How to Be an Effective Learner Without Suffering Information Overload
If perfectionism had any role in your developing an addiction disorder, you’ve probably harbored fear of learning new skills you weren’t sure you could get “right.” And if you’ve been the sort of addict whose life motto was, “Everything is hopeless, especially me,” you’ve probably struggled to believe it’s worth even trying to learn. Either way, cultivating a fresh love of learning (both information and skills) can reduce relapse risks by building your self-esteem and keeping the sober life full of interesting prospects. Learning can also help you better understand the mechanisms of addiction and sobriety and how they apply to your life.
However, learning is only healthy when approached in a healthy manner. It’s an invitation to stress, self-criticism and possible relapse if:
- You feel deficient whenever you don’t immediately grasp a new skill or concept.
- You base your opinion of yourself (and others) on how much can be learned and how quickly, regardless of experience or circumstances.
- You focus only on memorizing new information, and never put any of it to use in the rest of your life.
PROFILE OF AN INFORMATION ADDICT
Learners who fall into the last category are often effectively addicted to information: always bringing home more books than they can read, always tuned to CNN or the latest social-media news, always registered for every class and seminar within reach. When they try to put what they’ve learned to practical use, it’s usually in the hope that this will be the perfect approach that permanently solves all their problems, so they give up quickly when making significant change takes longer than learning about it. There’s even a book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (Steve Salerno, Crown Publishers, 2005), dedicated to exposing the dangers of trading personal responsibility for simplistic self-help.
At best, too much information input increases one’s sense of helplessness:
- Advice from every side leads to confusion about whose advice to follow.
- News-focused information is a constant reminder of how much of the world is beyond our control.
- The sheer volume of available information can generate false guilt over the inability to consume it all. (Is it coincidence that clinical depression has significantly increased in the age of endless options?)
The problem is that information accumulation is “learning” only in the shallowest sense. Effective learning means using our new knowledge to improve ourselves and the world.
Here are a few ideas for becoming a truly effective learner:
TAKE “DOING BREAKS” FROM ACCUMULATING INFORMATION
“We learn by doing” applies to more than hands-on skills. When you come across something in a self-help book that has you saying, “I really ought to do that,” then close the book, get up and do it, or at least get up and put it on your calendar. Deriving practical benefit from new knowledge is more important than finishing the rest of the chapter on schedule.
DON’T FEEL YOU MUST BE LEARNING 24/7
The human brain needs time to process newly acquired information for future use. And often, it does this most effectively when the conscious brain is on break from learning and other work. So take a nap, go for a walk on the beach, play with your dog or relax with a cup of herbal tea. Even “mindless chores” can be good for the brain if you enjoy keeping busy while daydreaming or listening to music.
PRIORITIZE YOUR INFORMATION ABSORPTION
Trying to memorize every word is counterproductive. Many top achievers attribute much of their effectiveness to reading multiple books a week at “skim” speed. If you’re reading for any purpose besides pure entertainment, feel free to let your eyes whiz over the pages and slow down only for pull quotes, subheads and passages that jump out as having personal relevance.
CHOOSE CLASSES AND SEMINARS WITH BUILT-IN ACCOUNTABILITY
Whenever you can, get your classroom learning in classrooms with grading systems, or, even better, with small groups where members share goals and progress. (Many conference workshops now follow up by forming their own social media groups.)
If you resent learning as one more chore, you’re already heading in the wrong direction for getting anything worthwhile from it. Pick topics you really want to know more about, and skills you really want to master. Enjoy the whole process—not just the successful end result—and whatever specific topic or skill you focus on, you’ll learn priceless lessons about life and yourself.