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Tell me something you learned from the last workshop or book you read as part of your professional development. Hopefully you can recall at least one key takeaway. I struggle with this too. I love listening to podcasts, reading business books and attending conferences, but very little of what I take in stays with me. Research on memory shows that on average, we forget 90% of what we’ve learned in about a week. If we’re forgetting so much, how can we expect to grow our skills, build more productive habits, and change the way we work?

Improving skills and growing capabilities is not just about learning. That takeaway you just mentioned, have you applied it in your work? Professional development should be about applying what you learn in ways that develop and sustain new behaviors and produce greater results.


Much of professional development occurs in single-dose experiences like conferences, workshops and retreats. These are typically wonderful for inciting emotional change, developing general awareness, and building relationships with other attendees. When you go back to your daily routine, this excitement does not usually translate into actions. Stand alone sessions are not ideal for building skills and changing behavior.

When our brains are filled with new content too quickly, we end up with information overload and can’t remember all of it. Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham explains, “Given that you cannot store everything away, your memory system lays its bets: if you think about something carefully (and repeatedly) you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored. If you don’t think about something very much, then you probably won´t want to think about it again, so it needs not be stored. Your memory is a product of what you think most carefully about.” When attending a webinar, training, conference or other type of session, our brains are bombarded with information. We can’t give each learning the attention it deserves in order to store it for application. We are exposed to the information only once or twice over a short period of time. That’s why, according to the Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, we forget most of what we learn within a week.

This doesn’t mean workshops, lectures and books are completely ineffective ways for learning. In fact, I lead workshops regularly and have a book coming out in November 2017 (Subscribe to my newsletter to get notified). Workshops and books are a great way to start a learning journey. Just don’t rely solely on these as the only form of investment in your growth. In order for learnings to change behavior, they need to happen in small increments to avoid information overload and allow the learnings to sink in. Repeated exposure to the information also helps significantly. As you can see in the graph below, a few well-spaced reminders can interrupt the forgetting curve and embed learnings in our memory.


Obviously, if you want to gain a skill or change behavior, learning about something is simply not enough. We have to apply what we’ve learned so it becomes real.

We don’t always have the opportunity or motivation to make learnings real for ourselves and our work. First, it’s hard to translate a theory, concept or “tip” into practical application. I feel this every day after I’ve read an article on ‘how to write killer email copy’ or ‘3 things to do every morning for optimal creativity.’ I get it in theory, but how to make it happen isn’t so obvious. Second, when we first try something new, whether a skill or way of working, our brains must work extra hard to focus and apply we’ve learned. When you’ve already got so much going on, exerting the extra effort and taking the extra time to get it right just doesn’t seem to be a priority.

In order to skills or new ways of working to take hold, we need to practice them. Over time, as we repeat new actions over and over, we become accustomed to them. The mental intensity required to perform a task decreases as the new process becomes less new. But, we’ll never reach that point if we don’t start. The right support systems such as a coach or accountability partner can help you address your particular challenges and encourage you to take action and stick with it.


Both learning and implementation are enhanced when you do them with other people on your team. When everyone on your team goes through the same learning experience, you develop shared language and mental models. You can help each other remember concepts, reinforce learnings, and problem solve how to implement them in your team’s specific context. You can hold each other accountable because you’re all in it together.

When you’re only relying on yourself or one colleague to retain learnings and make the changes, it’s easy to let things slide. If you want to see real progress that is sustained over the long run, you need to learn together, dedicate time to implementing your learnings, and hold each other accountable. This is how you invest in yourself and your team in ways that grow skills and develop healthy habits.


Time and money are scarce so if you’re investing in your professional growth, you want that effort to pay off. I believe the magic ingredients to successful professional development are: (1) Bite-sized learnings and changes that build up over time. (2) Application of learnings to your specific circumstances. (3) Learning and Implementing as a team.

This is why I emphasized all three of these aspects in my coaching program, Thriving Teams. It’s a program not just for individual leaders, but for your whole team. Together, I’ll lead you through weekly mini-cycles of learning, applying, and reflecting. We cover topics like team vision, values, goal-setting, effective meeting management and other collaboration skills. I’d love to work with your team to enhance your collaboration skills and help you achieve greater results. Learn more at, download the overview, or reach out to me directly.

Optimize your time. Cultivate your team. Achieve your goals.

What professional development programs have you done that have led to sustained change? Leave a comment below and share suggestions for resources that have supported you and your team to succeed, or tweet at me @mamieks.

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