Let’s start off with what to avoid. Here are four big mistakes we see people make a lot when learning things online, and one extra bonus mistake that we all make way too often.
- Watching videos and thinking it’ll magically stick
- Practicing in the same way again and again without improving
- Getting distracted while learning
- Not clarifying one’s goals or intentions ahead of time
- BONUS: Not getting enough sleep
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
1. Watching and re-watching videos and thinking it’ll magically stick.
Weirdly, the go-to model when you think about “learning online” is watching endless videos. The problem is: Watching videos or reading articles on its own doesn’t work, at least in terms of building good habits, retaining information, or learning in a way that lasts. (This is pretty self-evident but if you want some data, here’s a meta-analysis of 225 studies making this point. Not required reading.)
In fact, if there’s only one thing I hope you’ll take away from this guide, it’s this: Don’t just watch videos online and expect it’ll lead to dramatic improvement. If you want to grow, find ways to engage actively with what you’re learning, through recalling information, putting it into practice, reflecting upon what you’re learning, discussing it with others, and other techniques we’ll get into later.
2. Practicing in the same way again and again to improve.
I did this for years — I sat down at the piano and simply practiced the way I was taught: Play my scales, run through repertoire, etc, and hoped that improvement would happen magically along the way.
The problem is that when things feel too easy, we’re actually not learning anything. The best learning happens at the edge of your comfort zone, when you’re pushing yourself a bit each time. The researcher Robert Bjork coined the phrase “desirable difficulties” to describe methods of learning that feel difficult but increase long-term performance. Don’t fall into the trap of mistaking time spent practicing as time spent improving.
3. Letting yourself get distracted while you’re learning.
Probably the biggest challenge when learning things online is to stay focused. I expect all of us have tried learning with the TV on or while scrolling Twitter at some point. Unsurprisingly, that’s not going to work very well.
How do you protect against it?
There are definitely things you can do, from being more deliberate about your time to removing distractions, to creating rewards and positive cues for yourself. We’ll offer a few ideas further down, but here’s a nice interview with the author Charles Duhigg who wrote the book The Power of Habit.
4. Not clarifying your goals or definitions of success beforehand.
It’s tough to progress if you don’t know where you’re trying to go. And yet, so few of us take time to lay out our goals before diving into a course or starting a learning program.
Even if you’re taking a pre-packaged course, it can be helpful to make sure you’re clear on what you’re hoping to take from it. This will allow you to prioritize your time on the parts most relevant to you and protect against deep, distracting rabbit holes (although sometimes we love a good rabbit hole…)
Bonus Mistake. Not getting enough sleep!
We consolidate learning gains during sleep, so if you stay up all night learning something new, you’re fooling yourself! There’s lots of evidence of this from around the world of neuroscience, but here’s a link to one study that showed how the neural connections of people who performed a learning task right before sleeping were stronger than those who did it way earlier in the day. Other studies show even deeper benefits.
So, in summary, don’t be a sleepless, video-watching practice zombie scrolling your Twitter feed while listening to your next tutorial in the background. What should you do instead? Let’s take a look.