Just over a year ago, I got the idea to catalog some of my thoughts on self-development and learning via this blog. I had never written anything publicly before, and the last time I wrote something longer than a thank-you note or email was during my high school English class.
I was unsure how to start a blog or what it should look like. I didn’t even know if I had anything worthwhile to say. So, naturally, to kick-start this process, I began reading up on the subject. I read numerous blogs to pick apart what I liked and didn’t like about their style and content. I read books on writing and how to start an online business. I watched YouTube videos on how to build a WordPress site. I consumed any piece of relevant information I could get my hands on.
Over the next few months, I read tens of thousands of words related to this subject. Many hours were spent trying to learn how to start a blog. But can you guess how much time was spent on writing my first post? You guessed it – zero. All of this time spent consuming information to provide myself with a false sense of understanding of how to write a blog when all I needed to do was create a WordPress site and start writing.
There is a common term in the manufacturing world known as just-in-time manufacturing. Developed by Toyota in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, it became a major competitive advantage in the automotive industry.
Instead of following the industry standard of just-in-case manufacturing, whereby automotive manufacturers maintained large inventories of materials requiring expensive warehousing and additional labor, Toyota built its cars using a made-to-order process. This process allowed them to save millions of dollars in inventory costs, which were then pumped into their manufacturing processes to speed up production.
By solely focusing on building cars in demand, Toyota was able to dominate the market by having low overhead, short lead times, and the ability to adapt quickly to new market trends. Meanwhile, the competition was left behind with inventory they couldn’t sell.
This just-in-time model can also be applied effectively to how we learn. This involves putting all of your resources (in this case, your time and attention) into learning a skillset in demand. By focusing on developing one skill at a time, you speed up your learning process giving you an eventual competitive advantage in the skill-driven economy. However, this type of learning does not come naturally since most of us have been conditioned our entire upbringing to learn via the just-in-case model.
The just-in-case model is how most of us were taught in school. You’re fed a wide variety of information spanning multiple subjects with the intention of some of it proving useful in the future. This type of learning worked well in a classroom environment where the information taught was soon reflected on the test to gauge understanding. Of course, most of the information taught is soon forgotten unless you constantly refresh yourself on what was learned.
This classroom model for learning often incentivizes students to learn by rote memorization of the material instead of trying to master the fundamentals. Recalling dates, names, and formulas don’t equate to an understanding of why an event occurred or how a formula represents a law of nature.
This model may have helped you excel in the education system but often falls short when trying to advance in the skills-centric workforce. To better understand why just-in-case learning doesn’t translate well to the real world, let’s look at some of the pitfalls of adhering to this model.
Pitfalls of the Just-in-Case Model
If there was one thing the education system taught me, it was always to go back and re-read the chapter and any notes if you were unsure about a particular topic. While this technique might have worked in a structured school environment where the information is provided and organized, it is inefficient for trying to learn something new. You end up spending most of your time reading and re-reading the entire material in search of the one core concept you missed.
A more efficient way to determine where you are weak in your understanding is to use the Feynman Technique, made famous by the Noble winning physicist Richard Feynman. This technique involves writing out what you know about a particular subject clearly and straightforwardly as if you were going to teach it to a child. This technique will reveal any gaps you have in your understanding since we often mask our confusion with complex vocabulary and jargon. Recognizing where the knowledge gaps lie helps you pinpoint where you need to focus your time and attention during your studies.
False Sense of Progress
When my most important goal is unclear or difficult to complete, I will often binge on “just-in-case” information found in articles and videos related to the topic. While it feels like I am making progress towards my goal, in reality, I am procrastinating from doing the hard work. I find it easy to fall into this feel-good trap of telling yourself you’re productive by learning more about the subject matter when all you’re doing is spinning your wheels.
It would be a much better use of time to break down the goal into more manageable chunks to determine where the hangups are hiding. This will free you up to fully focus on the problem at hand to determine the best course of action for reaching your goal. Correctly defining the problem will allow you to start consuming the necessary information to help you reach a solution.
We tend to obsess over the shiny and new. Whether its breaking news, the latest tip or trick, or even the latest NYT bestseller – we can’t seem to get enough. Our desire to constantly be in the loop is motivated by our desire for social status, which is further fueled by well-budgeted marketing campaigns and social media shares. Our fear of being left out of conversations concerning current events compels us to read up on the newest information leading to this “neomania” phenomenon.
This innate desire to signal to our peers how well-informed we are will coincidently lead to more uncertainty in our understanding. We feast on a steady diet of new information not yet vetted by the course of time to determine its credibility. This leads to a constant “truth-seeking” while we rapidly update our worldview with each new piece of information presented. It would be a much better use of our time to study information that has withstood the test of time.
Changing Your Model
Perhaps you’re like me, obsessed with consuming information for the sake of learning. The just-in-case model from the education system has been implanted so deep into your subconscious when you hit a roadblock in your work, and you revert to reading more information on the subject. If you relate to this and wish to fight the infomania urge, I encourage you to follow some simple steps which have helped me be more intentional with my learning.
First, determine what skills you are interested in developing. If you wish to be successful in the future, pick a skill that others find valuable, and are willing to pay for. Have a goal to master only one skill at this time. Be concrete about what you want to accomplish with learning this skill. Not having a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish will lead to procrastination and wasted effort.
Once you have made a decision, only search for answers to the question keeping you from further developing your skill. Any information that doesn’t help you progress at this time should be viewed as a distraction trying to diffuse your attention.
If you wish to succeed with this method, you must choose to remove yourself from the noise. This includes distancing yourself from social media where you are constantly bombarded with new information you are supposed to care about. You can’t keep a focused mind if you continually allow yourself to be fed random information in exchange for a cheap dopamine fix. Your ability to focus is what will separate you from the pack during the skill development phase.
With enough practice and patience, you can re-wire your brain to follow the just-in-time model for learning. Making this shift in your learning habits will allow you to develop new skills at a much quicker rate. So if you wish to stay ahead of the curve or even stay relevant in this new economy, this model for learning has never been more important.
*Please note I am not trying to devalue the education system for providing us with a broad knowledge base. For the sake of this article, I am focused on skills-based learning needed to excel in the real world. We will table the discussion of the importance of philosophical knowledge for a later post.