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How to keep learning while working, Part 3: The learning tax approach

This is the third article of the series How to keep learning while working in which I share how I learned to find the time, energy and focus necessary to learn new things while maintaining a good work-life balance.

Previous article ☞ How to keep learning while working, Part 2: What experienced people taught me about learning on the job

In late 2019, the project I was working on needed a new lead mobile developer as the previous one moved on to another project. At that point, the only experience I had as a mobile developer was a two months stint two years prior to that. Nevertheless, I decided to take on the challenge because it was an urgent need for our project.

My employer at the time gave me plenty of time to onboard and get used to the technicalities of the project and thanks to my all-around knowledge of software development, I was able to quickly get up to speed and start contributing to the project only a month or so after joining.

However, just contributing wasn’t what I wanted. I pride myself in trying to be excellent in whatever I do. So, I needed to be not just a good contributor but an excellent one. And to become excellent, I needed to keep learning while doing the job. This was the perfect opportunity to test my new learning tax approach I talked about at the end of the previous article.

What is the learning tax approach ?

In the previous article of this series, we showed three main approaches to learn while working: Learning by experience only, Learning on personal time and Learning on company time.

For me, learning on company time was the ideal approach given my personal situation. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with my family and spend time working on my side project while continuing to learn and grow in my career. The only problem was that I felt like using company time to learn instead of delivering value wasn’t fair to my employer.

In fact, I have seen so many instances where someone on the team took a lot of time on his own to learn something that wasn’t required for the project at hands and ended up being unable to deliver on their tasks. This would always draw frustration from the project manager and other team members because it was usually perceived as wasted time and budget.

With the learning tax approach, I wanted to make learning on company time fairer for my employer and also eliminate or reduce the perceived waste of time and budget from the project manager and other team members.

The learning tax approach is a more restricted version of using company time to learn. Instead of just taking any amount of time to learn any subject, employees should make sure that they can demonstrate clearly how whatever they choose to learn at any time have a potential to bring value to the their current project or to the company at large. They should also ensure that the amount of time they dedicate to learning is predictable from week to week and doesn’t affect their capacity to deliver their tasks.

Using these restrictions when using company time to learn aims to make sure it’s always a win-win for both the employees and the employer. Employees win because they don’t have to sacrifice personal time to keep learning. And the employer wins because they can be sure that what employees are learning will likely bring them value in the near future.

Using the learning tax approach

To use the learning tax approach, I needed to start by choosing the learning tax i.e how much time I would set aside for learning purposes. Choosing the right amount of time as a learning tax was key to the approach and it wasn’t an easy task. I had to make sure the tax chosen was enough to learn at a good pace and at the same time, it didn’t affect my ability to deliver my project assignments on time.

I didn’t have any data to help me decide how much time was the best option for me. So, I decided to go with the minimum block of time I could afford to use and that was a block of 25 minutes per day. If you are wondering why 25 minutes, it’s because I use the pomodoro technique for my focused work which divide time in multiple 25 minutes blocks.

Twenty-five minutes per day meant my learning tax was only 5% of my weekly work hours. It wasn’t a huge commitment. I was happy because the impact on my work was minimal! I was still delivering my tasks on time and at the same rate I used to before taking the 5% learning tax which was quite surprising for me.

Unfortunately, as time passed, I started to realize that 25 minutes wouldn’t be enough to maintain a good learning pace. It didn’t allow me keep up the pace with most of my online classes as I was always late on weekly assignments.

After analyzing all the classes I had taken up to that point, I realized that doubling my learning tax would probably be the better option. However, I was afraid of the impact spending a half day on learning could have on my capacity to deliver on my project tasks. Nevertheless, I decided to try it anyway.

After just two weeks of increasing my learning tax to 50 minutes per day, it was evident that I had found my balance. It was a perfect mix. My colleagues could barely detect the change. I was still delivering on my promises and I had enough time to follow my online classes. For me, a learning tax of 10% happened to be my sweet spot.

Does the learning tax approach work ?

I started using the learning tax approach in January 2020. Since then, it has helped me learn a lot about both engineering and management without having a negative impact on my capacity to deliver on my project tasks. I have seen not only a great increase in my productivity as a software developer but also a sound improvement on my leadership skills.

Yes, there are some weeks where work is so intense that I choose not to use my full learning tax. But those weeks are the exception rather than the rule.

I don’t know if this strategy could work for everybody but for me it has been a game changer. I don’t feel guilty to spend company time on learning anymore because I’m always ready to show how what I am learning can bring value to the projects I’m working on. And after using this approach for almost two years, I have a full history to show how this strategy has helped me achieve great results.

My leadership skills improvement has paved the way for my hiring as Chief Technological Officer at my new company. Today, as the most senior technical leader, learning is now part of my job content. I don’t really need the learning tax anymore like I used to. But I intend to keep using it because I want to maintain the discipline this approach has brought to the way I choose what to learn and how much time to spend on learning.

Want to try the learning tax approach ?

If you are also struggling to find time to get better at your job like I used to, I would suggest give this learning tax approach a try. It’s really simple to set up and get going. You just need to do three things:

  1. Choose how much time you’ll dedicate to learning: Make sure you some fare amount. I would suggest choosing an amount that allows you to have a good pace without affecting your capacity to deliver. If you are having a hard time finding that out, try 10%.
  2. Choose what you are going to learn: In order to make sure this approach is fair to your employer, make sure to choose to learn only those subjects that have a potential to bring value to projects you are currently working on. This will make it easy for you to justify taking the time if your employer asks you to justify doing it.
  3. Repeat: Don’t stop learning. There are a lot of things that can be learned. Once you are done learning a subject, choose another one and keep going. Our government almost never gives us a tax break, while should you ?

I hope this approach will bring you as much success as it has brought me. I have learned a lot and I’m happy that this approach keeps me learning. If you decide to use this approach, I want to hear about how you are doing so don’t hesitate to send me direct twitter message. I will be very happy to talk to you about this.