Published on Friday, 11 Sep, 2020
A framework for focusing your learning goals
“What should I learn? Technology moves so fast! There’s so many options! How will I ever get through everything?”
In the coaching calls I’ve been doing recently it’s been interesting to see some themes come up multiple times. One of those topics is people who’re struggling with feeling like there’s too much they need to learn or improve, and not knowing where to start. A few examples:
- Someone who has imposter syndrome, another who’s low on confidence and feeling they’re not valued. Both felt like there was so much they didn’t know; so much they weren’t good enough at.
- A person wanting to specialise in something, but feeling like there’s so much to explore before deciding.
- Someone who has a long term goal of running their own business, and feeling like they need to know everything, to the point where it feels overwhelming.
Now, each of these situations are different and the learning aspect is only one part of it, but yet the feeling that we constantly need to be absorbing something new is one that’s particularly common in tech. As an industry things never stop, and there’s always another hot language, framework, best practice, way of working, or buzzword to get your mind around. Have you got a stack of books you never quite finished, videos on a saved playlist, or a online course subscription gathering dust, all because you’ve shifted focus? Yep, me too.
Regardless of the individual circumstances, it’s easy to feel some form of decision paralysis around where your efforts would be best invested in your ongoing learning. This, coupled with a sense that there aren’t enough hours in the day and it’s impossible that you’ll ever be able to do everything, can be very demotivating.
Here’s the bad news: in your career, you almost certainly won’t learn everything that you may want or intend to. There will always be too much, and learning how to deal with that effectively is an important skill to develop.
Because this keeps coming up, I wanted to share a framework that I’ve personally found useful for bringing order to the swirling mess of what you should focus on next when it comes to learning new things, or updating some of your existing skills.
Here’s a handy spreadsheet template if you want to grab a copy and follow along.
Questions to ask yourself
For each of the things that you could spend time learning or improving on, I want you to ask yourself a few prompts. Jot each down as a line in a table, and include the following. Answer honestly!
First of all, what is it you want to work on?
Just as if you were building something, remember to scope it to the right level of achievability. You wouldn’t set out to “just build an online shopping portal”; you’d break it down to a sensible level, with areas like user authentication, or visual component creation. Within those you’d have more specific tasks, like “build a form”. The more specific you get, the more of an enormous, seemingly never-ending list you’ll get, but the quicker you’ll see progress with ticking things off.
- Ask yourself what topic, and what level of detail you want to focus on
For example: “I want to learn Go”, “I want to complete this specific Go course”, or “I want to brush up on pointers in Go” will all mean different things.
Why do you want to spend time on it?
What’s your ultimate objective here? Is this something you’re interested in, something you feel would help you do your job, something you’ve been given an ultimatum to learn, etc? Be really honest here, and think about what will change if you invest time in this.
- Identify what the impact will be if you do/don’t spend time on this thing
When did this first come up?
The next few questions are essentially a take on urgent/important (Eisenhower’s matrix), but I’m not necessarily asking you to boil it down to a simple value, I’m asking you to think through what you can learn from these prompts.
Being honest about how much of a long-standing desire this is can be a good conversation to have with yourself. Is something enduring and therefore really important to finally achieve? Or is it that item that’s sat on your to-do list for years, making you feel guilty every time you see it, but which you know isn’t really that important? Is it something brand new which is urgent, or brand new which can be done whenever?
- Does the length of time this has stood have a bearing on whether it should be a priority?
When does this become a problem?
Some things that you may want to spend time on may never become a problem, they just float along in the background. Others may have a specific deadline, like to start a new job, or pass probation.
- Note down if/when this will become a problem if you don’t learn it, and…
How critical will it be?
…couple the above with thinking about what will happen if you don’t. Maybe, if you don’t learn something, you’ll lose your job. Maybe, realistically, you don’t ever need to know this thing because you can hire someone else to specialise in it. Or more likely it’ll fall somewhere in between.
- What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t invest time in this area?
How much effort is it?
And finally, this will be related somewhat to our first question around the scope. Larger areas could take years, or even a whole career to master. Some things could be 15 minutes out of your day.
- Capture what you think is a realistic timescale for you to achieve the level that you need
Use all of this information!
Once you’ve compiled everything, it’s time to sit down and talk through what it all means. You could do this alone, with your manager, or with someone who knows absolutely nothing and can be totally objective.
The idea of this exercise isn’t to boil your decision down to a formula which spits out the ‘right’ answer. Only you can decide what to invest in learning or improving, and these questions are instead designed to help coach you through your own thoughts. It can be quite powerful when coupled with Lara Hogan’s favourite “what are you optimising for?” question as an overarching beacon.
Hopefully by putting some structure around all of the options you have available to you, the next time you want to brush up your skills, put a learning pathway in place, or think about exploring new areas you can do so in a much less overwhelming way 🙂