Learning and Time

Day 55 in isolation, or is it day 5… I, like many others, have lost track of time spent in lockdown conditions, finding that without the normal spatial cues of a commute or regular social engagements, time somehow has less meaning.

Time is immensely fluid – we know that it can fly by when you’re having fun or slow down when you’re waiting for paint to dry. Studies show that often under novel or stressful circumstances, time can stretch out. With the attention grabbing events and upheaval of the last few months (also interspersed with long stretches of nothing to do and nowhere to be) it’s no surprise that for many of us, February feels like 6 months ago.

Before the Big Lockdown, many working adults were living through a  ‘time famine’ – or the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time. In most developed countries, being busy equals higher status – we associate an abundance of time with a lack of purpose or meaning. If someone has too much free time, their productivity levels must be suffering – they could and should be doing more. 

However, in these strange times, many normally ‘very busy’ people are finding themselves with extra time on their hands.  Although not everyone (think: parents!) is in this privileged situation of sudden ‘time affluence’, a large group of people will have found themselves with time to spare. Households around the world have found creative uses of this new found free time, ranging from DIY to practising meditation. Or from baking more bread than you could ever possibly eat, to a generation of boomers finding out what a TikTok dance challenge is. 

But by and large one of the most popular activities has been to learn a new skill online. Our perception of time and learning are interrelated, the same task can take more, or less time depending on our interest in it. Being aware of the different ways we experience time can offer an insight into how we design learning experiences for ourselves and others. 

Here are three tips we can make when learning a new skill:

Catch your time confetti in a basket 

We often cite having less free time now than in the past. This is a misconception, as studies show that leisure time has increased, with workers in 2020 having more time than generations before them. We have more free time in hours but it’s often broken up and riddled with distractions and temptations. Ashley Whillans, from Harvard Business School explains:  

“A ubiquitous connection to the internet means that we experience ‘time confetti,’ Not only are we trying to fill our time with more work and being more productive, but also our time is more fragmented. We’re more distracted, and that also contributes to these higher feelings of time stress.” 

Tip: Set aside blocks of time for any learning programme and eliminate distractions for that period. Although it might seem like a commonplace suggestion, research shows that as far as learning is concerned, multitasking is a myth, and the mere presence of a phone reduces the ability to focus, so put phones in another room. 

Reduce the mental start up cost of each session

When you have a spare 10 minutes before dinner – are you more likely to scroll your feed or begin a new novel. We’ve become so used to our leisure time being fractured, that when given a pocket of time, our habit has become to select the most cognitively simple activities with the lowest start up cost. We also tend to overestimate the amount of time needed to enjoy an experience so end up using much of our free time we have for the most familiar tasks, deprioritising anything that involves effort.

To build solid writing habits, many writers like Haruki Murakami use the ‘deliberate stop’ technique, or to stop writing just at the point where they can see their next idea, making it easier to get started the next session. Roald Dahl always left something unfinished so he would ‘never come back to a blank page’. We can use this same technique with learning to help build a learning habit.

Tip:  If you enjoy starting a new course or learning goal but often find your motivation waning, increase your own likelihood of completing by reducing the effort required to begin each session. For example, finish each learning session by writing yourself a short recap or reflection to re-read the following session, or try ending with a suggestion of how to start your next session. If doing an online course, you could try finishing each session with one task or unit remaining in a module to complete when you return.

Take a nap and tell your kids what YOU learned today

‘Time is money’, and as we are trained to link time to productivity we often look to  maximising every second. A result of this is that it can sometimes feel wasteful to repeat or revise tasks or activities as we often assume we’ve caught enough the first time around.

Understanding more about how new knowledge and skills are moved into long-term memory can help plan and design a more effective learning experience for yourself (check out our learning design checklists). We know that to store new ideas in memory we need to encounter them many times. Retrieval is even better than re-studying, so testing our understanding helps to uncover knowledge gaps. Studies have also shown that interspersing study sessions with both naps and leisure activities helps to increase uptake. 

Tip: Plan your learning sessions to be spaced apart, ideally overnight and create opportunities to test yourself. At home, testing yourself could mean explaining the key points or a new process to a family member over dinner without notes, checking what you’ve missed.

If you’re in the fortunate position of being able to spend lockdown time learning a new skill or topic, understanding a little more about how we learn can help you go a long way. Read through our Learning Design Principles for more information on how to apply these to your own learning experience or an experience you’re designing, or get in touch with your own tips!

2 thoughts on “Learning and Time”

  1. ‘We’ve become so used to our leisure time being fractured, that when given a pocket of time, our habit has become to select the most cognitively simple activities with the lowest start up cost.’ So true. This mirrors what my yoga teacher said earlier in the week about how physically, we’ll also always choose the path of least resistance.

  2. I’ve noticed recently how I misassesed the time needed to do things on and offline. Things that seemed very short to do online turn out to take much longer while I would never say that biking 3km to my work and back could take so short. Effort distorts our perception of time for sure.


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