The new year is here, and for many of us, that means resolutions. At work, it often translates into a vague desire to broaden our horizons or learn new things. But to really make consistent progress, we need to make learning a habit. Habits are freeing because they save us from the difficult, draining business of making decisions and exercising our self-control. Because about 40% of everyday life is shaped by habits, if we have habits that work for us we’re far more likely to be happier, healthier, and more productive.
In my book Better than Before, I identify 21 different strategies that we can use to make or break habits in all facets of life. But there are a few that are especially helpful for making a habit of on-the-job learning.
Identify what you need to learn.
- Take time to think big. In the tumult of everyday life, it can be hard to step back and think about what matters most. Maybe you want to take 30 minutes once a week, or take a personal day, or go for a long bike ride. Where do you want to be in two years? How could you develop your skills to make your work more interesting and yourself more valuable? Some people prefer to do this kind of thinking alone, with just a pad of paper; others prefer to talk it out with a few trusted coworkers or an old friend.
- Take time to think small. Sometimes people get overwhelmed when they try to make grand plans or ask huge questions, so it’s also useful to focus on small, manageable steps that you can incorporate into your life immediately. To make your work easier or richer tomorrow, what do you need to learn or get better at today?
- Ask yourself: whom do you envy? Envy is an uncomfortable emotion, but it’s instructive. If you envy someone, that person has something you wish you had. Do you envy your friend who gets to travel all the time — or the friend who never has to travel? Do you envy your coworker who’s taking night classes toward getting an MBA, or who gets to make lots of presentations? Envy can help show us how we want to grow and change. Once you’ve figured out what you need to learn…
- Be specific about what you’re asking of yourself. Resolutions like “read more” or “learn new things” are too vague. Put your resolution into the form of a concrete, measurable, manageable action, such as “Every month, go to at least two events with learning opportunities” or “Spend two hours every Thursday afternoon reading all the articles I saved during the week.” Being specific helps you figure out what to do, and it also makes it possible to…
- Monitor your habit. Monitoring is almost uncanny in its power. Research shows that simply by monitoring a behavior, we tend to do a much better job of it, whether it’s how many daily steps we’re taking or how many cold calls we’re making. The same is true of how many instructional videos we’re watching or how often we make time to practice a new skill. Keep track, and you’ll push yourself in the right direction.
- Schedule time for your habit. Something like “Research such-and-such” is a goal that can keep getting pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. Even if it’s important, it’s just not urgent. So schedule a specific time for research and learning. But it’s crucial to remember to…
- Recognize that working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination. When you schedule time to do certain work, you should do that work, and nothing else. No filing, no cleaning, no checking emails. Do the scheduled work, or stare at the ceiling. Otherwise, you may work and work and work, and never get around to doing the very thing you set out to do.
- Spend time with people who have the habits of learning that you want to emulate. Studies show that we tend to pick up habits from the people around us, so choose your company wisely. If you know that some of your coworkers make on-the-job learning a habit, go out of your way to spend time with them, and you’ll more easily pick up that habit yourself.
And the most important thing to remember about habit change? We must shape our habits to suit ourselves — our own nature, our own interests, our own strengths. When we understand ourselves, we can apply habit-forming strategies with the greatest chance of success.
Article by: Gretchen Rubin, Harvard Business Review