How to Prioritize: What Should I Learn First?

By Dean Yeong on September 3, 2018

If you’re like me, you want to learn anything and everything you can. In an article on continuous improvement, I came to the conclusion that one of the many purposes of life is to keep learning and improving. Instead of focusing on a defined goal or destination, focus on getting better at something every single day.

It’d be great if we had unlimited time and energy. But the opposite is the reality. There are too much knowledge and wisdom, and far too many skills out there for us to pick up and master, but we have too little time and energy for all of them. Often, even when you’re totally clear on what you want, it’s still hard to focus because you just don’t know what you should be doing now and what you should put aside for later.

I have faced the same questions and challenges for a long time and have finally found a solution. Establishing and developing simple concepts to prioritize what I should be working, learning, and spending time on first has made a big difference in my life. These ideas take prioritization to a whole new level. By reducing the list of what you should learn, practice, and do, achieving your desired results becomes clear and within reach.

Focus on 1) Meta-Skills and 2) Transferable Skills

Do you know people who try to learn about everything that interests them — like swimming, playing guitar, rope jumping, doing magic tricks, and even talking to dogs? There is nothing wrong with learning any of these but to learn all of them — worse, at the same time — is impractical.

The key is to group the skills you want to learn into three groups of skill sets. First, the meta-skills group. Second, the transferable skills group. And lastly, the non-transferable skills group.

  • Meta-skills. Skills that have a direct positive impact on everything else you want to learn now and later in life. For example, getting better at managing your money and making better decisions.
  • Transferable skills. Skills that are versatile and transferable regardless of what you’re doing. For example, public speaking and writing.
  • Non-transferable skills. Specific skills that can’t be transferred to other domains. For example, memorizing the periodic table of atoms and practicing for a particular type of handwriting.

To maximize the outcome, focus on learning and mastering meta-skills first. By mastering these skills, you get to positively impact all areas of your life. Then you can move forward to transferable skills and non-transferable skills depending on your current goals or job.

Just in Time Information VS Just in Case Information

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. —Herbert Simon

The abundance of information and the ease to access it quickly becomes a severe problem for people who are curious and want to learn almost anything. They’re constantly consuming information to the point that they don’t have the attention left to take action and to produce.

It’s not that the content they’re consuming is terrible, it’s just that there is too much irrelevant information that interests them but doesn’t contribute directly to their goals. Personally, I used to watch countless YouTube videos about science — from space exploration to quantum physics and from the rise of A.I to genetic engineering — while I should have been reading good books and writing good articles.

To avoid falling into the same trap, realize that you don’t have all the time to learn and master everything. Then categorize the information that interests you into two groups:

  1. Just-in-time information. Things that you need to know or learn just in time to implement them.
  2. Just-in-case information. Things that you want to know or learn because you believe you might need them in the future.

After you have sorted the information into these two groups, spend your time and energy on just-in-time information and try to ignore or reduce your time spend on just-in-case information. Trust me, you will be fine for learning something just in time to use it and you’ll probably never use the just-in-case information in your lifetime.

One simple example is to never check your inbox until you’re committed to taking immediate action on your emails. This way, you don’t spend time reading emails, have them linger in your mind all day, only to spend more time rereading them when you want to reply. Remember: only check your inbox when you’re ready to take action immediately.

Do What Makes You Feel Good

“What if I really want to learn something that’s non-transferable and just-in-case?”

Well. Do it if it makes you feel good (as long as you’ve done the important things).

The last idea is simple — do what makes you feel good. It’s so simple that many people overlook it. Some people have the invisible script in their head that they need to suffer in order to get what they want.

  • If reading makes you feel good, read more often.
  • If playing sports makes you feel healthy, go and pick up a sport.
  • If running a business is something that fuels you up, try starting a business.

It’s clear that this idea isn’t perfect because what makes us feel good isn’t always good for us. Many of the things that make people feel good are indeed bad habits, procrastination, and distractions for example. After all, our brains are illogical and always seek immediate pleasures instead of a smart future outcome.

However, we shouldn’t ignore it entirely because ultimately, it’s hard — and almost impossible — to keep doing something that bores you or makes you feel terrible. Things that make you feel good will keep you coming back to them again and again.

Take Prioritization to A New Level

Prioritization is one of the crucial keys to achieve the level of focus we all desire in both high-level vision and day-to-day execution. Getting good at something — anything — isn’t just about knowing what to do, it’s also about knowing what not to do.

It’s easy for many people to fall into the trap of wanting to learn and master everything. To avoid making the same mistake, here are three things you can do differently as a recap:

  1. Master the meta-skills first, skills that have a direct impact on every area of your life. Then, focus on picking up transferable skills that are versatile and useful regardless of what you do. Learn non-transferable skills if only you need or love doing them.
  2. For information consumption, focus on just-in-time information. Learn what you need just in the time when you need it.
  3. Lastly, do what makes you feel good — proud, happy, and fulfilled.

What are the skills you want to learn now? And how do you prioritize them?

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FOOTNOTES

  1. The idea of meta-skills is inspired by a similar idea by Noah Kagan of improving things at the top of the funnel. You can read about it here or in the book Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss.
  2. I first read about just-in-time information and just-in-case information in The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss.

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