Have you ever talked to someone at a dinner party, only to realize that the other person is just completely disinterested at what you’re saying? You know the look: glazed eyes, mouth half-open, and a stoned expression that bears a stunning resemblance to the zombies in World War Z.
So last week, a friend of mine asked me about how he should start investing. I started to carefully explain the steps: researching, opening a brokerage account, dollar-cost averaging, etc… and then I stopped talking. My friend, who was obviously really interested at first, suddenly had the zombie look on his face.
At first, I thought it was just because I was being a colossal bore, but my friend said something that really surprised me. He said, “I’m sorry – I don’t think I’d have the time to do all that work you just mentioned.”
I found that really interesting. My friend truly, genuinely, wanted to learn how to invest. But once he realized the enormity of the tasks that had to be accomplished, he replaced my voice with this internal commentary going “Oh my gawd. There’s just so much I need to do. First I have to do all this research, then I have to go down to all these different places to open an account, and blah blah blah blah blah. FORGET IT.”
The Rise of the Ultra Learners
Learning to invest can be overwhelming – go to any bookstore and you’ll see shelves and shelves of investment books, each with its own laundry list of things to do, accounts to set up, and stocks to research. It’s enough to make you want to throw all of those damn books into a pile, make a big bonfire, and dance naked around it.
Okay dude, chill. First of all, it’s completely normal to feel that way when you’re first starting out. It doesn’t just apply to investing – beginners will experience the same thing when it comes to moving to a different job, learning to cook, starting a blog, or playing a new sport.
Yet, we all know people who seem to be able to effortlessly pick up new skills. I call them ultra learners: They’re top performers at their jobs, invest effectively, have hobbies on the side, and still have plenty of time to spend with their loved ones. What separates these ultra learners from the average performers who simply sit down, whine, and never improve themselves?
Here’s a hint: It’s got nothing to do with innate talent. Nobody is born with an inclination to research investments, program in Excel, or cook a delicious meal.
Instead, it’s because ultra learners approach learning differently from everybody else. They’re systematic about their learning. They tweak their psychology. And they build systems to keep themselves on track.
It’s impossible to teach everything about learning in a single blogpost, but here are a few steps that can help you to get started:
1. Systematically list out everything that needs to be done
Have you ever been overwhelmed by a zillion things to do at the office? And then you got a hold of yourself, wrote down everything that had to be done on a piece of paper, and found yourself feeling a whole lot calmer?
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re trying to learn something new. Take investing for example: What should you be doing right now? Should you be researching which ETFs to invest in? Or checking out a few brokers? Or opening an SRS account?
You can’t act if there are a billion thoughts zooming through your head. Get it all out on paper. Take that huge project (eg starting a blog, learning to invest, learning to program, etc) and break it down into several smaller tasks. Make each task as specific as possible: So instead of writing “learn to invest” you could write “borrow three books on stock investing” or “sign up for one seminar”.
“Learn to invest” is daunting. “Sign up for one seminar” isn’t. By breaking your huge task into smaller sub-tasks, you’ll know exactly what you need to do next – which makes it easier for you to act on them.
Will you be able to capture the full, comprehensive list of what needs to be done? Probably not. When you’re starting out, you don’t know what you don’t know, and your list will probably change as you progress. But it doesn’t matter – the whole purpose of this is to realize that every big project is simply the sum of many small tasks, and you can dominate it one task at a time.
The trouble with most people is that they stop here. They make endless to-do lists and then never complete them. In order to get around that barrier, you also need to:
2. Reframe each task from a chore to skill
If you’re having trouble completing the tasks on your to-do list, it’s likely because your mind isn’t fully convinced that they’re actually worthwhile yet. In other words, your mind still sees your tasks as chores, and subconsciously withholds motivation from you. (Think about how motivated you are every time your parents tell you to do the laundry).
That’s precisely the reason why everyone says, “Yeah, I should really start reading up about how to invest”… but very few people actually get off their ass and do it! They subconsciously see investing as one of those good-to-haves, but having to actually do the work is a lame, boring chore.
Here’s the thing: Ultra learners aren’t any more excited about doing the hard, painful work than anybody else. The only difference is that they reframe the task from being just a chore to a lifelong skill.
Say you’re trying to research for the right ETF to invest in. It’s a pain in the ass, because you have to Google them, compare their features, and do a couple of calculations in Excel. You could either see it as an annoyance, or you could tell yourself: “Once I learn how to identify a good ETF, I will know how to do it for life. I’ll be able to apply it for every single future investment that I’ll make in the future.”
Once you reframe a task from a chore to a skill, you’ll find that it’s much, much, easier to motivate yourself to get it done.
But psychology can only get you so far. Once you’ve managed to convince yourself to start, you need to build systems to hold yourself accountable, starting with:
3. Schedule the next two steps
Check out your first two steps on your to-do list, and then go to Google Calendar and schedule them like you would an actual appointment. For example, if you’re planning on learning how to invest, your calendar might read:
Wednesday, 6-7pm: Go to the library and borrow 3 books on investing.
Friday, 8-10pm: Read 5 chapters of the first book
Treat this schedule as sacred – Cancel all other appointments that conflict with it. If you managed to keep to your schedule this week, reward yourself with a night out or a movie. Then schedule the next two steps.
Don’t bother trying to schedule all the tasks on your to-do list – it’s likely that things will change or you might take longer than you anticipated on certain tasks. Instead, just focus on the next two tasks and don’t worry about the rest.
Scheduling your next two tasks is important because learning, by definition, is unessential. If you don’t block off time to accomplish your tasks, I guarantee that your project will get pushed further and further back by other seemingly more “urgent” things.
Don’t let that happen to you. Schedule what you have to do, and focus all your energies on nailing ‘em.
Everything is Figureoutable
Ultra learners effortlessly pick up new skills because they systematically identify what they need to do, tweak their mental frameworks, and then schedule their tasks to keep themselves on track. You can easily apply these three steps to any new skill or project that you wish to learn – including learning how to invest.
As author and entrepreneur Marie Forleo likes to say, “Everything is figureoutable”. Every single thing you encounter in life can be broken down, figured out, and learnt. That’s a freakin’ powerful mental framework to have, and it’s the secret sauce, the hidden recipe and the unfair advantage of ultra learners.
Do you have a particular skill or project that you’ve always wanted to learn but ended up putting it off for months? Leave a comment below or send me an email to let me know what you think about this framework. Do you agree/disagree that everything is really figureoutable?