How long does it take to learn a new skill? It’s like…a really long time, right? You never have that much time to learn whatever it is. Most people who learn new skills are dedicated super humans who put in 25 hour days doing labs and reading books and taking courses and sniffing markers. Those folks sacrifice everything to stay ahead and command the respect of their peers. Right? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?
Don’t overthink it.
New skills come from one thing. Focus. That’s it. That’s the secret. Focus to learn a skill comes in blocks of a few undistracted hours at a time. Not dramatic sacrifice. Not bragging to social media about how you’re crushing it on your studies because you’ve given up your personal life.
Let the public drama queen masochists do what they feel they must to impress…whomever. They are not your role model. You don’t need to be them. You just need to find a few consecutive hours on your calendar. Block them off. Use them to focus on a single thing you want to learn. During the blocked off time, learn the thing. Do not do any of the other things that so easily distract us. Social media. YouTube. Stonks. Email. Snacks.
During this short window of you-time, focus on the thing. Do the thing. Learn the thing. For perhaps 2 hours (4 once you’ve gotten the hang of it), do not do other things.
Abstain from multi-tasking while learning.
As you focus on the complex idea typical of the sort facing technologists, your brain will make important connections that build one upon another. If you task switch in the middle of comprehending the new idea, some of those tenuous connections will break, and you’ll have to retrace your steps before making progress again.
Learning is going well, this is making sense, and I’m ready for the next step! Two steps forward. I think I’ll take a break first, though. Task switch! Oh hai, Twitter, my sweet distraction! One step back. Where was I? Oh, right. The installer needed me to tweak that script in…uh…where was it again? In /usr? Or was it /opt somewhere? Crap, I don’t remember now, which tab is the doc in? Why are all my tabs so darn small, anyway?
And then you give up because something you can’t ignore is coming up fast on your calendar. Six weeks go by before you try again to learn the thing at which point you remember zero from your prior distracted session.
Scope your learning objective carefully.
Pick a thing. Keep it a small thing that would help you in your work or unlock other skills you’re interested in. For instance…
- Stand up a VPC in AWS and get a handle on the basics. (You don’t need to learn all of AWS today.)
- Leak a route from an EIGRP stub router. (You don’t need to be senior routing architect when you’re done.)
- Deploy Ansible in a Docker container and run a simple playbook. (No one asked you to master all of Ansible or Docker right this very second.)
- Unravel the mysteries of formatted printing in Python 3. (Even full-time developers learn new coding skills a little at a time.)
- Figure out what a BGP community is for and how to send one to a peer. (BGP is complicated, and becoming more so each year. You don’t have to know it all before making use of it.)
These are skills you can get a handle on in just a few hours if you’re focused, and they might help you with network design, infrastructure management, or workflow efficiency. Building an army of skills is a career multiplier. You use skills tactically (operations & engineering) to start, but then strategically (architecture & design) as you put more of these skills together.
But you have to focus, just a little bit at a time, to make that progress.
For those of you trying to apply this to certification studies, you are on a somewhat different road. I think some of the principles here apply. I don’t think you need to be the 25 hour a day study martyr. But I also think successfully preparing for certification exams demands even more focus from you, as you sacrifice yourself to the vendor training program gods. A post for a different day, perhaps.