Are We so Busy in Today’s Workplace that Learning is Losing Out?

Have we become so busy that there is always something that takes priority over our own development? Last year, when I was doing interviews with testers of our learning prototypes, it felt like this was the professional wall I had been bumping into for a number of years. For years now, we have wanted people to drive their own development more and embed it more in the flow of work. Therefore, as part of our innovation efforts, we made prototypes of tiny topics and tiny tasks – basically everything people tend to ask for: make it short, make it fun, make it easy to find and use, make it relevant, make it applicable, etc.  In one of the interviews with testers, I asked, “So does this meet your expectations and needs?” The answer was “yes”. Then I asked, “Now, would you do this during the flow of work?” The answer was, ”Honestly? Probably not, I don’t have time.“


It’s not that employees and their managers don’t believe learning is important. In fact, I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t say learning is important. In today’s volatile business environment, in which the half-life time of a skill is decreasing, fast and continuous learning is your best strategy. Constant learning makes our careers and businesses future-proof. The learning potential of a job is often what attracts people.

However, the reality check doesn’t look good. In today’s workplace, we seem busy being busy. Learning loses out – often unintentionally. LinkedIn Learning called the number-one workplace-learning challenge “making people make time for learning”. Bersin reports that on an average day, we have about 24 minutes for learning. Check for yourself: in your organisation, is training one of the first budget lines to be cut? Is the “after-action review” the part of the project plan that rarely gets done? Are knowledge-sharing meetings the candidates likely to be canceled so you can get other stuff done? When was the last time you asked for feedback on how you are doing? When was the last time you inserted a reflection moment in your calendar?

So why is there a big gap between intention and reality? If you ask people, they will say the problem is time. This reply, however, is too superficial to reflect the full reality. In searching for more comprehensive explanations, an interesting body of research comes from behavioural economics. In this field, the term used to describe situations in which people behave differently from how economic theory prescribes is “misbehaving”.

We, people, aren’t the rational machines some theories postulate. For instance, the biases and heuristics in our brains cause us to want to save more money, but we don’t. We want to live more healthy lives, but then that cake is smiling at us. And it starts to rain when we want to go to the gym.

We, people, are equally biased (some say delusional) when it comes to what and how we learn. Here are some examples:

  • We value immediate rewards far more than rewards further in time. This is a big problem in fields like leadership development, in which the benefit will arguably build over time.
  • We want to avoid risks and uncertainty – they feel like pain. This is also a big challenge in motivating people to learn because the best learning happens just outside of our comfort zone – and transformational learning doesn’t happen there at all.
  • In today’s workplace, we are all about efficiency and results. We want to rush to the answers while skipping the travail of asking the right questions. We want to have the result without putting in the adequate effort – or we put in as little as possible. This doesn’t work for learning. Learning needs the effort: the spaced repetition over time, the deliberate practice, the immediate feedback, the reflection time, etc. Learning is a process that leads to a result. You can’t just have the result and skip the process.

Most of what is really stopping us from making more time for our own development isn’t external: it is inside us. This is good news because we can do something about it!

How can we help ourselves make the time for learning?

  • Some useful instruments with which to experiment come from the field of behavioural economics. Collectively, they’re referred to as ’nudging’. For example, techniques like ‘anchoring’ and ‘choice architecture’ can make the default choice the one that stimulates learning to happen.
  • There seem to be two powerful metaphors that can engage people to learn actively: the first is exercising. The CEO of my company says, “Leadership is like a muscle; you have to train it to get better.” The second is the metaphor of investing: Did you invest in yourself today so you can reach the benefits later? For example, people could be encouraged to ask themselves questions at the end of every week: Did I put in the effort to learn something new this week?; Did I do my best to seek feedback this week?; Did I do my best to stop and think this week?
  • In the next experiments I’m doing, I want to test out the ‘fear of missing out’ as a motivator for learning. What if we DON’T record virtual sessions anymore or make things available forever online?
  • Learning is social, and we can use this fact to engage people to learn: involvement of bosses tends to be crucial; the comparison with peers can drive behaviour, as can social recommendations.

Going back to the opening question of this article, a more productive formulation is probably, “How can we help people protect – even reclaim – their own learning in today’s busy workplace?” Let’s talk about it.

Written by Bert De Coutere.

2 Responses

  1. Matilda

    Thank you Bert for this post! I was discussing this today with my coach since the answer to ‘how are you?’ is at work always ‘so busy’ and at the moment you hardly dare to introduce moments for sharing and learning or asking questions because colleagues are too busy. It is a problem for our brain, for innovation and for the benefits of reflecting on our practices. I want this to change! For me it works to think of things as small experiments, that makes is a bit more accepting to fail and easier to share, since its not a final product or idea. I also tend to work more with ppl outside the organisation because somehow you can then find people with more time or interest. I’m still wondering how to deal with the stress and the so called lack of time..


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