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What happened when I tried to learn something new every day for a month

29th Aug 2018 | 09:00am

It’s 2 p.m. on a Monday and out of the corner of my eye I can see my email inbox and the number of unread emails ticking higher. But rather than get sucked in, I am able to blithely turn back to the task under my hands which are, for one, not poised over the keyboard.

Instead, I am busy knitting, or rather, attempting to. My fingers, usually nimble with a crochet hook or embroidery needle, are suddenly about as useful as breakfast sausages and the stitches are coming out loose and wonky. But I am learning, and that is the main point of this exercise. In attempt to challenge myself and step out of my comfort zone, I’ve decided to learn a new skill every day for a month.

I already learn new things everyday–reporting inherently prompts you to learn something each time you work on a story, even when it’s about an industry or topic that you’ve covered for years. But after reading this post on Medium that suggested a slew of places where I could spend my time sharpening my knowledge and skills daily, I wanted to see if I could do it, and, more importantly, if I did, how it would change my brain and productivity.

Thanks to Fast Company‘s extensive coverage of brain science and its effect on productivity, I knew it wouldn’t be as simple as hitting up a new website, and I wanted at least the majority of the things I learned to fall into the category of useful skills. So I parsed out a projected four weeks of learning roughly along the lines of cognitive and physical skills that ran the gamut between picking up some basic words and phrases of a new language and reciting poetry, to the aforementioned knitting, and the knife skills used in cooking. I scheduled the more challenging ones for the beginning of the week, and on the weekends I gave myself the opportunity to just learn some fun facts.

The results, as you might guess, were a mixed bag.

From learning a language to how to make radish flowers

I started the challenge by trying to learn a few simple phrases in Hebrew since I am going to be attending a tech conference in Israel in September. Although I tried to do this through Duolingo, the app assumes you at least know the alphabet of your target language, and I definitely do not. I soon discovered some helpful YouTube videos that had the right blend (for me) of pronunciation, repetition, and speed, so I was able to latch on to basics like “Hello, my name is” and “It’s a pleasure to meet you” as well as “hello,” “goodbye,” “excuse me,” and the all important “thank you.”

Related: Three hacks to help your brain learn stuff faster

Also during that first week, I tried to tackle playing some simple chords on the guitar (thanks again to YouTube), drawing faces, memorizing a poem for recitation, and taking a quiz to learn and understand how my personality informs my state of contentment. The weekends, as I mentioned, I saved for seredipitous discoveries of fun facts informed by places I visited, or perhaps something I saw in a film or heard on a podcast.

[Photo: Flickr user Monsiri Baird]
Subsequent weeks had me hunched over a cutting board in the kitchen learning to execute the most precise of julienned carrots and radish flowers. Or in the yard, pruning shears in one hand, phone in the other, displaying which branches of the Japanese maple to cut to promote growth. Or clearing a space on the floor to learn a three-minute hip-hop routine. Or walking very slowly in circles to meditate rather than sitting still. Or even practicing penmanship with the hand I don’t ordinarily use to write.

Making the knowledge stick

What I tried to do while taking on these new skills and knowledge was to be mindful of how I was learning. For example, I made sure that I used the “spacing” effect to my advantage. That is to spread the learning out over time to make sure it stuck. So I made sure to practice the language, and chord progressions for at least 10 minutes each day. The repetition and practice is said to stimulate the basal ganglia in our brains, which are responsible for both learning and movement.

Related: Try These 5 Steps For Learning New Skills Faster

But as the weeks passed, and the new skills piled up, practicing everything for even five minutes a day became a challenge all by itself. While I could take a break from sitting and writing to try and do any one thing, doing a walking meditation,  reciting a poem, practicing the steps to a dance, knitting a few rows, chopping vegetables, etc., every single day was impractical.

Narrowing in on the most important skills

So I narrowed it down to the items I could repeat easily, and did the rest as I could. At the end of the month, my juliennes were as sharp as my chef’s knife (because I generally prepare a meal at home at least once a day) but my knitting didn’t get any better. Ditto for playing the guitar. My fingers would slip and I’d get frustrated trying to complete even the simplest chords.

Reciting poetry was a cinch, though, because I could practice anywhere (like the shower). Ditto for attempting to sing harmony in a different register because I could belt it out anytime I was doing something else like cleaning or doing laundry.

[Photo: Sandrachile ./Unsplash]
One thing that surprised me was how physically demanding writing with my opposing hand was. I write with my right hand, although I do nearly everything else with my left (including eat and use scissors). How hard could it be? I was also curious to see if it would magically enhance my creative pursuits as left-handed people generally tend to be more intuitive and artistic. So I did the exercises that most elementary school children do when they are learning to write composing long lines of each letter of the alphabet and then a phrase like “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

Related: We’ve been going about learning new skills all wrong

At the end of each of these sessions, I found I was hunching over the paper, gripping the pencil with force, and feeling like I was about to break into a sweat from the effort. By the end of the month, I’d mastered the skill enough to write words that didn’t look like they came from the hand of a kindergartener, although I don’t necessarily think my artistic endeavors were enhanced.

As for learning the language, I’m still struggling to remember some of the other phrases like “Can you tell me where x is?” in part, I found, because Hebrew couldn’t be more different than my first (and second) languages. I discovered this through a report in The New York Times in which three experts confirmed that although children naturally learn languages more easily, adults can too, but it helps if the one they are trying to learn is in the same family as their first (like a romance language).

And those weekend jaunts into facts? I didn’t repeat them often enough, or at all in some cases, so I basically don’t remember much at all about what I learned.

Bottom line: I definitely felt more accomplished by the end of the month having achieved at least some proficiency in a bunch of new skills. Going forward, though, I think I’ll stick with one task or skill a month, and make a dedicated practice of it.