Have you ever wanted to learn something new but you did not know where or how to start? Many people find themselves in this situation. You are overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do to learn a new skill. To make things worse, the first few days or weeks of learning are the most painful because you are starting from a point of zero knowledge. Due to all this confusion and stress, you end up not even starting and you are stuck for months without making any progress. What if we told you there was a handy checklist of principles you could use for acquiring any skill. Following this checklist will help you get out of your skill acquisition paralysis.
In The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast, author Josh Kaufman talks about how rapid skill acquisition happens naturally when you become so curious and interested in something that other concerns fall away, at least temporarily. He then gives 10 principles for acquiring any new skill. These principles allow you to identify a skill worthy of temporary obsession, focus on it, and remove distractions or barriers that distract you from effective practice.
10 major principles for acquiring any new skill
- Choose a lovable project – Skill acquisition requires choosing a lovable problem or project. The more excited you are about the project that you can apply the skill to, the more quickly you will acquire that skill. In practice, finding a lovable project is a subjective matter. Naturally, you’ll learn the things you care about faster than the things you don’t.
- Focus your energy on one skill at a time – One of the easiest mistakes to make when acquiring new skills is attempting to acquire too many skills at once. It’s a matter of simple math: acquiring new skills requires a critical mass of concentrated time and focused attention. If you only have an hour or two each day to devote to practice and learning, and you spread that time and energy across twenty different skills, no individual skill is going to receive enough time and energy to generate noticeable improvement. Pick one, and only one, new skill you wish to acquire. Put all your spare focus and energy into acquiring that skill, and place other skills on temporary hold to save them for later.
- Define your target performance level – How well would you like to perform the skill you’re acquiring? Your target performance level is a brief statement of what your desired level of skill looks like. The more specific your target performance level is, the better. Defining your target performance level helps you imagine what it looks like to perform in a certain way. Once you determine exactly how good you want or need to be, it’s easier to figure out how to get there. The best target performance levels seem just out of reach, not out of the realm of possibility.
- Deconstruct the skill into sub-skills – Most of the things we think of as skills are actually bundles of smaller sub-skills. Once you have identified a skill to focus on, the next step is to break it down into the smallest possible parts. Once the skill is deconstructed sufficiently, it’s much easier to identify which sub-skills appear to be most important. By focusing on the critical sub-skills first, you’ll make more progress with less effort. Deconstructing a skill also makes it easier to avoid feeling overwhelmed. You don’t have to practise all parts of a skill at the same time.
- Obtain critical tools – Most skills have prerequisites to practice and performance. It’s difficult to play tennis if you don’t have a tennis racquet, or to learn how to drive a car if you don’t have access to one. What tools, components, and environments do you need to have access to before you can practise efficiently? Taking a moment to identify critical tools before you start practising saves precious time. By ensuring you have the resources you need before you begin, you maximise your practice time.
- Eliminate barriers to practice – There are many things that can get in the way of practice, which makes it much more difficult to acquire any skill. These barrier can be anything from, significant pre-practice effort, intermittent resource availability, environmental distractions and emotional blocks. Every single one of these elements makes it harder to start practising, and therefore decreases your acquisition speed. Rearrange your environment to make it as easy as possible to start practising.
- Make dedicated time for practice – The time you spend acquiring a new skill must come from somewhere. Unfortunately we want to acquire new skills and keep doing many of the other activities we enjoy, like watching TV, playing video games, etc. I will get around to it when I find the time, we say to ourselves. If you rely on finding time to do something, it will never be done. If you want to find time, you must make time. The best approach to making time for skill acquisition is to identify low-value uses of time, then choose to eliminate them.
- Create fast feedback loops – Fast feedback allows you to get accurate information about how well you are performing as quickly as possible. The longer it takes to get accurate feedback, the longer it will take to acquire the skill. If feedback arrives immediately, or with a very short delay, it’s much easier to connect that information to your actions and make the appropriate adjustments.
- Practice by the clock in short bursts – Our minds are not built to accurately estimate time like how long something will take, or how much time you’ve spent doing something. In the early phases of practising a new skill, it’s very easy to overestimate how much time you’ve spent practising. The solution for this is to practise by the clock. Time yourself as you practise your skill and set aside time for practice sessions everyday.
- Emphasise quantity and speed – When you begin to acquire a new skill, it’s tempting to focus on practising for perfection, a recipe for frustration. Your performance, of course won’t be anywhere close to perfect. Instead of trying to be perfect, focus on practising as much as you can as quickly as you can, while maintaining good enough form. Skill is the result of deliberate, consistent practice, and in early-stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolute quality. The faster and more often you practise, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill.
That’s it. Ten simple principles that will ensure you go about practising your prime skill in the most efficient and effective way possible. These techniques are designed to help you to acquire new skills even if you only have an hour or two to spare each day. You won’t need to use every one of these principles for every skill you acquire, but you’ll always find at least a handful of them essential.