Just-in-Case vs. Just-in-Time Learning

In business and startups, it’s easy to get caught consuming ‘hustle porn’ - media about working constantly, ‘grinding’, and other unhealthy habits.

It’s also easy to consume articles titled things like Mark Cuban Says These are the Dumbest Things Entrepreneurs Do, or How Andres Pira Went From Homeless on the Beach to Real Estate Tycoon.

Sometimes these are useful. But your journey will be much different than anyone else’s. The best mentors will often help you think better using the Socratic method, rather than giving specific advice, because they know you understand your business best.

Often, it’s better just to get started.

Research Preventing Action

I read a lot, and that includes non-fiction and business books. I tend to like planning and analysis, and as a result, have to be careful I don’t read too much before acting.

To make sure I don’t fall into that trap, I often think about just-in-case vs. just-in-time learning.

The Origins of Just-in-Case vs. Just-in-Time

The concept of just-in-case and just-in-time comes from manufacturing. Their names describe the systems.

Just-in-case manufacturing involves storing lots of extra parts and supplies so that if there is a delay or break in the supply chain, production can continue.

The main downside is that money and space gets tied up in funding all these just-in-case parts and supplies. This means the money can’t be deployed elsewhere, on things like marketing. 

Also, if forecasting is wrong, you may end up with supplies and parts you don’t need.

Just-in-time manufacturing is often attributed to Toyota. It involves storing very few extra supplies, and instead relying on very good forecasting and reliable supply chains. 

If the forecasting is good enough, and the supply chain is reliable, supplies arrive just as they are needed in the manufacturing plant. 

This frees up money that can be used elsewhere in the business. 

However, if forecasting is wrong, or unforeseen events influence the supply chain, manufacturing can be disrupted.

Applying This Concept to Learning

While we aren’t as concerned with manufacturing, we can apply the concept to learning.

In many ways, our minds are analogous to the manufacturing case. We have limited memory, and even less space for things we want to recall quickly. 

We have two choices: we can learn things that we think might be useful in the future, and try to remember everything we’ve learned (just-in-case), or we can wait until we actually need to apply the information, and learn it then (just-in-time).

There are situations where both are useful.

Just-in-Case Knowledge

Depending on what you studied, and when, much of what you learned in school was probably just-in-case knowledge.

Some subjects, like math, operate in a step-by-step manner. Many of the concepts you learn build upon each other, and this helps you remember.

Others, like history, are sometimes considered essential for cultural reasons. You may not use the knowledge of how your country was formed, but most would agree that it’s important to learn.

For other subjects, you may never use the knowledge again. Did you take an obscure elective in high school? Study the history of other countries?

This is just-in-case knowledge. You learn about things which aren’t immediately applicable, but which you are interested in, or which are compulsory.

Applications of Just-in-Case Knowledge

Many professions do require a broad knowledge base on a just-in-case basis. Medicine is one of the most obvious.

Emergency room doctors don’t have the luxury of seeing a new case and going off to read before coming back for treatment. They must make judgments and treat patients quickly, often with life or death consequences.

As a result of how they work, they must have a broad knowledge of emergency medicine, but must also know when they are out of their depth, and who to call if so. They must be able to recognize a wide range of problems from memory, and with high accuracy.

Most of us, however, don’t need such a broad knowledge base.

Indeed, even emergency room doctors don’t need to be concerned with geopolitics, business, or music. They may like one or more of those things, but even their own domain of required knowledge is narrow.

The Downsides of Just-in-Case Knowledge

I tend to like planning and analysis. I like reading too. I often move in the direction of analysis before action. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can slow me down if not monitored.

The reality is that for most of us, spending any time at all on just-in-case knowledge is inefficient.

Reading every business book in the world is not going to be much use in any business, because 99% of the material won’t be relevant for the particular stage and business.

By the time I’ve finished a few books, I have a hard time recalling what I read in the first one. If I want to apply knowledge from the first book in the future, I’ll have to read it again.

The same holds true for most forms of knowledge.

One of the most corrosive is the consumption of news and social media.

Rarely does news or social media impact our lives.

Watching election coverage 10 months before the vote? You don’t need to know all the candidates. You can read a well-written summary of the candidate positions the week before the election and be more informed than 99% of voters.

Afraid you’re missing out on vital content on social media? When was the last time something social media had a large positive impact on your life?

Just-in-case knowledge is at best inefficient, and at worst a huge waste of our collective time.

Just-in-Time Knowledge

Acquiring just-in-time knowledge, by contrast, is a very efficient way of learning.

Just-in-time knowledge is material and media that you need to apply immediately.

It may be an issue you have to deal with at work, or information related to a new sport you’re learning, or maybe moving to a country and learning a new language. 

In each case, you can immediately apply what you learn.

This method of learning helps counter the ‘analysis-paralysis’ that often hinders action, and to which so many of us (myself included) are prone. 

When operating under a tight deadline, action is inevitable.

Parkinson’s Law comes into play here: a task or project will grow to fill the time allotted to it.

In other words, if you have a deadline, things get done. 

Conversely, if you don’t have a deadline, it may never get done (like that language you’ve always wanted to learn).

Immediately having a use case where you can apply new knowledge helps with retention. 

Just the same as in university - reading the textbook doesn’t help, but once you do some practice problems, you’ll remember.

Even better, learning new things quickly is a meta-skill. By forcing yourself to learn and apply things quickly over-and-over, you’ll become even more efficient in the future.

Just-in-time learning is much more efficient than just-in-case.

When to Use Just-in-Case Learning

At this point, you may think I advocate for just-in-time learning all the time. That isn’t the case.

Just-in-case learning has a place. 

Just-in-case learning should be used to grasp the larger concepts within a broad subject

The point of this learning is to reduce the “unknown unknowns” - those things which you don’t know, but you’re also not aware of.

The point here is to have enough knowledge that when faced with a particular problem, you know what you need to learn.

In business and entrepreneurship, this often means knowing the basics of many different areas - product, marketing, sales, recruiting, customer success - so that you know when and what topics you must learn or hire for.

In medicine, this is knowing enough to know that you should refer a patient to a specialist. 

The difficulty with just-in-case learning, as we mentioned, is retention. There are things you can do to help with this.

Taking notes for the books you read, for example.

Books are a major source of learning for adults, but you can take notes for most mediums. 

Creating well-referenced, detailed summaries of books and other sources of knowledge not only helps with retention but gives you an easily searchable reference to look back on when you need the material in the future.

When to Use Just-in-Time Learning

For all the reasons we talked about previously - improved efficiency around deadlines, immediate applicability that helps with retention, and a preference for action - just-in-time learning should be your default.

It will help you build the meta-skill of learning new things quickly, and encourage you to learn and apply things immediately.

If you can’t immediately apply the knowledge, you should consider learning something you can.