I try to learn something new every day. It might relate to personal finances, physical health, computer programming, or any other topic — and the learning might take place for a few minutes or from sunrise to sunset. Every time I learn something, I typically observe a corresponding increase in my quality of life. This is why I believe it’s so critical to establish learning as a lifelong skill.

Learning to Conquer Fear

Everyone has a natural fear of the unknown, which can be a huge driver of stress: Am I saving enough money? Should my car be making that noise? Am I doing this exercise correctly? Is there a better way to write this code I’m working on?

A lack of information can make the world feel like it’s closing in.

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A few years ago I had a fairly thin physique, I ate terribly, and I lived a very sedentary lifestyle. I decided I needed to take control of my health, but the idea of a signing up for a gym membership and completely changing my diet was extremely overwhelming.

When I started exercising, I didn’t even know the difference between a rep and a set. It sounds absurd to be afraid of entering a building that contains exercise equipment, but I was terrified. My total lack of knowledge made me feel like I would either embarrass myself, hurt myself, or both. It’s two years later, and I’m now in the best physical shape of my life. I’ve gained about 30 pounds (13.6 kg) in muscle mass, I eat a much better diet, and I lift weights three days a week.

The first year I wasted a lot of time and didn’t see any real results. I decided to take the “head first” approach and just start running on a treadmill at the gym. The running wasn’t all bad; it helped me get over some anxiety and get used to going to the gym consistently. Looking back, though, I should have started my journey with a few weeks of learning. As soon as I picked up a book, read some blog posts, and watched some videos about working out, I finally started to see real change.

Photograph of dumbbell weights at a gym.
Lifting weights at the gym for the first time was scary, but I was able to conquer my fear by learning how to do it properly. (Photo from Flickr user midiman)

Now, before I go to the gym, I’ll spend about 10 minutes reading or watching videos on the web. Just six months ago, I was doing squats and deadlifts in cushioned running shoes. I would have thought that somewhere along the way a book would have pointed out this common mistake to me.

Instead, it was during one of my 10-minute learning sessions that a video emphasized the importance of keeping your feet as close to the ground as possible by wearing the proper shoes. This simple change increased my balance and helped me break through a plateau almost immediately. It seems so obvious in hindsight. But you don’t know what you don’t know, which is why it’s so important to always continue learning.

Learning is not a Luxury

I’ve always been a huge fan of video games. I love this hobby so much that I decided to start a big multi-year side project to make a game of my own. If you’re not familiar, writing game code (I’m using C# in Unity) is very different from writing HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, and many of the other web languages we teach on Treehouse. It’s a different programming environment with different paradigms.

Photograph of a small plaque that says "I am still learning", a quote from Michelangelo
I keep this small plaque hanging in my kitchen. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I still have left to learn.

I also want to make my game work with VR (virtual reality) hardware like the Oculus Rift, which adds a time pressure: The clock is ticking, and I need to work quickly before the market is saturated. At first glance, it seems crazy to spend any of that time learning. Why hit the books when I can instead draw upon my previous programming experience and dive right into the work?

Wasting time at the gym made me learn an important lesson: Learning is not a luxury. Rather, learning is a necessity that should be built in from the onset of any project. Learning is work, just like other seemingly ancillary prototypical project phases, like testing and QA. If you don’t continuously spend time sharpening your skills, then eventually they will become dull, and other competition in the tech jungle will eat you for lunch.

In a previous post about coding tips, I touched on this idea briefly:

When you’re crunching between one deadline and the next, learning can feel like a luxury. A programmer who isn’t learning, however, is just treading water. Almost every time I learn something new, it helps me work faster and more efficiently.

This idea has carried over into my game development hobby. For the first two months, almost all my free time was spent learning about game development. I absorbed as much as I could about best programming practices, how to build a solid asset pipeline, how to create engaging gameplay, and more.

Just like when I go to the gym, I start my coding sessions with about 10 minutes of learning. In those little 10-minute sessions, I often pick up a new tip that saves me hours of work. I also have a month-by-month plan for my game and, midway through, I’ve planned a month where I’ll do nothing but learning again. It might seem extravagant, especially when there’s a key market window I want to hit, but I feel confident that I’ll save more time than I’ll actually spend learning.

Learn for Life

It’s simple: Learning saves time, and time is the most precious resource available. We all have a limited life to lead, so it’s important to make the best of it. If you don’t maintain your mind, it will eventually fall apart, just like your personal finances, your car, or your body. So feed your curiosity and make it a habit to learn something new every single day. You never know what you might discover.