How to Do Anything You Set Your Mind To

A woman sits at a laptop working on a coding screen.

As little kids, we learn new things all the time. 

And often, it feels like you could do anything! You set your mind to something and find a way to make it happen, even if it’s not how an adult with logically make it happen. Your imagination leads the way and you don’t see why your big idea wouldn’t work.

But as you get older, things change. Sometimes, that thing you set your mind to accomplishing doesn’t actually seem to happen that easily. It gets overtaken by other work, unexpected obligations, responsibilities etc. Plus, there’s all that self-doubt and fear of failure that we learn over our lifetimes.

It’s time to change that. Bring back the mindset you had when you were little, and make it work for you in your present, everyday life. Because no matter what challenges and goals you’ve set for yourself, you can accomplish them. Yes, some might be harder than others -- they might take more steps, more money, more education than you have right now -- but there are basic ways for you to successfully tackle and accomplish anything.

Whether you want to learn how to do something (acquire a skill) or learn about something (gain knowledge), here’s how to do anything you set your mind to.  

Breaking down your barriers to success

Part of learning something new is setting yourself up for success from the very beginning. To do that, you have to remove the barriers in your way.

A lot of the most common problems and roadblocks to learning anything stem, in part, from being your own teacher and guide throughout the entire process. It is hard to know where to know and to keep yourself going through the challenges, when there is no one else pushing you along.

Problem 1: getting started.

If you want to learn something new because you have the desire to do it (not because someone is forcing you), taking those first steps to get started can actually be the hardest; you’re relying on yourself and no one else to begin, so where should you begin? It’s up to you to teach yourself something you don’t know anything about. As a result, a common and frustrating pattern emerges: 

  • You want to learn more about something that got you really excited
  • Time passes and you don’t get started right away, become distracted, or are hesitant to take the initial steps, e.g. where do you begin? is that way the best way? do I have time? I’ll start next week...
  • You forget about what you wanted to do and push it aside in favor of other (easier) things, thinking you’ll come back to it when things settle down or you have more time
  • You never get started, don’t learn what you wanted to learn, and feel guilty or sad at not following through (which makes you less likely to try again in the future!)

Breaking this pattern is definitely doable, though! Before you become your own teacher, take these steps to get on the right track:

  • Take a step back and asses your “why”. For example, let’s you decided you wanted to learn Spanish. Was it because it sounded fun? Or was it because your company has a lot of Spanish-speaking customers and you think you could carve a new role for yourself by improving your language skills? The more specific and targeted your “why” is, the better you can tap into what you actually need to do -- this helps you pare down the seemingly endless ways you could start into one or two that are more practical for you.
  • Write your idea(s) down. Pick one place, like a dedicated section in your planner, to keep track of your ideas and the things that you want to learn. If you tend to have a lot of ideas, prioritize them based on how long you think you’ll need to learn it or how important it is to you to learn first.
  • Visualize what it will look like to accomplish and learn something new. Be specific. What does learning something new look like to you in the end, how will you feel, how will your life be different? What will your metric for success be? In other words, how will you know when you have learned what you want to learn?
  • Sit on your idea for a week or two and schedule time to come back to it. Are you still excited about it, do you still want to learn it? Hopefully, it’s a yes. If it’s not, don’t be afraid to let go of the idea. Just because you thought of it, doesn’t mean you have to do it -- especially if it’s not a good fit for your overall goals.
Problem 2: sticking with it.

Another common problem is losing steam and not finishing your goal. This is so easy to do when you’re learning something on your own; life commitments don’t stop just because you have a side project, and they can often take priority. If that happens enough, it gets harder and harder to return to the thing you wanted to learn.

Some easy ways to stay motivated throughout the learning process include:

  • Set SMART goals specific to what you’re going to learn and teach yourself. Having a plan, with specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals is super important. Check in with your goals often to recalibrate your goals and milestones; the more you are in tune with your progress, the easier it is to keep going.
  • Remember the visualization above? Come back to that and your “why” when you’re losing steam. Looking at the big picture really helps keep you going when life’s challenges make you feel like stopping.
  • Be brave! If you’re serious about learning something new, don’t let fear of the unknown hold you back. It will feel hard at times -- that is just part of the process. 
  • Learn with someone else or tell a friend about your learning journey. Having a buddy or someone to talk to keeps you accountable, which makes it harder to just bail on your project.
  • Reward yourself when you’ve hit a milestone. It could be big or small, but definitely something you will look forward to and can’t wait to have or do. 
  • Be open to taking a pause or slow down if you need to. Pausing your project can be tricky, because it requires significant motivation to get going again once you’ve stopped. However, if life is making it really unmanageable to work on your learning goals, you can slow down your weekly commitments to it and ramp back up when you have more time and energy. Better to slow down than to burn out.

Learning to do anything is often hard enough when you only have yourself to get from the beginning to the end; it can feel really daunting and exhausting. But getting started and sticking with it are the two biggest hurdles and if you can overcome them, you’re golden. 

How to be your own teacher

When you’re learning something new, you are your own teacher. You have to come up with the lesson plan and path forward. That’s part of the fun. To help you do that, here are 8 strategies you can implement in your quest to learning something new:

1. Be clear on your goals for learning.

Why do you want to learn this new thing? How does it tie in to the overall life that you want to live? It’s okay to learn things that aren’t necessarily moving your career forward, as long as they are adding some value to your life. However, if you’re learning something just because it sounds interesting but it isn’t necessarily going to add value to your life, you’re less likely to commit to it long-term because there’s less true motivation to keep going.

2. Research what other people have done.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel when you’re teaching yourself something new. And you don’t necessarily have to spend money to have someone teach you, either. Search for a free app or YouTube channel that can provide you with worksheets or lesson plans to help you progress. You may need to modify the lesson plans to fit into your life and goals, but this way you don’t have to create your own from scratch. Plus, you can mix and match different programs you find to customize your own plan.

Community forums or friends who have tried something similar to what you’re interested in learning is another great way to do your research and homework. Get recommendations and ideas on how to learn something new, and then pick and choose what will work right for you. It may take trial and error, but that’s okay, especially if you’re not on a time crunch. 

3. Consider what will work for your learning style.

Are you more of a hands-on learner, or do you like video, audio, or written lessons/instructions? Find what works for you and focus on the medium that will make you most successful. 

Take into account what you’re learning too. If you’re learning a new skill like woodworking, a step-by-step guide with pictures can help you get through a project, but to learn a new language, a video or audio course will benefit you most so you can hear how real people speak.

4. Find a way to make it fun and enjoyable.

The more fun you have learning, the more likely you’ll stick with it. It could be turning learning into a game, or playing a game to reinforce your progress. Maybe you’ll like chatting with other people online or at in-person groups to share ideas, questions, or just a common interest in the topic or task. Your teacher is an important element as well; if you found a few different online courses that all seem the same, listen to a few and pick the one that has the best, most engaging teacher. 

5. Take small steps and remember you’re establishing building blocks.

It’s important to be patient with working at a slow pace. Doing a little bit every day, even if it is slowly, is better than rushing through it. It doesn’t have to be a race and you can go at your own pace, which is actually quite nice when you’re teaching yourself.

6. Incorporate learning into your everyday life.

Having a busy schedule makes it hard to get your practice in every week, especially if you need to be in a certain location or have certain tools available in order to learn. If that’s the case, on the days you can’t be where you need to be to practice, study up on other components or areas that relate to what you’re learning. For example, listen to an audiobook on the topic or watch a tutorial video if you can’t get any hands-on practice done for a few days.

7. Find ways to challenge yourself (and know that failure is part of the process).

It can be easy to rest where it’s comfortable when you’re learning something on your own; without someone pushing you to work harder, the urge to resist hard or scary new challenges. Not every part of your journey will be smooth. There will be moments of failure, but they don’t mean you should quit -- it just means you’re growing outside of your comfort zone.

8. Use review time and teaching others to retain what you’ve learned and become more skilled.

Periodically incorporating review will ensure you don’t forget the basics as you grow your knowledge. And if you can teach another person what you learned or just talk about it out loud, you’ll reinforce all that good knowledge you’ve pieced together. Talking about what you learned with someone who knows what you’re talking about is even better so you can bounce ideas off of them or have them correct you where you make mistakes. Plus, it’s fun to share with others!

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