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Climbing the Learning Curve: What to Do When You’re a n00b

Climbing the Learning Curve: What to Do When You’re a n00b

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    Chances are, within the next few months, you’ll be asked at least once to acquire a new skill or body of knowledge. If you’re in high-tech, you can count on your entire skill-set becoming obsolete every few years, but even people in less accelerated fields have to keep learning just to stay even these days.

    For example, whether you’re in marketing and PR, corporate communications, human resources, or political campaigning, you’ve had to learn how to use and make sense of social media – a field that barely existed a couple of years ago. That so many companies and individuals still do it badly is no excuse – if you want to stand out in these (and many other) fields, you have to master this new medium, and fast.

    Learning enough about a new field to function, and doing it in a short amount of time, is something I do all the time as a writer. Whether it’s putting together a sales page for a client whose product I’ve never even heard of before or writing an article on a topic I know nothing about, I’m constantly having to give myself a crash course in topics that, a few days earlier, I didn’t even know were topics!

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    Below are some of the strategies I use to get quickly up-to-speed on whatever subject is thrown at me. Not all of these techniques are necessary in every instance, but I know I’ll always be using at least two or three in any given situation. I pride myself on being able to grasp the basics of any topic within a few days (at most) – at least enough to ask decent questions and follow along when somebody speaks about a subject.

    1. Google it.

    Let’s start with the obvious – modern web searching puts a tremendous amount of information at our fingertips, and makes it tremendously accessible. Since finding good information relies on the ability to craft a good search query, I usually start with reference sites like Wikipedia to get a grounding in the general outlines of a topic, so I can start fine-tuning my search queries. I also stay on the lookout for key names and organizations, which can add quite a bit to a web search.

    To improve the quality of information my searches uncover, I will very often add one of these terms to my search queries:

    • howto or how to – If I’m looking for practical advice about a task, searching for “how to” pages will bring me tutorials and walkthroughs, where a more general search might bring me pages and pages of news stories, feature articles, resumes, and definitions to search through.
    • ebook or e-book or filetype:pdf – For real in-depth information, nothing beats a book – except an ebook, which I can download immediately, review instantly, and search within to find specific words or phrases.
    • forum – If the experience of the “person on the street” might be useful – for instance, in tracking down the solution to technological nuisances – forums are ideal, as they tend to contain informal and practical advice from one person to another.

    2. Hit the library or bookstore.

    With my list of keywords and important names in hand, my next step after searching the Internet is to visit a giant building full of books. For academic topics, I’ll try to get to my university library (and most universities – but alas, not all – will let non-students and non-faculty in to look, even if they won’t let you check anything out), though a lot of public libraries have many of the same resources these days. If I’m trying to learn a new skill – like Ruby programming, a short-lived fascination I entertained a couple years ago – I’ll just head to a bookstore. You’d be surprised at how many “Learn X in 24 hours” type books there are out there – if more than a handful of people are interested in learning about something, chances are there’s a how-to book on it.

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    3. Look for magazines.

    Don’t neglect the newsstand at your bookstore (or if you have a real newsstand around, head straight there!) or periodicals room at your library. Most subjects have a variety of magazines devoted to them, ranging from hobbyist mags to academic journals, and spending a couple of hours with a few recent issues can go a long way towards familiarizing you with the main areas of interest in the field. Pay attention to the letters and editor’s notes – these often “explain the explanations” by serving as “meta-discourse” on the more complex material covered deeper in the magazine. Also look at ads, which can give you leads on companies to look up. Finally, note the names of anyone who seems to be hailed as a leader in the field – especially if they are profiled or interviewed.

    4. Find the experts.

    In strategies 1-3 above, you should have amassed a list of names of key experts; Google them and try to find their homepages. If they’re academics, they should have a homepage at their university, at least; if business leaders, look for them in the directories of the companies they work for. If you’re really lucky, they’ll have a personal site or even a blog, giving you access to all sorts of information “straight from the horse’s mouth” so to speak.

    5. Ask for help.

    Once you’ve located your experts, email them or call them, explain your topic, and ask their advice. This won’t work in every situation, or even be appropriate, but you’d be surprised at how helpful people can be when you approach them with respect. I do this all the time to get sources for stories I’m working on, and nobody’s ever held my lack of expertise against me. Have a look at my guide to contacting experts, How to Email a Stranger, on this site.

    Also, don’t overlook Twitter and other one-to-many mediums (including your blog, if you have one). If you have a decent-sized following at Twitter, even a hundred or so people, you’ll be surprised at how much information you can turn up with a 140-character-or-less question. When I bought a Blackberry after 8 years of devoted Palm use, I tweeted to ask what resources I should look at and what software I should install, and within hours I had checked installed a dozen useful programs and was wading through a half-dozen interesting websites.

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    6. Write about it.

    One of the best ways to learn is to write about a topic – even if nobody else ever reads it. It quickly becomes apparent what the blank spots are in your budding new understanding, driving you back to fill in those gaps. Take an hour or two to write a short description of what you’ve learned about your topic – who knows, it might even come in handy as a reference later on.

    7. Make something.

    Of course, you don’t really start learning until you try to apply what you know to a real-world situation. For example, while most programming books have chapters about programming theory, they also walk you through program after program, starting with putting “Hello World!” up on a screen. Making something that works gives you an understanding of the mechanics of a topic that’s far more intimate than just reading about it or listening to someone explain it can – plus, it gives you a sense of accomplishment that helps keep you from getting overwhelmed by the amount of stuff you still have to learn.

    8. Join a group.

    Depending on the scope of the topic you’re trying to learn about, you might consider joining a local enthusiasts group, signing up for a meetup, or even enrolling with a national professional organization. The bigger groups have newsletters, magazines, or academic journals included with membership, and all of them will give you an opportunity to learn about and network with the bigwigs in their respective fields.

    9. Start a blog.

    For long-term learning, a blog that tracks your efforts and progress can be very rewarding. A personal journal is good, too, but a blog has a few advantages over a private journal – one, you’ll be helping others at or slightly behind your level get up to speed, which may well become a kind of informal support group for you all; two, when you make mistakes publicly, you learn faster, especially if readers catch your mistakes; and three, you’ll be advertising to the world that you’re open to advice. If you keep yourself approachable, you might find that the information you need comes to you, instead of the other way around.

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    10. Take it one step at a time.

    Try to keep a good sense of where you are and what you need to learn next – you’re not going to become an expert overnight. Let others guide you until you can make good choices on your own, and recognize your strengths as they develop – and your weaknesses. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and to spend as long as you need at any given level of knowledge. If you’re really serious about a topic, set long-term goals for where you want to be in one year, two years, etc., and develop a plan that will get you there.

    As I said, I have to get a basic overview of a new field every couple of weeks or so, which may be extreme, but that’s the life I’ve chosen. These are the techniques that have worked for me – what about you? When have you had to learn something totally new, and how did you do it? Let us know about it in the comments.

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    Last Updated on March 30, 2020

    What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time

    What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time

    If you’ve got a big block of free time, the best way to put that to use is to relax, have fun, decompress from a stressful day, or spend time with a loved one. But if you’ve just got a little chunk — say 5 or 10 minutes — there’s no time to do any of the fun stuff.

    So, what to do in free time?

    Put those little chunks of time to their most productive use.

    Everyone works differently, so the best use of your free time really depends on you, your working style, and what’s on your to-do list. But it’s handy to have a list like this in order to quickly find a way to put that little spare time to work instantly, without any thought. Use the following list as a way to spark ideas for what you can do in a short amount of time.

    1. Reading Files

    Clip magazine articles or print out good articles or reports for reading later, and keep them in a folder marked “Reading File”. Take this wherever you go, and any time you have a little chunk of time, you can knock off items in your Reading File.

    Keep a reading file on your computer (or in your bookmarks), for quick reading while at your desk (or on the road if you’ve got a laptop).

    2. Clear out Inbox

    Got a meeting in 5 minutes? Use it to get your physical or email inbox to empty.

    If you’ve got a lot in your inbox, you’ll have to work quickly, and you may not get everything done; but reducing your pile can be a big help. And having an empty inbox is a wonderful feeling.

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    3. Phone Calls

    Keep a list of phone calls you need to make, with phone numbers, and carry it everywhere.

    Whether you’re at your desk or on the road, you can knock a few calls off your list in a short amount of time.

    4. Make Money

    This is my favorite productive use of free time. I have a list of articles I need to write, and when I get some spare minutes, I’ll knock off half an article real quick.

    If you get 5 to 10 chunks of free time a day, you can make a decent side income. Figure out how you can freelance your skills, and have work lined up that you can knock out quickly — break it up into little chunks, so those chunks can be done in short bursts.

    5. File

    No one likes to do this. If you’re on top of your game, you’re filing stuff immediately, so it doesn’t pile up.

    But if you’ve just come off a really busy spurt, you may have a bunch of documents or files laying around.

    Or maybe you have a big stack of stuff to file. Cut into that stack with every little bit of spare time you get, and soon you’ll be in filing Nirvana.

    6. Network

    Only have 2 minutes? Shoot off a quick email to a colleague. Even just a “touching bases” or follow-up email can do wonders for your working relationship. Or shoot off a quick question, and put it on your follow-up list for later.

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    7. Clear out Feeds

    If my email inbox is empty, and I have some spare time, I like to go to my Google Reader and clear out my feed inbox.

    8. Goal Time

    Take 10 minutes to think about your goals — personal and professional.

    If you don’t have a list of goals, start on one. If you’ve got a list of goals, review them.

    Write down a list of action steps you can take over the next couple of weeks to make these goals a reality. What action step can you do today? The more you focus on these goals, and review them, the more likely they will come true.

    9. Update Finances

    Many people fall behind with their finances, either in paying bills (they don’t have time), or entering transactions in their financial software, or clearing their checkbook, or reviewing their budget.

    Take a few minutes to update these things. It just takes 10 to 15 minutes every now and then.

    10. Brainstorm Ideas

    Another favorite of mine if I just have 5 minutes — I’ll break out my pocket notebook, and start a brainstorming list for a project or article. Whatever you’ve got coming up in your work or personal life, it can benefit from a brainstorm. And that doesn’t take long.

    11. Clear off Desk

    Similar to the filing tip above, but this applies to whatever junk you’ve got cluttering up your desk. Or on the floor around your desk.

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    Trash stuff, file stuff, put it in its place. A clear desk makes for a more productive you. And it’s oddly satisfying.

    12. Exercise

    Never have time to exercise? 10 minutes is enough to get off some pushups and crunches. Do that 2 to 3 times a day, and you’ve got a fit new you.

    13. Take a Walk

    This is another form of exercise that doesn’t take long, and you can do it anywhere. Even more important, it’s a good way to stretch your legs from sitting at your desk too long.

    It also gets your creative juices flowing. If you’re ever stuck for ideas, taking a walk is a good way to get unstuck.

    14. Follow up

    Keep a follow-up list for everything you’re waiting on. Return calls, emails, memos — anything that someone owes you, put on the list.

    When you’ve got a spare 10 minutes, do some follow-up calls or emails.

    15. Meditate

    You don’t need a yoga mat to do this. Just do it at your desk. Focus on your breathing. A quick 5 to 10 minutes of meditation (or even a nap) can be tremendously refreshing.

    Take a look at this 5-Minute Guide to Meditation: Anywhere, Anytime

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    16. Research

    This is a daunting task for me. So I do it in little spurts.

    If I’ve only got a few minutes, I’ll do some quick research and take some notes. Do this a few times, and I’m done!

    17. Outline

    Similar to brainstorming, but more formal. I like to do an outline of a complicated article, report or project, and it helps speed things along when I get to the actual writing. And it only takes a few minutes.

    18. Get Prepped

    Outlining is one way to prep for longer work, but there’s a lot of other ways you can prep for the next task on your list.

    You may not have time to actually start on the task right now, but when you come back from your meeting or lunch, you’ll be all prepped and ready to go.

    19. Be Early

    Got some spare time before a meeting? Show up for the meeting early.

    Sure, you might feel like a chump sitting there alone, but actually people respect those who show up early. It’s better than being late (unless you’re trying to play a power trip or something, but that’s not appreciated in many circles).

    20. Log

    If you keep a log of anything, a few spare minutes is the perfect time to update the log.

    Actually, the perfect time to update the log is right after you do the activity (exercise, eat, crank a widget), but if you didn’t have time to do it before, your 5-minute break is as good a time as any.

    More Inspirations on What To Do During Free Time

    Featured photo credit: Lauren Mancke via unsplash.com

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