Start the New Year with 7 New Habits for Learning Professionals

Resolutions are so 20th century. We all know by now that if you want to achieve a goal, you need to do more than merely declare a resolution, you need to develop a habit—for example, a habit to meditate ten minutes in the morning or a habit to go for a walk or run before work.

But since you spend most of your time at work, wouldn’t it make sense to develop some new habits that will make you more productive, advance your career, and make life in the office more enjoyable? Pick one of these seven habits for learning professionals and incorporate it into your work day. Once it's become a habit, pick another.

#1: Schedule time for your own professional development.

What got you this far in your career won’t get you where you need to go. You must continue to expand your knowledge and hone new skills if you want to remain employable and promotable. Lifelong learning is a necessity, not a luxury, and it’s up to you to make time in your life for professional development.

Besides enhancing your life, attending a webinar or taking an online course will also help you see the learning experience from the student’s perspective. See how other organizations market to and onboard students. Analyze the weaknesses and strengths of other programs, and share your insight with colleagues.

Don’t assume your desire alone will make learning happen. You have to intentionally schedule time for professional development. Start small. Don’t sign up for an online course that requires a commitment of four to six hours a week. Instead, find a few webinars or programs that only require an hour or two every few weeks. Check ASAE, ASAE Collaborate, Association Forum, or your state SAE for options.

If your employer doesn’t provide a budget for professional development, don’t let that stop you. Many organizations offer free professional development for the association community—some even provide CAE credit. Every week, you can find a list of these options on Association Brain Food Weekly.

#2: Make time each week to reflect and plan.

We hear it all the time: association professionals are so busy, jumping from one task or project to another that they barely have time to think. Their best ideas come while they’re in the shower or driving to work—when their brain has a chance to slow down and work over problems and challenges.

The most successful people make time to reflect on the past and plan for the future. Reserve at least 30 minutes on your calendar every Friday afternoon for simply reflecting and planning for the week ahead.

  • What went well this week and why?
  • What are you resisting and why?
  • What can you do next week to move closer to your goals?
  • What big ideas or projects could you start working on next week?
  • What small step(s) can you take toward a goal?

Create a plan or to-do list for the week ahead. Set aside time to work on big projects. Don’t forget to schedule time for your own professional development and for a reflecting and planning session too.

new habits for learning professionals

#3: Every day, identify your big three.

Which three items on your daily to-do list are most important? Prioritize them. The big three are usually tasks that take the most brain power, are the next steps in a big project, or are most aligned with your organization’s strategic plan, and, therefore, important to others as well.

Attack these items first every day while your brain is freshest and your willpower reserves are highest. Don’t spend time in the morning on routine, administrative tasks that are better done later in the day when your brain is more fatigued.

#4: Identify and limit distractions.

We all say it: there’s not enough time in the day. Is that really true? We waste so much of the time we have. Try keeping a time log or using an online time tracker for a week and you’ll see what I mean. Only then will you see how much time you spend on things like checking email, texts, or social media.

The solution is easier than you think, once you get used to it: limit distractions. Control what you can by turning off notifications for new emails, social media alerts, texts, and other messages. Turn the sound down on your phone and stow it out of sight. If you have a desk phone, put it on “do not disturb.”

Don’t worry, you’re not going to be in the dark all day. Face your FOMO (fear of missing out) head on. This will be the hardest thing for some of you, I know, but you’ll be amazed how easy it is to work like this once you get used to it.

If your office culture expects everyone to be plugged in all the time, you’ll have to find the line between protecting your productivity and not being seen as disrespectful, uncaring, or rude. With all the headlines about the evils of being attached to our devices, colleagues and supervisors should understand the need to put your head down and get work done without distractions.

#5: Take regular breaks away from screens.

Neuroscientists advise taking short breaks during the day to be more focused and productive. Set a timer for 30 to 45 minutes. When it goes off, get up and walk around so you can stretch your body and relieve your eyes. Your energy will increase too.

Many people swear by the time-blocking Pomodoro Technique: set a timer for a 25-minute work session followed by a 5-minute break. Take a longer break after four sessions. But during your break, don’t look at your phone. Your eyes will thank you.

new habits for learning professionals

#6: Batch routine tasks, including email.

We spend 28% of our workweek managing email. No wonder we can’t get through our to-do list. Your productive day will be shot if you get sucked into the email black hole first thing in the morning. Scan your inbox for priorities—what you absolutely must know now (information that affects your schedule) and what you must reply to now. Be tough on yourself. Don’t open anything you don’t absolutely have to. Save the rest of your emails for later in the day when your brain is tired. Set up a flag system for emails that need a reply this afternoon and for those that can wait until later.

Batch your routine tasks, including time spent on emails. Schedule a set time for email and other messages in the morning, afternoon, and end of the day, for example, 10:00 a.m. (so you have time to set up your day and work in a proactive, not reactive, mode), 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. During the day, keep a list going of the emails you need to send later.

You can ease into this new habit by checking emails (and other notifications) only once every hour to start. Then, increase the interval to every 90 minutes, then two hours, and so on. Whatever you do, don’t leave your email up all the time or you will check it.

Try batch processing for all routine tasks. Do these tasks once a day instead of doing them piecemeal. You’ll get them done more quickly that way because switching between tasks is a huge productivity sapper.

#7: Take a more thoughtful approach to meetings.

Batch meetings too. We spend 31 hours a month in unproductive meetings. If you have any say over meeting times, schedule them immediately before or after another meeting on your schedule, so you’re not wasting time in between meetings. However, if meetings are scheduled for late in the day, and you expect to already have accomplished your big tasks, use that “in between” time for more mindless tasks.

Don’t automatically say “yes” to every meeting. Do you really need to go? We sometimes attend meetings out of a desire to procrastinate. Make sure you have something unique to contribute, or you can benefit somehow from attending. Meeting invitations are often made without much thought, so take time to think of yourself and where your time is best spent. If you don’t have a choice about attending, talk over your concerns with your boss.

Share your habits for learning professionals.

New work habits aren’t so easy to adopt because they affect others too. Checking email only three times a day is a great way to enhance productivity but will it frustrate your committee chair or CEO?

Don’t leave people in the dark. Explain what you’re doing and why. After a few weeks of being more focused and intentional about how you spend your time, share your results with others. Tell them how much more work you get done because of these new habits. Maybe together you and your colleagues can build a better workplace culture, eliminate mutual distractions, and increase opportunities for productivity and lifelong learning.

professional development