So you’ve graduated from university/bootcamp and you’ve landed your first job as a professional programmer. Congratulations, this is a huge milestone as it cost you years of perseverance to thoroughly study the courses in your curriculum.
However, studying like this is easy to do when you can dedicate your entire day for it. Once you start your 40 hours/week job, suddenly, you are deprived from all the free time you had to spend studying.
You have to be much more mindful about how you spend your free time, as it is no longer unlimited.
So what options have you got?
Learning on the job
Now, some say that you will “learn on the job” and that would be enough to sustain your growth. However, that is rarely the case as most people don’t get the lucky strike, landing a job in the unicorn company which would be ideal for them.
Often times, we don’t land our dream jobs from the first try. Instead, we get into a company which uses old, legacy technologies and requires you to learn those in order to be effective on the job.
Not all companies use the latest and greatest frameworks, or provide opportunities to focus on challenging problems. In fact, you might as well find yourself in a job where most of your time is spent filling in excel sheets.
This makes learning to study effectively all the more important.
If you don’t, you are bound to stay in the rabbit hole you’re in, with a low possibility to escape and find a better opportunity.
I know people who’ve wanted to leave their jobs for years, but still haven’t, as they don’t have the skills to find a better one.
But even if you’re in wonderland, working for the best company in the world, you’d still need to spend time learning on your own in order to get better at what you do.
Let’s say you work on a front-end project with React at your job. That’s exactly what you want to do. React can be learnt in an hour with a crash course on YouTube. That would be enough to enable you to start being productive in your project.
However, you would need to invest much more time in studying React if you want to become really good at it. To understand how to use it most effectively. Hence, you would still need to find quality study time for you to be able to excel in your role.
By now, you ought to be convinced that studying outside of your work hours is greatly beneficial, and in some cases, crucial for your growth. Let’s see how you can achieve that.
The classical study approach
What I call the classical approach is what we all attempt to do the first time we try to study when working full-time. Simply try to spend all your free time studying.
If you read a self-help book or two, you might find a typical calculation of your free time sum up to around 60-70h per week. It goes like this:
You have 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. That’s 168 hours per week. Of those, subtract 40 for work, 56 for sleep (7 * 8 hours), 10 hours for commute (5 * 2 hours), and you get 62 hours. What you do with those extra 62 hours determines if you’re going to be successful or not.
And that’s all good, but these recommendations often fail to mention how to use these extra hours effectively.
The first plan, which one has, is to spend 8h at work until 18 PM, and spend the rest of them studying. Well, you might be able to sustain that for a day or two. But you’d quickly realise that you don’t have any energy whatsoever for studying after an entire day in your job.
So this leaves you with the weekends. Just study throughout the whole weekend to catch up. But again, even if you could sustain that several weekends, or even several months, you will begin to lose momentum and consistency as you simply can’t dedicate your entire life to studying.
You have to spend time with friends and do some fun activities. When you eventually have a family, you’d have to spend time with your wife and/or kids as well.
This rhythm might be semi-sustainable when you are young. But with each passing year, you will start to de-prioritise studying for other important aspects of life.
There must be a way to study in a sustainable manner, which would enable you to grow. But to also allow you to spend time for the other important activities in life.
Pay yourself first
In this situation, you have two options to make this work. Find more free time or use your free time more effectively.
This former option is indeed, something one should consider. Perhaps you could get an apartment closer to your job. Or get a car, negotiate some “learning time” with your employer, etc.
However, this won’t bring any value if you don’t learn to use your free time effectively.
There is a very famous, simple and wise principle in personal finance called “pay yourself first”. What this means is that given a finite amount of cash you receive each month and a list of people you have to pay, you should always pay yourself first.
This is the opposite way of how people typically deal with their personal finances. People tend to first pay all their bills, credits, spend money for fun activities and pleasure, and only then allocate something for their savings.
This is extremely inefficient as oftentimes, you aren’t left with much after paying everyone else. This brings you to a vicious cycle. You might earn a significant amount of cash, but not retain any of it. You don’t have the discipline to accumulate your savings consistently.
Instead, if you commit to save e.g. 300 USD/month, the moment you receive your pay-check, you allocate 300 USD of them to your savings account. Only then start paying for everything else. This is the key to establishing a discipline for accumulating savings.
So how do you apply this to self-studying?
Morning time is study time
The way we approach our free time is the same way we approach our personal finances. We spend time for everyone else first, and only then allocate time for ourselves. We work for our boss first, and then work for ourselves.
The first hours of the day are the most productive for us, we are at our best. By the end of the day, we are exhausted and don’t have the energy to study anything.
This is why, you should dedicate the morning to yourself, not anyone else. But how do you do this, given that you start work at 9 AM?
I’m definitely not advertising to steal from your boss. You shouldn’t avoid doing any work until 11 AM and only then start the actual work. You’ve signed a contract for 8 hours of work. Those 8 hours of work should be for your employer, not for you.
Now, your boss could explicitly permit you to study during work hours. But that’s a bonus you should appreciate, not something you should demand.
But how do you spend study time in the morning then?
Start waking up earlier.
Go to your office at 7/7:30 and study until 9. Then start your job.
This is the most sustainable way to self-study I’ve discovered.
And of course this means you have to make a sacrifice by going to bed earlier, by around 10-10:30 PM. But what are you doing after that time anyways?
You’re probably watching meaningless cat or gaming videos on YouTube. Think of it this way, you are trading 2 hours of meaningless TV time for 2 hours of effective study time.
Decide for yourself if this sacrifice is worth it. I’ve made that choice a long time ago and I’ve never looked back.
If you follow this approach, you will be able to study for 10 hours before the weekend even starts!
Your action plan
This simple recommendation might already sound infeasible for you. So let me give you an action plan to achieve that milestone one step at a time.
Step 1. Go to bed by 10:30 PM
If you’re used to going to bed at midnight, start by trying to go to sleep 15 minutes earlier each day. Find ways to stimulate your sleepiness.
What works best for me is reading a fiction book. I can only get past ~5 pages before collapsing.
If you do this, after a week or two, you will be able to hit the target bedtime.
Make sure to also turn on your Do Not Disturb mode while you sleep. This will mute your noisy notifications. You can utilise something like Bedtime for this purpose.
Step 2. Study anything until 9 AM
This step is about establishing a habit for studying in the morning. At this point, it doesn’t matter what you study as long as you study something.
Spending the time you fought for so hard until now to watch YouTube videos again will bring us to base zero again.
One thing which would help is finding some kind of a cue which would “transition” you into study mode. Don’t disregard this, this isn’t superstition or some kind of mumbo jumbo.
A cue is a trigger which tells your brain that “the time is now” for starting some regular activity. You can program your brain to enter study mode the moment you do a certain action. This will help you tremendously in establishing a study habit.
For me, what works best is a hot cup of Americano. Its bitter taste blocks all my distraction attempts and attunes me to start studying.
Step 3. Make some kind of plan
If you’ve gotten this far, then this is a noteworthy achievement. You’ve already achieved more than most developers I know. The next thing to have in mind is that 10 hours of study time is a huge win compared to 0, but still not a lot of time.
This is why, you should start prioritising the subjects which would bring most value to your career. I will write a separate blog post for study planning alone, as this article is already getting overwhelming.
But for starters, even plotting down some subjects on a sheet of paper and executing on them in order will bring you quite far. Having some kind of goal is a good start.
The way this will help you is that you will not have to think what you have to study next every morning. You already have a path laid down for you.
This step is especially important for fresh grads. They are the ones which are typically used to having a path laid down for them by someone else.
Now it’s time for you to drive your own growth.
The moment we graduate is often the tipping point when one stops growing with the rate he did in college. That’s the point when life faces you with a big challenge – will you be able to continue growing with a 40-hours work week on your schedule?
For many, this is the point when they stop learning and simply drift through their daily jobs, doing whatever their bosses throw at them.
But for others, this is the point which drives them to discover new ways of learning in a more disciplined and effective manner, driving them to learn even more than they once did in college.
Which group you will fit in, is up to you.