Just-in-time learning

A more effective approach to learning

Kurt Varner


“Time = life; therefore, waste your time and waste your life, or master your time and master your life.” — Alan Lakein

As a self-taught designer I know the feeling of sitting down with a glint in your eye and the eagerness to absorb everything there is to know about a particular subject. I’ve made long, long lists of skills I’d like to acquire and bits of knowledge I’d like my brain to contain. So much so, that it has become quite overwhelming.

While this hunger for learning has driven me to excel in what was previously a completely foreign industry to me, I’ve found that my approach to learning was flawed. Much of the content I was “learning” would fade before I had a chance to apply it.

Here’s how the scenario would repeatedly play out.

  1. Pick topic
  2. Spend the day (or several days) heads down reading and practicing
  3. Pat myself on the back and cross topic off my list
  4. time passes
  5. Forget the details of what I’ve learned
  6. Re-learn the content when I actually have a real need to apply it

This is dumb.

What is essentially happening here is that I’m double learning everything. When time is our most valuable resource, this is truly a wasteful and inefficient endeavor.

An ironic realization is that this is the exact way that we were taught throughout high school and college. Professor proclaims, “Someday you’re really going to need this!” Great, well that day is not today. Nor anytime soon for that matter.

There’s got to be a better approach.

Enter a thing I call just-in-time learning.

Just in time” is a concept that originally came out of Japanese manufacturing in the 1950's and became well-known when Toyota implemented it into their operational process. The idea is that you never produce parts before nor after they are needed, avoiding the need to hold inventory. The parts arrive just in time for when they are needed. It’s a brilliant concept.

This same methodology is directly applicable to learning. In this case, the inventory is the content you’ve learned. There’s a mental cost of having to remember this content before using it. And what’s worse, this particular kind of inventory is perishable. The content you’ve learned is like a banana — it’s great if you eat it when it’s ripe, but wait a few weeks and you’ll be looking at a soggy mess of something that’s hard to imagine was once edible.

Let’s look at a real example of mine.

A few years ago I set out to learn front-end code. I started reading about html, css and jquery. I would work through tutorials, building dummy pages that made me feel like a baller (code is so empowering for designers). Afterwards, I could tell you that I knew how to code. But honestly, that was bullshit — like claiming to be a pilot because I read a book about flying and once took the stick of a friend’s plane. Would you trust me to fly you somewhere?

During the time I was learning, I had no practical need to code, thus no habitual way to foster these skills. It wasn’t until a year later when I would need to start coding as part of my job. And what happened when that time arrived? I sat down, opened up my text editor and thought — what’s a float, again? How should I structure my files? What the heck is the DOM? Damn. Back to the books.

With just-in-time learning, I would have waited to dive deep into the minutia of code until I had a real need to use these skills — effectively saving me a tremendous amount of time retrospectively.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for gaining a broad understanding of things upfront. There’s obvious value in being generally knowledgeable across all areas of your field. You need to know enough to communicate effectively with colleagues and peers. Just-in-time learning is more about appropriately timing the significant investment required to become highly skilled.

So friends, stop losing your fleeting hours on this earth to repetitive learning. Just-in-time learning will help you spend your time smarter. After all, “how to spend your time” is the most important decision you’ll make every day.

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Kurt Varner

Design Director at Dropbox. Advisor for startups. Rooting for the underdog.