We have limits to our learning. These limits might include mental capacity, emotional readiness, time, or interest. We have thresholds for how much learning we can handle at a time and quotas for how much we feel we need. Find your optimal zone for learning and thrive there.

Learning Thresholds

We can only learn so much at a time. We have certain capacity and availability. We require time to digest things. We need to respect our sleep cycle and absorb learning into long-term memory. We need to have experiences that occur over time. We need to be able to focus our interests.

An software engineering organization realizes that it has a threshold when it tries to keep a finite number of technologies in its stack. It doesn’t want endless tech stacks. There can be a wide spread and a lot to learn. Given contextual constraints, it might be difficult to learn so many things in tandem. There are mitigations for this, such as specialization. There’s another which is to learn things serially. For example, if an org were to get its ops stack well-understood by a dev team, that dev team might have extra capacity below its threshold to then be amenible to learning a new dev stack. We make learning new things easier when there aren’t as many other required things to learn at the same time. We stay within our threshold.

Learning Quotas

Have you ever noticed that when you’re not really pushed to learn much new at work that you come up with the most in-depth, interesting, and new projects at home? Some might describe this as scratching an itch. There’s something inside us that wants to experience growth and movement toward our potential. If we don’t get it one place, we make it in another. We want to feel like we’re getting better. We want the rush and satisfaction of new life experiences. We have a learning quota that we want to fill. Anything less than the quota, and it feels like we need to learn more – either quickly, deeply, or broadly.

Optimal Learning Zone

In the realm where we’re being pushed just beyond our limits, we’ll maximize our learning. We’ll be uncomfortable but not overly so as to feel discouraged, finding insurmountable problems before us. We can keep our quota filled. We can push our personal threshold higher. Life is short and there’s so much to experience. Yes, take a break when needed. Humans have a rhythm and are not machines. But make growth and challenge the norm in your life and learning, and you’ll find greater satisfaction.

Different Thresholds & Quotas

Different people have different learning thresholds and quotas. Some want to focus on fewer things, have a smaller span of control. Some want to focus longer on a thing, having a more in-depth experience. We value learning – for ourselves and for others. When you perceive someone else’s learning quota or threshold are different than yours, be slow to judge their own value of learning. If their threshold is lower, don’t assume they don’t like to learn and are stuck in their old ways. If their quota is higher and timeline on a subject shorter, don’t assume they’re always distracted by the new and shiney. We have different learning metrics that are suited well for us.

Thinking about yourself, how can you tell when you’re making your learning quota or approaching your learning threshold?