One of the classic topics I hear from people in 1:1s or in coaching sessions is the complaint that they have no space and time to learn new things.
Here are a couple thoughts on this subject:
- You are not alone.
In fact, this is true for pretty much everyone in any given industry and role. If there was plenty of time for learning available be sure it would be filled with work soon or there would be lay-offs. Blame capitalism.
- YOU are in charge of your career.
And your life. And your happiness.
Don’t wait for others to give you something, don’t waste time and energy on complaining about things outside your control.
Sure, it’s great to work in a company that offers external training and I recommend it to my clients. Some may want to raise your “employability” but most of these trainings are mainly intended to keep you up-to-date with knowledge, e.g. new regulations, processes and standards. So…
- … don’t just stay up-to-date.
“Up-to-date” means you just know what the others know too.
This won’t be enough to truly grow, get ahead of others and advance in your career.
- Big bang trainings are less important than you may think.
Speaking of company-sponsored trainings: they are also a way for your company to show their appreciation for and commitment in you but what do you REALLY get out of some once-every-1-or-2-years “big bang” event for your daily work?
I recommend trainings that help with work immediately.
Alternatively, you should consider going to conferences – but beware: while you may learn a thing or two you will mostly broaden your perspective and come home with MORE ideas for what to learn about next than before.
If you want to get the “big bang” out of conferences you may want to consider meetups. Once you join a couple meetup groups you’ll have opportunities to go every week. Since Corona a lot of them are being offered online as well so can benefit from them worldwide and don’t even have to plan travel time.
- Slack time
You are way better off if your company offers REGULAR space for “non-work work”. Call it Google Friday, Slack Time, “10% Time” etc. This will give you regular opportunities to learn.
- Communities of Practice (CoP)
Another great way to learn are Communities of Practice where peers share knowledge with each other. They should be done regularly, thereby avoid the big bang effect.
My tip: don’t misuse a CoP for mere task reporting sessions. Some companies MAY also want CoPs to pursue tangible goals like defining standards & conventions. Fair enough, but a CoP is absolutely useful without that because having something like 1h every couple of weeks just to take a step back from the daily details has its own value. There you can reflect on what you learned, where you failed, what excited you or p*ssed you off and share it with others. They will then share theirs with you. It can be a great opportunity for learning.
- Get hands-on
Hands-on practice is an excellent way to learn.
For software people, there are public Hackathons to join as well as Code Retreats.
I recommend doing this also as an internal training programm, e.g. as an extended Community of Practice session. Pick a training goal and give give the community a couple of hours dedicated time to work on it.
Decouple it from daily work and current projects – let them free their minds of constraints and legacy. Goals may include a specific pattern/practice to try, e.g. Decorator, Strategy, Polymorphism, Test First Development, Pair Programming, or it may be new technologies, e.g. Docker, AspectJ, Vue, Tensorflow. Preparation of such an event is key – explore public coding katas for inspiration and material.
- Lack of time is not the main problem.
My experience with Slack Time models has been that, even then, only a fraction of people actually make use of it. I measured it.
For me, this has been proof that the whole “learning while busy” issue is NOT mainly related to a lack of time. But what is it then?
- Mentoring & Coaching
It’s not just about having time – it’s about what you use it for.
A great way to grow is to have a mentor, or a bunch of mentors for different skills you want to learn. A coach is great for advanced and “soft” aspects of work.
Good companies institutionalize mentorship programs and offer access to coaches. However, there should be at least one person available for you anyway: did you know that your supervisor’s job is, among many things, to be your mentor?
(Next time you choose a job make sure you work for someone who can show you a thing or two.)
- Be active
Even if you have access to mentors and coaches – don’t wait for them to take you by the hand and guide you to mind-blowing wisdom.
Remember: YOU are in charge.
Ask questions and get their support – but do your own research first and be active in this relationship. Drive the agenda, set goals.
(By the way, demonstrating autonomy and self-drive is key for advancing in any career.)
- Reverse Mentoring
When I was in high school and university I used to be a tutor for quite some time. I was often puzzled about the fact that teaching a topic actually helped ME understand it better.
This is also known as the Feynman Technique for learning: try to explain what you know to someone else and you will end up understanding it better yourself.
Therefore: sign up to be a mentor for others, take responibility in a Community of Practice etc.
(By the way, demonstrating that you want to take responsibility is key for advancing in any career.)
- Be curious.
The first and most important thing about learning is WHY you want to learn in the first place.
Is it because you want that promotion? OK, but what will you do after you GOT the promotion?
The most effective and resilient approach to learning is to ALWAYS BE CURIOUS.
Learn because it’s fun to be a bit smarter than yesterday. Learn because you feel that there’s more out there and it’s calling you. Learn because you want to challenge your beliefs and comfort zone and find out about your limits.
Seek feedback and criticism, learn about things you are BAD at, those things that you can’t seem to get out of your head until you know more about them.
If this is your attitude you WILL find a way to learn, and even if it’s just a quick Google search and Wikipedia read on your bathroom, coffee or cigarette break.
- Be creative about your work.
Your daily, busy everyday work is full of learning opportunities.
You do what you do but WHY do you do it this way? Is there background information about the Why? Can you do research about it?
Could it be automated? (See also my post on “How to deal with boring tasks?“)
Why do I always do it this way? Are there others who do it differently? How could one assess the efficacy of these different styles?
What would my mentor/coach/idol do in the same situation?
How could I set up a safe environment to experiment with different ideas? Is there a grading of different ways to do it?
What would MASTERY look like and what is the path toward it?
Is a colleague stuck and could use some help? Great, I’ll be a de-facto mentor for 5 minutes.
In most areas there is a hidden, deep ocean beneath the surface of the obvious and familiar.
Tell someone EXACTLY what you do every day. You’ll be surprised about what they never knew or how you will start to reflect your habbits.
- Be creative about your time
How do YOU use your time and what do you use it for?
Sure, you have a private life and kids and what not. Guess what – so does the rest of us.
I, for one, have 3 kids. I wake them up every morning and get them ready for school and take time for them in the evening. Those are NOT the time slots I use for learning.
But I commute to work. When I’m on the train or ride my bike or sometimes drive a car I listen to audio books. And podcasts. Some podcasts recommend books. Repeat.
Sometimes, when I know that I’m not at 100% of my capacity I COULD procrastinate – but I try to use these times for doing less demanding tasks. Some internet research, a coding kata or a chapter or two in a Udemy course fall into this category, among many things.
Sure, when I need a break for my brain I like to chill and watch funny clips. But Youtube is also full of exciting and interesting TED talks, tutorials and conference talks (like mine, of course, on “How to write clean & testable code without losing your mind“).
Perfect info streams while cooking, at least for me.
What about you?