Efficient Learning, the Walter White Way

That title probably makes no sense. But I didn’t write it for you. That’s what today is about.

Truth time.

I let myself get a little behind in my prep work, and now I’m staring down a few long nights. More checklists to complete. And every item is a rabbit hole I want to run down. It’s hard for me to pull myself back from endless curiosity and move on to the next thing, but that’s just my learning style and I’m pretty sure I can manage it.

Dev Bootcamp is big on learning styles. They want you to know something about how you learn best before you get started, so you don’t waste time. I did some required reading and took a couple of online tests they prescribed, and I wasn’t at all surprised with what I found. I’m not a very visual learner, but I get a little more from reading material and a LOT more from hearing/speaking and doing/testing. And my thinking style means that I need to do a lot of doing and testing, trying things out my own way and challenging my teachers, if I’m to learn at my best pace. I don’t need to be at 100% all the time. But 99.1% would be nice.

That’s good information to know. But if I believe it’s true, I need to apply it in order for it to stick. So this post is my meta-learning exercise, where I’ll be thinking through some ways I can get the most out of every hour I spend learning all this programming stuff. I figure if I spend an hour on this now, it’ll save me several hours in the coming days, and I’ll remember more of what I cram into my skull. And maybe I’ll have more fun with the whole process.

Bear with me, reader. Or don’t. This post might inspire you to do a similar exercise for yourself, but I don’t really care if it does. I’m only doing this publicly because it keeps me accountable and honest with myself. I’ve spent many years as a performer, guitar in hand and mic in face, and now I grow better when I’m doing things on a visible stage.

Corollary: If you’ve ever seen me play in person, I was lying to you. You thought I was giving you something because I wanted you to enjoy it. But I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.

Walter White is not amused by this tomfolery

“Way to steal my words, jerk.”


Anyway, here’s how I think I learn best, and what I think I need to do/have/accept in order to learn better. (I already had to write something like this for a DBC survey after I was accepted. Let’s see if I can improve on it now that I’ve been learning new things for real.)

I’m not the reader I thought I was. By far, the hardest thing for me to get through was the Learn to Program e-book I had to read. Second hardest was the Learn to Count e-book I had to read. I’m a quick reader, and I had no problem comprehending the material or applying what I had learned later, but getting the information into my head was BORING. I kept getting distracted and losing my place. Or I’d get frustrated about getting distracted and stop reading for the day and come back to the material and find that I’d lost my place. I lost my place a lot. I had to reread paragraphs a lot. I was bored. It was inefficient. It was frustrating. Going forward, I need to own this weakness and commit to taking short breaks from material if I get bored. And I need to get back to it right after break time instead of letting myself lose momentum.

If I want to lock something in, I need to say it out loud. My family is getting sick of hearing about code. But they’re the ones within earshot, and every time I explain something to someone else, two things happen: my recollection improves, and my understanding switches on. Even if I’ve worked with a method for hours and think I know all I can learn about it for the day, talking about it always seems to open up another layer of mastery. And if I can’t express an idea verbally, that’s a pretty good sign that I don’t really understand it yet. So talking is a booster and a yardstick for me. Thank goodness I’m so good at talking! Of course, there won’t always be someone around to talk to, and my family will lose patience with me eventually. Maybe I could cultivate my self-talk skill over the next few weeks, or make up little songs to sing to myself about the things I’m learning.

When I’m mindful, I’m a great listener. Well, duh. That’s all listening is, really – staying in the moment and fully engaging with what somebody is saying. My problem is that I can spend less time listening and more time planning what I’m going to say next, or drifting off on some mental tangent and tuning out of the conversation. The first habit isn’t an issue when I’m watching an instructional video or a lecture, but the second buries me all the time. The worst part about it is that I’m giving up a strong learning style when I fail to listen; my auditory learning skills are some of my sharpest weapons, and I’m blunting half of them if all I can do is talk and drift. I’ve started practicing mindfulness daily, a few minutes at a time, and I’m getting better at turning my attention back to the moment. (Come to think of it, my reading has also gotten a little better since I started practicing being present.) There’s nothing mystical about it. When I’m here, I can soak in whatever’s here. When I’m not, I can’t. If I want to learn as fast as I can, I need to be in the room the whole time I’m learning, even when it’s not my turn to speak.

My eyes deceive me. I understand how flowcharts work, but I’m not good at drawing them. When I imagine how a piece of code is going to work, I’m thinking in words, not pictures. Those fun infographics that go viral with their fonts and their icons and their expertly-designed layouts? They don’t do much for me. I don’t even like cat photos. I know this skill isn’t fixed, I could learn to be a more visual person, but now is probably not the best time for anything other than my most efficient and fastest effort. So my cleanest idea here is to talk quietly to myself when presented with a visual concept. Or maybe I could try replicating the drawing on a notepad, but do it in a different way, so I’d have to demonstrate the concept as I drew. I don’t know. This one’s tough for me.

I make a great lab rat. Put me in a maze and I probably can’t draw it for you, and I might not do the best job of listening to your directions for solving it, but if I can just strike out in a random direction and figure it out from there, I bet I’ll be eating some cheese pretty soon. I’m at my best when I’m actually plugging away and trying things out. I took a lot of things apart when I was a kid; when I couldn’t take something apart, I smashed it to bits. Whatever it took to see the inner workings, I did it. I still do it. When I sit down with an intention to learn a programming concept, my first instinct is to play around with the code until something clicks. It’s a skill I’ve developed through years of songwriting and decades of gaming, and it’s equal parts gift and curse; I get frustrated if I can’t test a proof of concept immediately. And I might come across as annoying when I’m asking endless questions about something I don’t understand yet. That sounds like an auditory habit, but it’s really a kinesthetic one: from my point of view, I’m building something in my brain, and the teacher’s answers are helping me test the structure’s weak points. To learn at my full potential, I’ll need to keep defaulting to a do-first attitude instead of losing myself in thought, which is the default defense mechanism of my perfectionist brain (I can’t fail if I don’t start). And I need to keep working on playing well with others, so my passion for tinkering doesn’t come across as badgering or micromanagement.

Blogging really helps. When I get online and write things down, it puts my mind at ease and reinforces the work I’m already doing. So far, I’ve only written about my learning process and my shortfalls, because I’m nervous about diving in with a badly oiled learning machine, and writing about learning is helping me learn better. Once Phase 0 starts, I expect to get a lot more technical.

Whatever I end up writing about, I’ll keep on trying to post regularly. It’s a habit that keeps me pressing keys, if nothing else. Stay tuned. I’ll be back tomorrow.

For me. Not you.


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