Education, as we enter the final years of the first quarter of the century, has become easier than ever. The world, by a benefit of being more interconnected than any other point in history, is also replete with opportunities and potential for self-growth. The problem is: how do we harness it? It’s not enough that we simply can take a course online; what makes an online course powerful is also what makes it more difficult than many people expect: it’s self-directed. And this is what I want to discuss. How can we handle self-directed learning amid our undoubtedly busy lives?
In a standard education model, we go to a physical location with a bunch of other people, sit with someone who holds the role of teacher, and… we sponge. We soak up the information, memorize what’s needed to achieve our principal goals, and we move on. Our sole responsibility in such circumstances is to show up on time and follow orders. With self-directed learning, things are not so simple.
In a self-directed setting, whether online, through distance learning, or even just learning a subject sans teacher, there is no structure other than the one that we provide. We are responsible not merely for showing up on time and doing the work, but, often, for actually deciding what we need to study. When I was studying for my BFA degree it was through one of the only low-residency programs for undergraduate creative writing in the United States. Every semester we had a single, ten-day, residency. There we would spend time with our cohort, attend workshops, and closely configure our upcoming semester with a faculty advisor. In addition to my ordinary coursework, I also worked as a lead editor for the college’s nationally recognized literary journal.
It was up to me, not my instructor, to create a plan for my success.
It’s the same with my job: working as the director of an audio-video department for a nonprofit, I find myself constantly needing to design my schedule in a way that maximizes my effectiveness — no one is going to come along and do it for me. My volunteer work, for the Democracy Cafe, is much the same: If I’m asked to work on a project, it’s up to me to find a way to add that load into my life in a way that both allows me to complete the assignment and do so without adding stress to my schedule.
In fact, when I look at almost anything I do, I discover that I’m self-directing myself far more than relying on someone else to provide the structure for me. If we wait for someone else to manage our lives we’re always going to be falling short of our aspirations; there is nothing more fulfilling than knowing your own limits and understanding how to excel within them (and, the secret here is, the better you are at knowing yourself, the better you become at expanding your abilities over time).
As someone who has spent their entire life practicing the art of self-directed learning, from my homeschooled childhood, to my undergraduate degree, I’ve picked up a few tips that make it possible for me to accomplish my goals. These are not enough, on their own — they all require determination to have any worth, but they can help guide you on your path.
First, manage your expectations. Hope for the Moon but shoot for just staying aloft. There have been far too many times when I have set myself an extremely difficult goal only to find that it requires so much of my time and energy that achieving it burns me out. I had to learn how to look at things from a long-term perspective and then practice pacing myself — and sometimes this meant performing lower than my original expectations. What I realized was that I could do well in multiple subjects if I was able to keep my energy output consistent. My perfectionist tendencies asked “the best” from me in all things, but the more I’d strive for excellence in one area, the more other parts of my life suffered.
So, instead of striving for excellence in all things, I learned to concentrate on settling for “satisfactory.” The wonderful surprise buried inside this revelation was that, with time, I began to surpass my earlier high expectations — and I was doing it without anywhere near as much stress on any single part of my life and schedule.
The pine tree, tough but brittle, snaps in the same storm that only shakes the willow’s boughs. Be like the willow tree and learn how to bend.
The next thing I learned was time management. This does not necessarily mean that you need to schedule an hour block every day at the same time — some people work that way and some people don’t; not everybody has the same life circumstances. The sort of structure that works for one person may not work for another. Instead, work needs to be scheduled in such a way that a minimization of life-stress is accomplished. Remember the willow tree I mentioned a moment ago? Even the willow will snap if the stress gets too much — our goal, as self-directed learners, is to find ways of spreading out the stress so that we can handle more and grow stronger because of it.
I discovered that the best way to manage my time was to start working as early as possible — and I don’t just mean early in the day. Every single time that I ever leave anything — from a college assignment to the dirty dishes in the sink — until the ever-present “later,” I end up regretting it. Leaving something until later increases your stress — you may feel like it’s too much to do right now, but I guarantee that it will feel worse a day or two down the road.
By always jumping in as soon as possible, I found I was able to handle large projects with very little comparative stress. I could work a little every day, on my own terms, and accomplish greater things than I knew myself capable of.
My final piece of advice related to managing stress is this: Most of us have several different “balls in the air” (as the old juggling metaphor goes). If we try to juggle too many objects at the same time we will inevitably end up dropping all of them. The key, then, is to find places where we can combine two balls into one. Consolidate your life whenever possible and you’ll find that you feel less exhausted by the end of the day.
The good news is that it is possible to excel in self-directed work. Not all of us may be comfortable with it at first; it can take time to train ourselves to handle the extra work of managing our own schedules rather than relying on outside forces to do it for us. However, if we can build a structure that lessens the overall stress of any single activity, it becomes possible to manage far more than we expected. Learning good habits — habits that work for our own lives — is key, but so is how we approach the situation; how we look at the work ahead of us is just as important as how carefully we take notes. We must be willing to settle our expectations down a little and allow ourselves to feel good about accomplishing even the smallest of goals. If we work hard to reach the sky, we may eventually find that it becomes easy to get into the air. And then, before we know it, the Moon’s no obstacle at all.