How To Make Learning Stick


My niece, Marsha, she's just nine years old

I don't know if you remember what it was to be nine, but you sure do remember homework, don't you? There's mathematics, comprehension, geography, spellings and a ton of other stuff. 

At times, when I'm mentoring Marsha, I can see her brains fry. The well of information becomes too much for her. She needs to find a way to deal with that information, but she's trapped. She can't just stop learning. And she can't go forward.

It's a lot like how business owners feel today

My list, your list, it's a mile long already. And that's just our personal goals. Like for instance this year alone, I want to improve my photography, understand photo books better, learn Adobe Lightroom, keep improving Spanish, try new recipes, make new leaps in watercolour-yup, that list is long and diverse. 

And then if you're anything like me, you'll want to improve things in your business too. So like Marsha, we wade through whatever life throws at us, desperately clinging to the next shred of information.

And often, learning doesn't stick

What makes learning stick is a low-level of mastery. Let's take spellings, for instance. Like spellings for instance. In any given week, she'll have about 10-20 new words to learn. But the words are a ton of useless information by themselves. What matters is how you home in on one of them and then master it.

So we'll sweep through and learn all the words, because you have to do it. And then we'll work on one extension. e.g. All words ending in "ture", like adventure, conjecture, aperture etc. And so we master the concept.

I do the same thing with Adobe Lightroom

I sweep through the entire series which I may watch on steeletraining, and then it's time to solidify the training. So I do a tiny bit. I apply the information. So I've got Adobe Lightroom open in front of me, and I go through the videos again. As I go through them, I pull up three photos from my album and use the concepts described in the video. Soon I get a solid understanding of how to apply that information. 

So I go digging for more on the same topic. I now know that I'm keen on learning the "mask" tool, so I will find other audio/video that applies to the mask tool. Once I've mastered that concept, and applied it over and over, I move along to the next one.

But surely all this takes a ton of time

Yes it does. And so I let my brain learn in little bits. I allocate some time for learning. When I'm learning, I don't try to apply anything. I just keep a watch for anything that may seem useful. I just sweep through all the learning, like I'm listening to something on radio, not caring how much I'm absorbing. But then I make note of the parts that seemed useful. And I go back and master little bits. 

So on any given day, I'm at least applying 10 minutes of watercolour, 10 minutes of Lightroom-and on some days that's all I really have. Between learning time and applying time, I have to make sure I find at least an hour in a day.

And for this application to happen, preparation is the key

So yes, the watercolour books are not hidden away, they are out on a table. The book is open to the page the night before. My Lightroom software is open to the photo I want to work with. I don't have enough time in the day to keep opening and closing things. That takes up valuable learning and application time. So I just keep the critical elements open. 

For learning, I make sure I have all the audio ready so that I'm listening the moment I leave the door. I make sure I have all the books I want to read, on my coffee table, so I don't have to hunt for them. The same with software etc. Keep it all ready to go, so you go, go, go.

Yes, of course, sometimes it's all too much

There's too much information, too much application. And it's time for a break. Which is important too. It helps the brain recharge, filter through the information and come back stronger than before. The breaks should be long enough, but not too long. Sometimes I'll take a break of 3-4 days. Sometimes a whole month. And the breaks are critical.

So here's what you should do if you really want to make learning stick

1) Read, listen, watch all the stuff you're interested in.

2) Make sure to note what's important to you.

3) Go back and listen/read/watch again. Many times.

4) Start applying that knowledge in 10 minute bursts during your working day (or every other day).

5) Expect that you will not remember or apply everything. You're still getting awfully smart anyway, remember?

6) Take a break. Short break or long break. But not too short and not too long.

7) And yes, keep things open. Life's too short to keep opening, closing and finding things.

Learning (or application) isn't is hard as it seems

But you can't rush through it all. And Marsha knows that too. As she goes through spelling tests, she knows she doesn't have to know all the words. She just has to know the little bits like "ture" or "ial" or "tion".

The learning sticks.

She gets a 10/10 almost every time.

And if a nine year old can do it, well so can we, right?


Sean d’Souza


15+ years ago, fresh out of college with a degree in accounting Sean de Souza joined an advertising agency where he *met* Leo Burnett, a man who had spent his lifetime in the hard trenches of communication and advertising.

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