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Last Updated on January 17, 2018

Learn Something New Every Day

Learn Something New Every Day

Most of us have one or two areas of knowledge that we strive to know very well — things related to our jobs, of course, and maybe a hobby or two. But while it’s important to develop a deep understanding of the things that matter most to us, it is just as important to develop a broad understanding of the world in general.

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A lot of unfortunate people think that learning for the sake of learning is something for schoolchildren, and maybe college students. All the things there are to learn and know that don’t impact directly on their immediate lives they dismiss as “trivia”. Out in the “real world”, they think, there’s no time for such frivolities — there’s serious work to get done!

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There are a lot of good, practical reasons to make learning something new a part of your daily routine, but the best reason has nothing to do with practicality — we are learning creatures, and the lifelong practice of learning is what makes us humans and our lives worthwhile. If that idealistic musing’s not enough, here’s some more down-to-earth benefits:

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  • Learning across a wide range of subjects gives us a range of perspectives to call on in our own narrow day-to-day areas of specialization.
  • Learning helps us more easily and readily adapt to new situations.
  • A broad knowledge of unfamiliar situations feeds innovation by inspiring us to think creatively and providing examples to follow.
  • Learning deepens our character and makes us more inspiring to those around us.
  • Learning makes us more confident.
  • Learning instills an understanding of the historical, social, and natural processes that impact and limit our lives.
  • And, like I said, there’s the whole “making like worth living” thing.

There is, after all, a reason the term “well-read” is a compliment.

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With the entire world of knowledge just a few mouse-clicks away, it has never been easier than it is right now to learn something new and unexpected every day. Here are a few simple ways to make expanding your horizons a part of your daily routine:

  • Subscribe to Wikipedia’s “Featured Article” list. Every day, Wikipedia posts an article selected from its vast repository of entries to it’s Daily-article-l subscribers. If you were a subscriber today, you would have recently discovered that Daylight Saving Time was first proposed by William Willett in 1907 and adopted during World War I as a way to conserve coal. You might have also been interested to find out that Kazakhstan discontinued Daylight Saving Time in 2005 because of alleged health risks associated with changed sleep patterns.
  • Read The Free Dictionary’s homepage or subscribe to its feeds. The Free Dictionary has several daily features on its front page, including Article of the Day (RSS), In the News (RSS), This Day in History (RSS), and Today’s Birthday (RSS). One recent day’s stories told the history of the Hell’s Angels, the identity of the new “7 Wonders of the World”, the origin of the first cultured pearl, and the life story of one of the world’s most prominent tenors.
  • Subscribe to the feed at Your Daily Art (RSS). Every day you’ll be confronted with a classic work of art to contemplate, along with a few notes about the piece. If you were subscribed right now, you might have recently seen Man Ray’s intriguing and playful “Le Violin d’Ingres” and Frank Weston Benson’s luminous “Red and Gold”.
  • Subscribe to the feeds at Did You Know? and Tell Me Why?. These sites are both run by an R. Edmondson, who certainly knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. Updates are slightly less than daily, but I like the two sites so much I couldn’t leave them off this list. If you were a subscriber to these sites, you’d have recently learned why clouds are white, what the European Union is, the French terms for the days of the week and the months of the year, and the history of the development of public health efforts in response to the hazards of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Listen to podcasts like In Our Time and Radio Open Source. Radio Open Source is a daily interview/panel show covering everything from politics to science to art and literature to the greatness of the movie Groundhog Day. (At the moment, Radio Open Source is on summer hiatus, but subscribe anyway — they’ll be back!) For a history of the events and ideas that shaped the present, In Our Time is ideal: a weekly gathering of scholars discussing subjects as diverse as the life of Joan of Arc, theories of gravity, and what we know about the Permian-Triassic boundary. Subscribe to a handful of good, literary podcasts and get smart while you drive!

Check the directory at Elite Skills for more sources: there are college course podcasts, online documentaries, foreign language lessons, and more — all free. Believe it or not, your head will expand to fit whatever you try to stuff into it!

Which is really the whole point.

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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The power of habit

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to make a reminder works for you

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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