Learning in small bites

Yellowstone TroutWhen I was down near Bend, OR going out with a guide fly fishing, something happened that was surprising but shouldn’t have been.

When the day began, my casting wasn’t great, but I could usually get the fly to the general area of the river I wanted, as long as it wasn’t more than 20 feet away. I took solace in our guide’s reassurance that almost all the winners of fly fishing competitions for trout catch their fish when casting less than 20 feet.

As the morning progressed, my casting improved.

And then it didn’t.

It got steadily worse over the course of the day. I’d have moments when my abilities would return, but then the very next cast would tangle the line or simply not go anywhere. It was a mess and so was I.

What happened?

Think Thanksgiving Day.

On Thanksgiving, we forego any usual decorum on taking small bites and eating normal size portions. We feast. We over-indulge. We go beyond an optimal consumption point. And that’s exactly what I did on the river that day.

Any time you’re learning something new, you’ll be more successful if you learn in small bites. I’ve found this to be true with learning to play the guitar or learning a new language. 15 minutes every day will cause you to improve much more than three hours one day a week.

When we learn in small segments, we don’t push beyond our attention or fatigue points. Plus, the repetition of everyday learning helps what we learn to stick better. We retain more and develop muscle memory faster.

I wish I had known this when I was younger. Music, sports and language learning would have come easier and I would have actually enjoyed my 15 minutes of practice daily rather than dreading an hour or two here or there.

To be fair, to master a field, you’ll need more than 15 minutes a day. And there’s nothing magical about 15 minutes. I could have spent an hour on the river that day and still have been more successful than trying to force fit weeks or months of learning into a four hour period.

The point is to not try and learn beyond our physical and mental limits in a given period of time. We can tolerate and, in fact, require longer periods of practice as we improve. But when, as we’ll see next time, you’re a beginner overwhelmed with multiple variables to consider as you learn, you’ll be most successful when you take that learning in small chunks.

And if you’re learning fly fishing, you might actually catch more fish as well.


If you haven’t already, you might want to check out other entries in this series on lessons on learning through fly fishing: Gone Fishin’Hardware vs. SoftwareKnowing and Doing and Eliminate Your Variables

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