Three Ways to Maximize Your Learning Potential

Whether you’re learning web design, or to speak Nepalese, or to dance the tango, the approach we take to the learning experience can make the difference between realizing our dreams and tucking our tails between our legs (and turning the TV back on).

There are many effective tips and techniques for maximizing your learning potential, and it doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 86 – anyone can learn something new.

Here are some of my favorite techniques and concepts related to learning new skills. The majority of these come from a free course I took recently on Coursera, called Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Excellent course, and highly recommended that you check it out!

I really wish I had learned these tips years ago when I was still in school… although better now than never.

The Pomodoro Technique

This first technique has already transformed the way I work in just a few weeks. Just consider for a moment the way that you approach the work day. Do you multi-task? Do you get distracted easily and find yourself surfing aimlessly from one webpage to another, chasing after endless carrots dangling in the margins of every site? I sure do.

We are awash in a sea of distractions every day, and the Pomodoro can help.

How It Works

The idea is simple:

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes, and commit to focusing on one task or project for those 25 minutes.
  2. At the end, give yourself a five-minute break. The break is probably best if it includes at least a little bit of gettin’ up and out of your chair, some movement, and some fresh air if possible.

Why It Works

This break at the end is important for at least two reasons: it ensures that we put some space in our day and prevent burnout (I feel typically fried at the end of most workdays, having taken close to zero breaks), and it also helps to retrain our brain to expect this reward at the end of a focused session of work.

Quite a Pavlovian solution, “tricking” ourselves into working hard, but without the usual exhausted mind following the hard work.

The Pomodoro Technique was devised by an Italian named Francesco Cirillo, based on the idea of using a tomato (pomodoro in Italiano!) timer.

Making a Proper Plan

I used to approach my work day by waking up, sitting in front of my computer, and firing up Gmail. Despite any general notions of what I expected to accomplish that day, my inbox then pretty much dictated what I was going to do for at least the next three hours. Which often amounted to a whole lot of diddly squat. Followed by various excursions in and out of the inbox for the rest of the day. More diddly squat.

Enter the daily planner.

I then decided to make a daily plan first thing in the morning. A bit better, but still I ended up wasting at least the first hour or two hours vacillating between different tasks, trying to figure out which was most important. Often email then became the winner. Which is to say, I was the loser.

And finally, enter the weekly planner.

Over the last month I’ve been honing this planning technique based on what I’ve learned in Learning How to Learn, combined with the inspiring productivity mastery from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

How It Works

The idea here is to

  1. Write down the key roles in your life:  manager, husband, teacher, student, etc.  I even include two of my major projects, Helix River and Sustnrs, as roles.
  2. Then at the start of each week, write down the most important things you want to accomplish in each of those roles. Decide which days you’re going to work on each of those important tasks; if you are inclined, include the specific times of day, how long you’ll spend on each.
  3. Right before bed each day, be sure to review tomorrow’s tasks, and when you wake the next day, you’ll dive right in and take care of business.

No doubt it will take some adjustment, and rearrangement as some tasks take longer than expected (often the case), and other urgent tasks will pop up from time to time (OK, all the time).

Another great resource to check out for this is called WeekPlan, a free weekly planner based on Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits. I’ve used this site now for over two years, and it’s been fantastic.

Why It Works

Our minds are easily distracted, quite obviously, especially in today’s uber-distracting world. Having the plan frees our minds to just focus on the work, especially when done in combination with a Pomodoro.

Another reason this is effective, especially when we review the tasks before bed, is that we can enlist our “mental zombies” – the diffuse mode of thinking that is engaged every time you remember “that actor’s name from that movie”, like five hours after you had the conversation.

This diffuse thinking is like an autopilot for our thoughts, and we can come up with some effective approaches to our important tasks by letting these zombies do their work while we sleep.

The importance of sleep!

Speaking of sleep, you probably should get more. You’ll probably respond that you simply can’t, you just don’t have time. But still, you should.

How It Works

  1. Just make sure to get a good night’s sleep, particularly on the days you learn something new. Seven is better than six, and eight is better than seven!

Why It Works

Throughout the day, our brain accumulates toxins that stick to our neurons. During sleep, our neurons shrink, allowing a “neuro cleanser” to wash away many of the toxins. This helps to ensure a healthy brain.

Also, sleep plays a vital role in learning, and during REM sleep, our brains are working hard to establish new neuronal connections, and bridging these with existing connections.


It never hurts to have more tools in your shed, and these are some highly effective techniques. Give them a shot!

Have any others? Feel free to share your experiences, tips, and learning recommendations in the comments below.

Happy learning!