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

This is the second 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 1: it’s hard when you have a life

After the birth of my son, it became increasingly difficult for me to find time to keep learning outside of work. I stopped taking online classes and I put all my side projects to rest. This made me afraid that my career was stalling when I still had so much room to grow! I couldn’t let that happen!

Fortunately, I knew a lot of people who seemed to have both successful careers and successful families. I thought if they could do it, I could do it too. I just needed to find out how by asking them how they did it.

So I went and talked to as much people as I could. My question was something like this: How do you find time to keep getting better at your job while still spending quality time with your friends and family ?

Unsurprisingly, everyone had their own approach when it came to continuous learning. But after careful consideration, I realized that almost everyone was following one or more of the following approaches:

  1. Learn by experience
  2. Learn on my own time
  3. Learn proactively on company time

Learning by experience

Learning by experience was the preferred way for most people I talked to and I could easily see why. Learning by experience is the default way we learn in life. Most of the times, we don’t even have to do anything to make it happen. It just happens. In fact, as the great Julius Cesar once said, «Ut est rerum omnium magister usus» which means «experience is the best teacher».

Learning by experience is great because it happens naturally on the job. It doesn’t require us to spend any additional time or effort outside of what is already required by our job. And it can exceptionally work wonders when in a fast paced environment where the job content changes very often. Unfortunately, not everybody works in such an environment.

For me personally, I am lucky to work in an environment which allows me to change frequently what I work on. But even in that environment, the learning opportunities aren’t just enough to keep me learning at the pace I want. I realized I was usually learning only when either working on something new or trying to solve a problem I didn’t already know how to solve. But more than 90% percent of my time at work is spent applying what I already knew.

This reactionary learning approach didn’t suit me at all. I needed something that would allow me to learn not only to solve problems when they occur but also to prevent them to occur in the first place. I needed a more proactive approach.

Learning on my own time

Among folks I talked to, some were able to do what I wasn’t able to do anymore: find time outside of work to keep learning. I was eager to learn how they pulled it off.

Unfortunately, when I asked them how they do it, the answers I got didn’t help me at all. Most people told me they just created time for it. Whether it was after their kids have gone to bed, early in the morning or on the weekends, they just took time and did it. But with my already packed schedule, I just couldn’t see how that would even be possible for me. To understand my challenge, let me explain how my schedule goes.

I start my day at 5 a.m. From 5 a.m to 6 a.m, I go through my waking up routine which includes some meditations and stretching exercices to get my blood flowing to my brain. After that, 6 a.m to 6 p.m is reserved for work: 8h on my regular job, an hour working out and the rest on RDC Études or household chores.
After I am done working at 6 p.m, I try to spend the next three and half hours with my family as much as I can. That includes eating supper together, playing with my child, watching a NBA game and praying together.
At 9:30 p.m, I do a quick retrospective of the day and plan the next one. It usually takes me around 25 minutes. Then I spent the rest of the day with my wife trying to fall asleep before 11 p.m in order to have at least 6 hours of sleep before hitting restart the next morning at 5 a.m.

Such a detailed routine made it hard for me to find time to learn outside of work on weekdays. Before having a family, I used to spend almost the entirety of my time after work to learn new techniques or work on side project. But since 2018, it has gradually become difficult or downright impossible to do so. I could still use the weekends though. But even there, I had another big challenge.

When we first started living together, my wife noticed that I was spending as much time working on weekdays than on weekends. She let me know that she didn’t like it and she was right. Since then, I have tried to make sure my weekends are as light on work as possible. Now on Saturday, the most I try to spend on work is three hours and all that is spent on my passion project RDC Études. I try to spend those three hours either early in the morning while my son is still sleeping or in the afternoon while he is having his nap. But when it comes to Sundays, work is downright prohibited. I don’t do anything remotely related to work unless I am on-call that week. Sunday is really off-limit.

As you can see, this schedule and routine made it difficult to learn on my own time. To do so, I have to sacrifice either the time I spent on RDC Études or the time I spent with my family. And that wasn’t something I was willing to do.

But even if I were open to opening up my Sundays, I was afraid doing so could lead me to experiencing resentment towards my employer. In fact, while talking to people who used their own time to learn things that directly benefited their employers, I noticed that they usually were resentful of their employers. By asking more questions, I realized that most of them expected to receive some recognition for the extra effort they were putting in. They felt exploited even if it wasn’t their employers who asked them to do it in the first place.

Although I didn’t feel resentful while doing it when I was still living alone, I realized that learning on my own time could potentially lead me down the same path if I was constantly sacrificing my social life for something that primarily benefited my work. I didn’t want things to ever get to that point. So, I needed to find another alternative that would allow me to keep getting better at my job without negatively affecting my social life.

Learning proactively on company time

What if we could make learning by experience more active than passive ? What if instead of just solving problems when they occur, we could use some company time to learn how to prevent them from occurring ? What if rather than just doing the job, we could use some company time to learn how to do an even better job ?

Of all the learning approaches, learning proactively on company time was the only one I hadn’t thought about. To me, it didn’t really make sense because I have always thought that employers or clients pay us because we already know how to do the job and not to learn how to do it. That’s why I wasn’t comfortable using company time to learn.

Now, you can image how surprised I was when I learned that other people were using their company’s time to learn proactively. I wanted to know how they were doing it. When I asked them about it, I came to the realization that there were three main categories of people learning on company time:

  1. People whose jobs included learning: Researchers and engineers who work in Research & Development (R&D) fall primarily into this category. Their jobs is to learn new things. They are expected to spend a big part of their company time learning. For them, it was their job. There are a lot of people like that whom part of their jobs is to actively monitor the new development in their industries. For them, learning proactively on company time is natural.
  2. People whose companies have a learning time policy: Some companies not only give their employees budgets but also allocate time for them to learn new things. Here the important part is the time allocation because there are a lot of companies that give budgets but without allocating time. I found out by talking to people in those companies that just providing a learning budget is not enough because people remain reluctant to use their own time to learn for work even when they are given a good amount of money to spend on learning.
  3. People who just took time on their own: Lastly, there were a few people who just took company time to learn on their own even if it wasn’t included in their job description or it wasn’t explicitly allocated by the company. They told me they believed it was professional to do so as long as they were delivering on their projects on time and within budgets. I liked this approach but I couldn’t shake the fact that it felt like stealing to me. So I decided not to use it.

What would work best for me ?

Talking to a lot of experienced people taught me that there wasn’t a single best approach to learning on the job. I realized that the learning approach depended a lot on people’s lifestyle and their job content. I needed to go with the approach that fitted my lifestyle and the amount of learning I wanted to do. After analyzing all three approaches above, I realized that none of them really fitted what I wanted.

For starters, I wasn’t going to settle for learning by experience only because I felt it was too slow and I didn’t like the lack of control over what I was learning. And when it came to learning on company time, my job wasn’t the type of jobs which would have allowed me to spend a great deal of my work time on learning. So, the only option for me if I wanted to keep learning was to do it on my own time. I knew it would negatively impact the time I spend with my friends and family but I couldn’t see another way.

I was already thinking about which part of my social life I would sacrifice when an unsuspected idea came to my mind: What if I made my employer or projects I was working on pay me a learning tax to get better at serving them ?

The idea came to me while filling my taxes. Although I tended to feel negatively about giving government my hard earned money, the premise of the tax system itself seemed perfect. We pay taxes so the government can make our life better by building public infrastructures and services which benefit the entire population. I could apply the same logic to my projects. I would spend a small percentage of project time to acquire additional knowledge or skills that would best serve the project.

I liked the idea. It seemed to me like a better version of working on company time that didn’t feel like stealing. Nonetheless, I still had many questions about the approach. How would it work ? Would it even work ? Would my employer be willing to pay the tax ?

In the next article of the series How to keep learning while working, I will share with you what I discovered by adopting the learning tax approach to learn on the job, the impact it had on the projects I was working on and the difficulties I ran into while using it.

Until next, ✌🏾