Nothing Is Important If Everything Is Important

Have you ever watched a movie that has five plot lines going at the same time? It’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on and sometimes you’re left confused and like you just wasted two hours of your day.

Training is no different when there’s too much going on. If everything seems like an extra that’s nice to know but you don’t need to know, that’s TMI (too much information). That’s when training walks a fine line between being helpful and falling into unhelpful overwhelmingness leaving you with a state of train brain.

When everything in a course is important then nothing is important. That’s because something went wrong in the design process and everything was allowed to be important. Or, perhaps the design process was skipped entirely which is exactly why an instructional designer is essential and no step in the process can be skipped.

Image of city street plastered with ads and signs so everything is so busy it's hard to see anything so everything becomes nothing.

That’s also why the instructional designer should be a partner rather than an order-taker. Working with stakeholders, business partners, and subject matter experts is essential. It’s also important to figure out what’s essential and what’s simply nice to know.

How do you get to just the essentials? First, define the goal of the training based on performance since performance is what company training is typically all about. Without a well-defined goal of what employees need to be able to do after training, training will fail. Then, focus every piece of content in the course on how it helps employees meet the goal.

The more non-essential information that makes it into a course, the more likely the actual important information gets forgotten. When training, people only have so much capacity for learning and absorbing information.

People have less of an attention span than a goldfish.


While all people definitely have a longer attention span than a goldfish, we are still limited and must abide by the human limitations of cognitive load. When too much information is put into training, it risks becoming disjointed and overwhelming. That will quickly make people lose focus and interest.

Good content will be used and enjoyed when it’s relevant to employees because, in training, relevance is king. That ensures what employees are learning can be connected back to their work. That will make it automatically engaging and interesting. Training that has nothing in it for employees will never be engaging no matter how many bells and whistles or interactions you put into it.

Now it’s time to take a deeper look into what the problem is with loading too much into training.

The Problem With Training Overload

You may have guessed it already, but the biggest problem with training overload (including content overload in eLearning too!) is that nothing is important if everything is important. Overload means that there’s simply too much information for someone to process and remember. It becomes overwhelming and very little is remembered.

That’s because our brains are infinitely powerful, but there’s a limit to how much we can grasp and/or remember at any given time. People tune out, become tired, or get distracted by the outside world. That even happens with a captive audience in a classroom.

I was a big daydreamer in my grade school days so I’m all too familiar with distractions when learning.

There have been many studies about how much a person can remember. While there’s no specific number, time, or quantity of information, it’s safe to say that for training where the content is heavy, anything more than 20 minutes is risking going in one ear and out the other. If the content is a bit lighter and easier to grasp in nature then you may be able to get away with 30 minutes.

In the world of learning science, this is often known as cognitive load theory. Meaning we only have so much memory to work with. There are tools instructional designers can use to maximize cognitive load, but for the most part, it’s still limited when learning new information.

Nothing’s important if everything’s important.

There’s nothing worse than cognitive overload in training. Someone taking a course, for instance, can quickly go from learning something new to being burned out and losing it all. Just because you’ve learned something doesn’t mean you’ll remember it.

It’s more difficult to remember anything if you’re being asked to remember or process too much information. At that point, you’re putting the onus on employees to pick out and remember what’s important. That won’t ever work out as intended and learning won’t help employees.

You want to get employees the information they need to master the training, but do they need to master everything?

With a lack of focus and an “everything’s important” mentality, there’s a huge risk of wasting everyone’s time. Who’s time is wasted? People taking the training, instructional designers, subject matter experts, business partners, and anyone else involved in the training.

Worse yet, if too much is trying to be trained for and training content isn’t helpful, employees won’t be ready for whatever they’re supposed to be learning.

So how do you determine what’s important for training and what should be left out?

Figuring Out What’s Important

This can be more difficult than it seems. If you’re building training then you may know after working with a subject matter expert (SME) that they think everything is important. Part of your job is figuring out only the essentials for employees to be successful.

Anything not essential to an employee’s success is a risk to the training. But how do you figure out only the most essential parts?

Working through a sound instructional design process (don’t forget to actually go through each step of ADDIE!) is the most helpful way. We wrote a blog post about how an effective self-paced eLearning course should start with nothing. That is, we don’t start with all the content we’re given to build training. Instead, we start with nothing and then build the content with only what’s essential to the performance objectives (not learning objectives).

That means you’re starting with nothing and only putting content into the final training if it’s essential and contributes directly to meeting the performance objectives. Anything nice to know but not essential should get scrapped.

Always ask what employees need to do to be successful?

Ultimately it’s best to throw non-essentials on the scrap pile because that will strengthen the training. Every piece of content you cut from training will strengthen it that much more.

Subject matter experts are just that, experts. But, the goal of any individual training isn’t to make employees experts. That only comes with years of practice or multiple courses and even then requires years of practice. Keep that in mind: SMEs are important to work with but they sometimes don’t realize how much they know and beginners don’t need to know.

It’s important to keep the project on track to only pull out what’s essential to meet the basic goal of the training. Any more will draw attention away from the learning goals and lead to poor outcomes. Don’t make experts, give employees the basic tools they need to be successful at their jobs.

If you can successfully work through complex topics and figure out what’s important, there are many benefits to employees. It’s not an easy process and takes time, but ultimately it’s worth it for you, stakeholders, and especially employees.

The Benefits Of Focus

It takes practice and experience to work with business partners to focus training on only the essentials. With practice, though, many benefits can be seen by focusing the training on essentials only.

Keep in mind that the definition of essential could be advanced too. The goal of the training will dictate what’s covered, it’s all a matter of making sure each piece of content makes sense to the goals of the training.

There are endless benefits to training focused on important information only. We came up with a few benefits but depending on your project, there will probably be different benefits in addition to these common benefits.

  • Employees will learn exactly what they need to be more successful in their jobs.
  • You’ll save employees massive time by cutting the fluff.
  • Comprehension will increase with more focused content.
  • There will be more time to make the important content stick with stories and scenarios that make it more relevant to employees.
  • More information will be retained after training simply because remembering is easier when there’s less to remember.
  • Employees will be more efficient at their jobs because they won’t be bogged down by information they don’t even need.
  • Better performance because employees will remember the key points to perform better.
  • Everyone is happier when less of their time is wasted and they can get back to their job.

We’d love to hear some of the benefits you think of or have seen in the workplace by having more focused training. Feel free to leave your experience in the comments.

In order to see some of these benefits, you have to learn how to get to the most important information and stay focused only on that. It takes time and practice to get there, but training can only be successful if it has a focused performance goal and sticks to that goal throughout.

How To Focus On Important Information Only

We introduced you to our start-with-nothing strategy. While we framed it with an eLearning course, it could easily be applied to creating any type of training. It all boils down to knowing your stuff and being able to turn experts into champions of simplicity.

Experts worked hard to get where they’re at. They practiced, they worked hard, and they consumed whatever knowledge they could to know their skill. But, it took them a long time to get there. There’s no way to turn someone new into an expert in one training session. It has to happen over time.

That’s why it’s essential when creating training to focus the content on essentials only. There needs to be a goal and that goal must be the focus. Experts sometimes have a hard time understanding just how far they’ve come. If you can help them see that and stay focused on essentials, you’re on your way to creating focused and more effective training for employees.

These steps help us focus training on the essentials only:

  1. Start with a blank document with nothing at all.
  2. Work with stakeholders and SMEs to determine the training goal that matches the project’s business goal. These should all answer the question “what do employees need to do to be successful?”
  3. Determine the performance objectives of the course that all work back to the main goal of the training.
  4. Work through each piece of the content and connect it directly to one of the essential performance goals.

If you’d like to review our process of starting with nothing, check out the post about it and you can download the template on our resources page. It’s the simplest template you’ll find online but it’s helpful to keep things focused every step of the way when creating training.

Start with nothing and build up essentials only. Never start with everything and try to cut things out.

With the steps we used when beginning with nothing, you’ll have focused objectives and an outline that helps you organize the content and stay focused on essentials only. If employees are hungry for more, nothing is keeping them from using external resources as long as you provide that option.

For example, if you leave nice-to-know information out of a course, you can add a resource center that has additional user guides, job aids, or other types of performance support available.

Employees who do want to become experts or learn more should have the resources to do so. Those should be separate from the training, though. There’s no point in offering a few interested employees everything at the risk of losing everyone else who simply doesn’t need or want to know it all.

You can also allow employees to ask questions. Whether you provide an email address or phone number in the training, it’s always helpful to offer employees support in their learning journey.

Wrap Up

Nothing is important if everything is important.

That’s what this all comes down to. You can’t be expected to get it right immediately because just like a SME doesn’t become an expert overnight, you won’t either. It takes time to practice figuring out the right objectives in training. Then it takes even more work and practice to chisel away at all the content you receive from a SME to get it down to the essentials.

In the end, all the work you do to create essentials-only training will benefit you, stakeholders, employees, and more. It leads to better training that’s more successful. There’s nothing more refreshing than taking training that is directly applicable to your job and is focused on exactly what you need to know to do that job.

Training is essential for every project, especially company technology for non-techies. It’s also important to bring training professionals into a project early enough to have a positive impact. When training is focused and helpful, employees are better prepared to do their jobs and will have higher engagement and success in their jobs.

We specialize in designing digital training solutions that help your employees learn how to use your company’s technology to do their job better. We’d love to learn more about your next project and how we can help deliver better training solutions that help your employees succeed at their jobs. Schedule a free consultation so we can discuss your next project and how to make training for it a huge success.

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