We live in a knowledge economy, but many of us haven't changed how we gain knowledge. Most of us are so focused on the now that we don't invest in the future. But it's never been more true that learning isn't done when we leave high school, college or graduate school. It's a lifelong pursuit and a key to dealing with the rapidly changing world around us.
It's also enjoyable to learn new things and to gain expertise in a new area. It builds self-confidence. And instead of just growing older, continuous learning means you will also get wiser. While you can't predict what's going to change in your life, you can be well-prepared when changes come. Being educated can help you do your job better, keep your brain healthy over the long term and has been linked to higher levels of happiness and longevity.
Some of the world's most successful people have a commitment to learning. Bill Gates read a book a week (and takes a two-week "reading vacation" every year). President Obama read for an hour a day while in office. Mark Zuckerburg reads a couple books a month. Oprah turned her reading habit into her book club, and got more Americans reading, too. Warren Buffett reads more than all of them — sometimes up to five or six hours a day.
All of them could claim to be "too busy" to read. But they make time for it because it's that valuable.
How do you actually make it happen? Here's how you can fit five hours of learning — the number many recommended as both doable and the key to eventual mastery — into your schedule:
I set a goal for myself to read 50 books last year (that's also Bill Gates' annual quota). I got to only 39 in 2017, but that's not too shabby. (Plus, that doesn't include the many long-form articles I read in the New Yorker, Hakai, Longform, The New York Times magazine, and other platforms that produce quality nonfiction.) Reading is one of the best ways to learn about a new subject or keep up-to-date on a favorite one. Yes, reading novels counts — plenty of fiction writers pack their books with all kinds of real-world information.
To make it into a true learning experience, it helps to pick a topic (or a few topics) that you have special interest in. Besides novels, my reading over the last few years has focused on art (mostly painting and photography), death culture (how humans over time and in various cultures deal with the inevitable) and books about stand-alone animals (squid, cod, and various apex predators). I have art, sociology and zoology covered. My partner has completely different interests. He reads books almost exclusively about Latin American history and drug culture (and the wars and issues illegal drugs have caused) and books about sports history, including international sports.
This isn't school. You can choose to learn about anything that piques your interest. Make up a reading list and start collecting the books. Then, dedicate time most days to reading. Waking up a half-hour early and reading while I wake up is one of my favorite techniques. If you can do another 20-30 minutes at bed time, you've put in an hour during times when you may have otherwise been mindlessly scrolling on your phone.
If sitting down with a book is not appealing or not really possible for an hour a day, consider audio books. That way you can get whatever relatively mindless stuff you want done and learn at the same time. Services like Audible are fantastic for this. I actually have access to quite a collection of free audio books via my local library, which has an app that works just as well as the commercial ones. It's called Libby, and it's used by hundreds of libraries across the U.S.
I found that once I started listening to audio books (I also enjoy a host of podcasts on my favorite subjects), I was actually able to get through quite a lot. All those 15-minute increments add up. I listen when I'm doing housework, driving, on long walks, while at the gym or while shopping.
Two years ago I took Great Courses up on one of their discount-class offers, and it was a great experience. I learned basic photography skills from a National Geographic photographer who was interesting, funny and (obviously) extremely knowledgable. It was very much like the college lecture classes I've taken, except I could do it on my own time.
I also have found the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Metmedia free online lectures to be mostly fantastic (art and painting being one of my self-learning subjects). TED talks can be another (free) way to both listen to smart lectures and interesting takes on a subject, and find out who the experts are in a field. (For instance, there are dozens of videos about different subjects that pertain to the culture of death, from green burial to ghosts to veterans' experiences of grief). These talks can also be a fun way to see and hear the author of a book. And these are just a few of the resources available. There are a number of open-source learning programs from universities and organizations, so once you decide on your subject(s) of study, look around or ask at your local library.
Think, reflect, write, process
Leaving "free" time to just think through stuff can actually be more of a challenge once you have opened yourself to all these various different types of learning. But it's important, too. Some of my best story ideas and creative projects have come to me when I've been gardening, swimming, cycling, hiking, trail-running or just out for a ramble. I usually listen to music, which doesn't seem to distract me or impede my thinking, but if you find yourself too focused on your tunes, you might try silence. I like to carry one of those little notebooks with me, or sometimes take notes on my phone (I generally just email them to myself). I come up with all kinds of ideas, as well as solutions to personal issues.
If your brain doesn't come up with a million things while you are unfocused and exercising like mine does, there are plenty of other places to give yourself thinking time. Journaling might be the prompt you need to get the ideas flowing. Entrepreneur and billionaire Sara Blakely is a dedicated journaler who has filled dozens of notebooks on the way to making her Spanx fortune. If writing isn't your thing, you could try the free voice recorder that's on most phones. Just find a way to have a conversation with yourself. It's not weird, I promise, and can be incredibly valuable.
However you best learn new things, get going. As Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and chief executive pointedly told the New York Times: "There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop. [People who do not spend five to 10 hours a week learning] will obsolete themselves with the technology."