As a software developer, a constant in my line of work is change. Technology changes quickly, and companies have to adapt in order to stay relevant. What does this mean for a developer? It means we have to be able to learn new technologies constantly. Developing and maintaining new skills is a necessity. This means a lot of pressure too. When creating a new feature, it is clear to everyone on the team what the output is supposed to be. You have to be able to deliver that.
Learning new skills isn’t just something a developer has to do, it’s something we have all done, and continue to do. Some skills are harder to develop than others, and different approaches to learning work better for some skills than others.
Approaches to Learning
When I was in college, my go-to method for learning anything was to take a lot of notes in class. I would then go over these notes again, along with the lecturers notes, and write these out on paper for each topic. Then I would take these and bullet them onto flash cards, and revise those multiple times. It was a lot of writing basically.
Once I started working in development, my method was going through a lot of online tutorials to get up to speed with the programming languages. I got bored very quickly of these to be honest. What really worked for me was when I was actually working on a feature and trying to solve a problem. That’s when I learned the most.
As a personal interest, I also starting taking lessons in piano. Learning to play the piano had to be one of the hardest skills I had to learn. My previous approaches didn’t work here, I couldn’t write down how to play the piano. I certainly couldn’t just watch a bunch of tutorials on it unless I wanted to make myself lose interest quickly. The approach my piano teacher taught me was to take it step by step. When I was given a sheet of music, I would play a very small part of it repeatedly until I got it right. Then, I’d move on to the next part.
The point of these stories is, there are many different approaches you can take to developing new skills. If one approach isn’t working, try and find another one that will keep you moving in the right direction.ing
The Motivation to Learn
Staying motivated when developing new skills can be one of the hardest challenges. Even if we want something really bad, we just can’t seem to stop procrastinating, or losing interest quickly.
Learning something new is uncomfortable – this is something we have to accept. We will get frustrated, feel like we’re not capable, or lose interest. Remind yourself why you started this journey in the first place. What was the feeling you got when you decided to take it on? How will you feel once you have achieved it? Keep your mindset in the right place. Learning something new is not going to be easy, drive yourself to keep going. Your small successes along the way will continue to keep your drive going.
How Your Brain Learns
Let’s get technical here for a minute. When you’re in the process of learning something new, your brain is creating connections between neurons. Your brain as a whole, is like a giant network of these neurons. When we know something well, for example if you drive, these connections are well established. That’s why when you’re on your daily commute, you are almost on auto-pilot. You can drive without even thinking about it.
How did you get from a state of being a first time driver, to driving without even thinking about it? A lot of practice. Through practice and repetition, these disconnected neurons create long lasting connections. When in the process of developing new skills, we are storing this new information temporarily in our short-term memory. The more we deepen these neural connections, the higher the chance that it gets transferred over to our long-term memory. As we continue to learn, our brain actively starts to find links between the information we have been consistently gathering. This deepens our understanding of the subject.
The Power of Focus
This nicely brings me on to my next point, the importance of focus. When you are able to stay focused for an extended period of time, you get into a state of flow. My software engineer friends, you’re well aware of what i’m talking about here. You’re hyper focused and everything starts coming naturally to you – writers will experience this too. This state is when your brain is incredibly active in making connections between these neurons. In this state it is far more likely for new information to be transferred into your long-term memory.
Know how to get yourself into a state of flow. Find a quiet area for you to work on building this skill, where you won’t have any distractions. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t have to be quiet. When I was writing my thesis, my best focus came from having piano music playing in the background. Give yourself enough time on the task at hand without being distracted by something else, no notifications or social media. It takes discipline, but it works.
If you simply cannot focus – do not force yourself to do the work. Nothing is going to go in anyway. Developing new skills requires you to actively pay attention to the task at hand. This strategy also depends on what you are trying to learn, and your capacity to stay focused. Any music teacher will tell you that there is no point in spending two hours getting frustrated with your instrument. Spending fifteen minutes a day and focusing for that time will be far more effective. Trying to understand a complex algorithm might not work in the same way though. Learn to focus and use it effectively – for the task at hand.
The Magic of Sleep
I couldn’t write this post and not mention my best-friend; sleep. Our brains do a tremendous amount of work when we sleep. It is busy processing all of the information that you have gathered throughout the day. It is also creating those neural connections we were talking about. This is why you may have heard the advice to always revise notes right before bed, or do your instrument practice then. It was actually astounding to me when I saw the impact this had on my piano playing. I would play something right before I went to bed, and then wake up in the morning and try it again. Somehow it just clicked. Therefore, I cannot stress enough the importance of making sure that you are getting enough sleep!