Man... I have this problem on an hourly base. Here I will throw a bunch of "strategies" I have been accumulating for you to consider.
Sleep on it
Seriously. If I have to actually learn everything I think I should learn, I'd need to be live beyond 480 years old. And since the more you learn, the more you don't know... this route is not viable.
A lot of the times, I suppressed the impulse and slept on it. In the process I usually think about this questions:
- Do I need to learn this or do I want to learn this? Would the new knowledge make my work complete or make it better?
- Can the piece stand alone fine without it? Can it still contribute to the research questions I need to answer?
- Can I explain what I wouldn't learn as a potential extension/development in the Discussion section? Perhaps other people can work on it?
Usually after a couple rounds of iteration, I could ditch most of what I wanted to learn, and focus on learning the skills that would make my projects a complete project.
Keep a wish list
Be it a go or not, I always write that down whenever I thought I need to know something. I use EverNote to document all these strayed thoughts. And if I come across any relevant materials (review articles, short courses, software, etc,) I'll document them with the same tags.
Draw a skill tree
It also pays off to sit down and analysis what are your knowledge and skill sets. A skill tree is simply just a conceptual framework or mind map that links up your skills and domain knowledge. Some people may grow a big deep-rooted tree while some may favor a garden of little bit of everything. We need both types of people but generally I would consider in academia it is better to have a good big tree with some side bushes.
Now, you can focus on a few major branches, what are the domain knowledge? What are the skills associated with them? And what are the applications that are associated with each skill? I found it easier to start with my courses I have taken and the syllabi of those courses. You can also consider using some competencies published by professional organization as a blueprint.
For myself, my big tree is statistical analysis applied in biomedical studies. If someone asks me to work on a project about, say, psychometrics, which is part statistics part psychology... I may return to look at my trees and think if this new skill will make a logical branch, or it's too far off. And if it's too far off, is it worth to plant a new one for this? And what kind of root (aka basic courses or books) do I need to plant? Then decide if it's a go or not.
I found this exercise pretty useful because i) it's therapeutic, you may be amazed by your domain knowledge. And you're likely going to feel better about yourself. And ii) having a bird view network helps a lot on deciding the relevance of the desired skills.
Think return of investment
Before diving into the skill, think how much the skill can help you back. There are many sides to consider:
- Will it lead to higher competitiveness or salary?
- Will it complement/strengthen your skill tree? Would there be any synergy?
- Can you re-purpose or re-use this skill? How versatile it is?
- Will I be using this skill enough to rip the benefit of the time and resource I spent in the learn process? etc.
Return of investment exercise is best done when you have competing desired skills to learn. Put them side by side, design a rubric if you must, and evaluate which one is better to go for.
Gathering good resources is 80% of the game
Okay... after much thought, we decided to learn a skill. When learning a new skill the major problem is not knowing where to start. I usually perform this beginning rituals:
- Read up on Wikipedia or other encyclopedia to acquire general lingo.
- Read a couple relevant review articles.
- Schedule a meeting with a someones proficient in that skill/knowledge and ask for a few recommendations on i) text book, ii) journals, iii) controversies, and iv) prominent schools of thought and researchers in the field.
- Search for some syllabi that teach these knowledge and document their text books, software, course structure, etc. Those usually give you a good sense on what to cover.
- Gather all materials, and start working on it.
Immerse at least 20 hours into it with undivided attention
This is a slight modification of Kaufman's The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything... Fast!. The book itself is not super groundbreaking but Kaufman also pulled a stunt journalism and explained how he learned some new skills and brought them up to functional level in 20 hours. It's an entertaining read, but what I got away from it is the importance of preparation and immersion.
I usually spread my learning into many 90-minute chunk, and then make sure to enter these blocks first at the start of every week. I laid out what I need to learn, read, do exercises, watch videos, perform self-evaluation, talk to others (e.g. your committee members or other scholars)... It's actually pretty amazing looking at how I become a half-baked specialist in a matter of week.
In the learning process, I focus on learning the basics really well, and I write down a lot of questions (for me or my specialist friends to answer later.) I also try to figure out the flow the ideas and their connections. When working on a problem I don't insist of getting it right, but I do insist on getting why it's wrong.
Compose a self-learning syllabus every 6 months
Every semester I also compose a self-learning syllabus. Basically I design courses for myself. I started doing this last year because I was getting tired always having to catch up with tasks that require me to learn new skills. I wanted to turn the table: I am going to learn some skills that I chose, and I'll look for opportunities in the tasks that I can apply what I learn and enrich the contents. I feel that being even just very so slightly more proactive has injected a good sense of control into my life.
I can't say I am a successful learner, but I am moving along bit by bit. Action, even just very little each time, is the most important ingredient. Hikers may know this feeling... all the hills look so darn tall, but once you stepped onto the trail, the scenery was great, the air was fresh, and suddenly you forgot to wonder how tall the hill was.