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How to Learn and Remain Productive at Work at the Same Time

Development is most effective and least disruptive when threaded into the daily DNA of your job...

Everyone wants to work for a company that takes their professional development seriously. Having a concrete career plan mapped out for you and being given the resources to follow it are key factors that drive employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. This, of course, isn’t surprising. Employees are motivated to do their best work when they feel that their employers are invested in their success and career goals. But putting your career development entirely into the hands of someone else is never a good idea. This is why formal, employer-sponsored development programs should always be augmented by your own job-skills training. 

Sometimes a week-long conference or a comprehensive training program is exactly what we need. It takes us out of our office environment, away from our mind-boggling to-do lists, and invites us to focus entirely on learning the skills necessary to make us more effective at our jobs (and more prepared to advance in our careers). The problem is that it simply isn’t enough to rely on these structured events as our sole source of development. 

Removing you from your job for any period of time is disruptive to your organization. Your workload likely becomes untenable before and after your absence, your colleagues must struggle to cover your workload while you’re gone, and sometimes crucial projects wither on the vine until you’re back at your desk for a period of time and caught up again. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It simply means that such occurrences are inevitably rare, relegating your development opportunities to experiences that transpire once or twice a year. And, if there are budget cuts, and an expensive conference or travel-intensive program can’t be funded, you’re out of luck indefinitely. 

Taking ownership over your professional development puts you in the driver’s seat, and when you’re steering your own career, you can challenge yourself and plot your own growth year-round regardless of the factors impacting your employer. And, it’s easier to do than you might think:

Choose Your Skill

The first step in developing your own educational program is to identify a skill that you’d like to improve. This should be something that can be fulfilled on the job. Something that you can practice as you’re completing your daily tasks. It should also be a broad umbrella target that you can segment and address incrementally throughout the year. 

For example, if you choose to improve your communication skills, you might break that down into subcategories that can be addressed one at a time, such as: sharpening your ideas, clarifying your writing, enhancing your presentation skills, and improving your listening abilities. Or, if you decide that you’d like to improve your strategic thinking, you might parse your goals into subcategories like: obtain a better understanding of key research and trends, refine your inquiry skills, explore ways to turn problems into opportunities, find better methods to perform old tasks, and learn to challenge others and/or the status quo when necessary. 

It’s always a good idea to choose a skill that not only interests you, but is also valued within your organization. In order to do so, you might consider soliciting input from other sources like HR, your manager, or your colleagues. 

Research It

Once you settle on a skill that can be refined over the course of an average workday, you can begin the research process. Spend time aggregating all of the free information sources you can find – Youtube videos, blog posts by well-regarded subject matter experts, articles in business publications, even white papers by specialty firms or competitors. It might also help to identify someone within your organization that performs your chosen skill exceptionally well and to ask that person for advice. Perhaps they can provide you with other resources, or even invite you to shadow them to see how it’s done. As you compile your research, it will become apparent how to break the larger skill down into more granular components. Keep a folder containing this segmented information and set aside time to read through it, one subcomponent at a time. 

Set Your Goals

Once you know what subcomponents you’ll be working through to achieve your larger goal, set small objectives for each of them and work backwards to come up with a series of steps you can take to accomplish each. For example, if you decide that improving your communication skills begins with better preparing for meetings, your progressive objectives working toward that outcome might include: concisely outlining your thoughts and concerns in advance of meetings, compiling supporting evidence, and committing to being vocal, asking hard questions, or even challenging others in public settings. Be sure to set a timeline for achieving these goals; this will keep you accountable for your own progress.

Implement Your Plan

Execute your small steps, one subcomponent at a time, in as many different scenarios as possible and as regularly as you can. Once you feel you’ve made progress, ask for feedback from a colleague. Depending on your needs and goals, you might ask for ongoing feedback following regular tasks, or you may just want to check-in periodically for validation that your efforts are paying off. And, if you’re not receiving the feedback you want, don’t be afraid to alter your learning strategies along the way. Sometimes, the best laid plans simply don’t work out. Try different methodologies and don’t be afraid to fail. Each failure brings you closer to a refined approach that’s destined for success. 

Taking your professional development seriously, even when no one else does, is the best way to honor your own talent. If you spend over 40 hours per week at work, and will for most of the rest of your life, that adds up to an astoundingly large chunk time. You could spend it waiting for your manager to notice your potential and shepherd you along your way. Or you could use the time wisely, taking pleasure in the growth of your own skills and contributions. What better way to make those hours count, now and into the future?

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