When You've Taken a Learning Break, How Do You Catch Back Up?

When you’ve been deeply focused on a big project or a new job, you might poke your head up and feel lost. Like the tech world has moved beyond you. Did that time you didn’t spend learning new things finally catch up with you? And how can you close that gap?

Study at home? Or learn at work?

If you haven’t been making time for learning, that time has to come from somewhere.

But where will that time come from? Should you study on your own time? Or study on the job?

It’s a trick question. The answer is both.

Finding time outside of work can be a struggle. It definitely has been for me, as I’ve gone from 0 to 1 to 2 kids. But learning something in my own time makes that thing feel more like mine. It feels more exciting, and you can pick up a topic that’s more interesting than practical.

If you feel like the time just isn’t there, plan ahead. Set aside a specific time of day, or make up a trigger. For example, “I’ll read a few pages right after I wake up”, or “I’ll read from 5:30–6 PM.” Have the book sitting right there, and it can be its own reminder.

I’ve also had some great times reading programming books after the family has gone to sleep. It works, but you have to be careful not to sacrifice much sleep of your own.

What about on the job?

When it comes to studying as part of the job, it’s the same thing: plan time for yourself. I’ll even block it out on my work calendar.

At most jobs, nobody will specifically give you that time. Count yourself lucky if they do! (Aha!, my current employer, is one of those rare ones).

For the rest, the first step is to build trust. Can you have a conversation that starts, “I’m going to spend time learning this so I can become more effective at the work we do every day?” If so, you’re on the right track.

You might be limited to learning something directly related to the job. For example, reading up on React if you’re going to be doing more front-end JavaScript work.

But that’s not as limited as it seems.

Work time is a great time to read fundamental books, like Refactoring, or Working Effectively with Legacy Code, or Domain Driven Design. Those are all books I’ve read at various jobs, and some of the most valuable of my career.

What if they say no? You’ll have to make a decision. Learning is important enough that I would take the time anyway. There’s usually enough downtime to fit it in somewhere, as long as you have the material on hand. And if you put in the effort and focus on the right things, you’ll become more efficient, and the time will create itself.

One final warning

If you feel like you’re trying to catch up, you’ll be tempted to take on too much at once. That’s a mistake.

Learning one new language and one or two major frameworks a year is a good low bar, and probably also a good high bar. You might be able to stretch a little, but much more than that and you’ll forget it when you need it.

That seems low, but it adds up over time. And even if you’re not totally caught up, you’ll still feel like you’re making real progress toward the developer you want to be.

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