Are you working through courses – or a number of free educational resources – and find that you’re having trouble managing your time?  In a recent newsletter, well-known education activist, DIY learner, and founder of Dale J. Stephens shared his own steps to learning effectively and efficiently. With Dale’s permission, I am sharing these tips with you: see what suggestions he has below!

1. Turn off the Internet

This one is pretty simple: When you don’t need the Internet for work, just turn it off. I know how tempting it is to constantly check email and Facebook and watch TED talks. I have set times when I don’t use the Internet. It’s not allowed. There’s a great program called SelfControl (free) that allows you to block your server from going to specific sights until time runs out. You can also block the Internet entirely for a set time with SelfControl. Focus Booster (also free) is another great program that sets a timer to break work into 25-minute cycles with a 5-minute break in between each.

2. Gaps are good things

Learning at all levels—whether learning on a job, studying for a test, or teaching yourself something new—is often condensed into short time segments. The issue is that this form of condensed learning does not lead to long-term retention. Research shows that if you distribute the study of a subject over a period of time, you are more likely to retain the information. Between first learning something, practicing it, and then applying it, you should have equal gaps. Here are some ways you can apply this:

1. If you have to present material two weeks from now, it is best to learn it today, and then practice presenting it in one week. When you present the material, you’ll be more likely to remember everything than if you had crammed it in the last few days before the presentation.

2. If you want to retain material over a long period of time, practice it at regular intervals or else you will forget.

3. Set deadlines for when you want to learn things by, so that you can put this principle to use.

3. Quiz yourself with open-ended questions

When learning material, most of us study by rereading it. However, research has shown that testing yourself with open-ended questions helps retain information over longer periods of time. Here are a few easy ways to put this into practice:

1. Make flashcards with keywords and write down everything you remember about the subject. Don’t use your notes; just write down what you remember about each keyword off the top of your head.

2. Have a friend read the keyword, and verbally explain to her the substance of it.

3. Make mock-tests with short-answer questions, if possible, with friends, and then give feedback to each other.

This may seem only applicable to students, but think about it in terms of giving a presentation: sitting down and writing out responses to questions you might be asked is a much better way of solidifying this material than just rehearsing your speech.

4. Figure out how your prefer to learn

There are four typical learning preferences: visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic. If you determine how you learn, you will enjoy learning more, and find material more engaging by pursuing it in your preferred way. These are only preferences, and they do not limit you from learning in other ways. However it is easier to engage in your self-directed education if you’re able to understand how you prefer to learn. Check out the “Learn How You Learn” test at

5. Manage your time effectively

I manage my time by breaking it into chunks. I am usually up at 6:00am every morning, and until 12:00pm, I work. I rarely take calls before noon, and I use this time to work on the most important things I have to get done. After noon I can answer plenty of emails, meet people for coffee, or talk over the phone all I want, but before noon I work. Also, by waking up so early, I’m able to get the majority of my work done before most people go to lunch.

The other important thing I do is use a calendar. Everything—including my morning work routine—goes in my calendar. That way, whenever I’m off track, it is easy to see that, oh, right now I am supposed to be working on X, or learning Y. The combination of a task manager (I use Things or Asana) and a calendar, when actually used, is the only way I’m able to accomplish my goals.

6. Get an accountability buddy

Getting an accountability buddy will, simply, keep you accountable. Can you think of promises you made to yourself but didn’t keep? That’s where an accountability buddy comes into play: when you share your goals with somebody, you are more likely to accomplish them. To find one, email a friend you trust to keep you accountable, and ask if he or she would like to exchange weekly goals with you (and keep asking people until you find someone). You can be persuasive by letting them know this will not be time-consuming, and they will benefit from it as well. Once a week, email your friend five to ten goals you will accomplish this week. On the same day, meet with your friend or have a phone conversation to share what you did and did not accomplish in the previous week. This is a good way to get feedback, help each other set goals, and share progress. And if you didn’t accomplish one of your goals, it goes back on the list. As a sample list, here are Marlon’s personal goals for this week:

1. Finish building a personal website

2. Run for 20 minutes everyday

3. Write a 5-page short story

4. Read two books

5. Spend an hour every day learning Spanish

7. Maintain good sleep hygiene

I know the temptation to go and go and go—not stopping to break, sleep, or eat. There are too many pages to write, there are too many emails to respond to, there is an unending amount of work that needs to get done, and just how can I afford to take a break when all of this work remains unfinished?  But the reality is when you sleep, your work is of a higher quality. I am more focused for the time I actually spend working. Especially us young doers, we need the sleep. Science is constantly showing us how important it is to get enough sleep: it increases focus, memory retention, heals your body, and has countless other benefits (such as not looking like a zombie when giving a talk). It’s easy to keep going and burn the midnight oil, but building a healthy sleep habit—waking up at the same time every morning, getting to bed early enough to get a full night’s sleep, and taking naps when you haven’t slept enough—will increase the quality of your work, no exceptions.

For more tips on self-learning and other news in DIY education, be sure to check out’s blog.



The image “modern studying”  came from Flickr user Ron Wiecki and is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND license.

One thought on “7 Steps to Effective – and Efficient – Self-Learning

  1. Very helpful and insightful article; I believe it will help me, as I seek to craft a simple poem on How to Learn. Thanks very much for sharing with many. God bless you.

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