kitchen cleaning game I know exactly where to pick up from.

But for now, I’m ok with my shiny counters and disorganized dish rack.

The same thing applies to learning. It’s ok to make an ambitious schedule. But make sure to break it into steps, so that you can take it slow. See what sticks and when you start getting overwhelmed and losing steam.

And when that happens, stop. Take some time to preserve what you have now, rather than trying to add something new.

And that brings me to my next point - how to create small, scalable steps.

Lifelong learning tip #4: Divide by two and then by two again

How ambitious should a concrete goal be? My rule is to half it and then half it again.

I’ll give you an example. Recently I started taking voice lessons. I’ve always had a terrible singing voice and improving it is a goal I’ve had for awhile. When I first started, my voice teacher told me that it was crucial that I practice every day if I wanted to improve.

“How long should I practice every day?” I asked her.

“Thirty minutes would be great,” she answered.

Learning how to sing was something I wanted. Something I really wanted. Not only that, but I was investing a lot of money into these lessons and I wanted to make them count. My first instinct was to say that not only would I practice for 30 minutes a day, I would practice for an hour!

And if I had to learn for an audition or a show I was doing, that would have been great. An hour a day is certainly possible when working towards a short term goal. Especially if it’s something you really want. But since this was a skill I wanted to truly master, I knew I needed a more sustainable routine.

The teacher had said 30 minutes a day was ideal. I would work up to that. In the meantime I divided 30 by 2, which gave me 15 minutes a day. But since this was something I wanted to be really sustainable, something I could do for a very long time, I decided to half it one more time.

Seven minutes a day. It didn’t sound like enough, but I promised myself that once I got into the routine I would add more time.

Doing that first division in half was hard. And doing that second cut was even harder. But I knew that in order to create a lifelong learning situation, I had to start slow. Once those 7 minutes were truly part of my everyday routine, I would add another few minutes.

Those are my four tried and true principles for setting and maintaining sustainable lifelong learning routines. You might have noticed that they’re also relevant to creating routines in general. And that’s not by accident. Because lifelong learning is all about deciding what you want to accomplish and then taking steps to make it happen.

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