A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Trial and Error: The Story of My Self-education Plans


I love, love, love to learn, and always have. Throughout my life, in addition to formal schooling, I’ve created my own study plans, because there’s so much to learn and so little time!

(It’s okay, you can laugh at my nerdiness. I’m used to that.)

Many study regimes I made for myself ended up fizzling out—one obvious problem with self-education as opposed to formal education is lack of external motivation (like grades, deadlines, and competition)—but I finally found one I could stick with to help me reach my learning goals. I want to share some of the methods I tried, to encourage and inspire my fellow autodidacts out there!

Time-based Plans

My first self-study plans were time-based. Since I knew I wanted to learn more about certain general subjects, such as science, history, and literature, I planned to spend a certain amount of time daily or weekly studying each subject.

To correspond with this time spent, I kept a separate binder for each subject, and in it I kept notes and reading lists related to the subject.

What I liked about this plan was the feeling of variety in my learning—I got to dip into several subjects of my own choosing at once.

But the time-based plans never worked for me. I tried them a few different times, with slightly different variations each time according to my current circumstances: when I wasn’t working, I planned for a half hour each day on each subject; when I was working, I planned to spend just one half hour each morning (or evening) on reading and learning, and the subject would rotate on a daily or weekly basis. But no variation of this plan worked for me. Each time the plan fizzled out after a couple of days, perhaps due to its vagueness, arbitrariness, or lack of connection with the ebb and flow of my day-to-day life.

Place-based Plans

In attempt to gain a more organic connection to my daily schedule, I tried place-based study plans. Similar to the time-based plans, the place-based plans linked the content of my study to the specific place where I would be when studying it. For example, I would plan to study philosophy while eating breakfast, read a literary novel on my lunch break at work, and read about history or science in the evenings at home. What appealed to me most about this plan was the ability to consider a subject’s difficulty level and correlate it with my usual energy levels throughout each day. Sometimes I would also designate specific books for specific places based on the book’s portability. But while this plan seemed to promise a better connection with my daily reality, it never worked for me. Like the time-based plans, the place-based ones felt too arbitrary and rigid.

Loosely Structured Plans

I also tried several varieties of more loosely structured plans. One was not to have set goals at all, but to simply keep a log (daily or weekly) of what I was reading and learning. The log method worked for me in that I found it easy to be consistent, but it didn’t satisfy my desires to set goals for myself and reach them, and to learn as much as I possibly could. I also tried, once, aiming to read a set number of books in a given time period, but I never made it anywhere near the goal I’d set. Even with a clever redefining of “book” to average out variations in length and difficulty (for example, if an average book is 300 pages, one 600-page book equals two average books), I didn’t come close to meeting the goal. But rather than just setting the goal lower, I moved on to plans that would better satisfy my desire for specific, structured learning goals.

Objective Plans

In college I had taken several education courses, and through them I learned the concept of making objectives for lessons. A strong educational objective is simple and measurable, such as “The student will give examples of irony in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” I tried to apply this concept to my own learning by making objectives for myself. I greatly enjoyed designing a curriculum and thinking about all the things I wanted to learn, but making the objectives turned out to be the most rewarding part; I wasn’t able to follow through with acting on them as I’d hoped. But I believe the problem was that my objectives, while pretending to be clear and concrete, were still hugely ambitious and rather vague. But the learning objectives did bring me closer to the plan that would eventually work.

Small, Scheduled Steps: The Plan that Worked

Finding a self-education plan that worked for me came hand-in-hand with learning to accept who I am and what life is like. Specifically, I love organization and structure, but I am unable accomplish everything I want to. These principles merged to form my final learning plan: I created very specific and very realistic goals, chose realistic deadlines for accomplishing them, and then divided the goals into small steps that had deadlines of their own or were small enough to do every day (such as a number of pages to read).

For example, instead of having a goal to read, say, three literary novels this year, I would choose three novels I wanted to read and realistically expected that I could read that year. Then I set deadlines for each novel, and then figured out how many pages I needed to read each day or week in order to meet the deadline. I repeated this method with my learning goals in other areas: start with a big goal; choose a smaller, attainable sub-goal; set a deadline for reaching it; and break it down into realistically small, scheduled steps.

There were two parts of this process I found especially difficult. First, when I chose a specific, small goal to reach (such as a particular novel to read), it meant saying “not yet” to lots of other similar goals (such as other books on my to-read list). But that pain eased when I began realizing how much more I was getting done than I ever had before. I could truly say to the other goals (and books), “Not yet, but soon!”

My second difficulty was the trouble I had understanding that in order to make realistic goals, I had to make the steps to reach them infinitesimal. I could not just plan to “Create a timeline of the USA’s twentieth-century wars with key names, dates, battles, terms, etc.” Even if this goal were itself a sub-goal to a larger one, say, “Learn more about twentieth century history,” the steps to reach it had to be so small that I would find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s easy.” (I had also by this time figured out that if the goal felt too hard, I wouldn’t do it.) So in order to complete the timeline, I would have to map out all the steps required, and then set mini-deadlines for reaching them: for example, by March 11, make a list of all the USA’s twentieth-century wars; by March 25, write one paragraph summarizing the major facts of the first one; and so on. Only with very tiny and easy steps could I, as they say, “eat the elephant” and achieve my goals.

So in the end, it was accepting my limitations and figuring out how to work with them that led me to success with my learning goals.

These days I stay consistently satisfied—rather, thrilled!—with how much I’m learning and accomplishing. Having regular intellectual stimulation is important to my overall sense of well-being and meaning in life. If you can relate to that need, I hope these ideas will help you on your own journey towards reaching your self-education goals.


4 comments on “Trial and Error: The Story of My Self-education Plans

  1. kdankovich
    August 17, 2013

    I need to print this off and read it, Sarrah. You have become my mentor!


  2. Cymbria Wood
    August 23, 2013

    “…it meant saying “not yet” to lots of other similar goals…” Wow, I can totally relate to this quote! It’s amazing how disciplined one has to be to stay on track with an autodidact game plan when the same forces that motivate us to learn have a multi-newton (there, I think I just proved my own nerdiness lol) pull on our attentions when exposed to tempting information/media off-shoots.

    I love how you’ve described your trial and error method of planning! And, like so many things in life, a working solution only presented itself when you accepted “who I am and what life is like.” Thank you so much for sharing your process. You’ve saved lots of us consummate autodidacts a ton of time and experimentation. Of course for some, the time-planning method might be optimal, or one of the others, but you’ve laid out plenty of options for us to choose from.

    Hope you don’t mind me linking to this post from the comments section of a post I recently wrote about ‘the 7 habits of highly effective autodidacts’…



  3. BookerTalk
    May 7, 2015

    I’m impressed. Firstly by your ability to think clearly about why a plan didn’t work, and then by your determination to keep going and to find something that works. your experience really reflects what we hear about often – make your goals SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time driven). by cutting down the broad goals into bite size chunks you’ve done just that.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      May 7, 2015

      Thank you! I hadn’t seen that acronym before–it’s great! And it describes exactly what I found I needed to do in order to reach my self-ed. goals.

      I haven’t been as goal-oriented in the last year or so; too many external things have taken precedence. I’ve just tried to read what I can, when I can. But I hope to get back to the structured system at some point. There’s so much to learn and so little time!


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This entry was posted on August 17, 2013 by in Discoveries from Living and tagged , , , , , .
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