The basic unit of learning is minutes. But how can you find time for learning in your employees’ busy days? Especially when everybody says they don’t have time to spare, not even a few minutes? Believe it or not, the time is there and it is available.

How much time and effort do you spend chasing people down to complete training? How many “heated conversations” have you had with managers when trying to pull their people from the operation for a class? How many times have you resorted to scheduling people to come into a classroom in groups to complete eLearning?

Yes, learning is a constant in the workplace. We learn by doing the job. But we don’t learn everything we need to be successful within the workflow. We all need to dedicate some of our time to activities that will further the knowledge and skills we need to take the next step in our careers. But finding that time can often be extremely difficult, especially for employees who work in busy operations and have little to no control over how their time is used (Figure 1). This is why we get the “I don’t have time to learn” objection so often when it is—on the surface—a pretty ridiculous statement.

Image of a wristwatch.

Figure 1: Get closer to the workflow for the people you support to find the free moments in their typical day. Determine where these moments occur—they are the potential access points for learning experiences.  (Pexels)

To overcome this time limitation but continue to provide meaningful support, L&D should take inspiration from the simple ways we learn in real life. For example, you are taking time out from your busy day to read this article and (hopefully) grow your knowledge right now. This article is 1,441 words, so it should only take you five or ten minutes or so to read (and maybe a few more for reflection). When you’re done, you’ll get back to work or to whatever life task is beckoning. But, if all goes well, you’ve learned something in just five to ten minutes. You didn’t need to complete a full course on, “Designing for the busy modern worker,” and I’m not trying to teach you everything you need to know in this area. Just a few minutes can make a difference, and it has to—because that’s all people usually have to give.

To be clear, I’m not saying that longer training activities should go away. There is still value in bringing people into a workshop setting for several hours to practice their skills and share experiences. However, I am saying this practice should be the exception, not the norm. Rather than always asking people for thirty minutes or an hour of time they really don’t have for training, we must find ways to fit meaningful experiences into the few minutes they do have available here and there in their typical workflow. After all, everyone—and I mean everyone—has five minutes. Plus, providing short-form experiences on a consistent basis aligns to how learning—aka brain science—actually works.

Find minutes

Time availability will vary considerably by role and use case. The average day for a retail associate is very different from that of an airline pilot. You must get closer to the workflow for the people you support in order to find the free moments in the typical day. You also have to determine where these moments occur so you can understand the potential access points available for learning experiences.

Consider a manufacturing environment for example. Once employees are on the line, they are focused on safety and productivity and therefore cannot redirect their attention. And, because these workers are paid by the hour, access to them is typically limited to time on the clock. Therefore, you should explore how they use their time before and after they leave the line while they are still on shift. Do they have a few minutes just after they clock in to start the day? Do they take part in regular pre-shift meetings? What about just before they return from their scheduled breaks? These moments can provide the few minutes needed for a quick, targeted learning experience.

Influence for minutes

Once you find the time, you can’t just make the decision to use it however you see fit. After all, they’re not your employees, and it’s not your time. Rather, you must influence the appropriate stakeholders, including management and the employees themselves, to prove that using this time for targeted learning will provide value to them and to the business. This is when you’re likely to run into objections such as, “I don’t have time to learn,” or, “Can’t we just do a training session for an hour every quarter?” Rather than screaming “That’s not how learning works!” you need to be diplomatic and speak the language they care about: results.

First, provide concrete evidence for how these few minutes every day will impact performance. You can do this in a few ways.

  • Share examples from other organizations who have applied similar tactics—preferably companies your stakeholders already know and respect.
  • Conduct quick experiments with stakeholders who already see the value in workplace learning and use the results to influence others.
  • Do the math by demonstrating how a few minutes per day can ultimately lead to a reduction in overall training time while also generating improved results.

Yes, you can also share cognitive psychology research that proves how powerful tactics like spaced repetition can be. However, some people simply don’t care. For those who do, be sure to explain these concepts using practical language and common-sense logic. After all, you “do learning” for a living and geek out on this stuff. They don’t.

Design for minutes

Unfortunately, most traditional L&D content can’t be crammed into these five-minute moments. So what can people do in five minutes? Well, they can…

  • Read an article
  • Watch a video
  • Answer a few reinforcement questions
  • Reflect on a recent experience
  • Share a story
  • Practice a short task

Our design practices must adjust accordingly to fit a learning-in-minutes paradigm. So, rather than default to building a course titled “Safety in the Workplace 101,” you should design short-form content that fits into the few minutes employees actually have. Perhaps you shoot a three-minute video called “How to Lift Without Hurting Your Back” if you find that to be a common problem for your audience. Overall, we have to get rid of the fluff and build resources that focus on a specific, measurable outcome. When you have five minutes to use every day, you have a lot more options than when you try to cram everything someone may need to need to know into just a few hours.

Measure for minutes

There is another huge benefit to this five-minutes-per-day approach. You can gather a lot more data. Rather than assessing a person’s knowledge once immediately after a course, you can measure how knowledge and behavior changes over time—indefinitely. You can identify resources and activities employees find particularly valuable and determine how these experiences impact business results. And you can use these insights to continuously adjust and evolve your learning strategy. It’s time for L&D to catch up to every other part of the business when it comes to data practices, and this approach is a great place to start.

By now, you may be thinking “Wait a minute! Is this article about microlearning?” Well … yeah. But when it comes to microlearning (and so many other L&D topics), the terminology can get in the way of meaningful discussion about specific practices. I find the concept of thinking about finding minutes of time for learning—not hours—to be a particularly powerful part of L&D’s evolution. You don’t need to call it “microlearning” to help people recognize how powerful this approach can be. And I hope you now recognize that … after just a few minutes.