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Four Steps to Ease (Squeeze) Professional Development into Your Jam-Packed Schedule

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Quick Quiz: When was the last time you engaged in some professional development? Yesterday? Last week? Last month? Last year?

If it’s been a while since you intentionally developed your professional skills, you’re at risk of becoming as outdated as the mustard yellow walls in my “still planning to renovate” kitchen.

In today’s “do more with less” environment, many organizations neglect employee professional development. So, if you want to keep your skills current and your services valuable, you must invest in your own professional development. But how can you squeeze that into your already jam-packed schedule? Here are four simple steps to make professional development part of what you do every day.

1. Broaden your definition of professional development. What do you think of when you think of professional development? Going to a conference? Taking a class? While those are effective ways of developing your skills, they’re not the only ways. With the right mindset, you can find opportunities for professional development everywhere. Most are simple and inexpensive. For example, committing to reading an article a day in your field, attending professional organization events, volunteering, or just talking to a more senior colleague. In her book, Employee Development on a Shoestring, Hallely Azulay offers 11 methods for professional development, from self-directed learning to social and experiential learning. And remember, as a federal employee, you can get free coaching.

2. Focus. The key to taking advantage of these professional development opportunities is to be very clear about the skills you want to develop. In her TED Talk on Learning to be Awesome at Anything You Do, Dr. Tasha Eurich tells us to:

-Know yourself

-Pick one thing

-Practice, practice, practice

It can be tempting to create elaborate action plans, but remember you have a day job. Instead of trying to do everything all at once, pick one thing and make it front and center of your day, so you’ll remember to work on it.

3. Practice deliberately. Mere repetition can lead to inaccurate perceptions of improvement. In his work on expert performance, Anders Ericsson described four characteristics of practice that improves performance:

-Your own motivation. You must push yourself outside of your comfort zone on a regular (daily) basis. You must be willing to struggle and fail over and over again until you finally get it right. This is the most important of the four characteristics.

-Your pre-existing knowledge. By building new knowledge and skills on your pre-existing knowledge, you can keep instruction time brief and get to the practicing.

-Feedback. You need to receive immediate informative feedback on your performance and the results you achieved. As Ericsson states in his research, “In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects. Hence mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement in, especially, accuracy of performance.”

-Repetition. You should repeatedly practice, get feedback, and adjust until you have mastered the skill. Then you’re ready to move on to your next area of focus.

4. Commit to your professional development every day. As I mentioned in my post on Five Transformations for Better Learning, the spacing effect tells us that we actually retain information longer when we learn it in small chunks over time. Neuroscience reveals that this is because our neural pathways of knowledge and skill are solidified by frequent, repeated activation. So, ideally, your professional development is a daily activity. If all you do is go to a class or conference once a year, and you never apply what you learned, you’re wasting your, or your organization’s, time and money.

Deadra Welcome of Concerning Learning, LLC, offers a system of spending 15 minutes a day on professional development. Through her Don’t Get Left Behind personal learning journal, Deadra walks you through a simple professional development process and provides space for daily reflection on the progress you’re making in meeting your learning goals. She also offers accountability, support, and camaraderie through a Facebook page. And she offers incentives to get you started in forming a habit of continual learning.

Another good tool that supports continual learning is degreed.com.

If you’re not learning, you’re losing ground. So, enhance your career by committing to your own professional development. After all, aren’t you worth at least 15 minutes of your own time every day?

Claudia Escribano is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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