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Finding time to learn: 4 easy tips for developers

Programming is a busy line of work, but you may very well have more free time than you think
iStockphoto / balloon111
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

In our previous article, we discussed why developers should always be learning new things as they work, and the best approach to make sure this is happening.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that there are also those who are not satisfied with what they are learning at work, and who may want to expand their skills in a field not closely related to that which involves them in the office. In such a situation it becomes legitimate to utter tech’s taboo words, ‘I am too busy to learn new things’, but it is also true that there are other ways to resolve this conundrum.

In this article we will explore the steps to take in order to reorganise your schedule and find ways to learn – and learn well – even while working a 9-5 job.

#1 Allocate the hours

First things first, you ought to make a conscious decision on how many hours a week you want to invest – invest, not spend – in learning new things.

Two hours per week makes for a gentle routine that anyone should be able to keep up with. Less than that risks not being worth it, at least in terms of how much knowledge you can activate and retain, so I would advise seeing two hours as a minimum.

Five hours a week may sound easy, but is in fact a fairly serious challenge if you want to sustain it for more than a month or two. So a healthy target, at least at first, should fall somewhere between two and five hours every week invested in learning new things.

Anything more than five hours and you’re going for an intensive learning bout, which is doable, but has to be approached differently – more on this later.

#2 Review your priorities

Now that you know how many hours you want to invest, it’s time to find the room for them. Start by making a list of everything you do when you’re not at work. Then, reorganise it by priority. The things that are essential to your well-being should go at the top, those least important in that sense at the bottom.

Many people think that making time to learn new things means giving up on time with friends and family. Unless you’re at the bar with your mates five evenings per week, that’s not necessarily true. Our routines tend to be naturally inefficient, and in most cases analysing them brings up activities we can do without.

Look at your list, and cross out from your time as many of the activities at the bottom as you need in order to find the number of hours per week you chose to commit.

#3 Put dead time to use

There is a ton of learning material nowadays that comes in the form of podcasts or courses which you can simply listen to. Some may be in a video format, but still allow you to learn even if you just listen to the audio.

Use these to fill up time you’re presently using for something that requires no mental effort. Commuting, going on a cyclette or a rowing ergometer at the gym, walking your dog – any of these periods can be used to learn if you are short of time.

#4 Establish how you want to learn

Your approach to learning will generally fall somewhere on a spectrum of intensity: on one end of it, you will pursue learning casually and for pleasure, while on the other you will set yourself precise goals and attack them with determination.

The former we have already explored in this article, and all I may add would be a recommendation to start gently – keep it at a low number of weekly hours, at least at first, to make sure you can keep it up on the long run.

The latter represents a different case: some people prefer to work very intensely for a few weeks or months, hauling themselves up to a higher level of competence in difficult short sprints. While challenging, you might prefer the sharp focus that comes from pushing yourself this way. You won’t know until you try, so test out what works for you.

If that’s your style, then it’s certainly possible to do more than the weekly five hours we recommended earlier, and you may want to consider a part-time course.

Learning how to organise your time can be tricky, but for some people it can really change their daily routine and open up whole new opportunities to learn. And learning – as Senecas famously testified at the age of 70 –  is a process that never ends.

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