3 Ways to Learn More When You’re Already Learning Nonstop

I just finished my first year here at Atomic, which also happens to be my first year as a professional software consultant and developer. It was quite a year. I worked on five different projects during that time. The longest lasted seven months, and the shortest, only a week. I’ve gotten crash courses in not just the different technologies I used on those projects—from React Native to embedded C to PHP—but also in the industries where our clients work.

It’s interesting; it’s educational; it’s exhausting. Plenty of days, I go home after work, and even the thought of committing any more brain power to another activity drains me. That’s just how it is when you spend most of your time at work growing as a professional.

And the education doesn’t stop there. In the last quarter alone, Atomic dedicated almost 300 paid hours for employees to grow outside of their day-to-day project work, investing almost $22,000 into external groups and events where Atoms take part. Whether it’s going to conferences, giving internal company talks, or just allowing a few hours every now and then to try out a new technology, Atoms take plenty of time to learn outside of their usual roles.

For me, as a member of the Accelerator Program, even more time (about two hours/week during work, and two to three hours outside of work) is spent on group reading and discussions, along with setting a quarterly goal (using the OKR framework) to help develop ourselves as professionals. All of this additional professional development is helpful, constructive, but again, exhausting.

Dealing with Mental Overload

It’s not that I’m pulling 60-hour weeks, slaving away at professional and personal projects alike. I go to work, do a 40-hour week, then spend a few hours more tackling my quarterly goal. It isn’t the amount of time that makes it exhausting. It’s how many new things I’m learning in that time.

I don’t need to practice a work/life balance: I need to practice a professional development balance.

So, if you’re like me, still new in your career, here are a few tips to manage the mental effort of your day-to-day learning, while still taking advantage of extra professional development opportunities on your own time.

1. Study Complementary Skills

At the office, you may not have a choice as to what you’re working on. You probably have an obligation to learn about and use something new because it’s what you’re getting paid to do. We have an added dimension of this here at Atomic because some projects are much more biased towards technical work, and some towards consulting.

This can be your first check for planning professional development. Is your daily work more of a challenge because you’re using a new tech stack? Head the opposite way by picking a professional goal that focuses more on growing as a consultant. Does your project need you to be in constant communication with a client, guiding them to success through your advice and decision-making? Keep yourself energized by picking a goal that allows you to learn a new language or framework.

I’ve found that when I spend all day at work focusing on one aspect of my job, turning around to spend my own time on that same thing tires me out. But when I focus my professional development on a mental muscle that I’m not currently flexing at work, it turns into a much more sustainable, sometimes enjoyable experience.

2. Be Picky

As I said above, you probably don’t get to choose exactly what your work is every day. But where you do have choice is your own free time, which is why I think it’s important to be picky about what you do with it.

Don’t settle for something you don’t want to do. How can you improve yourself when you don’t really care about (or like) what you’re doing?

I know this is hard for me. It can feel like there’s a pressure to do something that directly relates to your current work or to work on a challenging side project. But if that doesn’t engage you or keep your interest, why continue to slog through it? Maybe instead you make little video games, and that helps you express your creativity, or you start a new workout routine and that helps keep you energized throughout your workday.

You don’t have to want to be a professional video game designer or athlete, but it’s easier to focus on a goal that’s more aligned with your personal interests than one that’s strictly related to your daily responsibilities at work.

3. Be Reasonable

The most important thing to keep in mind is to be reasonable. Starting a new career isn’t easy. I know for me and for others, the effort that work requires can get pretty draining.

It’s also easy to look at senior developers who have been doing your job for many more years and be discouraged at how much more routine it seems to be for them. Looking into a new framework over the weekend may be just a hobby for them, but to me and you, it can seem like a monumental effort just to pull open VS Code on a Sunday afternoon, let alone type a line of code. You might see the way senior devs tackle work and professional development and think that’s the bar you need to set for yourself in order to get more experience.

But take a step back. Learning on the job still counts as learning, and you’re on the job all week. Don’t feel the pressure to go home and throw yourself into personal projects, books, and new technologies for hours and hours just because your pair (who has five times more experience) seems to do that. Hint: They probably don’t do that, anyway. They’re probably just a wizard).

Be reasonable. Set smaller weekly goals for yourself. Timebox your extra work to a couple of hours a week. Let yourself breathe a little bit. You’re learning all the time.

When you’re fresh in your career, I think it’s easy to get caught up in how smart people are and create lofty expectations that inform your professional development decision-making. But keeping the guidelines above in mind has enabled me to tackle my professional development in a way that works best for me, especially at this early stage of my career.