How to create your own personal college class

It’s common for many people to come out of college and stop learning. When no one is forcing you to learn and improve yourself, it’s easy to do nothing. Sonia and I recently realized that we’ve really slacked off in the learning category since college – we still read good books, but the focused, intentional learning has gone out the window.

We decided to change things by reorganizing our lives to look more like college – focused, limited, intentional blocks of learning.

Here’s what we did, (and what you can do to college-ize your life):

0. Define your semester + assemble your course catalogue

What would you like to learn?

We started by assembling a massive list of subjects that would work for these focused “classes”. Basically, we wrote down every subject that we could think of that sounded appealing. When you assemble your list, don’t worry too much about picking the “right” subjects. Just dump anything that sounds interesting to you on paper.

What if I’m not interested in anything?

Just ask yourself a few questions: What did you want to learn when you were younger? What subjects really get your mind racing? What projects make you say “that’s really cool”? Anything is up for grabs, ignore your mental filters and write it down, even if it seems ridiculous.

How long is your semester? 

I set mine for three months, but you’re free to set it for as long as you’d like. Just be sure to set a time, so you can define when you need to finish the “class”. If you don’t have a time limit, it won’t get done.

1. Assemble your curriculum

 Look for classes

There are so many places to go to get free classes. Just check out this list, or Google “Free (subject) classes”. It’s amazing how varied the free resources available are. I assembled my first course, a Game Design class, and I found a great class with twenty lessons, and assigned reading. I scheduled when each class and reading assignment would be due, spreading the class out through the three months. But that’s not all I did – I was just taking one class, so just a single college class wouldn’t be enough for me – so I went to the blogs.

 Finding lots of useful blog posts

You can create your entire education from blogs, if you know how to find the good blog posts. I selected one blog post on my subject per day for the entire “semester”. How do you select the blog posts?

a. Select good blogs

This is an inexact science, but I suggest googling “(subject) blogs”. You might also e-mail or Tweet some experts in the field, and ask for their recommendations.

b. Snarf up any top ten lists

Once you’ve found the blogs, check the about page and the sidebar. Oftentimes blog authors will post top ten lists, or lists about your specific subject. Don’t bother looking at the blog posts, just grab all of the links and paste them into a spreadsheet. (right click>copy link)

I also used Buzz Sumo to select blog posts according to amount of shares. It’s not precise, but it helps you select posts that have a high likelihood of being useful.

c. Check out tags/categories

In the case of a blogger that writes about a variety of subjects, check to see if they place the posts in a certain category – look at the top and bottom of a post for categories and tags, which will allow you to filter the posts by subject. Grab everything in that category. Usually you can find all of the posts in a wordpress blog by entering this URL, where “candy” is the category you’re searching for:

Assigning tasks

Figure out what small projects and tasks that you could do do better learn about your subject. This could be short papers, projects, exercises, etc. Assign these throughout the semester, so you’re actually applying what you learn. At the very least, assign yourself to blog every day (or few days) about the subject you’re learning. You learn by teaching, so teach (even if you’re not an expert)!


I just created a speadsheet with all the dates until the end of the semester, with a different column for each assignment type.

2. Reading and reviewing

While you’re reading the blog posts, I suggest installing the Diigo app, which allows you to highlight and markup posts on the internet, and it saves everything. Highlight key points, words you want to remember, and Diigo will save the highlighted text in your Diigo library.


Here’s how to set up a semi-automated review e-mail. In the Diigo library, click “my groups” and create a new group just for your class.

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At the end of each day of study, select all of your new highlighted items in your Diigo Library, and send them to your group:

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 1.16.10 PM



Adding the notes to the group will trigger an e-mail, sending all of the newly added highlighted sections and notes to your e-mail. Boom! Review sheet! The next time you’re studying, review what you highlighted in the last session, and that will aid retention.

b. Catchup dates

Set days during the week where all of the previous assignments/readings are due, instead of making daily due dates. This will allow you to miss days and still be able to catch up before “class”. Your life is unpredictable: don’t assume that you’ll be able to work on your class every day. Have catch-up days so you can be more flexible.

Getting it done

Ok, so you’ve compiled a great course. Now what’s gonna make you do it? Your superhuman discipline? Yeah, right. We need some psychological tricks to force your lazy mammal brain into doing the painful, hard work of learning.

Treat it like a class

If you were studious in school, this could work – just imagine that this is a real college class, with a grade and everything – and treat it as such. You worked your butt off to get a good grade in college? Treat your own due dates with the same respect.

 Imagine THAT teacher

I know you had one. THAT teacher who scared you to death, who you wouldn’t ever turn in anything less than fantastic, precisely on time. Mine was “the dragon”, who was terrifying, and who I would work hard and stress endlessly about the assignments “the dragon” assigned. I did a good job, and I learned a lot. When I’m feeling unmotivated, I pretend that I’m doing an assignment for “the dragon”, and somehow I feel like getting down to work.


 Get outside consequences

If all else fails, pick one of your mean – I mean strict – friends to enforce your class. Give your friend a check for a painful amount of money, and get your friend to agree to cash the check – no matter what – if you fail to turn in an assignment. It might be scary, but it’s really effective.

Sometimes your brain just has to be bullied, you know?

Have a good time running your own micro college. Continued learning is one of the best ways to improve yourself as a person, and improve your financial prospects. Plus, learning about things that you’re actually interested in is a blast. Do it.

Fear is two-faced

Fear tells you stories. Fear of action (procrastination), fear of failure (anxiety), fear of success (self-sabotage), they all speak countless lies into your ear, but they have problems keeping their stories straight.

Fear will often tell you two lies at once – one vary convincing lie, and another lie, also very convincing, but the exact opposite of what it told you just a minute before. Examples:

“I don’t know enough to succeed.” / “I don’t need to study, I need more natural talent.”

“You’ll never have enough time to write a book.” / “You’ve got so much time, you can afford to put it off.”

“They would be a huge help, but you’re not good enough to meet with them.” / “You don’t need them.”

“People with natural talent succeed, not me.” / “I can succeed on talent alone, no need to practice.”

“If it was really your passion, it wouldn’t feel like hard work.” / “You only succeed if you suffer a lot.”

“They succeeded because they knew someone.” / “I know someone, but I can’t ask them for help, because _____________.”

Yeah, fear will play ping-pong with your mind until you call it out – take note of the false, contradicting messages that you’re feeding yourself all the time, and work hard not to give in to the lies.



Embrace distraction, beat anxiety

“Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and do the work” – Chuck Close

…yeah, but buckling down and focusing on something for hours is tough, isn’t it? Often when I’m working on something that I really care about, I feel a deep anxiety that scares me away from the work. My solution has been to take the road of distraction – if my brain is slightly distracted by a movie or a radio show, I can usually work in peace, without the fear rising up and crushing out my attempt to create. I’ve been reading “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey, which details the daily rituals of artists: all of the rituals are different, and a majority of them border on the insane. I felt better about my distraction routine when I read this quote, again by Chuck Close, speaking about his habit of watching television while he painted: “I like a certain amount of distraction. It keeps me from being anxious. It keeps things at a little bit more of an arm’s length.” Is distraction an optimal solution for every occupation/every artist? Of course not. Distraction doesn’t work for me when I’m writing. But if a routine or technique works for you, do it. Do whatever it takes to do your work.

Moving all of my piles of junk

Yup, I’m moving.

When you move, you realize how much junk you have – it’s incredible how much is accumulates.  I just talked to a guy a while ago who moved halfway across the country using the biggest u-haul available, and he still had to rent storage area in California to store a bunch of his crap.

This was seven years ago. He still hasn’t gone back for the rest of his stuff.

Having stuff is expensive, time-consuming, and at some level, your stuff starts to run your life.

So, think about it – how much of your life is spent organizing, dusting, moving, and maintaining your crap?

Are you OK with that?

You don’t need more time…

…you need to choose what to do and act.

You don’t need more money, you need more creativity and flexibility.

You don’t need advertisement, you need hustling.

You don’t need a better tool, you need to be a better artist.

You don’t need better circumstances, you need to have a better attitude about the circumstances.

Whatever’s holding you back probably isn’t.

The thing that you think is keeping you from your goal isn’t – but you think that it is. It’s the placebo effect: your belief that you’re helpless makes you helpless.

When was the last time you were excited?

really excited?

Like can’t-contain-it-heart-beating-stomach-fluttering excited?

If you can’t remember when it was that you were excited about something, it’s time to try something new. It’s time to push yourself a little and see what you can do. Try something that seems risky.

Here’s an assignment: e-mail someone you really admire, just to tell them how awesome they are. Even better: ask them a small favor, see how/if they respond.

Ask for something for free that isn’t for free.

Start something exciting, and share it with someone.

Step out, take the risk, and make art that connects with people.

It’s the best way I know to get excited about life again.

intermittent reinforcement and You

“Pigeons experimented on in a scientific study were more responsive to intermittent reinforcements, than positive reinforcements. In other words, pigeons were more prone to act when they only sometimes could get what they wanted.”  (Wikipedia)

…but you’re much more sophisticated, you’ve got a much more advanced brain, capable of reasoning – you don’t just reflexively press the bar for the occasional pellet.

Really? How many times have you checked your e-mail/Facebook/Twitter/texts today?


Just Choose

Go ahead, do as you please.

Watch hours of TV every night, until your eyes hurt.

Stay in the town where you went to high school, and keep partying with the same group of people you did in high school.

Get a unchallenging job, and stick with it for decades.

Get a house. Don’t get a house. Rent. Live in a cardboard box. It’s your choice – whatever you choose, you’ve got the right to choose that.

Bother to choose, though.

Most people don’t bother. It’s easier to just follow, to just keep doing what they’re doing because it’s comfortable, because the neighbors do it, because they’ve always done it that way.

I don’t care what you choose – as long as you bother to choose.

Stress, tension, and headaches

Hey, try this:

every time you have to wait for a page to load

or wait in line

or wait at a stoplight

or any of the many other tiny delays that waste our time, instead of huffing and fuming, try this tiny exercise:

in your mind, examine the paces where you might be carrying tension:

your jaw, your forehead, your shoulders and neck, your stomach

and release the tension.

Next time you are waiting, do the same thing.

Make it a simple little habit

it makes a difference in your stress level, and the amount of tension headaches you get.

Watch this video to learn more:







…ok, maybe that was mean. Did you do it?

Habit Change and Consequences (Commitment Devices)

Commitment devices (How the Twilight series kept my dishes washed)

Have you ever tried starting a healthy new habit? It’s tough. Ever tried quitting something? That’s even tougher. I would guess that most people have habit that they want to acquire, or shed.
One of the best ways to change habits is through the use of a commitment device.
A commitment device is a way of forcing yourself to behave in the future, the way that you want yourself to behave now. For example, my brother and one of his friends set up a commitment device to help them learn more about art and composition. They had a certain course that they were going through, and they would meet once a week for breakfast and discuss their progress. If one of them hadn’t watched the videos that week, he paid for breakfast.
Now commitment devices come in all shapes and sizes. some are more painful than other, but it seems to be a rule that the more painful and costly the consequence, the more effective the commitment device.
In one YouTube series entitled “the cold turkey diaries”, a guy named Adam set himself a goal of eliminating 42 different bad habits in one month, and his commitment device was a check for $750, made out to Oprah, in the hand of a friend who would act as referee, sending the money to Oprah if Adam fudged on his commitments. Adam hated Oprah, and $750 was enough money to be painful, so it was an effective commitment device – although it might not have been as effective if Adam didn’t have his wife help him keep his commitments, because cheating and getting around commitment devices is pretty common.
Now I’d like to tell you how the Twilight series kept my dishes clean.
About a year ago, my wife and I had finally come to the conclusion that we had a problem. Neither of us liked doing dishes, and we postponed the onerous task for as long as possible. We would put if off until we got to the point of digging through piles of dirty dishes to find a fork to wash off for supper.
We had resolved in the past to get better at washing dishes, but (predictably) those resolutions only lasted a few days.
We needed a commitment device, and we knew it.
So we started brainstorming: what would be painful and costly enough to make us do the hard work of keeping the dishes clean? We tossed around a few ideas, but none of them seemed quite bad enough to make us squirm.
Suddenly we happened upon the answer: Twilight.
We had never seen Twilight, but we hated it with a burning passion, and we ridiculed it constantly. We pointed out that it was a creepy story about a older man (Edward) preying on a Teenager, and we mocked the people who found sparkly vampires engrossing. It was our favorite book/movie to hate.
(Aside: If you truly love Twilight, we’ll have to agree to disagree)
We decided that the consequence was perfect: if we didn’t have all of the dishes clean every night for a month, we would have to buy (not just rent – buying would make it more painful) and watch Twilight.
It was brilliant. We reminded each other, we worked together, we had never performed any task with more commitment as fervor than we washed dishes that month. If we had been invited to go on a free year-long tour of the finest places in Europe, we would have testily replied that no, we couldn’t go – for who would do the dishes while we were gone?
+ + +
Setting up consequences:
1. Make it painful
2. Make it expensive
3. Make it time-consuming
4. Have a referee who will hold you to your word
5. Do it for 30 days
Habit change is so much easier if you do it right.