I’m not talking about the sitting-in-class, do-your-homework, take-a-test kind of learning. I’m talking about the kind of learning you need to do in the real world of crazy technology, rapid innovation, and incredible complexity. Work today is a race between how quickly you can learn and your own rapid obsolescence.
Unfortunately, learning doesn’t happen solely by being exposed to stimuli (unfortunately, otherwise online learning would be awesome). For learning to really take hold in a meaningful way you have to engage with it. You have to think about your thinking — you need to have metacognitive knowledge.
Metacognitive knowledge includes knowledge of general strategies that might be used for different tasks, knowledge of the conditions under which these strategies might be used, knowledge of the extent to which the strategies are effective, and knowledge of self (Flavell, 1979).
This is what allows you to adapt your learning strategies to better fit the ways you learn best and the specific learning task at hand. It’s knowing what strategies are most effective for you at this time and place and being willing to adjust your strategies as needed. Trying to learn something without metacognitive skills looks and feels a lot like this:
Luckily, building metacognitive knowledge doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, research shows that simply journaling can make a huge difference.
Research has shown that students who kept a journal specifically about their learning process for the duration of a college biology course ended up earning better grades on the final exam than their classmates who were instructed to not keep a journal. You’re no college student, but you need to learn quickly, too. Not to take tests or get scholarships, but to get (or stay ahead) of the next development that will make your current skill set obsolete.
And if that doesn’t do it for you, researchers have also tied metacognitive knowledge to creative problem solving, better decision making, critical thinking, and leader performance.
The Simplest Journaling Habit
Journaling doesn’t have to be complex or difficult. You don’t need a fancy leather-bound journal and a quill pen. You can build an extremely simple routine around responding to a handful of simple questions at the end of every work day, at the end of every week, and at the end of every three months. We’re talking a couple minutes at a time that will seriously improve your metacognitive knowledge.
It doesn’t really matter where you do this journaling. A text editor, Evernote, a Moleskine — wherever! The point is to build the routine of doing this at a regular interval.
The Daily Reflection
I like to do my daily reflection as the absolute last work-related task I do each day. When I finish typing I close my computer and do my best to unplug for the rest of the evening.
What went well today? When did you feel like you were doing great work?
What was difficult today? Where did you feel stuck or frustrated?
What can you try doing differently tomorrow?
My favorite time to do my Weekly Reflection is every Sunday evening. I’m recharged from the weekend and ready to turn my attention to the upcoming week.
Before you begin answering the end of week questions, quickly read through each Daily Reflection from the past week.
What went well this week? How can you make sure that continues?
What needs to change next week? How can you make that change?
What do you need to accomplish next week for you to feel like it was productive?
I like to do my Quarterly Reflection at a coffee shop or somewhere I rarely work. It makes it feel a little bit more special (and the caffeine doesn’t hurt).
Before you begin the Quarterly Reflection questions, go back and quickly read the Weekly Reflections from the past three months.
What went really well in the past three months? How can you keep doing that?
What went poorly in the past three months? How can you make a change?
Given how the last three months went and how you’re currently feeling, what should you prioritize/de-prioritize for the next quarter? (Write these in the form of “Good Thing even over Other Good Thing”).
Given the list of priorities you just created, what can you do in the next three months to honor these priorities?
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Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive– developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906–911.