- Once you finish school, you are still a lifelong learner.
- Find small opportunities to study topics that interest you, even while you multitask.
- Be deliberate about learning, block off time, join a group, and set goals.
- Seek out mentorship and accountability partners.
- Talk to your manager and shadow coworkers.
Listen: Yes, you can fit lifelong learning into your busy workday.
As I began my first “real” job after college, I was thrilled to leave behind the slog of studying, papers, tests, and grades. I was excited to finally be able to focus on applying what I learned in school to the real world. I was done learning, or so I thought. However, just a few weeks into my new job, I realized that, while I had finished my formal education, I was embarking on a journey of lifelong learning.
Why is lifelong learning important? The more obvious reason is that it helps you keep up with the ever-changing market landscape and advance your career. But what I also found is that embracing learning at work has made my jobs more enjoyable and fulfilling. With new knowledge and skills, I've been able to look at things differently, solve more challenging problems, and take on new responsibilities—all things that make my career feel interesting and engaging to me.
However, finding time to learn during a busy workday can be difficult. Along the way, I've figured out several strategies to squeeze learning opportunities into my week without sacrificing my projects or productivity. Here are 10 ideas you can experiment with for yourself:
1. Pick something you really want to learn
If you're excited about a specific topic or skill, you'll be more motivated to learn it than if you feel like it's a chore. You'll also be more engaged as you learn and more likely to experiment with and apply what you've learned to your job.
2. Look for microlearning opportunities
What is lifelong learning? It's not just going back to school for a degree or taking a time-consuming certificate program. If you don't have time for those things, you can still be a lifelong learner through microlearning—consuming quick snippets of information in short pockets of time.
Podcasts and blogs are great ways to gain insight on a specific topic, and videos can help you learn practically any skill on-demand (quick plug for Aquent Gymnasium, which has a collection of short and sweet Gym Shorts courses and Take 5 tutorials on a variety of marketing, creative, and design topics.) As you come across great content, collect it in one place so you can jump right in when it's time to learn.
3. Combine learning with another task
This is one of my favorite ways to incorporate learning at work into my daily routine. If you work from home, listen to a podcast while folding laundry. If you commute to work, you could put on an audiobook in the car or watch course videos while riding public transit. Or step away from your desk and take a walk while you listen.
4. Block off time for learning in your calendar
Set aside dedicated time each day (or week) specifically for learning, and schedule it like any other meeting. I like to use my calendar's “focus time” feature, which sets me as busy and automatically declines meeting invites. Don't forget to turn off email and chat notifications, so you're not derailed by interruptions.
5. But don't use your lunch break
When you learn new things for work, it benefits your company as much as it benefits your career. Learning should be considered a normal part of your workday, not something you squeeze into your lunch or other times you would normally take a break. If you don't give your mind a chance to rest and recharge throughout the day, you probably won't retain what you're learning and are more likely to suffer from burnout.
6. Shadow a colleague
You might have shadowed your manager when onboarding as a new hire or cross-trained with a colleague to learn more about their role. However, we rarely request to shadow a coworker in order to advance our careers. Next time you notice someone at work who has a skill you want to learn—closing a sale, presenting to executives, writing a project brief—ask whether they're willing to have you watch them in action. You might not be able to ask questions as they go, so don't forget to take notes so you can debrief afterward.
7. Raise your hand for stretch opportunities
Don't be afraid to put what you've learned into practice. If your day-to-day job doesn't give you the chance to apply what you've learned, then raising your hand for a stretch opportunity is one way to continue to learn by doing. For example, if you've just learned new project management skills, you could volunteer to manage a project your team has on its plate. Just keep in mind that it's best to start with a simpler, lower-stakes assignment so you have the space to make mistakes and learn from them.
8. Seek out mentorship opportunities
Mentors are a great way to learn more about your industry and gain valuable insight into how other successful professionals think and operate. Look around in your network and reach out if there is someone whose career path resonates with you—chances are they will be happy to share their knowledge with you over coffee or lunch. Also, think about joining a professional group or going to a conference to hear from people at the top of your field who can help guide you on your learning journey.
9. Seek out lifelong learning with a group
It can be difficult to stay motivated when you are learning on your own. If you discover that this is the case for you, incorporating some camaraderie can make a significant difference. That could mean attending a live course where you can interact with your instructor and peers, starting a book club at your company, or sharing what you're learning with teammates during a lunch and learn.
10. Make learning one of your performance goals
Formalizing your learning goals can help give you that extra push to make learning a priority. Align with your manager on what goals will best support your career development, and then use one-on-ones or performance check-ins as milestones to stay accountable and discuss your progress. A great manager is also a great coach who can guide you through the inevitable challenges that will arise as you grow and develop.
Over time, your approach to learning and growth will naturally ebb and flow. At times, you may be learning by doing—getting thrown into the deep end and learning as you go. At other points, you may hit a plateau where focused learning, anything from reading a book to taking a certification course, could help you reach the next level or pivot into something entirely new. Yet, no matter what stage you are in your career, don't let a busy schedule keep you from building new skills. You'll never regret investing in your education.