Learning can be a waste of time
Learning and studying isn’t universally a good thing.
I found that saying “sometimes spending some time studying and learning can be a waste of time” is very contentious. Especially in a quickly evolving tech environment.
If you stop learning and become rigid in your ways, you become obsolete. If you stop learning you miss the opportunity to get more efficient and be able to do more in a shorter time.
But, we shouldn’t just glorify the activity, because it’s essential when executed well. Not all studying or even learning is a good use of your time.
Similarities with finance
Let’s compare learning to financial investing. Investing is generally perceived as good for you. But is spending money buying “investments” always a good thing? What if your “investment” has zero return of investment and is just a waste of resources? All because you didn’t do enough research and made poor capital allocation?
Or when you do too many investments and get overstretched. Then you can’t put enough attention to the project and then it fails.
Or if you got excited by something shiny (hello, crypto-dog-coins) and lost lots of money because of speculation? Maybe in that case it would be better not to “invest” at all?
Your time is probably your most precious asset. When you spend time on learning, you can’t take back this time. Let’s make it count. Let’s start with two major problems I see.
Learning that doesn’t advance you toward your goals
If your goals are ambitious you will have to learn and evolve to meet them. No doubt.
But even with the best intentions you can get it wrong.
Learning wrong things for your goals
You might be asking, who would fall into this trap? It’s surprisingly easy if you don’t do enough pre-learning research or lack self awareness. What skills and knowledge will unlock your progress?
At times, it’s better to go broad than deep. Maybe you should take a UX or Project Management course instead of learning another JS framework? At other times, it’s better to go deep.
And maybe what you should do is invest in the soft skills rather than the hard skills?
Let’s take Joe as an example, Joe wants to get promoted in his software Web Development job. Joe is ambitious and will happily spend a lot of time learning. Joe decides that they will read a book about software architecture, so they will be more ready to be a senior engineer.
What you don’t know about Joe, is that Joe is held back by a different problem. He regularly underestimates how long his tasks will take, dismisses the need for project meetings, works in long stretches without updating anybody and fails to deliver his commitments on time.
Joe doesn’t have the trust of his teammates and won’t get promoted regardless of how good his JS, Python, Rust… software architecture, distributed systems etc skills are. He needs to understand the basics of project management and become a reliable team mate.
Studying as a form of procrastination
“I just need to learn a bit more before I …”
Would you do heart surgery without training? I hope not. But for many things just a basic knowledge is enough and you will learn much more from doing. Or you might even discover that you were learning wrong things.
Warning signs that your learning is a form of procrastination:
- there isn’t a definite end or it keeps moving
- you have been reading/listening to to the same type of material for a very long time (stuck in beginner mode)
The problem here might be either a lack of strategy or confidence. If it’s the strategy, put some time into thinking on a more meta level.
If it’s fear or lack of confidence, think about the actual risks you are facing:
- What is at stake? E.g. bankruptcy, your life, health or maybe just a bit of an embarrassment?
- Can you go back and learn more if needed without sabotaging the goal?
Maybe the risk of failure is less bad than the cost of inaction and time put into “learning”? Maybe it’s just not for you and you should move on completely.
When you think you are learning, but not really
Another reason why learning can be a big waste of time is when you are learning the right things, but it either doesn’t absorb or doesn’t stick.
Absorbing Knowledge: Poor learning habits
There are lots of ways to absorb new knowledge and skill, many of which are ineffective.
Some questions for you:
- Are you absorbing the knowledge passively or actively?
- How do you test your new understanding?
If you are passive and don’t test your understanding then you are likely not learning very well. You might feel like you are and you might think like doing it in a different way, would be slower and less efficient.
Learning is changing, if nothing changes, there is no learning. Your brain has to go through the reps, you need to develop new a way of thinking. This is why learning with a project is good, or when there is a quiz or an assignment where you have to practice your knowledge.
Before engaging into studying you can look out for learning materials that are more active and if what you have is just reading material, you can still make it more active yourself.
Retaining Knowledge: lack of organization and process
I took plenty of notes in college. Do you know what I did with those notebooks after the courses finished? I threw them away to trash as I knew that I would probably never open them again.
As you continue learning and build on top of what you are learning, that’s probably fine, because the old material is still there. Similarly if you apply your skills soon after, you can maintain them and build upon them.
I did take a bunch of courses in quantum physics. They were actually pretty good, there were many assignments, math problems to solve, simulations to program, practical experiments to do. It was great, I learned a lot, I got good grades, but I don’t remember nor use almost any of it now. I work as an engineer in Software, not as a physicist.
There are many things like this where I put a lot of effort and years later it’s mostly forgotten. Could I relearn it - probably. But it’s still painful to me.
It’s painful enough to me that I started to be more strategic about my knowledge retention.
Living note taking system
I generally write things down for myself for two reasons:
- to process stuff out - figure out a plan, explore a problem, etc
- to make a resource I can use later
Notebooks or Google Doc documents work perfectly fine for the first goal. But in my case don’t work very well for the second goal. It’s easy to forget about a given notebook, it’s not that easy to search and I just find it that I never refer back to them. In the past I tried evernote and google keep, but it would quickly turn into a mess.
And then I discovered Notion. It is visually pleasing, allows easy structuring, reorganizing and adding information (and has a lot of features!). It’s my tool for organizing information for the long term. There is a ton of materials out there about it and the tool is free for individuals. Go try it!
Process around recall (reinforcing skills)
Another trap with learning is not thinking about maintaining the skill. If you learn a skill to then use it immediately, you might be fine. But more often than not, you can find yourself forgetting the things you should have supposedly learned and getting frustrated.
Compound interest is a great concept, if you keep improving by 1% every day, you will end up ~37 times better over a year. Not 365% better, 3778% better! This is incredible! But what if you have a skill or knowledge attrition at the same time? +1% is offset by -1% (or more!) and you end up on average improving 0% per day and 0 percent over a year and you get stuck. You might be thinking, why am I not leveling up, I keep learning!?
The good news is that retaining knowledge requires less effort than acquiring knowledge in the first place. But it’s still something that you need to be aware of, especially if the new things seem more exciting and satisfying to learn.
To be consistent, I would recommend having a process that you follow. I use Anki for Spaced Repetition.
It’s an app in which you can create cards and then practice recalling their contents. There is some art in making the cards, but you can always change them if they are not that great. If you can recall the note (or answer your question) well, then you will have a review scheduled after a longer period. If you forgot, you will review it again tomorrow. The better you remember the given card, the farther in the future it gets scheduled. I spend about 20 minutes a day every day reviewing the cards. It’s mostly foreign language vocab.
Keep on learning, but learn better
I hope you learned something reading this! Overall, I’m not an enemy of learning, I am obsessed with learning and I am always working on my skills, reading books, articles and taking courses.
But it can be a waste of time, I wasted a lot of time learning myself. I could have had more time, I could have been less stressed and busy. I could have learned more and more useful things.
The key is to not do things in an unexamined way. Be self aware, be strategic, learn about learning, improve over time and keep on learning.