Technology experts' top advice for finding time to learn
Let's face it: Making time to learn is hard. We asked technology experts and engineers for the learning strategies and techniques they use to prioritize upskilling.
Aug 31, 2023 • 5 Minute Read
- Software Development
- Professional Development
- Team Development
- Learning & Development
Learning new skills and staying on top of emerging trends is an informal part of any technologist’s job description. Upskilling keeps your current tech skills fresh, prepares you for upcoming projects, and enables career changes.
But actually finding the time (and motivation) to study is easier said than done. We asked engineers and technology experts for the learning techniques they use to carve out time for learning during their busy schedules.
Table of contents
Strategies to make time to learn
Even if you have dedicated time to learn on the job, deadlines and urgent projects can push learning to the side. In fact, 42% of tech teams say they’re too busy to learn new skills. If you count yourself among them, consider these expert tips.
Learn in chunks
Learning a new skill, studying for a certification, or completing a course can be overwhelming. To make it more manageable, Matt Allford, DevOps engineer and solution architect, suggests breaking it down into smaller chunks you can tackle throughout the day.
For example, consider a 10-hour course. Instead of trying to finish it at once, use chunking to complete 30-minute sessions a few times each week. “Get up 30 minutes earlier. The house is quiet, there’s no kids, and it doesn’t sound like a lot, but you do that two or three times a week and you’ll start to build up that momentum,” Matt says. “You’ll start to get on a bit of a chain where you won’t want to break the chain, so you keep doing it and you work towards your goal.”
Leverage just-in-time learning
Just-in-time learning refers to learning the information you need right when you need it. If you need to learn only one topic, don’t force yourself to sit through an entire course.
“A lot of people are conditioned to [think] like, ‘I'm going to go and do this whole course,’” says John Elliott, security advisor and cybersecurity payments risk and privacy specialist. “But I can find a module or a clip that just tells me the thing I'd like to learn. That’s worth spending five or 10 minutes doing.”
In other words, just-in-time learning enables you to work smarter, not harder. If part of a course or training program isn’t relevant to your goals, you don’t need to do it.
Find your passion for learning
If you're struggling to find motivation, experts suggest learning something you love. “For me, I try to focus on things that I’m passionate about, and then I find it easier to make time for that,” says Steve Buchanan, Principal Program Manager at Microsoft.
Julie Lerman, software coach and Entity Framework expert, echoes this sentiment. “A lot of times, it is very important to learn the things you need to learn for your job. But I think what's also really important is kind of feeding your I-want-to-learn heart, and sometimes you might need to feed that by learning something else, something that you're curious about,” she says.
“I think people will always make time to follow something that their heart wants to follow. And by kind of feeding that, it makes learning fun again. And I think it makes it easier to take on the tasks of the things that you might need to learn that may not be calling to you, but you kind of have to [do].”
Tips to become a curious learner
Many types of on-the-job learning are one-off or event-based programs. Certifications are a good example. You study, you sit the exam, you earn your certification, and then you’re done (at least until the next one comes out).
This learning is valuable. But making learning a continuous habit is another skill that can uplevel your career, especially if you’re in a rut or have been pigeonholed into a certain role. Let’s look at some learning strategies for technologists who feel stuck and want to advance their career.
Learn new programming languages
New programming languages crop up all the time, and it can be difficult to predict which ones will last or become the next big thing. To that end, Mike Woodring, former Head of Curriculum at Pluralsight and current Technical Advisor at CodePath.org, recommends tech teams to always be learning a new language.
“There's a lot of value in just learning a new language, even if you don't have a defined use for it,” he says. “Whatever it is that you don't have an opportunity to use for your day job, go practice it. Go build games, go build a toy, go rebuild the thing you're doing in the language you have to use, go rebuild it in another language as a mechanism for learning. . . . I think that's probably the most valuable thing a software developer can do to keep their skills up.”
Uncover interesting skills to learn outside your department
Security is another field that changes constantly as new threats emerge and technology advances. But security isn’t the only thing worth learning.
John Elliott explains, “I would say to anyone in security, if you go to an organization and they're doing stuff you've not seen before, go and learn the stuff. Don’t learn the security stuff, learn the stuff so that when you're going to go and talk to a developer or the DevOps people, you actually understand what it is that they do. And then they'll work with you to help secure it.”
Create your own learning experience
Your leader can help you develop a personalized learning plan that allows you to apply your new learning to your current role. After all, new tech skills can help you support your team in new ways.
Techniques to explore different ways to learn
If you’re feeling stuck, experiment with different ways to learn.
Use AI to augment the learning experience
You can use tools like ChatGPT and generative AI to optimize sections of code or explain tech concepts in easy-to-understand ways. This can make it a useful learning tool. (Just keep in mind that ChatGPT isn’t always accurate. Exercise your critical thinking and reasoning skills when asking it for answers.)
Knowing how to use AI in your day-to-day role can also help you make more time for learning. Wilvie Añora, Co-founder and Strategy Lead of AtoANI, explains how you can use your learning to reduce manual tasks. “If you take that course on artificial intelligence, you'll understand, okay, this is where I could apply it. So it would save you time in the long run.”
Take breaks to enjoy learning
If you find yourself blankly staring at a screen, take a break. Breaks give your brain time to reset and think about your learnings with a fresh perspective. Work on an unrelated project, fold the laundry, or make a cup of coffee.
DevOps and Azure architect Henry Been recommends stepping away from your computer and taking a walk. “One of the things that I find gives me a lot of insights . . . is taking a walk,” he says. “It's taking time away from the keyboard, from the team, from the buzzing and the beeping and the notifications. But to really spend time thinking, just say to people, ‘I'm away. I'm thinking.’ It's not common anymore, but I really value it.”
Make the most of the learning experience
At the end of the day, upskilling is about advancing your career and professional development. Any way you can optimize the learning experience with different techniques will help you stay one step ahead of a constantly changing tech landscape.
And one thing making waves in the industry right now? AI. Check out our beginner, intermediate, and expert AI and ML courses (and sign up for a 10-day free trial with no commitments).