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Stop Learning, Start Doing: Active v. Passive Learning

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you know I am a fan of lifelong learning. Learning experiences aren’t just for kids...we need to constantly build on our knowledge. I recently completed my certification with the John Maxwell team as a Coach, Trainer and Speaker. However, I want to make a distinction between learning and applied learning. One is completely useless without the other.

For example, I have a few clients that are really book smart, they love reading books on sales and personal development - even TED Talks. I’ll admit I will watch a few myself. These clients are super bright, BUT, unfortunately they can’t get their act together when it comes to doing something with all that information. It is so great to see and learn how smart they are, they know so much (from the books) - it’s valuable stuff, believe me. It’s also what’s called passive learning or student learning.

BUT, they’re not making a living. They can’t pay their bills. They procrastinate with their work. They struggle with effective time management. And the list goes on.

So in general, what good is all that knowledge if you don’t put it to work for you? The answer is to make the leap to active learning, but for so many people, it’s a sticking point.

Melanie Deziel, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, calls the constant rut of researching without implementing action “intellectual procrastination.” She explains in an article for Inc. Magazine, “While reading, listening and learning might FEEL like progress, until you put those resources down and DO SOMETHING, you're no closer to launching that product, updating that offering or accomplishing the original goal.”

Scientist have also called it the forgetting curve. People will forget 40 percent of what they learned in 20 minutes, 77 percent in six days and up to 90 percent in 30 days. How can you keep from forgetting so much, especially when the time you invest in reading/watching/listening is so valuable? By actively practicing, which beats passive learning any day.

I work with clients to first acknowledge the value of the learning environment, but to tell them at some point to stop reading and start working. And it’s a tough step for many to make. So, here are a few ways you can help yourself make the leap from learning to implementation.

1. Schedule yourself. Every task you have in a day should include some learning. It keeps you fresh, and as I’ve mentioned the value of product knowledge, it keeps you as a valuable resource to the people you do business with. But the keyword here is “schedule.” Allow yourself no more than 15-30 minutes in a day to watch a TED talk, listen to a podcast, read an article of relevant interest. Then move on to ACTION. That is time management.

2. Plan what you want to learn. It should make sense for what you do. It should add to your value as a business person. For example if you’re business is retail, seek out topics that will enhance your understanding of that industry. A video on technology or solar power developments is not good use of your time. Google makes it extremely easy to seek out any topic you choose, but choose a topic that adds value to YOU.

3. Set limits for resources. Hand in hand is the number of things you will digest before taking action or implementing the knowledge. Let’s say you’ll schedule yourself 15 minutes every day, but then plan on limiting yourself to three to five different resources on that subject. There’s always a fear of missing something else, but unless you conquer that fear, you’ll never step off the merry go round and DO something with it.

Think of yourselves as empty vessels or sponges. At some point you can’t retain any more. You lose whatever new knowledge comes in, and you’re quickly overwhelmed. Cut yourself off at some point, then pour our what you’ve learned into problem solving, project management or whatever tasks you have in your career.

4. Find a resource to keep you on track. Learning is just one of your tasks, and coaches are there to help you identify what your goals are for every single task, including what you’re learning. A good coach will help you list objectives -- for the week, for the month, for the year -- to push you FORWARD to your goal. A good resource can also help you wade through the information you’ve taken in to help you identify how you can act on it effectively in your career.

Again, learning is a constant, but it shouldn’t be a deterrent from progress. I have gotten great value from what I’ve learned over the past nine months with the John Maxwell Team. However, before I made the decision, I did my homework to make sure that what their program offered would ultimately make me better at what I do. I also considered what actions I could take with that information, and of course that meant applying what I learned to better communicate and coach clients. I also felt that while receiving a certificate was nice, I would be even better served by using ongoing support to keep me informed and on track to add value to what I learned.

It takes a lot of effort to make the jump from what you’ve read in a book to DOING something with it. However, like any habit, it gets more comfortable over time, and like any learning, with practice it’s perfected.