Metatitle: How to Learn New Tasks and Adapt to Changes

Metadescription: In midlife, it’s easy to feel like you’re not adapting to changes in your professional and personal life quickly enough. Here are steps you can put in place right now to learn and do things faster.

12.5 ways to speed up your learning process when sh*t changes

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – but guess what? Sometimes, you’re forced to learn new tricks whether you want to or not.

Maybe your company has restructured again, this time switching the focus from revenue generation to cost efficiency, or they’re using new software. Perhaps you’ve been promoted, and are in a position where you have to become familiar with new departments and processes at great speed.

As hard as you may roll your eyes or worry, change is good. Even if the transformation amounts to nothing, or achieves undesirable results, your bosses are trying something new. And that means they’re making a concerted attempt to stay relevant in a competitive marketplace. If you’ve been promoted or made a tactical sideways move, every morsel of information becomes a better way to add more value to your role and enhance your career progression.

What are the 4 styles of learning?

You might not get much from all of these styles of learning – but one or two will change your approach to absorbing info and adapting to new scenarios quickly.

Have a think about which of these styles best applies to you, and pick the methods from the list of suggested tips in this article that feel most comfortable. While other theories of learning have emerged since, the “VARK modalities” are still widely used to understand people’s approaches to absorbing info. These include:

  • Visual learners prefer to learn through visual cues, including charts, graphs, diagrams, arrows, and circles. Weirdly, it doesn’t extend to YouTube tutorials or still images.
  • Auditory learners learn best from heard or spoken cues. They might be best listening to a lecture or tutorial. More information would be retained by an auditory learner from a conversation, podcast, or even an email written in informal, conversational language that’s easy to sound out. Even speaking out loud to themselves teaches the aural learner effectively.
  • Reading/writing learners pick up information displayed in a written format. They retain information best from text such as manuals, reports, and essays. PowerPoint presentations and internet articles (you’re welcome) are particularly effective tools for reading/writing learners.
  • Kinesthetic learners learn by doing. They’re connected to reality through things they can touch, try, or experience themselves. If they can hold it and feel it, they will likely use it to help them learn.

Of course, humans don’t easily fit into categories, and you can also be multimodal – you don’t have a strong preference for one type. You might feel stimulated by auditory learning, for example, but really flourish when you write things down. This might mean that you use certain styles for certain contexts, or take in all of the cues before absorbing information (but do so with a deeper understanding of the topic).

Find your comfort zone and have fun trying new styles of learning.

“Disrupt or be disrupted” is an oft-repeated phrase in the new working world. It means you have to lead the change or have the change happen to you because another business was quicker off the mark. You can also adopt that philosophy in your day-to-day working life:

  • Embrace transformation.
  • Learn it quickly.
  • Start adding value to your business.

Especially in the workplace, Gen X-ers make an unfortunate mistake: Relying on their time served as an impressive stat rather than finding ways to add genuine value to the company’s operation. Instead of panicking, see this as a moment to prove how much you can contribute.

So learning to learn is an important trick; one that keeps you employable and relevant in today’s workforce. However, plenty of people forget how to stay on their toes when it comes to adaptation. You’re not only never too old to learn – this really matters whatever age you are. 

How to learn new skills quickly

Sometimes, the workplace changes so fast you might feel like you need the Limitless pill to keep up. In the story, this pill makes humans use their whole brain and gives them amazing learning and communicational powers. But that’s fictional, and the demands are real – so you have to come up with new ways to adapt quickly.

These tips will help you understand and adapt to incoming change – in or out of the workplace. 

1. Work out the top 3 things you absolutely must know about the topic.

This helps you get conversational about the topic with your peers and broach the basics. You need to ask the right questions:

  • What is the purpose of the system/change?
  • What does an ideal outcome look like?
  • What is the most significant way in which your day will look different?

If you understand the purpose of the change you’re incorporating into your workflow, you’ll be able to make sense of each step by how it fits the end goal.

For example, if you’re using a sales system that aims to present customer information in a more user-friendly way, you’re probably not doing it right if you see gobbledygook on the screen. Then, you’ll need to retrace your steps and try again.

By finding out what an ideal outcome of the process looks like (a “customer saved” notification in a new database, for example), you can use that as your North star to work toward.

In finding out how it will be different to your current process, you’ll become aware of how much change you need to make. You might be getting annoyed about very little! Alternatively, you’ll be able to prep yourself for more extreme process changes as they arise.

2. Ask someone.

There’s no shame in asking. Even if you’re in a management role overseeing others, you need to understand the change to explain and enforce it to your direct reports. 

Prepare some questions and speak to the people in charge of rolling out the change. Many larger companies roll out video tutorials, and you could always have someone demonstrate the process.

Most managers will tell you that you can always go to them with questions. Make the most of it! You know your sh*t benefits everyone.

3. Remember handwriting? Make handwritten notes.

This can be particularly helpful when learning a technical process, like using new software or tools. During the “understanding” part of the process, write down instructions in your handwriting – you’re likely to retain the steps of completing the task or change better.

Then, when it comes to making a record of the process and retaining it, type up your notes as clearly as possible.

You will be running through the process twice before even attempting a dry run. That puts you in great stead for developing competency under the new parameters.

4. Leave the task, then come back to it.

Some workplace tasks don’t have this luxury (QUICK! Learn this entire new content management system IMMEDIATELY!).

But if you’ve successfully learned the basics, move onto another task and come back. Some people find that the simple part of the task or change will have consolidated itself in the time you left it alone. This means you can come back and build on that platform of knowledge.

Think of a cake (mmmmmmm). You can’t decorate it while it’s hot, otherwise the frosting will melt off. Leave it to one side in the blast chiller, though, and pull it out later. Your cake will be ready for all the icing and fondant you can throw at it, and its structure will remain sturdy.

5. Self-test as much as you can.

Whether you’ve got to memorize a certain order of actions, specific abbreviations or terms for a corporate restructure, or spreadsheet formulas that are coming into play, test yourself constantly.

You can never test yourself too much when it comes to a new challenge. It might even help to buddy up with a colleague who’s going through the same upskilling process. They can test you and provide impartial judgement – plus, they’ll likely learn too, which is a win-win situation.

6. Do the task – badly.

This sounds a little presumptuous given that you don’t really know how yet. But let’s say you have a new database or performance tracking system at work. The best way to truly understand the interface and workflow is having a play.

You might not understand the intricacies yet, and that’s fine. Experimentation may not only help you understand the process, but also help you work out tricks to improve your efficiency.

If you’re amazing at keyboard shortcuts (ctrl + alt + del being a popular example), you might be able to learn your way around the system in less time than someone who’s using longform commands or pointing and clicking using the mouse.

Of course, clicking randomly without guidance won’t always yield results or help you add value. But it can help you familiarize yourself with the pending change. We came up in the era of MS DOS; this is nothing.

7. Understand that whoever set the task is expecting a ramp-up period.

In a company-wide rollout of changes, for example software to track Work From Home efficiency, there is an expectation that some people are going to get to grips with the changes more quickly than others.

Upon rollout, ask when everyone is expected to be proficient, and work toward that date or time frame – but know you have some leeway and have patience with yourself.

Getting flustered and impatient isn’t going to help you out. It might slow you down. Take a deep breath, take your learning step by step, and know that you’re going to find a way to make yourself valuable through adapting at some point.

8. Relate what you’re learning to what you know. 

How similar is this process to the previous one? How is it different? Building off your understanding of what used to happen is the way to gain knowledge on the new process.

You have to base your new skills on the reference points you already have. Returning to the cake analogy, eating the frosting without any sponge underneath is a surefire way to eat too much sugar and hallucinate with no substance whatsoever. Plus, you’d just be pouring frosting on the table – what’s wrong with you?

9. Focus on reps, not practice time. 

Don’t tell yourself you’re going to spend an hour learning the new system or program. Say you’re going to run through it 10 times. 

You’re likely to get distracted if you think about learning a skill in time blocks and waste a chunk of that time. Instead, get through it a set number of times. Even if you pause, or stagger your attempts, you’ve still got to get to the end of the 10 rep – you can just do it in your own time.

You’ll be an old hand at the task by the final runthrough.

MAP: Mnemonics and Acronym Power

Condensing tasks or concepts into acronyms (where you abbreviate a word but can pronounce the abbreviation as a new word) and mnemonics (where you replace each letter in an acronym with a different word or concept) can help them stick.

BODMAS, for example, is an acronym familiar to many of us from those dreaded algebra lessons. It helped us memorize the order of calculation for different parts of a formula or sum – Brackets, Order, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction. It’s easy (and surprisingly satisfying) to say.

Mother Visits Every Monday, Just Stays Until Noon is a mnemonic. This one helps you remember the order of the planets in our solar system from the sun outward – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune (sorry Pluto, you don’t get to play anymore). The association between the two phrases, despite being about completely different things, helps it stick in our memory.

Some learning methods combine mnemonics and acronyms. For example, a classic way to remember the notes on the lines of a written musical treble clef scale is Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit – a memorable mnemonic for E, G, B, D, F. But for remembering the notes in between the lines, piano teachers use the letters of the notes directly – FACE. It’s an acronym, because you say FACE as a complete word in itself.

These can help you remember sequences of letters, or break down more complicated orders and processes into bite-size chunks. It’s also great for internalizing the lingo that inevitably comes from learning a new process.

For example, if a promotion to manager means that you’re taking over an accounts team (congrats, by the way), you’ll need to understand what words like ledger, asset, and liability mean. Coming up with acronyms might help you get to grips with the vocab before you start.

You’ll also have to understand new acronyms like COGS (meaning Cost of Goods Sold) and TB (meaning Trial Balance) – which is where mnemonics can save the day.

Your brain loves creating associations – so let it.

10. Make a game of it. 

Like Henrietta’s Spellbook on the ZX Spectrum taught us to spell as kids, make an enjoyable task of learning what you need. This can make absorbing knowledge a breeze.

Create a rewards system for the game. Whoever on your team completes 10 entries on the new system gets a $25 Amazon voucher. Even just promising yourself a personal treat once you nail the learning process, like a new gadget you’ve been after for a while, can motivate you to deepen your knowledge.

Ditch the drills. Grab the games. People respond to fun.

11. Learn one, do one, teach one.

Passing your skills on will help consolidate them. As soon as you’re familiar with a process, even the basics, teach a colleague, or volunteer to give a presentation to the whole team if you’re feeling particularly ballsy.

If you’re looking to add value to the organization and get noticed during this period of transition, you’ve hit the nail on the head by teaching others. Your higher-ups will absolutely take note that you’ve been so vocal about helping your team.

You are directly adding value to the operation by bringing everyone along for your upskilling journey, and you’re consolidating your own knowledge in the process.

12. Break the challenge down into smaller segments – “chunk” them.

You can break all skills down into smaller bits of information – learn those first. This is known as “chunking” a task.

For example, a new company database might have a number of different tabs or pages. “Learn how to filter information on the database” is a vague and unwieldy task to give yourself. Instead, “get to grips with the opening tab” is a lot more digestible. Learn what one button does, even, if you want to break it down that far. Whatever helps make the task manageable.

Then you’ll move onto the next, and then the following one. It’s just like words in a sentence – at some point in your life, you had to learn all the words you now use daily. 

12.5 Then, chain those chunks together in a CHUNK CHAIN. Voila! A new skill.

After your brain understood what each word meant in its own terms, you had to work out how to string them together in sentences.

It’s the same with tasks. Stringing together lots of different tasks forms a chunk chain – what you know as a process. Because you understand all the elements that make it up, you’ll have a clearer understanding of the whole process.

Having trouble preparing for a huge presentation? No worries. Pay real attention to one slide at a time before focusing on the piece as a whole. Come presentation day, your colleagues will be swooning in the aisles.

learning in midlife

11 ways to be more productive

Whatever changes happen, you have to make sure they don’t mess with your regular workflow too much. Keeping on top of changes while crushing your usual goals is a great way to maintain forward momentum in your professional life. 

By managing the change well, you also demonstrate that you can adapt quickly and maintain your regular level of efficiency. Reaching 40 years old doesn’t stop you being a corporate up-and-comer – it might be the very beginning of your real success.

You just have to find ways to update yourself, like smartphone software.

1. Stop multitasking – it doesn’t work how we think.

Multitasking isn’t really doing several tasks at once. It should really be called doing-one-thing-after-the-other-very-quickly-tasking.

Instead of nailing one task, your attention very rapidly switches between several, reducing your efficiency and competency. Focus on one objective at a time.

2. Set small, achievable tasks every day.

Lofty goals are great – they keep you hungry to achieve more and climb higher. But gunning straight for them is a sure way to miss a bunch of smaller tasks that are still important.

Plus, rattling off small goals (but actually hitting them) is great for self-esteem, which then allows you to shoot for bigger and better targets.

3. Make a to-do list, and create a high, medium, and low priority level.

Most job interviews will ask you about priority management, what you use, and how it works for you. Don’t wait until your next interview to work on it. Put together high-, medium-, and low-priority lists of tasks or folders of emails to respond to – you can do so in whatever email software you use.

Organize them by due date or projected business impact.

4. Work in bursts and break often.

Pulling off productivity marathons helps neither you or the boss you report to. If your vision goes blurry and your back aches because you’ve not left your chair in hours, you’re hurting rather than boosting productivity.

Every hour, get up, walk around, stretch, and go grab a coffee or glass of water. You’re not paid to torture yourself.

5. Block any apps that might draw your attention.

Ping! Ping! Ping! Notifications draw your attention away from the task at hand. Not only that, but they also give you new tasks that might have you trying to multitask.

You can add a service like StayFocusd to your browser which blocks sites for a set period of time (even providing a nuclear option you can’t undo – we know how tempted you are). You can also turn off notifications for specific apps in your phone settings or download an app to block other apps, like the imaginatively titled AppBlock.

6. Use task management tools. 

While throwing even more programs into your workflow seems counterproductive, these make organizing and collaborating on other tasks so much easier that it’s worth making time for them. Asana and Trello use different systems to help you achieve the same thing – a viable workflow. 

If you’re juggling a million tasks while trying to adapt to a big change, they can help you keep everything prioritized, assigned to the right place, and tracked.

7. Where possible, bring others into the task and have them hold you accountable…

It can be tempting to try and take all the credit. But having other people around can make it easier to get your everyday sh*t done, leaving you the headspace to focus on diversifying your skill set. If you’ve got people who report to you, learn to delegate.

8. …But know when to work alone.

However, too many cooks can very much spoil the broth. If a task requires concentration or you know that you’re specialized in that type of project, you can and should handle the brunt of the work. Bringing others in runs the risk of creating more of a mess than you built.

9. Don’t be afraid to turn down tasks that aren’t within your remit.

While handing you a salary, companies will often try to milk more from you than you’re supposed to give. It’s part of getting good ROI. Make sure you know your limits.

Going above and beyond proves your value, but not if it impedes on the task they were originally paying you for – especially when you’re trying to learn and grow. Stand your ground.

10. Avoid having too many meetings, but make the ones you have count.

This includes planning for them. Meetings are a time-suck, but they’re not all unnecessary. 

While you’re upskilling, don’t arrange more face-to-face/Zoom chats than you have to. For the ones you have, make sure you get or produce the agenda ahead of time and make sure you note the points you want to make and targets you want to hit.

11. Don’t be productive when you don’t have to.

Save your energy. It can be tempting to work after hours so you can be the big hero when crunch time comes. But without enough energy, crunch time is going to drain the few resources you have left and squash you.

Take your breaks, try and stop working when you’re meant to, and fully unplug.


Upskilling is a necessary part of staying competitive in the workplace. It’s important to grow alongside changing processes. Sometimes, you have to become or lead the change so that you can climb the ranks.

Either way, breaking down your tasks and using these handy learning hacks can help you digest new developments quicker, more effectively, and more sustainably.

If this seems like a lot, it can be. Work isn’t supposed to be easy – that’s why you get paid. Now go earn it. Change is afoot!

Article resources

4 different learning styles you should know: The VARK model. (n.d.)> 

Acronym. (n.d.).

Brooks, A. (2020). 19 productivity hacks to get more done in 2020.

Clements, R. (n.d.). 5 hacks to speed up the learning process.

Haden, J. (2018). These 10 scientific ways to learn anything faster could change everything you know about dramatically improving your memory.

Jones, P. A. (2018). 13 mnemonic sentences to boost your general knowledge.