Documenting Learning – aka Autodidacts do it better by themselves?

It’s easy to convince ourselves that learning by reading is the only route for “people like us” and autodidacticism is the norm for developers; we expect to teach ourselves new technology and to find our way around problems as they occur. In some other cultures, say a military one, that type of learning; ad-hoc, piecemeal and always incomplete would be seen as woefully inadequate. Coral reef knowledge has its advantages, but we can do better.

How much time should you spend learning?

You know, at the end of the year, if you took some time out, deliberately and on purpose, from doing “real work” to do some learning about something, and you provided evidence that you weren’t just browsing the web looking for a new job, do you think that your manager is going to penalise you? If you are then you need to spend more time learning, you’ll need a new job soon.

A working year has about 2000 hours in it. And how much time do you invest in learning and reflecting on where you are and want to be. Maybe a few hours a year in your annual review meeting? If you ran a project that was a person-year and you spent 0.1% of the time on planning, people would say you are nuts.

So: spend some time on it, but decide how much. Ideally, be upfront and agree it in advance. But it’s your life.

It’s learning, not just surfing the web

How can we soup-up self-learning?

  1. Be proactive, determine when you think you need to learn, don’t wait to fall into a hole
  2. Plan first: don’t just jump in a start surfing or installing new applications on your machine, do some sort of breadth-first check and make sure you know “what winning looks like” and when you are “done” for this piece of learning
  3. Document it: write down what you want to do, then write down what you actually did, make notes, draw pictures, put dates on it, use paper as well as documents, and KEEP DATE STAMPS, this is a log of your learning rather than a source of information.
  4. Pay it forward: when you spent time learning you are investing your company’s money in the future, you need to spread the learning. At the very least you need to pass the info back to your manager so they are aware of what you know.


One Note

My weapon of choice for this is OneNote. It isn’t quite as good as Evernote because I can’t use my iPhone to insert pictures into the notebook (cloud wins there).

Below are my personal power tips for using One Note. Which I also use for drafting some documents when I’m offline on my laptop. And also I use it for my ongoing journal of everything, which helps me at year end.

Create a template page for learning OneNote

One thing that you can do with OneNote is use a template. I’ve got quite into using Word templates as well recently, but OneNote is great for building a learning scrapbook.

Creating new templates is easy:


Then you can get this and it will factory a new blank page for you to fill in:



Power tools of OneNote

These are the ones that I use all the time:

  • Snip: press windows key + s at any time and you can draw a screen capture, great for stealing diagrams
  • Timestamp: alt + shift + f for entering the date and time, so you can see how your learning progressed and how much time you spent on it.

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