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Ask HN: How do I stay motivated to learn?
110 points by devcheese on July 19, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 64 comments
There are a lot of great things I want to learn but I find it hard getting myself to buckle down and get in the process of learning. How have you found ways to stop beating around the bush and get to learning?

For me it has always been having a project to apply it to. In college that was always my problem. All thought/review/quizzing, never 'building a thing'. Figure out WHY you want to learn what you think you want to learn and contemplate until you have something you could build (even if its a 'pointless' toy application or library) and do it.

An example: I wanted to learn more about the innards of git. So I built Gkv (http://www.github.com/ybur-yug/gkv). It helped a ton. And it ended up even getting me some imaginary internet ego points. Heh.

edit: Upon looking over my repos. It appears just about every one in the top 5 was inspired by "I wanna learn about this. I shall document the process and make a thing". So, I guess this has worked really well for me.

Yes! Having something to apply knowledge to is magnitudes more effective than learning for sake of learning. Start with something simple like "I want to make a website in this language" or "I want to be able to have a conversation in Japanese" or "I want to be able to build my own cabin in the West."

The path you take for learning is shaped by what you want to do. So your question might then take the next logical step: what are things I should apply myself to?

Ideally, whatever you do benefits more than just yourself. If you search for needs that people have, you can find very effective ways of helping people and alleviating stress in the world.

Elon Musk basically had a vision: I wanna colonize space, I wanna make rockets. He had no prior understanding of how rockets were made, but he had the beautiful vision, the happy goal, and everything else fell into place. Strive for a beautiful vision that helps many achieve prosperity and you can't go wrong with how the journey shapes itself.

This is completely OT but just FYI, the "Contributor Covenant" link at the end of your README.md is broken.

Woopsy. Thanks! I switched it off the code of conduct stuff to just be all DWTFYWPL. Will fix today.

I'd say get rid of the Internet at home. That's the number one distraction. Personally, I can't read more than a paragraph online without jumping to another page...so just kill that beast. Here's an example...I have all the documentation I could ever want right on my hard drive, but I might spend a few frustrating hours surfing the web trying to figure out something out instead of looking at what I already have.

Some other ideas...have a pipeline and modest goals. Be happy if you read 45 minutes every day and don't think you need to read giant text books to learn. Find slim books! 150 pages max. But get really, really good books from the masters in your chosen field.

I understand what you're saying, but the internet is the most enabling technology in history for learning.. to not use it at all because you might misuse it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and doing yourself a serious disservice.

Avoiding procrastination is about discipline - if it's a problem, address the root cause, don't just chop off the leaves (sorry for the terrible analogy).

Compare it to say, quitting smoking. If you want to quit smoking, do you ban yourself from entering all places that sell cigarettes, and cut off contact with all your friends who smoke? Of course not! If you truly want to quit you ought to be able to go anywhere, do anything, talk to anyone, and still not smoke. It may not be pleasant but being able to do that == being able to truly control the problem.

"If you want to quit smoking, do you ban yourself from entering all places that sell cigarettes, and cut off contact with all your friends who smoke?"

Yes, actually that's a great way to quit. Find out what triggers you and avoid it. Changing your environment is incredibly beneficial.

"It may not be pleasant but being able to do that == being able to truly control the problem"

Who cares about controlling the problem? It's not a drug addiction where a single relapse can ruin your life. If a simple environment change allows me to spend 2 hours learning each night instead of on hackernews... Well that's a win.

> Who cares about controlling the problem?

Well, if procrastination is liable to hinder you in buckling down to learn things, it's pretty important to find a way to really control it. Otherwise HN/the internet will be just be replaced by some other distraction offline.

How likely is it that your procrastination is really limited to whatever manifestations it currently has on the internet, rather than being a general problem you have to correct?

If it really is limited to certain sites, then getting offline or blocking those sites is a reasonable productivity hack, but otherwise you're just sidestepping the real issue and it'll only come back to bite you in other ways later, no matter how many times you change your environment.

"Well, if procrastination"

I don't think procrastination is the problem with most people spending time on learning. Personally, I've found it is simply an issue with distraction/focus/energy/motivation like going to the gym.

I've spent an hour learning per work day for the last two years simply by going to the park after work and reading books/writing in my notebook. I've missed maybe a dozen days in the last year. Yet, if I get on my computer at home intending to study... i hardly ever end up doing anything useful.

Is it sidestepping an issue if a person needs a gym membership before they'll exercise? I really don't see a difference here. Environments play into disciplines directly and everyone has their own idea of the perfect space for any given activity.

Going without internet can be a great way to dim the lights and regain focus. It also eases your dependency on convenience and encourages you to plan ahead.

This is only my personal take on things. For me, the internet is like water...you can find it anywhere...especially the library. In one hour at the library I can download all the webpages I need onto a usb stick. Generally, I go 4-5 months without having the net at home, 2-3 weeks with having a connection just to update my system and download a bunch of youtube videos ;-)

>If you want to quit smoking

Just poison your whole pack! But seriously, for those who don't want to deal with fixing their lack of discipline right now, I highly recommend SelfControl and its counterparts on other platforms. Block the procrastination-inducing parts of the internet like reddit and HN, keep all the important parts it's impossible to learn without, like StackOverflow.

(Restrict it for less and less each day, and maybe you'll find yourself weaning yourself off like cigarettes. I haven't made it that far yet.)

What is the permanent fix then and also what is the root cause?

things are always in flux and one must seek a balance...there are no black and white answers, although engineers always want them ;-)

Recently a cosmic ray flipped a bit in my home laptop's configs. The wifi stopped working and I've been too lazy to fix it. My home network rack is far from my reading chair and has no seating nearby.

This has worked out surprisingly well!

Every so often I plug in, download some pages, and then unplug and go sit down to read. If I get an idea while reading I jot it down and go back to my reading. The next time I get up to go plug in, half the things I thought I wanted to look at are no longer interesting.

At work, unplugging is not an option. I do all my work inside VMs. In my main work VM I've edited /etc/hosts to block HN, Reddit, and other distractions. I have a separate VM that I use for personal mail and leisure browsing. When I'm not using this VM I shut it down and if I want to browse the web I have to boot it up again.

All this has done wonders for my focus while not being quite as drastic as cutting the cable.

> I'd say get rid of the Internet at home. That's the number one distraction.

Maybe- maybe not. For me, it was getting a 'third' place- somewhere that isn't work and isn't home. Work is for work, and home is for play.

There's a nice 24 hour diner (sans wi-fi, so I'm kinda in accord with you here) between me and work where I can have a serving of toast while clacking away on my laptop.

So my M-F schedule is work from 8-5, personal work from 5-7ish, and then home (or bar staggering) from 7 on.

Totally agree this is the way to go. Unfortunately, I'm a little too undisciplined and I need to take stricter measures on not having access at home.

Hey- you found what works for you. That is what is most important.

My comment was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, I just wanted to present another option- especially for those that don't have the luxury of living alone like me!

I always thought about this too, I always want to learn more. But every time when I arrived home after work I was just not motivated to read/learn other new things that took longer than 5 minutes. I imagined if I was in prison I would learn so much and work out much more because you are confined and restricted to a certain space and only have a limited set of activities to do. So you make the most of your time; learn, read books, work out. You would come out a physically and mentally a much better person. But if you have freedom, you actually have too many choices you don't even want to take time to read or learn something new or go workout, human nature causes us to take the easy way out and turn on the TV or do something else considered entertainment and requiring little effort. It's hard to resist.

Great advice here. If you can't seem to bring yourself to get rid of Internet, you can use a tool to blacklist websites for a certain period of time. I personally use https://selfcontrolapp.com/

If you want to block access to only distracting parts of the Internet, I wrote an open-source Mac app that might help: SelfControl (http://selfcontrolapp.com)

> I have all the documentation I could ever want right on my hard drive

If you're on a Mac, Dash.app is a great way to read documentation, distraction free. No internet required (after you downloaded the docs you need).

> Id say get rid of the Internet at home.

So brave, don't think I can ever do that, I just use browser extensions like Leechblock to block certain website after a period of time to fight procrastination

I get what you're saying. Think of what I'm going to write as an addition to your comment for the person who asked this, and other interested parties. If you're into a project, you can do it locally on your computer without the Internet, by downloading the required documentation and 'technical prerequisites' needed for a minimum viable model of your project. Be it programming, book writing, video editing, etc. If you're patient enough to control the urge to look up the Internet real quick to skim through the breaking news, watch some viral video, scroll through twitter mentions or even HN discussions, then it's ok to stay connected, else you might want to temoporarily plug out the ethernet cable or disable the internet in a way that'd make it a little hassle for to turn it back on again. This way, you have no excuse for not starting the project and chances are you will begin. (I know the usefulness of the internet, but it's important to do these sort of stuff if you are distracted easily but want to get the job done) :)

right...that's exactly it...more is not always good. In fact, I've read that the human mind is primed to value new information regardless of whether it is better than what one already has.

Instead of "buckling down", I have found the opposite the be pretty effective. William James explains:

"If, namely, we wish our trains of ideation and volition to be copious and varied and effective, we must form the habit of freeing them from the inhibitive influence of reflection upon them, of egoistic preoccuptation about their results.


Say to yourself, 'I won't waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don't care an iota whether I succeed or not.' Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently."

after all...what is life for? we should all learn how to enjoy it ;-)

Why do people take advice from him? He had one successful business that seemed to be all lucky timing (selling before the bust). At this point he just gets attention because he has money. He doesn't have any useful skills anymore because he hasn't done anything for years.

Mark Cuban is actually a rare example of someone who bootstrapped from smaller successful businesses into larger ones.

His success with Microsolutions led him towards creating AudioNet -> Broadcast.com .

Sure, he benefited from nice timing, but also he was quite smart about protecting his windfall(that infamous Yahoo collar trade:http://investmentxyz.blogspot.com/2006/05/cubans-collar-anat...).

I really can't speak about his activities since 2000, but most of it has seemed quite sane and sensible.

He was born poor and made himself rich well before Broadcast.com made him a billionaire. Regardless, good advice is good advice.

  I think it's important to pace yourself. 
I get demotivated when I don't meet target or when I find the task too intimidating. The former is because I didn't set realistic expectation and didn't chalk my path carefully. The latter is because I'm looking at a very high level. I try to break them into smaller chunks which by themselves are self-sufficient and a project.

  Secondly, I think it's perhaps important for some to be 
  involved in multi-disciplinary pursuits.
In school/college it was easier as there were many subjects and you would go round robin on them or some other algo. That way there was a freshness to things and your mind doesn't get saturated which may drag your pace and eventually you may not end up meeting your targets. I think quite famous people have this behavior like Einstein/Violin, Knuth/Organ and even Sherlock Holmes had one which Doyle mentioned helped him get his mind off the case and come back invigorated. :)

  Look around for inspirations.
I've now understood that most of the things that are of value require years of discipline, which bring you to the place where you could do the things you set out to do. A younger me never understood this. We currently live in a society of instant gratification which also glorifies short term achievements. I think it's a probabilistic model and the odds of success at very young age are quite low and they are outliers as there are certain circumstances beyond once control which catalyzed it. Inspiration can come in many forms... I got quite inspired by the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi [0].

  Celebrate your successes.
Nothing motivates one better than seeing one making progress. So spend some time to stop and look behind and see where you started and where you have reached. Perhaps documenting your progress can help you recollect easily.

[0]: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1772925/

Plenty of good advice here.

I would like to add that although motivation is good but its fickle, it might ditch you for days if not weeks, so its better to have discipline when you want to get something done. Like, finishing the project you started couple of months back. Discipline is very hard in the beginning but once you get it, it will be very very helpful and easy to finish/achieve goals.

I think this is true. It is a question of what you are filling up your mind with. If your thoughts are full of what you are working on, then you stay focused. But, when you wander it is hard to regain that discipline. Sometimes it is good to take a detour and focus on things related and try to finish them off first...that can help get you back on track.

Motivation (and discipline) comes and goes, even for successful people that are truly passionate about the things they do. (There are studies that self-discipline is actually quite similar to a muscle that gets increasingly tired over the course of the day. Thus, it's easier to get something done in the morning than in the evening when you have probably already forced yourself to do multiple things.) That's why you need to make the things you want to do continuously – in your case: learning – a habit, i.e. a daily or weekly routine. If you make it a habit, you won't need motivation anymore and you won't even question whether you should learn right now or rather do something else. You will simply do it. If not, the habit will actually make you feel bad by depriving you from various hormones that make you feel happy. So, in this sense, a habit is quite similar to an addiction – but in a good way.

For further reading you might want to look into Charles Duhigg's "The Power of Habit". If you're a procrastinator, "The Now Habit" by Neil Fiore might also be of value to you.

Update: Several other suggestions made here (such as getting rid of the internet or using a buddy system) can be interpreted in terms of getting rid of a bad habit or as to how to implement (i.e. learn) this learning habit exactly (a buddy system is one way).

I can recommend a coursera course that could help you. Its short and always open so doesn't require waiting for it to start:


What I like about it is that its created by a neurobiologist and an engineer so it combines understanding of brain function combined with practical methods to work around its limitations like procrastination and concentration.

I expect everyone will have a different take away but for me, it was the role of how chunking not just involved in learning but procrastination. When we approach something unstructured, the complexity can generate the type of discomfort that leads to procrastination. Seeing that chunking not only helps the brain remember something but helps it stay on mission has been helpful.

For me, it comes down to a couple things:

1. If it feels like drudgery, don't force yourself. 2. Be patient , and look for inspiration.

A couple years ago, I had lost interest in learning new languages or side projects. I picked up woodworking and have pursued it actively since. Being away from the computer has helped me recharge my batteries.

Through woodworking, I got motivated to build a blog aggregator for all the woodworking blogs I followed. I picked up ruby, node, and redis to build the site that's now being used by other woodworkers.

Recently I finished some sci-fi novels, which I rarely read. Some technology and themes in the book inspired me to get back into learning about AI, something else I had gotten burnt out about since grad school. Now I'm learning Clojure to implement some ideas.

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from a well known woodworker:

“We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our lives” - James Krenov

Good luck!

Can't help myself, but another quote that might resonate with some:

“Working alone poses problems of discipline and aims, and you have to get on lifelong terms with your work and yourself. For most of us, in the beginning stages and perhaps always, it’s a condition of struggle and discovery and secret satisfactions. Sometimes you are not making as much money as the plumber…, but you are alive with your work, and I think that one of the important points to keep you going is that you enjoy it-not hobby enjoyment or periodic enjoyment, but the enjoyment of being with it.

That, of course, means that you must save your energy, you must develop methods of working with wood that lead to a sort of harmony, a satsifaction that you are, with a minimum of effort, achieving the maximum of sensitivity. You are saying what you want to say, finally, and you’re doing it in a way that, despite all the sweat and hard work, gives you satisfaction.

This is the way you want to live.”

— James Krenov, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook

Use Pomodoro technique.

I had written about my favorite book on the subject a few years ago - http://www.swaroopch.com/2011/01/17/pomodoro/

When I understood learning and reading are not necessarily task to enjoy, everything became straight forward from there. A simple comment changed my perspective. The guy/gal said something I understood as:

"People ask me all the day how is it possible I read sooooooo many books. Is it fun? Do I have something special? Well no, reading is hard, it's a chore, it's work. It's no fun at all, I do it because it's for my betterment. I read everywhere and at any time: while eating, while waiting for the bus, in the bus, on a 10 mn break. If you understand this won't be fun, you'll get along and get to it."

"Everybody wants to look good, but noone wants to lift those heavy ass weights."

Recognize that you can't be motivated all the time.

Recognize when you are. Then attack!

I've never retained anything when I'm trudging through material just to get through it.

Good suggestion. If you just do nothing, there must come a point when you feel so guilty wasting your time that motivation will come naturally. If it doesn't, so be it. What's the point of anything, anyway?

Don't do nothing! Do anything but that!

Why not?

You seemingly answered your own question. That is to stop beating around the bush.

Let me tell you my brief story--I taught myself how to program originally because I was all hyped up from the movies (the black screens, binary numbers, etc) and thought it would be the "cool" thing to do. Well, the hype died--quickly.

I waited and waited for that adrenaline rush/motivational burst to sporadically come into my life. Nothing came of it.

So I was disappointed. To learn you can not just rely on motivation (though it certainly helps), but rather you must rely on your discipline. Teach yourself to follow guidelines, set small goals and gradually increase them. This process will enhance your learning potential exponentially.

Just discipline. That's all it takes. You have to power through that, even if it seems so hard.

On another note, I read Hacker News and read many articles on subjects I want to learn to rejuvenate me if I feel disappointed or, unmotivated. Good luck!

This "Ask HN" might interest you: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9823985

Learn through experience -- find something you're passionate about building or a problem you're passionate about solving. Don't focus on being productive or creating revenue.

What was your thought process like when you decided to beat around the bush instead of getting to learning?

Was it that you'd thought the subject to be "good to know more about", but did not find interesting enough?

I bet there have been at least a few subjects that fascinated you enough to stay awake at night and ignore all the other distractions/quick gratifications.

What are they and how are they different from the ones that you somehow never get to learn?

Maybe you just haven't found the right angle/perspective on the subject in question yet. If other things interest you more, either change your take on the subject, approach it from a different angle that's relevant to you or don't waste your time and learn something else. I don't think forcing yourself to learn something you have no genuine interest in works on the long run.

Buddy system? I need a buddy. Anyone need a buddy? I've been coding deep for a couple of days straight. I've gotten to the point where I'm just filing github issues and stackoverflow questions for everything. I just started picking on my package manager. I could really use a buddy.

To add some context to this. Surround yourself with successful people, if you have to listen everyday to people who are making things and making progress It might help motivate, or not. Just a thought.

And by successful people I mean, whatever that means to you. Not saying i'm necessarily successful.

What do you want to learn and why? I think you'll get better advice if you're more specific.

1. Force yourself to find inspiration anywhere possible (you need new perspectives)

2. Get an idea that moves you

3. Do it

5. You learned without noticing

6. ??

7. Profit

Profit doesn't always mean money.

Build something and tell everyone around you that you're building it. Celebrate the small wins with them (share progress).


Screw motivation, what you need is discipline.


Unlink your learning with motivation and it should make things easier for you.

The answer: What do you want to build?

how can you not be learning all the time?

if something isn't interesting, there better be a reward that's worth my time. if it is interesting, then usually that itself is enough to stay motivated.

for example, it's really tough to tolerate all this angularjs, reactjs stuff because I've always built my web apps using jQuery, it's hard to justify being more verbose for the sake of keeping up with a trend when it is counter productive for me. Even more harder So a good reward here is money or an established project that is interesting and front end framework was a requirement.

If you have to ask this question you are in trouble.

Some things that I have found useful:

- Set 2 or 3 learning topic goals - write these down

- Identify what the best resources are available to learn that topic, purchase them (making a financial commit to it helps drive me too), ensure you have a mix of reading, audio and video material

- Find out who the bloggers are in those topic areas and subscribe to their blogs, getting regular news articles and posts helps keeps me motivated

- Join a user group in your local area so you can meet other people to engage in discussion about the topic

- Lock in a few hours over the weekend or in the evenings to go to a cafe or to sit at your desk with a coffee and go over the material

- Write about the topic, talk to your friends and colleagues about the topic, do a presentation on the topic to a user group

This is the process I have been following for years since I left university and has helped me master new technologies and business management theories.

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