A few months ago, I sat five rows from a small stage where the Dalai Lama was talking about meditation. I was charmed by his infectious, child-like laugh and awestruck by his presence, but it was something Richard Davidson, the event’s host and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, said that planted a seed: “Well-being is a skill.”
The idea that our health and well-being is something we can work on in the same way we learn French or how to cook took root, and I started exploring what experts say about developing a new skill.
Here are eight strategies that help us learn — whether it’s algebra or the rowing machine, accounting or healthy eating:
1. WRITE DOWN YOUR GOAL
“Any meaningful change begins with inspiration,” says Cortland Dahl, a research scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds in Madison, Wisconsin. “You have a vision of yourself to be a different way or act a different way.”
Defining your vision as concretely as possible helps keep you focused. In one study, participants were randomly assigned to groups that thought about their goals, wrote down their goals or wrote down their goals and included some additional follow up. Only 43% of those who thought about their goals completed them, whereas 76% of those who wrote about their goals, outlined clear action items and sent a weekly progress report to a friend either completed the goal or were at least halfway to reaching it.
An important part of sustaining your inspiration and achieving your goal is understanding the motivation behind it. So, when you define your goal, include the larger purpose. Why do you want to learn this skill? What specific problem are you trying to solve?
2. BREAK IT DOWN
“It’s a project-management task,” says Ulrich Boser, author of “Learn Better.” “You have to figure out what the goals are and then break down the steps, into discrete goals.” For example, if you want to run a marathon, start by researching what’s involved, how long it takes to build mileage and different strategies for doing so safely. Once you have an idea of the overall process, break it down into small goals.
“If you say, I’m going to do this every day for a year, it’s harder to stick with it,” says Dahl. “But if you say, I’m going to do this for 10 minutes a day for the next week, that’s much easier. You need the bigger-picture view, the one that’s inspiring, and then a very specific plan on how you’re going to do it.”
3. GET THE RIGHT HELP
“It’s easy to get into bad habits and not even realize you’re doing something wrong,” says Boser. “It’s hard to step out of yourself.”
Don’t be afraid to get help — whether it’s talking to a nutritionist about your eating habits, joining a group running program with a coach or taking dance lessons. A mentor, coach or personal trainer can help you break down your goals, stay on track and provide feedback as you go.
4. MIX IT UP
When most of us are learning something new, we practice one skill at a time, but studies show interleaved practicing — or working multiple skills at the same time — is more effective.
If your goal is to improve your basketball game, you can take 100 foul shots until you feel you have some proficiency. But you will learn better, and faster, if you vary your practice — taking five foul shots, five 3-pointers and five layups. “When you mix it up like that you get a sense of the deeper nugget below,” says Boser. “The more variety you have, the better understanding of the essence of the skill you’ll have.”
5. REINFORCE THE KNOWLEDGE BY ENGAGING
“Learning is not passive,” says Boser. “There’s all sorts of evidence that shows we need to make sense of things.” Self-testing and teaching other people what you’ve learned are two ways to do this. It reinforces the knowledge, forces you to explain it in a way that makes sense to you and increases the chances the information will stick.
If you want to learn to tango, coming home from your lesson and showing your roommate what you learned will help you master the steps and information. “The more energized approach to learning, the more effective,” says Boser.
6. REFLECT ON HOW YOU LEARN
When students reflect on how they learn, they become better learners. Some may think better in a quiet library, others in a café with ambient noise. Also, how we learn biology may be different than how we learn French. Reflecting on, and understanding, different learning strategies helps us recognize strengths and weaknesses, adjust our course and achieve at higher levels.
“This idea of metacognition and do you really know what you know and how do you know what you know is a form of mindfulness,” explains Boser. “With well-being, you might ask: What am I eating right now? Is it making me feel good? Am I eating it because I’m tired or had a fight with my partner? With learning the tango, do I really know the next move? Can I do these sequences on an automatic level?”
7. SOLICIT FOCUSED FEEDBACK
“Evidence shows it’s important to get really focused feedback,” says Boser. Focused feedback is timely and actionable, not a general “good job, buddy” or “keep up the good work.” This is where enlisting the right help can be particularly important.
When Boser was writing “Learn Better,” he tried to improve at basketball. He hired a coach and started videotaping himself. “We need external checks for things we want to do well. Sometimes they’re going to be self-monitoring. Sometimes they’ll come from someone or something else.”
B.J. Fogg, director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, encourages clients to celebrate small wins, not just the big ones. Your brain doesn’t distinguish between progress and perceived progress, but it does understand how often you succeed.