I genuinely enjoy learning, and years ago when I first moved to NYC and intensely believed that there was a serious gap in my education—I’d never taken an art history class!—I signed up for a continuing education course at NYU. Truthfully, though, I can tell you little about what I retained, much as I enjoyed the class at the time. I’m now on the school’s mailing list, but typically emails go unread.
This isn’t because I don’t still have a thirst for learning new things though; rather, it’s that I don’t have the energy (or money) to invest in this particular type of learning, which in the end wasn’t so much about upping my intelligence as it was about memorizing artists, periods, and important works.
The learning I desire to do now is less specific. I’ve always been drawn to smart people and notice when people use big words when they’re not trying to be ostentatious (see what I did there?). Seriously though, one of the things I love about my husband is his awesome vocabulary, which, full disclosure, is a bit better than mine.
Many companies offer professional development courses and understand our desire to stay on our toes and grow outside of the area we’re super specialized in. And while I commend those initiatives, some of those classes still require a significant amount of time, effort, and energy. There may be a period where I’m ready to invest in that, but that time is not now. If you’re like me and have a thirst for getting smarter but either don’t have company-funded courses at your disposal or the drive to devote to them, you can still score IQ points.
For all of us who endeavor to keep on learning long after graduating college, there are literally dozens of things you can do—many of them from the comfort of your very own couch. Here are 10 of my personal favorites.
1. Do Crossword Puzzles
I’m still a long way from The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, but that’s OK because each day the paper has a short puzzle that you can fill out online as you’re timed.
2. Read Outside Your Interests
Easier said than done, I realize. One of the sheer joys of reading is pursuing that which we find intriguing based on personal choice. Required reading is so high school. But the thing about exploring subjects outside your comfort zone is that it can help you discover new interests, and once you start going down that new rabbit hole, who knows what other things will open up.
3. Look Up Words You Don’t Know
If I’m reading a book or an article and come across a word I don’t know the meaning of, I’ll typically look up its definition—this is obviously super easy when I’m reading something on a screen and have internet access. But, have you ever been in conversation with someone and heard a word you didn’t know and couldn’t figure out through context? Don’t just make a mental note to check it later; follow through and look it up. Bonus points if you find a way to use it in a sentence the following week.
4. Make a Point to Talk to Smart People
This one is so obvious, and yet how many of us go out of our way to do it? Seeking out intelligent people and chatting them up can be eye-opening. I’m always drawn to people who are really good at what they do, and if I meet someone involved in something I know nothing about, I’m intrigued and inclined to ask a lot of questions, without fearing that my inquiries are too basic or stupid. Which leads me to my next tip…
5. Ask All the Questions
I’m sure I’m far from the first person to tell you that there are no stupid questions, but seriously, how many times have you nodded along and pretended to understand something because you didn’t want to seem unknowledgeable or out of the loop? This is silly. Anyone who makes you feel badly for asking a question for clarity or to gain more insight isn’t someone you want to be talking to for long, anyway.
6. Get Outside Your Comfort Zone
Watch a documentary if all you watch are indie films. Try a comedy on Netflix if you only ever watch historical dramas. Go see the latest Marvel comic movie and let your viewing partner explain the history of Marvel and DC Comics to you. Read a book of contemporary short stories if John Grisham novels are your go-to. It doesn’t matter what you do to branch out—it’s the branching out and stretching your mind that matters here.
7. Alter Your Routine
Having a dedicated daily plan can be great, but it can also get tedious, and a bored mind isn’t one that’s gaining intelligence, I can tell you that much. Lifehacker writer Eric Ravenscraft supports this idea, explaining that switching things up coaxes “your brain into thinking more creatively about your workflow.”
Try a new food, listen to that new artist, and abandon your Sunday errands. You can stick to your preferences, but venturing out and mixing up the order in which you do things and how you do them may have a powerful impact on your brain and, consequently, the way in which you contribute to the conversation.
8. Create Something
Breakfast for dinner. A hand-written card. A personal website. A bookshelf (even if it’s just via Ikea instructions). Try something you wouldn’t normally do that falls under the creative spectrum (so many things do, you’d be surprised), and feel accomplished.
9. Listen to a Podcast
From nuanced political discussions (Pantsuit Politics), to foodie-focused options (Bon Appetit), to relationship advice platforms (Dear Sugar), there’s a podcast for you no matter what you’re into. Listen on your commute to work, while you’re walking the dog, or washing the dishes and find yourself learning without even trying.
10. Subscribe to Newsletters
Want to know the great thing about getting those newsletters delivered straight to your inbox? It takes the work out of finding awesome stuff to read online, of which there is certainly no shortage. Choose sites you’re extremely excited about and ones you’re mildly interested in and then read at your leisure or don’t, depending on what gets your attention.
You don’t need to go big or go home when it comes to learning. It’s an ongoing process. Education can show up in a conversation, a TV review, a novel. The key to it, I think, is not to put pressure on yourself. If you wake up and vow to learn three new things today, you might be disappointed in yourself if it doesn’t happen the way you planned.
If I start reading a New Yorker article about the Dutch landscape architect who’s reinventing green spaces or parks with the intention of really gaining new knowledge, I’m probably going to dislike the article or feel as though I’m being forced to read it and get something out of it.
But if I approach it simply with an open mind—hmm, this isn’t a topic that usually grabs my attention—I’m likely to finish it, feeling like I learned something I didn’t know before. Be open to seemingly small educational opportunities, and watch how much smarter you’ll feel.
Photo of woman reading a magazine courtesy of Yagi Studio/Getty Images.