Three Simple Steps to Maintaining a Razor-Sharp Skill Set

Feb 15 2010 by Nick Parsons | 12 Comments

One of the challenges that we as web professionals face is that of keeping our skills updated in a constantly changing world. Our expertise can and will quickly become outdated if we don’t work purposely to continue our education, which makes continuing education one of the most important things you can do.

Three Simple Steps to Maintaining a Razor-Sharp Skill Set

But when you’re putting in full days to take care of clients and working hard on developing your business, we look at that continued education and often end up telling ourselves, "That can wait," and before we know it our skills have fallen behind and then our work suffers because of it.

The good news: with a little bit of determination, you can stay on top of those skills and even have fun with the learning. Today, we’re going to look at how you can overcome your obstacles and make it happen.

And by the way, the best part is that this continuing education has both long-term and short-term results, so it’s not one of those things where you have to wait forever to start seeing the fruit. You can put your new skills to use right away, in addition to reaping long-term success from your maintained competence. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty exciting! Let’s look at the how-to.

Step 1: Make a Plan

Your educational efforts will be much more productive if you make a plan ahead of time. Ask yourself, "What do I want to learn? What skills have I seen in others that I would like to have?" These could be things specifically related to your work, like if you decided that you wanted to master Photoshop Actions. Or they could be from a different but similar skill set, like if a developer decided he wanted to learn a new programming language. Or your desired skills could be business/people related, like if you decided you wanted to become better at making good first impressions with potential clients.

It’s all up to you, and you have the freedom to set your sights on anything! It’s important to break out of the box and make sure you don’t have any of those "I always wanted to learn how to ______, but I never did" regrets in regards to your job.

In case you wondered, there are two reasons why it’s important to plan what you want to learn about.

First, this brainstorming might make you think of some ideas you would have missed out on otherwise.

And second, on the other end of the spectrum, is that it keeps your education efforts focused on the things you really wanted them to be focused on. I know some of us (me included) have a tendency to get distracted reading blogs and such and then excusing it as "continuing education". I know from experience it’s an easy trap to fall into, and we don’t want to end up there, so making a plan ahead of time and help us avoid that!

Step 2: Schedule It

If you’re like me and most other people, you know that if it doesn’t get put in the schedule, it probably won’t happen. That’s why it’s essential to set aside a time each week and just make yourself stick to it. Before long, you’ll find yourself looking forward to your weekly learning session.

Pick a time that is generally free from interruptions, and then be consistent in setting apart that time. Of course, you don’t have to pick a weekly timeframe. Once a week has worked well for me, but if you find that some other scheduling works better for you, by all means go with that.

The key is regularity, and other than that it’s up to you.

Step 3: Find out How

You’ve got the plan, you’ve got a time scheduled, now what? The next step is to find the resources you’re going to use for this extra learning – a way to expand your knowledge in an easy, fun and cost-effective way. Of course, for different people this will take different forms. For example, I’m a book person. I’d rather learn from a good, thorough book than pretty much anything else. You’ve got plenty of other options, though – seminars, videos, and heck, you could get a full education just from all the excellent blogs out there. Each of these has its own pros and cons, so I would repeat that it’s vital to establish your own criterion based on your own needs and preferences and then go from there.

Here are some of the excellent, varied options you have for continuing your education.

Conferences

While these aren’t so cost-effective or schedule friendly, the seminars and other opportunities cannot be overlooked, and the contact-building capabilities of conferences are another benefit. If you’re the conference-going type, check out these lists of web conferences and writing conferences.

Social Media

the great part about using social media for education is the personal interaction that goes with it. If you’re interested in expanding your social media experience to include education, try reading and Social Media Basics for Freelancers and  Continuing Your Education 140 Characters at a Time

Blogs

I don’t have to explain this one!  A good collection of feeds is an indispensable resource – and very possibly the only education you’ll ever need. You probably already have a collection of favorites, but if you’re looking for more ideas, there’s a whole host of great opportunities:

Books

Books can add up quickly, but they are certainly fabulous learning tools. And don’t forget to check your public library – they won’t have everything (and not the very newest stuff), but it’s a great way to be able to read some good books without putting a whole lot of cash on the line. Then, if the book was a once-through kind of book, you didn’t spend any money, and if it’s the kind you’ll want to refer back to, you can always go get your own. Wondering how to find what’s worth reading? Try these:

There’s a whole world of opportunities out there – the important thing is that you pick something that fits you well and gives you the inspiration to stick with it.

Where Will You Go?

The world moves fast, and it’s up to you how you’ll stay on top of it, but I hope you’ve been able to see that you can definitely maintain your professional skills without draining your wallet or adding another chore to your schedule. Learning is really an enjoyable adventure – and the destination is all up to you!

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About the Author

Nick Parsons is a web enthusiast, designer and developer from Houston, Texas, as well as the owner of Webitect, an awesome resource blog for webmasters. Feel free to contact him via email or Twitter.

12 Comments

surflounge

February 15th, 2010

you are wrong about confining design skill to those steps.
Step 1: DO NOT make a plan! (keep your vision loose)
Step 2: NEVER SCHEDULE to some preplanned order!
Step 3: AVOID CONTACT with social networks, books and blogs! (dilutes your originality)

Michael

February 16th, 2010

I always set myself a couple of hours in the morning where I read my subscriptions and generally have a look at what is going on around the web..

Small chunks every day keeps complacency at bay!

Nick Parsons

February 16th, 2010

@surflounge

While it’s true that design/creativity should never be smothered), I wasn’t talking about doing design work – the topic here is learning new skills.

I think a lot of people would agree that a loose vision, no preplanned order, and no learning/connection with others is a recipe for failure.

If you work best that way, kudos to you, but that’s not the case for most of us.

Jordan Walker

February 16th, 2010

Those are all very excellent recommendations!

Nicole Foster

February 16th, 2010

Very nice article! Right now I have been trying to learn more about SEO and jQuery this year. I will have to follow these tips because both topics are very extensive.

surflounge

February 16th, 2010

hey Nick “most of us”?
let me guess… clueless 18 to 24 age group that thinks you know it all already?

Nick Parsons

February 16th, 2010

@Michael – I like that idea, thanks for sharing!

@Jordan Walker and Nicole Foster – thanks glad to see you enjoying it.

@surflounge – Hey, didn’t mean to cause any hard feelings. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I used “us” to refer to human beings in general – my experience is that having a plan helps people stay focused. I don’t even pretend to know everything, though, and I certainly respect the fact that you have a different style.

john hall

February 17th, 2010

Good article. Surf… get over it.

hotmac

February 17th, 2010

@surflounge: Thanks for your comments. I wholeheartedly agree!

Jacques van Heerden

February 17th, 2010

I do Agree with Nick on this one.

@surflounge – Nick wasn’t lashing out at you. He was clearly stating his opinion in which you also stated yours.

He is right that we have to keep our lives in order and to do that we have to schedule different things for different times. Believe it or not, some people have very busy lives.
“I’m not saying you don’t,” I’m just making a statement.

Great article Nick.
Keep them coming.
Jacques

John Paul Aguiar

February 18th, 2010

Great tips. Making a plan and making time each day to work your plan.

Daquan Wright

February 19th, 2011

This list is great and as a young developer who has attained a ton of knowledge through practice and research, I think a couple of good blogs with a small library of books is perfect (for me).

My all time favorite medium to learn from is books with paper and ink, forever and always. But blogs kick ass and I use both hand ‘n hand. ;)

Of course getting together with others in your niche is an awesome idea as well, but I’d say books/blog are more necessary than conferences (not that it’s bad or anything).

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