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How to Learn a New Skill (When You’re Already Underwater)

So, you want to learn a new skill (or you know that to stay competitive in a tough market, you have to). Great! Now what?

Find the Reason

As with everything that takes time and energy, there needs to be motivation. A reason to undertake the task. If you can’t clearly articulate why you want to take on the challenge of picking up Blockchain or virtual reality, spend time thinking about it and write it down.

From this why you will be able to determine what you want to learn and how you will measure success. For example, you may want to work on a specific project at your company but lack the technical knowledge of what is required. Talk to the team leader and ask what it would take to join. Success is getting on the project.

Maybe you feel like you have stagnated professionally. Maybe you’re looking for a promotion, higher salary, or to make yourself more marketable during your job hunt. Or maybe you are just feeling bored and need to find something exciting to work on again. Based on your reason, consider which new skill is a solution to your challenge and what level of expertise you consider successful.

Find the Way

Now that you have the vision, trace out a plan for yourself.  Think about what resources you have at your disposal, from blogs to online courses to work mentorships. Bring those together on a timeline, with checkpoint goals, as a sort of syllabus. How much time should you spend reading blogs and philosophy versus reading example code versus putting out your own code? This is your lesson plan!

Why is it valuable to write this out instead of just diving in? Just like with your reason, it’s important to measure yourself against your expectations. You thought you would be able to achieve a certain checkpoint by a certain time. These moments are important points to stop, look back, see how you’re performing against expectation, and adjust the plan looking forward.

You’ll also need to figure out a way to integrate your practice into your other priorities. Is there a current work project that could be made better with this new skill? Maybe a few friends are interested in starting a side-project that can challenge you to get hands-on practice on a regular basis.

Find the Support

Go to management with your plan and ask for support. If your new skill helps the company, they may even pay for your education! At the very least, they should see the importance of your personal development and work it into a development plan.

Find the Time

When am I going to do this?

This is the biggest reason people won’t take on the challenge of learning new skills. They want to, they know how they would do it, but they don’t have enough time in the day between professional responsibilities and personal priorities.

The first question to ask yourself is if your time is being spent in line with your priorities. Then you need to determine if you are making the most of that time.

Remove Unimportant Tasks from Your Day

Create a tree of your priorities. Start by listing your three most important priorities for the day or week. Then, for each of those, determine the three most important things you need to be doing to work towards that priority. One of these priorities should be learning X, Y, or Z new skill.

Now, over the course of the three next three days to a week, track your productivity: every 15 minutes, write down what you were working on for the previous 15 minutes. This may sound time-consuming at first, but it is eye-opening. Our perception is often out of line with objective reality. Through this exercise, many of us realize that much more of our day is spent on tasks not related to our priorities.

Try it, and see where those tasks fit into your priority tree. If they aren’t there, you either need to change your tree or change what you are spending your time on.

Make the Most of the Time You Have

Now that you’ve found some time in your day by removing unimportant tasks, it’s time to focus and make the most out of it.

Rather than taking pride in being a multitasker, remember this: the brain can only effectively concentrate on one thing at a time. When you switch between focuses, you are costing yourself time and energy. You need a plan for how you will achieve each of your priorities without having to think about them simultaneously.

The best way to do this is to plan ahead and time-box yourself. Look back to your personal syllabus and determine how much time you think is necessary to complete the sub-task in that priority. I personally go as far as putting personal events on my calendar to remind myself when I will think about what throughout the day.

The important thing here is to hold yourself accountable by focusing entirely on one thing in it’s designated time. And, most critically: at the end of the timebox, whether or not you are done, switch to the next focus.

Momentum is a good thing, but momentum towards a singular priority can leave you falling behind on others. Most often what this looks like is getting into a rhythm on a project, spending all day feeling good about it, but finding yourself at the end of the day without any time for other priorities.

The response is then either (1) stress out and try to squeeze in some learning time, or (2) give up on the learning time. Timeboxing gives you confidence that you will focus on each of your priorities, in their allotted times, which is important when allowing yourself to comfortably forget about other priorities when you are trying to focus on one thing at a time.

If you put in this level of planning on the front end of your new project, you’ll have the most challenging part out of the way. Use the energy you get from starting something new as you find the reason, the way, the support, and the time. As they say, well begun is half done. You’ll have that new skill mastered in no time and be ready to start another.

Not sure which skill you want to learn? Check out Hired’s State of Software Engineers data report to learn about the most in-demand skills in each city.