Four hindrances to learning

adminguy's picture
Posted May 13th, 2015 by adminguy



Last week we discussed the importance of study and deliberate practice for software developers. As we said, continuous learning is not optional for software developers; the only choice we really have is whether we want to do it in an organized, disciplined way and reap rich rewards, or do we want to go about it in a disorganized way which will end in burn-out and disenchantment.
I think learning is an important aspect of software development and I'd like to dedicate several posts and discuss each facet in detail. But for now let's start at the beginning.  Because beginnings are very important; they put us on a stable footing and make the journey that much easier. 
Very often a developer understands the importance of continuous learning, but he keeps putting it off for another day and doesn't even get started. Sometimes he may start with a lot of gusto, but not make much progress, getting disheartened in the process. There are many reasons for this and everyone's circumstances are also different. However, there are a few common hindrances which create roadblocks for most learners. I'd like to examine them and create a foundation for introspection. Once we know what could hinder our learning, we can engage in self-examination and see if any of them are responsible for our own woes. 
Lack of confidence
Decades of research support the notion that believing in your ability to do something enhances your ability to do it. -- 
Why Self-Esteem Hurts Learning But Self-Confidence Does The Opposite
We normally think of confidence as something that impacts our relations and our ability to navigate the world, but self-confidence and it's cousin self-efficacy (confidence pertaining to specific activities or domain) has a huge impact on learning outcomes. Students who believe they have the ability to learn complex concepts are far more likely to actually learn them than students who doubt their ability. 
However, confidence is not to be mistaken for foolhardiness or the know-it-all attitude which plagues a great many software developers. These rarely do anyone good. In the context of software development and learning, self confidence is our belief in our own ability to navigate complex learning material and with time, diligence and effort understand it well enough to be able to apply it in real world situations. We all need to develop good amounts if this confidence, if we want to succeed and thrive in our career.
While we all may have our own genetic predispositions, confidence like almost all traits can be trained. I believe the age old adage success builds success. Achieving success in a small task builds confidence, which gives us the capability to achieve success in a larger task and so on. 
So, if you feel that you need to work on your learning self-confidence, start with something small and master it. Then do something else and master that and repeat this with more complex tasks. If you have to tackle a large task, then break it into smaller parts and tackle individual parts one by one as your build your sense of being able to master them. 
Self talk plays an important role in confidence building. If you find yourself unable to learn or recall something, then don't beat yourself up for it. Instead take a step back, relax and review what went wrong? Try to understand yourself better. Are you employing a learning style that suits you well? How are your energy levels when you are learning? Are you too tired, or too distracted? Could learning at a different time or place work out better? There can be many causes for not succeeded, so instead of beating yourself and infusing negative self-talk, give yourself a pat on the back (you tried) and tell yourself that you'll do a better job in the next attempt. Then go about finding better ways to learn and keep on doing this until you figure out what works best for you.
Lack of motivation
Lack of sufficient motivation is another huge hindrance to learning. People use words like motivationgritdeterminationdrive, etc - but all of them really mean the ability to sacrifice near term gratifications for the achievement of a long term goal. Several studies have shown that grit and self control are more powerful indicators of success than IQ. 
In the 1970's Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbeson conducted conducted what is now popularly known as the Marshmallow Experiment. In the experiment, children between 4 - 6 years were given two choices: they could either eat one marshmallow immediately, or if they waited for a set amount of time, they could eat two. Follow up studies showed that children who demonstrated the ability to delay gratification (by displaying self-control) were eventually more successful on several counts in their lives. 
Later studies showed an interesting co-relation between self children's self control and their perceived trust in the person conducting the experiment. It makes perfect sense. After all why would anyone delay gratification when they did not trust that they would eventually get the reward.
I think these experiments point towards three traits that make up motivation: grit, self-control and being able to see a reward for the sacrifices. I am going to define grit with a very simple definition - it's the ability to roll up your sleeved and do what needs to be done right now so you can achieve great things later on. Self control is the ability to keep going on that path without getting distracted by your friend's Hawaiian vacation images, and the reward is the perceived benefit that you will get at some point in the future by staying on the path. However, the reward does not have to come in the future. For those who seek intrinsic rewards, simply making the choice of doing something useful vs. browsing Facebook is a reward all by itself. What's interesting is, this intrinsic reward will in most cases also lead to some extrinsic reward like a pay raise, a promotion,  or a successful startup.
Whether the rewards you seek are intrinsic or extrinsic, being able to see some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is important, because without it you will not be able to generate sufficient grit and self control to achieve anything. Once you decide on your pot of gold, developing grit and self control is very similar to developing muscles. If you practice it everyday, it keeps on getting stronger. 

Lack of focus

We are living in the age of distraction; an age where people take pride in being multi-taskers without realizing the harm its causing them.
Focus, the opposite of being distracted, is also like a muscle that can be trained. However, there are certain factors which make it difficult to maintain focus, and controlling those factors will give us a better environment to train it.
One of the biggest detractors of focus (for me) has been my silly fetish with multi-tasking and productivity. I have said it before and I will say it again - multi-tasking does not increase productivity, but if done for a long period of time, it can actually decrease not only your productivity but also your sanity. You have been warned!
A great starting point to improve focus is to do one thing and one thing only. It doesn't matter if it feels like you could be doing more, just relax and do one thing. In the long run, it will help you maintain focus, energy, and mental calm. You will make fewer mistakes and will also be happier.
Other factors that lead to distraction are: noise and clutter. Study in a quiet place if its possible, but if you cannot find one, then try to buy yourself a pair of good noise canceling headphones. Clutter is another factor which I have often found distracting. My mind's ability to focus is greatly enhanced if my desk is better organized and does not have too many unnecessary things stacked up on it. Keeping you workplace clean and uncluttered might help you improve focus.
Maintaining focus takes a lot of energy. It's not uncommon to feel tired after a period of intense work or study. Many people have found it useful to use a Pomodoro to time a period of intense focus followed by a small break to replenish their energy. I also like to stretch in the breaks, because keeping the body still for too long is not good for our health.
With basic distracting factors under control, we can start training our focus one Pomodoro at a time. 
Lack of time

Time is at a premium - probably the most scarce resource of the modern age. How are we to make time for learning when we are struggling against the clock 24/7/365? It's sounds impossible, but it's probably not all that complicated. A little discipline and de-clutter will take us a long way. 
I think de-clutter is important because most of the things that eat up our time may only have perceived importance; they may not be important in reality: social media, cute videos on YouTube, Netflix, TV... you know what I am talking about.
I have come across many people who have abandoned TV and Netflix to liberate 2-3 hours everyday. That's huge isn't it? Imagine what you could do with that much additional time. While you don't need to abandon your friends on social media, it is certainly possible to avoid checking timelines every hour. Maybe 5 minutes after lunch and 5-15 minutes after dinner would do well to stay in touch with all our buddies.
The next step after liberating time, is to make good use of it by understanding the qualitative difference between difference times of the day. We all have different energy patterns and peak at different times of the day. It's important to identify the time of day that is most suited for us to study. Early morning is a time of clarity and abundant energy for most people. It is very productive and conducive for learning. Many people have climbed mountains of knowledge by waking up early and dedicating the first hour of the day, everyday, to study and practice. 
If you commute then you probably have another 60 - 90 minutes at least which you can use to listen to podcasts or for reading.
I think if we value what we are doing then we will find time for it. It's mostly a matter of discipline and prioritizing what we give our time to.
I hope this article has helped you start thinking about your own learning hindrances and how you may overcome them. The list I have presented consists of the most common hindrances, but it is by no means comprehensive. If you feel like you are dealing with a different set of issues then a few searches might provide with the information and help you need to overcome them. Learning begins with the self, and knowledge about how our mind and body work, how our mind processes knowledge, our strengths, our weaknesses, our learning styles and our idiosyncrasies - all play a part in fine tuning  and creating a process that works for us. It's hard work, but there's a pot of gold awaiting those who try.