How to learn a skill in 20 hours

… and be actually pretty good at it

Learning a new skill can be an exciting adventure or daunting slog, depending on your past experience and present attitude. While as children we learned about the world almost unconsciously, as adults we often approach the idea of learning something new with skepticism. Our natural curiosity and love for learning often get trampled through the experience of schooling. The dour mandate of “shut up and learn” makes the whole exercise of learning something new into a chore.

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Photo by Nikhita S on Unsplash

The culture of testing in school also bequeaths a near-religious fear of learning itself. If a child learns in order to pass a test, they are not learning to understand and apply knowledge. The very idea of learning, doing something you aren’t good at (yet), can be fearsome. “What if someone sees me fail?” a learner’s mind suggests, rather unhelpfully. “What if I’m stupid?” it goes on. The fear of humiliation at the hands of a test haunts our dreams. That fear also prevents us from engaging with something new and unfamiliar.

And then there’s the cost. The cost of dedicating time to acquiring a new skill can seem heavy. If you have a full-time job, family responsibilities, a lawn that needs to be mowed, gutters that need clearing, and a million other daily nuisances and time-sinks, learning something can feel intimidating. Your imagination runs wild — hours of practice time, nights, and weekends spent hunched over a book as your friends and loved ones drift away, busy with the continuation of their own fun-filled lives as you lose touch with the outside world.

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Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

But, learning doesn’t have to be this way. Learning can (and should) be fun and energizing. It should create more time, rather than burn it, and it should enrich you emotionally, spiritually, and financially.

If you want to learn better, learn faster, and build a better relationship between new information, your heart, and your brain, start with a few simple steps:

Fall In Love (With The Process)

While it is important to have good goals for your learning adventure, mere goals won’t sustain you through the difficult parts of the learning process. Use your goals to orient your direction, but concentrate on finding the fun in the learning process itself. Find a way to make the practice, the repetition, the reading — a pleasure in itself. Treat it like a ritual through which you show love and care for yourself and your future. Invest in embracing the process, and you will learn to lose yourself in the practice, instead of dreading it like a chore and finding reasons to avoid it. Get your hands a little dirty, and find something to enjoy about the process.

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Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Find The Time (Right Now)

There are myriad reasons why some let their “one day I’d like to know how to” remain ever distant, behind a comforting barrier of some imaginary future where there will be “enough time”. Funnily enough, we’ve just been through one of these cataclysmic, world-changing events that have given millions exactly that: enough time. With the social distancing measures and COVID-19 lockdowns, a lot of people actually had a sudden windfall of time on their hands to learn something new. And yet, the deluge of articles explaining exactly why you shouldn’t have to try to learn something new during the lockdown suggest that, for many, this wasn’t the right time to learn either.

Here’s the thing: The right time won’t come. Ever.

So make time, because you don’t actually need that much to learn a new skill (and get pretty good with it). Speaking of which…

Spend 20 Hours On Your Skill (practice the right way)

The cost of learning a new skill in terms of time and effort can seem astronomical. When you see your new skill in monolithic terms like “learning to play guitar” or “speaking French” or “mastering statistics”, the undertaking seems enormous. That monolithic idea of the skill looms over you, like Mt. Kilimanjaro over the horizon, If you’ve heard of the 10,000-hour rule, this is where it applies. Yes, indeed, in order to get to the very top of a highly competitive, narrow, and well-established field, you need approximately that amount of deliberate practice.

But (and this is a huge one) if you are not trying to become the chess world champion, get a record deal, or author the next great novel (in French), you need a lot less time. For a casual hobbyist to pick up a new skill can take as little as 20 hours of deliberate practice.

Here is the 2013 TEDxCSU presentation by Josh Caufman, an author and dad. He analyzed the research on skill acquisition and concluded that getting (pretty) good at something requires just a little bit of practice.

“If you put in 2- hours of focused, deliberate practice into that thing (that you are trying to learn), you will be astounded at how good you are”

Now, as Kaufman points out in his talk, this doesn’t mean that doing something vaguely related to your target skill for 20 hours will get you there. You have to engage in deliberate practice. He also provides a simple 4-step way to make sure your practice is deliberate:

  1. Deconstruct the skill. This helps with that monolithic, overwhelming sense you get when considering learning something new. “Playing guitar” or “Python programming” are not individual skills, but sets of multiple, interconnected subskills. By making your goal clear and figuring out what subskills can get you there, you can create the structure necessary for deliberate practice.
  2. Learn enough to tell when you’re making a mistake. Mindless repetition is not deliberate practice, and by “just diving in” you’re likely to develop some bad habits. Get a few resources together, and learn enough to know when you’re screwing up, and what success should look like. Feedback, or knowledge of results, is essential for learning. Figure out what your results should look like.
  3. Remove practice barriers. Distractions are everywhere, and the state of your physical environment matters. By creating the physical and mental space for your learning by dedicating a specific area and time for practice, you are making it easier to get started. Turn off the TV, place the phone in a drawer, and get started, even if you don’t feel inspired or motivated. Just do the task of practice for 5 minutes, and you’ll find it a lot easier to keep going.
  4. Get through the initial frustration. By dedicating a set amount of time to deliberate practice, namely 20 hours, you can get through that initial barrier of frustration. Sure, it sucks to be doing a task you feel you’re no good at. By ignoring the results, finding enjoyment in the process, and sticking with it for 20 hours will help you get over that frustration.
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Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

Get The Edge on Your Learning

That scary, monolithic goal just got a lot less intimidating. Still, there are a few tricky parts to this process. Falling in love with the grind may not be the easiest mental hurdle to overcome. Practicing consistently enough can be tough, too. Finally, deconstructing a skill and knowing enough to see when you make a mistake takes some knowledge of the subject. While the above steps will help you get pretty good at a skill ridiculously fast, there are ways to improve even on that.

Design your learning as a stack, putting together the learning techniques, productivity tools, and resources that suit your personality and interests.

Or, you could even get some outside help, especially when it comes to designing your course of study and avoiding simple mistakes. By working with a mentor, or even an online tutor you could get help at that crucial moment when you don’t yet know what you want, what’s possible, or how to tell if you’ve made a mistake. By getting advice from those who know better, you are significantly shortening your road to becoming one of those people who know better.

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