How do successful people find time to learn so much everyday? originally appeared on Quora -- the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Bernie Klinder, serial entrepreneur, investor, and consultant, on Quora:

How do successful people find time to learn so much every day?

When I was in Army basic training, we routinely did several hundred push-ups a day. At the beginning of the eight-week cycle, it was around 200 a day, and by the end I think we were close to 500. When most people hear that, they have the same surprised reaction and I think they imagine that we did those pushups either all at once, or in large sets. In truth, most of those were cranked out 25-35 at a time 10 or more times a day. The entire day was an ever changing mix of running, push-ups, and training (classroom and hands-on field training).

Many people react the same way when I tell them I read 125-plus books a year, as well as several print magazines, listen to podcasts, read blogs, etc. Just like the push-ups, I don't spend half my day reading and studying in one long session. I break it up into smaller sessions throughout the day, often less than 10-20 minutes at a time. Think of it this way: If you read just 30 pages of a book every day, you'll finish a 300 page book in 10 days. If you do it consistently, you'll read about three books a month -- without spending your entire weekend reading.

Breaking up the time into smaller sessions has two advantages: First, it makes it easier to "find" the time -- carving out a smaller 10-minute breaks is easier than finding an hour to read. In addition, there is a cognitive limit to how much you can learn and retain at a time. Studying something for a few minutes and then giving your mind time to process and absorb the information is much more effective than longer "cram" sessions.

This is known as "chunking": Instead of sitting down with a book for four hours, try "snacking" throughout the day:

  • Reading a single chapter of a book takes about 10-15 minutes. I often start the day with just one chapter of whatever book I'm reading, usually over my morning coffee.
  • Throughout the day, I look up any new or unfamiliar terms, names, concepts, etc., that come up in my reading or day to day conversations. Between Google and Wikipedia I can find detailed information easily, and it usually takes less than a minute. Yesterday, I learned about Cape Verde (it came up in conversation), looked up the difference between the terms "jealous" and "envious," learned more about the solar eclipse, read a summary of the book Antifragileand read up on the history of Confederate monuments, among over things. While that sounds like a lot, this really took only a minute or two at a time for each item -- less than the average TV commercial break.
  • I often listen to podcasts or audio books while doing chores, working out, or driving. Make the most of your morning and evening commutes, or other time-consuming tasks that don't engage your brain. A 20-minute podcast makes washing the dishes, ironing clothes, cleaning the house, or folding laundry go much faster. I often wear wireless headphones and listen to podcasts while grocery shopping. Again, this is in small increments -- just 30-60 minutes throughout the day.
  • I ditched cable a few years ago and often watch TED Talks, educational YouTube videos, or documentaries on Netflix. I still make time for a movie or occasionally binge watching a series, but about half of what I watch are documentaries or tutorials.
  • In addition to these ad hoc things, I also make a concentrated effort to learn something in depth, spending 2-3 months learning from several sources on the same topic. With a little focused effort over a 12-week period, you can learn an incredible amount about a topic and know more about a topic than most people ever will. Again, it's a chapter here and there, with other source material combined into a theme. For example in one three-month spurt, I read a book on the Civil War, watched Ken Burns's Civil War series, read Ulysses Grant's autobiography, watched a few other documentaries about the Civil War, and then traveled to a number of local museums and historic sites. Then I moved onto to something else. This made it fun, and it didn't consume as much time as most people spend watching sports each week.

The important thing is not to overwhelm your brain with too much at one time. You need to give your brain time to process the information and make sense of it. Always start with something you're interested in, and see what pace makes sense for you. Spend 20-30 minutes taking in the information, and then take a break. When you're ready, go back for more. I usually break up my time into three or four periods per day, switching between something I want to learn and something I have to learn for work (or something to advance my career).

In aggregate, I spend an hour or maybe two a day learning new things in a few 20-minute spurts. It doesn't seem like much, but over time this incremental advance is huge. It's really no different than working out three times a day for 20 minutes. You'll discover that small gains, over a period of time, can lead to an incredible amount of progress.

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Published on: Nov 25, 2017