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How to learn smarter, not harder, in the age of time deficit

Ivana Markovic
March 18 ∙ 5 min read
How to learn smarter, not harder, in the age of time deficit

What is one of the elements a lot of us aspire to in our professional life?

Over the course of my career, I’ve conducted over 100 job interviews. I can tell you that one thing candidates always look for in a workplace is an opportunity to learn and grow.

I definitely relate. When learning, we feel a sense of accomplishment and engagement. It makes us feel valuable and useful. It gives us a sense of purpose and progress. Yet, somehow, within the organizations where we work every day, we’ve collectively stopped learning. And what’s the number one reason for this? According to Forbes, it’s time.

That old enemy: time.

Lack of time is a go-to excuse in our personal lives that stops us from improving. It’s certainly no different in the busy work environment. Not having “enough time” to handle our work responsibilities has categorically put a stop to any learning in the workplace.

So what’s a company to do? You can try many things: implementing training quotas, off-sites, training plans, and mandatory training. Sure, some of these tactics work. But others tend to fall flat.

The quick fix (or so we were hoping…)

We’ve had our fair share of success with certain ideas, but none of them have proven to be the miraculous “quick fix” we were secretly hoping for.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the learning initiatives we’ve experimented with, and how they turned out:

  • “Mandatory” 4 hours of training every month: This simply got de-prioritized due to… you guessed it, lack of time.
  • Set personal learning goals into our work plans: Progress got derailed because of lack of time.
  • Allocate a budget for external training and certifications: While appealing, it wasn’t taken advantage of by the majority of teams.
  • Have a structured six-month training plan to onboard our technical team: This was probably our most successful initiative in terms of completion rate. But it required a ton of effort and time.
  • Lunch & Learns: Another successful tactic, because everyone loves attending these. The main issue was that we couldn’t go in-depth into a topic.
  • Have a library in the office with books our team can learn new skills from: While there were a few bookworms who made use of the content, mostly, the books just ended up collecting dust on the shelves.

As you can see, not all of the ideas listed above were total failures. But they had the same enemy: time. Even well-designed programs can fall apart when we de-prioritize learning due to being so busy with our jobs.

Even with many failed attempts, we were determined not to give up. Whenever we face a challenge or an opportunity in organizational development, we put on our R&D hats. We focus to better understand the problem, hypothesize as to why things aren’t working as well as we hoped for, and do lots of research. This is how we came across the notion of micro-learning.

Microlearning? What’s that?

I like to think of microlearning as bite-size learning. It consists of a small burst of learning that can be completed in 5 to 25 minutes. The beauty of microlearning is that it can take many forms to accommodate different learning styles — such as video, text, or interactive content.

If you’ve ever done a Coursera class, that’s microlearning. If you’ve read an interesting article from HBR in an attempt to learn something new, that’s also microlearning. Used Duolingo to learn a language? Microlearning.

Microlearning has multiple benefits: it provides flexibility to the learner, keeps learners more engaged, and improves retention of new information. Of course, however, microlearning has its limitations. You can’t expect participants to grasp complex concepts, or to acquire skills that require extensive experience on the job. But if your goal is to help your team get better, and to foster a culture of daily learning and continual self-improvement, microlearning could be just the thing you’ve been looking for.

If you’re starting from a scenario where your colleagues spend zero to very little time learning and focusing on self-actualization, microlearning gets people to concentrate on making learning a habit. A few microlearning programs in a year can translate into multiple hours of training. Compared to the alternative (very little training or no training at all), it seems like a win to me.

How to get started with your own microlearning?

First off, let me say that there’s a lot of content that exists out there — in the form of classes, or information that can be unearthed through research. So, it is important you start by identifying recurring topics that the bulk of your team likely needs help on.

For example, we identified three main areas we could go from being good to rock stars. We created a 4-week program that focused on helping our team become stronger in the three areas: better business communication, efficiency and productivity and effective feedback.

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I moved on to designing a 4-week program. I’ve decided to make our content public. All the tools you’ll need to implement this microlearning program are available here.

Even if the three topics don’t resonate with you 100%, you probably have other areas you’d like to see your team improve in. If you’re interested in coordinating learning initiatives for your team, here are some general tips that we applied and that I believe will help you succeed:

  1. Make it entertaining, so that people are excited to join in on the learning process every day.
  2. We named our program 1–800-LEVELUP, as a nod to those funny infomercials. The catchy name attracted many to participate.
  3. When it came to content and program flow, we focused on making it engaging for the team.
  4. We put together an introductory presentation that would motivate our team members. We wanted them to feel like they couldn’t miss out. How? We sold them this opportunity as an exclusive way to be a better version of themselves, with limited spots. We used modern tools to implement and track the team’s progress.
  5. We provided a daily content update and encouraged our team to keep on going. We had tools in place to keep up with the team’s progress and links to the content.
  6. Keep an eye on diversity. Not everyone learns the same way. Personally, I find video to be the most engaging way to learn, but not everyone loves video (or visual learning). Make sure you provide a variety of content types.
  7. Implement regular check-ins to assess knowledge levels. We built a whole set of activities and quizzes to validate people’s knowledge progression. I constantly asked for feedback on new skills.
  8. Give learners the choice. Give people options in terms of length of daily tasks, and offer a variety of tools on one topic. For example, I’ve had colleagues ask me for more content on certain topics, as they were very passionate about learning about that specific thing.
  9. Be aware that in a voluntary program, not everyone will complete it fully — but you’ll still find that people learn significantly more than they would if left to their own.

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We’ve decided to Open Source our microlearning plan. If you end up taking our 1–800-LEVELUP program, please leave us comments and suggestions for the future on our Notion page, in the Community Suggestion column.