Picking up new skills as an adult can be tricky, especially when your energy and free time is precious. But prowess in different areas is not all created equal. Investing in certain abilities can get you big rewards for relatively little effort.
Money interviewed dozens of experts in different fields to find out which skills, tricks, and workarounds are most financially worthwhile. Here are 10 moves you can make without much preparation.
1. Master the meeting
The average pay bump from a promotion is about 7%, though it can be even more once you're a manager, according to Mercer. But how do you get one?
“The meeting room is where we exert leadership and develop credibility,” says corporate trainer Dana Brownlee of Professionalism Matters. Don’t dominate—nudge the group toward concrete goals. If someone can’t let go of a point, try saying, “Good idea! I’m writing it down.” You’ve now freed a room of grateful co-workers to move on.
2. Lend a hand at work
Research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has shown that successful people do more favors at work, but don’t be afraid to ask for tiny favors too. We may actually feel more warmly toward people after lending them a hand—our brains figure we must have done so because we like that person. It’s been called the Benjamin Franklin effect: The Founding Father recalled winning over a legislative rival after borrowing a book from him.
“Our attitudes often follow our behavior instead of vice versa,” says David McRaney, who writes about such psychological quirks in his book You Are Now Less Dumb.
3. Learn a language
It’s easier than ever to dip a toe into languages with free tools like Duolingo, a site and app that make learning like a game. If you then want to ramp things up, real-world classes run about $300 for 20 hours of instruction.
Invest your time and money wisely: The payoff is in less commonly studied languages. A Wharton/LECG Europe study found that speaking German translated into a higher wage premium than for second languages overall. Ambitious? There’s a big market for Mandarin.
4. Get techy
Computer-science grads earn $700,000 over the average B.A. holder in a career, but those with English and psych degrees aren’t out of luck: There are ways to use technology smarter—and get recognized for it—at all levels.
For example, if there’s any need to quantify your business’s activity, being the office Excel guru makes you valuable. Two skills to focus on: building charts (great for presentations) and pivot tables (to summarize lots of data). The ExcelIsFun YouTube channel is loaded with lessons.
Want to compete with true techies? Codecademy.com can get you started for free learning code for building websites. Expertise in Ruby on Rails—certification testing is $150—snags an average salary of $110,000, says data crunched by qz.com.
If all this sounds like too much work, at least Google better. Seriously. Say, for example, you need stats about a product’s market share: Use “OR” (in caps) to Google for different words that might capture the same thing (like “percent” and “proportion”). And check the image search results: The data you need may be in a chart someone has posted. Go to Google's help center for more power tips.
5. Write better
A clear, unfussy writing style will get your ideas heard at work. (HR pros ranked writing second, behind only computer aptitude, among skills applicants most often lacked.) Harvard professor Steven Pinker, author of the new book The Sense of Style, gave us these tips for better writing:
Avoid fancy words you don’t need or understand. “Fulsome” (as in “fulsome praise”) does not mean full; it means insincere. If you use hoity-toity words to sound posh, you will look pompous and may say the opposite of what you mean.
Cut unnecessary words. John Kerry once said, “The President is desirous of trying to see how we can make our efforts in order to find a way to facilitate.” What he meant was, “The President wants to help.” Much better.
Revise. And better still, show it to someone. What’s clear to you may not be clear to someone else.
6. Learn social savvy
If you run a business or work in marketing, social media like Twitter seem like a great way to get your message out. But remember that users have zero interest in following companies that clutter their feed with ads. Use social to establish your expertise or spark ideas; then when people are in the market for what you sell, they’ll remember you.
Hannah Morgan, co-author of Social Networking for Business Success, explains that a good tweet is self-contained and has a discrete piece of information worth sharing. What works well is language like, "Baking cookies? Add eggs one at a time so you can mix in evenly. For more tips check out our Baking 101 guide." Then add a link.
A less effective tweet is something like, "We're having a sale on tins of our delicious chocolate chip cookies. $19.99 all day Friday" because it reads like an advertisement and is therefore is unlikely to be shared.
7. Take back your workday
If you get paid a flat salary, turning a 10-hour day into nine more-productive hours is like giving yourself an 11% hourly raise.
Try three key moves from former Fidelity president Bob Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity: First, handle each email just once. Reply, file, or trash—don’t come back to it later.
Second, hide that extra chair; you’ll discourage chatty co-workers from lingering. Finally, you might want to consider timing your breaks, since research shows your brain loses focus on a task after about 90 minutes.
8. Sell yourself
“Ten years ago job seekers would write a full-page cover letter,” says executive résumé writer Wendy Enelow. A better approach now is an email designed to cut through the electronic clutter.
Use the subject line to note your key selling points. Instead of “Director of sales position,” write “Director of Sales—10 Years of Exceeding Sales Quotas—MBA.” In the body of the email, spotlight a major accomplishment. Follow up with three big career wins in bullet points.
9. Learn to DIY
Some jobs always require a professional but, with a little prep, tasks like painting a room or replacing your car's air filters can be a piece of cake—and save you a solid amount of money. A painting pro, for example, could easily charge $1,600 for a big job, vs. up to $400 in materials on your own.
Rich O’Neil of Masterwork Painting & Restoration in Woburn, Mass., explains that to get professional results you must dust surfaces and tape up edges and moldings you don’t want painted. Painting should go in two types of strokes: First apply a thin layer for coverage. Then paint over it to even and smooth.
You can replace your car's air filters yourself every 12,000 miles on newer cars. You’ll save about $50 in labor costs, says Mike Forsythe of Haynes, an auto-repair guidebook publisher, and pay 25% less for the filter by getting it at a parts store. To change an engine filter, check the housing in the engine compartment; in most cars there’s a cover you can unlatch with your fingers. You’ll typically find the cabin filter inside the car, behind the glove box.
10. Get organized
Everyone hates paying a late fee just because of a forgotten reminder to pay a bill on time. And few tasks are as irritating as foraging for receipts from months and months ago.
The key to never losing track of important papers is to keep just one bin and make sure to empty your pockets and purse into it every night. Then set a regular date on your calendar to empty the bin and organize the receipts. “If you wait too long, you may not even remember your purchase,” says professional organizer Andrew Mellen.
If you find it hard to even check your calendar on a routine basis, pair a daily check with your morning coffee—or any other routine you already have.