Learning and development are crucial to us fulfilling our career potential, but how many of us are guilty of pushing it to the back of the line when life and work get busy? The everywomanNetwork is a reminder that your career is a fantastic crucible in which to learn and grow. But it’s not enough to have the resources at your fingertips — for real success you’ve got to use them, and that means developing the psychological levers that make continuous learning powerfully compelling.
Cognitive differences between how men and women learn have been a hot research topic for years, with findings including increased connectedness between the two brain hemispheres in women, which some scientists have suggested could indicate greater inclination to combine logic and intuition, and the tendency of women to retain stronger, more vivid memories of emotional events than men — meaning that a personal investment in what we learn and why can anchor us to the content more easily.
The easiest way to leverage these benefits is to build a positive habit around your learning and development (L&D) — and take out any form of negotiation with the self, which can often be an unconscious self-sabotaging tactic. You might tell yourself that you can easily reschedule that hour you’d set aside to commit to a workbook, but the very real chance is that any new time you create will be no more convenient than the last. When your decisions are responsive, rather than structural, you are more likely to argue yourself out of whatever is not urgent and to make decisions that seem rational but are in fact just introducing choice and complicating matters.
The simple truth is that making time to learn is not as simple as ‘just blocking out time in your calendar’.
Research on habit formation has shown behaviour is more likely to become habitual when it is consistently performed in the same context — such as a workplace — but behavioural scientists say that many of us try to create habits the wrong way, making bold resolutions or putting ambitious schemes in place without taking the steps needed to set ourselves up for success. So how can you pave the way to healthier habits around your L&D? Start with these five key strategies for helping clear away the practical and psychological barriers to regular learning…
ASK YOURSELF, ‘How motivated am I, really?’
If you have the desire to engage with L&D, but somehow can’t seem to get organised for your learning then look again at your motivations and goals around it. Motivation is what causes us to act, through which we create growth, and change; demotivation on the other hand is defined by not fully committing to act. There are many reasons why, but not having a goal or motivation that relates to your true desire is one of the most powerful motivation killers. Extrinsic motivation, where behaviour is driven by external rewards, has limited power, so if you’re focused on your L&D because you ‘should’ do it, then it’s going to be harder to prioritise it naturally. Finding your sweet spot — the unique ‘why’ that has meaning to you in terms of your life and career — is the key to creating intrinsic motivation, doing things because they are internally fulfilling, and powering you forward.
MAKE A CHANGE: Take time to review your goals around L&D and your personal brand values to ensure that you are aligned both in what you are looking to achieve and why — intrinsic motivation is by far the most powerful kind, and the most effective way you can edge into creating a habit around your goal process.
Try to REALLY ‘see’ the results...
Creating healthier habits around your L&D doesn’t just include immediate practical actions, but also in having a clear picture of the ‘end goal’. If you haven’t consciously and clearly articulated to yourself what you want to achieve through your L&D and how it relates to your wider career vision then your picture of your future will be vague in your mind. Research shows that the brain likes familiarity, and without a clear vision to move toward, its tendency is to re-create what’s familiar, making it hard to sustain motivation for change. Visual thinking is deeply ingrained in the brain — creating a clear and specific vision of what you want to create through your L&D allows you to become familiar with that outcome and consequently feel comfortable moving toward it and prioritising it.
MAKE A CHANGE: Get clarity around what you want to achieve, the time frame and the learning you will need, then take a few minutes every day to set an intention and visualise where you want to be using these skills — using tools from neurolinguistics programming such as making the picture in your mind bright, close and large to help amplify the message to your subconscious.
don’t try to do too much at once
Nothing creates a block in energy quicker than overwhelm. And even more in the case of L&D if you feel as if you’re just adding more to an already overloaded schedule. Stanford University researcher and author of Tiny Habits B.J. Fogg notes that big behaviour changes require a high level of motivation that often can’t be sustained, and recommends starting small, adopting tiny habits to make the new habit as easy as possible to build. Habits form faster the more often we do something, and ‘small and often’ is a great way to lay powerful foundations easily. Small habits also allow us to be highly specific, something the brain also likes when making ‘default decisions’. Research has also shown that goals like ‘I will do regular personal development and learning’ are too abstract to be truly effective. Be specific about what exactly you aim to do and how often. Instead of saying ‘I will read an everywoman workbook this week’ say ‘I will read one chapter of an everywoman workbook every morning before checking my emails’.
MAKE A CHANGE: Research shows
the most effective way to master a new concept is through intense bursts of learning over a period of time.
Setting aside just 15 minutes per day to ‘microlearn’ or improve your skills is specific, bounded and psychologically easier than ‘finding time to watch a webinar’ — adding up to an impactful 75 minutes per working week.
‘stack’ your new habits onto old ones
Making L&D something you ‘do’ outside of your everyday workflow means you can find it more difficult to fold in in a consistent way. Changing the way you anchor it to your daily life is key to success and one of the ways to integrate it more fully is to ‘stack your habits’. Behavioural experts have noted that
one of the best ways to form a new habit is to tie it to an existing habit, something called ‘habit stacking’,
so look for established patterns in your day and consider how you can use these to create new ones that have L&D folded into them. By linking new habits to behaviour cycles that are already built into your brain, you automatically remove some of the high-level motivation needed to create new behaviour creating a compelling neural ‘shortcut’ and making it more likely you’ll stick to it.
MAKE A CHANGE: ‘Pick an activity you already do automatically such as your commute, having your first coffee at work or your morning team meeting — then piggyback L&D onto it afterward. Habit stacking works best when the cue is specific and immediately actionable — rather than saying, ‘I will listen to a podcast in the car’, say ‘I will press play on a podcast after I have started the car’.
don’t let urgency triumph over importance
Eisenhower once said: ‘I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent’. He was known for organising his workload around this ‘Urgent/Important’ matrix, a model later expounded on by Stephen Covey’s bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Prioritising urgent, activities over important activities without time constraints — such as L&D — is a challenge to overcome if you want to move forward with intention. Urgent activities are also usually more associated with someone else's goals while important ones have outcomes that lead to us achieving our goals.
MAKE A CHANGE: Try dividing your to-do list into ‘urgent’, ‘urgent and important’ and ‘important’, and work to delegate or delete anything in the urgent list to clear space in your day. Only ‘urgent and important’ — and ‘important’ should be taking up most of your time, the latter including your own personal development.
 Ouellette, J., and Wood, W. (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: the multiple processes by which past behaviour predicts future behavior. Psychol. Bull. 124, 54–74. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.124.1.54