A couple months ago, my friend started working at a company that gives employees a yearly professional development stipend.
“What are your plans for the money?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t think I’m going to use it this year,” he said. “I’m still learning the ropes, and the idea of heading to a class three times a week after work or squeezing in a conference sounds overwhelming.”
“Do you have to spend it all at once?” I replied. “If not, there are plenty of smaller ways you can get ahead.”
Many people assume professional development has to be a huge investment—but that’s not always the case. These four alternatives will teach you valuable skills and insights without requiring a lot of time or money.
If a Week-Long Conference Sounds Like Too Much
Go to One Day of the Event Instead
Taking a week (or even a few days) away from work can feel impossible, but many conferences offer single-day passes. You can reap almost all of the benefits (the connections, insights, and self-promotion) without paying the mental, physical, and literal price.
To make things even easier, look for a conference in or near your city. The first or second day is probably your best bet: That’s when organizers usually schedule the most popular speakers and talks.
If You Don’t Have Time to Take a Course
Look for Chances to Broaden Your Skill Set at Work
Sure, taking a course is the most common way to learn new things, but think about it: Your manager and team members also possess knowledge and skills that you don’t. So if you don’t have time to sit in the classroom, keep your eyes peeled for chances to learn them. As an added bonus, asking others to teach you something usually makes them feel good and strengthens the relationship.
Let’s say you’re working with your fellow developer on a site improvement. If she writes a piece of code differently than you’d do it, ask, “Why’d you use that technique?” Follow up with questions like, “How else would you use that?” and “When would that strategy be less effective?”
In just five minutes, you’ll become a more informed coder. Do this every day, and your progress will add up.
If You Don’t Have Time to Read a Whole Book
Sign Up for an Email Course
While reading helps you learn a subject in detail, getting through an entire book takes, well, time. Enter: Email courses.
For some, it’s much easier to commit to reading an email once per week or so, but you’ll still get plenty of value. Plus, since you’ll have the content in your inbox, you can review the latest lesson when you need a quick break from your regular tasks. (It’s a great alternative to browsing social media.)
Highbrow offers more than 100 free email courses on everything from SQL, the programming language, to creating your own productivity system. Interested in data? Check out this analytics course from Segment. And to learn more about social media, take a look at Buffer’s five social media courses.
If Leadership Training Seems a Bit Out of Your League
Pay Attention to the Leaders Around You
Leadership training programs guide you through the challenges of managing other people, help you develop your personal style, and let you practice key skills, like communication and crisis management. But you can learn a lot about effective leadership from observation. If you can’t afford a program, simply start paying attention to how your boss acts in different situations: in large meetings, one-on-ones, times of crisis, with senior management, in public, and so on. Look for both things she does well and things you’d do differently, and write your notes down so you can see trends over time.
To take this strategy to the next level, invite leaders within your organization to get coffee, and ask for their advice. What’s the most important trait a leader can have? Is there anything they wish they could tell their younger self?
Not only will you score valuable face time with the higher-ups, but you’ll accumulate tons of helpful tips and tricks.
These are just a few examples, but they’ll hopefully help you see that professional development doesn’t have to involve a lot of money, time, or energy. Get creative and find small, incremental ways to incorporate learning into your day to day. You’ll be amazed by how effortless it feels—and how much it adds up over time.