How to Smash the Learning Curve to Learn Software Faster
Have you been wanting to learn a new software program but don’t know where to start? Don’t think you have the time? Well, I’m here to help you make it happen. Whether you want to learn After Effects, Cinema 4D, DaVinci Resolve, a music program, or any creative software, the same process applies.
I may be an expert on the topic of learning new software or learning in general. Over the years I have dabbled in so many different software to learn them and I’ll be honest, the only two I have really felt like I have a solid knowledge of are Adobe After Effects and Photoshop. I have a basic understanding of Cinema 4D, Maya, Modo, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, Motion, Illustrator, Resolve Studio, and Nuke. I’ve even learned Dreamweaver, Director, and Flash (I hated Flash!), as well as this DVD authoring software that you’ve likely never heard of. And Commotion. Remember Commotion?
Yes, that’s a big list of tools, but I’ve been at this game for a while. I’ve picked up some learning habits along the way. I use these habits for other things as well: language learning, meditation, and yoga practice, etc.
An expert is someone who, over many years, manages to remain confident enough to keep trying and humble enough to keep learning.James Clear
Why do you want to learn this software?
• Do you want a better job?
• Do you have a vision you want to bring to life?
• What is your end goal?
These are very important questions to help you determine the right path to achieving your objectives. Knowing WHY you want to learn software will help you figure out WHAT you need to learn to achieve your goal.
For example, let’s say you want to learn Cinema 4D. It’s a massive program. If you want to learn to model characters for a short film you have an idea for, you’ll want to focus your learning on modeling and rigging. Maybe your clients are asking for 3D animated titles, so character rigging isn’t even on your list. Or, what if you want to get a job in the VFX industry in Hollywood, creating visual effects? All of these things can be done in Cinema 4D, however, your path to learning VFX is very different from someone who wants to create some 3D animated titles for a corporate client.
Goals help you focus on what you really want to learn. Believe me, it’s easy to follow a training routine and end up spending hours learning something that is really of no use to you. So, be specific and clear when you name your goals.
Goals also hold you accountable and keep you from getting bored and procrastinating. We’ll talk more about that later but just remember, hazy goals create hazy results.
Yes, this seems really easy but when you’re looking at training options, make sure that it meets your criteria.
Free and Discounted Software for Learning
Some companies have a 30-day trial, which isn’t much time to learn the software. Many software companies offer student versions or Personal Learning Editions (PLE) of their software to those who qualify. Below, read a list of some products that have PLEs. It goes without saying that these licenses are for learning only and not for client work.
Understand the two stages of learning software.
Like learning anything, such as a language, there are two stages to learning it. That language article directly correlates to learning software or anything you want to learn, and I highly recommend reading it. Knowing this is key to hacking that learning curve.
- Learn the foundations of the program. Learn the user interface, the terminology of the software, how to get around in the program, common keyboard shortcuts, etc.
- Building on that foundation to be competent in the software. This is the point where you feel comfortable in figuring things out for yourself.
Stage one is the most difficult and boring. It’s where people will often become discouraged because they want to create things that are too complex for what they know, so they just quit. Just know that this period is short if you stick with it. Make sure your expectations are realistic and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Learning takes time.
You know you’ve arrived at stage two when you run into problems and you are able to solve them on your own, without looking to YouTube or the manual. When you reach this point, go to YouTube and try some of those more complex tutorials.
Choose a project to work on that you are excited about
This will make learning fun and give you a goal right out of the gate so you can put your knowledge into action.
For example, I want to learn Adobe Character Animator. I have a file full of script ideas for shorts and for longer scripts. Not only that, I’ve been wanting to learn how to draw. This would be a perfect opportunity for me to write some short scripts that I can animate to. I can combine learning to draw, learning to animate in Character Animator, and finally getting my script ideas out of my Notes on my phone.
What would you like to create?
Get a plan together and get organized
You wouldn’t go on your road trip without a map, would you? This is not an easy part and a lot of people fail to set a clear plan for themselves. Without a clear plan, you will not stay on track.
Whatever plan you choose, make sure it covers what you want to learn. Of course, you may not know exactly what you want to learn yet, and that’s fine, but you should at least have a rough idea when you look at the curriculum.
Figure out which training and resources you will use to learn.
eLearning vs. One-on-One Training
Both have their pros and cons.
- Generally less expensive
- Lots of options, depending on what you want to learn. LinkedIn Learning, PluralSight, or Total Training are all good options, but there are others too.
- Free trials to try them out and no commitment.
- You will likely have to figure out your own learning path for what you want to learn.
- More accountability because you need to show up
- You get questions answered by a person
- More personal. Your trainer can set up the path for what you want to learn.
- Likely more difficult to find an instructor
- More expensive
- Your training is only as good as the instructor
You are not married to the plan. Whatever you choose, you can change over time if you find that you don’t like the training, or you learn of something better for your needs. It’s a map to get your learning on its way. The key here is to just get started.
- Ask around. Get recommendations from people who have used the training.
- Use a free trial and try them out. How do you like the trainer’s style? Are they teaching what you want to learn?
So, what about YouTube?
YouTube incorporates fantastic tutorials from very talented professionals, but from my experience, it’s a giant rabbit hole. For example, you see a video from a pro user and you love their final result. You watch the tutorial and try to follow along but they skim over a basic skill that you haven’t yet acquired. Then you have to look up how to do that thing that they skimmed over, throwing you off track of learning and wasting your time. YouTube can be a distraction machine, so I don’t recommend it for Stage 1 of learning software (unless, it’s a great series, like the Free Training: DaVinci Resolve 17 Video Series)
That said, if you’re in Stage 2 of learning, by all means, go to YouTube and have fun!
Create a routine by scheduling your learning, and set deadlines
To stay on track, schedule your learning at the same time every day or every week. If you are learning something for work, ask your boss or your team if you can spend three hours every Monday learning your software, for example. Then put it in the calendar so you will do it.
Timebox. Set a smaller window of time for learning, you’re less likely to procrastinate. To illustrate, wide-open 8 hours will not be nearly as effective as a focused 90 minutes. Learn more about timeboxing.
“Chunk up” your learning.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and you can’t expect yourself to learn a gigantic program like Cinema 4D or After Effects in only a few weeks. Instead, focus on small achievable goals each week.
How? Chunk up your training for higher retention. Science says that learning speed has a direct correlation with retention. In other words, focus on one thing at a time and build upon each thing you learn. Yes, this takes time but learning slowly will help you to work quickly later on.
For effective chunk learning, timebox and set short term goals.
- Set short term goals but be flexible. Set a goal of an hour, for example, as opposed to “learn to do xyz by 4:00pm”. You don’t know how long something will actually take to learn. I like to set my goals by time, not by topic. I can’t expect myself to learn everything about UV mapping in 2 hours, but I can spend 2 hours learning it, and maybe another 2 hours practicing it until I feel comfortable, and then move on to the next topic.
Take notes by hand, not on a computer or a notepad app on your phone.
Yes, I am telling you to take notes longhand. You could do this digitally but science has proven that taking notes by hand gives a deeper understanding of the content. It has to do with the hand-brain connection.
Consider a Bullet Journal Dedicated to your Software Learning
If you haven’t heard of a Bullet Journal, it’s a system for organizing and tracking a project or even your life. People use them for planning a garden, learning a language, or tracking fitness goals. Software engineers use them to track development on their software. It’s also incredibly useful for learning software. If you google Bullet Journal, often affectionally called a BuJo by afficiandos, you’ll find pages with gorgeous intricate sketches and color-coded habit trackers. While this is fun and beautiful to look at, the goal is to organize and track software learning.
All you need to get started is a new notebook or a blank book and a pen or pencil.
On the first page, write your goal. Number your pages. In the front of the book, set up an index page so that you can find your notes quickly. Then you set up pages to help you stay on track. For example:
- your learning path
- your short-term goals
- keyboard shortcuts you’ve learned
- daily logs of what you learned
- ideas or even sketches of projects
- brain dump pages
- a calendar or schedule for learning. This could include things like webinars that you don’t want to miss.
- Keep track of the time spent learning with a habit tracker. This is extremely important to keeping you on track and for recognizing how much time you’ve spent learning.
- Set up a future log for future goals. These are set aside until you’re ready for them.
A few more quick tips for learning quickly
Take breaks while learning.
On those breaks, stretch, take a walk or just move. You can’t spend too much time watching training or sitting in front of the screen because you will, at some point, stop retaining important information. Clear your head so you can quickly get back to learning.
Get out of your comfort zone.
Once you’re in the second stage of learning, when you’re comfortable with it, try something that is more difficult than you are used to. Share your projects on social media (but be prepared for trolls). Ask peers questions on forums.
… but have your expectations in line with reality.
You are just learning. Your renders are not going to look like the work of someone who has been using the software for years and uses it 10 hours a day to make a living. When you compare your work to other artists’ work, you’re only poking holes in your self-esteem. By all means, look to others’ work for inspiration, but don’t get caught in the trap of comparison. It will only make you feel inadequate and you will likely quit.
Grab a notebook and jot down some ideas. Check out some training at LinkedIn or other places. This software isn’t going to learn itself!
If you are interested in setting habits in all aspects of your life, not just learning software, I highly recommend checking out the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s even streaming on Spotify.
Posted by Michele Yamazaki