How to learn effectively

With the web moving so fast, how do you keep up-to-date with the latest innovations?

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Web professionals are knowledge workers. In other words, we are hired for what we know, and our ability to creatively implement that knowledge. Yes, we have practical skills, but these are secondary to our understanding of how to effectively harness the power of the web.

In a world of rapid innovation, where knowledge is our primary commodity, the need to keep up-to-date is essential. Without it our employability declines rapidly.

How then do we ensure we are on the cutting edge of web innovation? Our clients and bosses maybe willing to pay for our knowledge, but they won’t pay for us to cultivate that knowledge. How then can we find the time to learn, when we are not paid to do so?

I believe it comes down to two factors; the right process and the right tools.

What follows is the process I use to keep up-to-date, and the tools I use to achieve this. My approach is based on the Getting Things Done methodology, consisting as it does of three steps:

  • Gather
  • Process
  • Act

Let’s look at each in turn.

Gather

As web professionals there is a mind boggling amount of material we can learn from. Conference talks, articles, blog posts, tutorials, research papers, the list could go on. The challenge is finding quality information and content that meets your particular interests. I achieve this using three approaches.

RSS

Although RSS has fallen somewhat out of favour, I still make heavy use of it. Since Google Reader closed I now use Feedly to read my RSS feeds.

Feedly
In the post Google Reader world, Feedly is simply the best RSS reader out there.

There was a time when I read RSS feeds religiously, marking them as read in much the same way as email, until I had read every item. These days I take a more relaxed approach. Instead of reading every item I dip in and out of my RSS feeds, seeing if there is anything that interests me. If I see something that looks vaguely interesting I mark it for processing later (see below).

I tend to do this in the evening on my iPad. It’s a fairly mindless job as I am not attempting to read anything, just mark things that look interesting. The iPad is perfect for this kind of activity and I would argue that every web professional should have a tablet for this job if at all possible.

I can’t recommend what RSS feeds you subscribe to because that will vary based on your areas of interest. However, I would advise reviewing the list regularly and removing feeds that you rarely save for later. Personally I avoid feeds that put out large amounts of content because they tend to swamp feeds that publish less often. Also in a lot of cases the quality is lower.

Personalised magazines

RSS is great, but it does mean you are getting a somewhat narrow view. After all, you are only hearing from a relatively small number of sources. I therefore supplement RSS with a personalised magazine app on my iPad.

Probably the best well known of these is Flipboard. You tell Flipboard the subjects you are interested in and it finds appropriate articles. Although Flipboard is nice, I personally prefer Zite.

Zite
Zite is a personalised magazine that learns your preferences over time.

Zite has the advantage that you can vote up or down stories. If you like something, you can tell Zite to show you more like that. If you don’t like it then Zite will avoid similar stories in future.

Twitter

Probably my most valuable source of information is Twitter. I follow all of the key figures in the web community and they share some amazing content. Admittedly you need to pick through numerous pictures of their cats, but it is worth it for the articles they share.

In affect, the people you follow on Twitter are acting as personalised editors, finding and presenting the best content to you.

Shared links in Safari
Safari on Maverick or iOS7 allows you to see links shared on Twitter.

Apple has made this all the easier recently with their new shared links panel in Safari on iOS7 and Maverick.

Process

As you look through Twitter, RSS and Zite, you will come across content that looks interesting. However, if you stop to read every interesting post, it will take forever. Instead you need a way of storing the content and returning to it later.

Personally I use Pocket for this job because it allows me to collect video and textual content. Unfortunately it doesn’t allow me to do the same with audio, which is frustrating, but I use Huffduffer for that instead.

Pocket - Read it Later App
Pocket allows me to save interesting articles and video to consume later.

Pocket has great mobile and desktop apps, while Huffduffer allows you to create your own podcast feed of audio files that can be synced with your pod catcher of choice. This means that you can easily read or listen to content wherever you are. I can often be found consuming the odd article on my iPhone in the unused spare moments throughout my day.

Of course it is no good filling Pocket or Huffduffer with content you never get around to reading. Although using some spare moments to read stuff is great, it will not be enough. I also recommend setting aside half an hour each day to just sit and read.

Another advantage of not reading content immediately, but saving it for later, is that you don’t waste time reading content that isn’t great. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and waste time reading something that is not that helpful. However, as I look through my pocket list I pick only the most interesting articles to read. If something stays in the list too long then it can’t be that useful and I delete it. You end up reading the best stuff, rather than merely the latest.

Act

Reading, watching or listening to great web content is not enough. Remember the objective isn’t just to read stuff, it’s to learn and implement what you read. Its therefore important to do something constructive with what you have read.

I typically act on what I have read in one of three ways.

Keep it as reference

Some articles contain useful snippets of information that are good reference material. For example, it might include a useful stat or a good quotation that is worth keeping. I often include these kinds of snippets in presentations or mention them when talking to clients.

Instead of keeping the whole article, I clip the best bits to Evernote with a reference back to the source. This means I can quickly find the best bits from an article without wading through the whole thing for the relevant part.

Share it

If a post is particularly good I will share it via Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or Linkedin. People love it when you share quality content, as you become their personal editor. I have found its a great way of increasing your following.

More importantly, I regularly share content with my colleagues and clients. A good article can often perfectly articulate something you have been trying to communicate or spark a much needed discussion in a particular area.

Create an action from it

Most importantly, I sometimes choose to create an action for my task list after I have read an article. If the post mentions a new tool, I take an action to investigate it. If it talks through a new technique I want to try, I take an action to experiment later.

It’s so important that you capture these actions somewhere you see them, otherwise all that reading is for nothing.

That is the trouble with the web. There is so much good content online and many people become addicted to reading it. After all, you feel like you are learning new things. However, just reading it is not enough. You need a process to ensure what you have read actually makes an impact on how you work.

Of course, this is only my approach to things and there is no one right way. How do you ensure you keep up-to-date with latest web practices? More importantly, how do you ensure that these lessons get integrated into how you work?

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