How You Can Avoid Learning Plateaus
Let’s use your final lesson to talk about something that affects just about everyone who embarks on a long learning project: plateaus, or periods where it feels like you aren’t making any progress.
Ideally, you want to avoid these plateaus whenever possible. But you also want to be equipped to overcome them if you do find yourself stalling out.
Here’s the problem: The nature of learning a new skill creates a trap that is very easy to fall into. That trap is called the power law of practice, and it describes how the early stages of learning involve a tremendous amount of progress—followed by a rapid drop.
If you’ve ever been out of shape and then started lifting weights, then you’ve been through a process that’s analogous to this power law. When your body isn’t used to the stresses of lifting, it will respond quickly to even the most inefficient routines. Your lifts and your diet can be completely wrong, but you’ll still get stronger because your body is working so hard to maintain homeostasis.
But after your body gets used to regularly being exposed to the stresses of lifting, the gains start to slow down. Eventually, if you don’t change the way you lift and/or eat, the gains stop completely.
Learning a new skill works the same way. When you’re in the earliest stages of learning of a skill, you can make rapid jumps purely by virtue of the fact that you are starting from such a low-knowledge state and every session can introduce novel concepts. In other words, the fact that you know next to nothing actually works to your benefit because you have nowhere to go but up.
You’ll start to see problems when you reach the intermediate stage, at which point, the quality and efficiency of your training program will show itself. This is where things start to get difficult, and if your methods of learning are not good, then you’re stepping into a trap.
The reason I call it a trap is because by the time you reach that intermediate stage, you’ve already built up habits that may require time and effort to break in order to move forward. You might have tricked yourself into thinking that you had your learning process figured out, when in reality, you were just riding that wave of beginner’s progress right into a plateau.
The general guideline of working your way out of a plateau is to introduce some variability into your process. It’s easy to slide into a routine and just cruise, but that’s a recipe for long-term mediocrity.
The most effective way to do this is to seek out feedback from more experienced practitioners of the skill you’re learning. Ask them about how they practice or, if they’re willing to allow it, find a way to participate in their routine for a while to see if you can discover some new dimensions of the skill you hadn’t considered before.
Sometimes the best solution is to take a short break. Take a few days off (or go on a vacation if you can), take some deep breaths, and give your brain a chance to incubate for a while. As long as you don’t go overboard, chances are very good that you’ll have a new, refreshed perspective on training when you return to your learning process.
And this is the end of our time together. Here are a few key takeaways from the course:
• You don’t have a learning style.
• Make what you learn as salient as possible.
• Break your learning into small pieces to make it more digestible.
• You need to get feedback from the outside world in order to make real progress.
• Plateaus are real, and you can avoid them by tossing in some randomness.
• Using spaced repetition and flashcards will help you remember far more of what you learn.
• Fluency shapes what you think of as “easy” and “hard,” and that changes with experience.
• Understanding key skill types and how to practice can make all the difference in your learning process.
Congratulations on completing this course! Wish your learning is efficient!
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