5 Secrets to Learning New Skills More Quickly Than You Ever Thought Possible

Jul 19, 2013 - Joe Matar

Want to succeed in your career? Want to live a happy, fulfilling life?

Here’s the key: acquire new skills.

At work, the results you produce are the primary factor in whether or not you’re considered a top performer—with the salary, responsibility and status to match. If you examine the lives of professionals who’ve reached the top of their fields, you’ll find men and women who have invested a great deal of time and energy developing a wide variety of valuable skills.

Outside of work, the more things you know how to do, the more fun you can have. The best experiences in life almost always require some level of skill. Whether it’s painting a landscape, conversing in a new language, fixing up classic cars, tasting wine or playing music, your skills create new opportunities to explore and enjoy.

Acquiring new skills is the key to happiness and success, but a few common misconceptions prevent many people from getting started. The top offender is the “10,000 hour rule”—the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill.

The “10,000” Hour Rule, Debunked

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, among others, has found that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to reach the top of ultra-competitive performance fields like professional golf, music and chess. The more time a competitor spends in deliberate practice, the better they perform compared to those who have spent less time training.

The “10,000 hour rule,” properly understood, is true in its original, limited sense. Widespread repetition, however, has overextended the idea, and many people now assume that learning a new skill takes an enormous amount of time. That common misconception is demonstrably false.

When you’re learning something new, dwelling too much on “mastery” is worse than useless; it’s actively discouraging. The popular misinterpretation of the “10,000 hour rule” is a very real barrier to getting started.

You’re probably not training to become a chess grandmaster; the goal is to become good enough for your own purposes. So ignore the “10,000 hour rule”—it doesn’t apply to your situation.

You can pick up many useful skills in less than an hour. For complex cognitive and motor skills, 20 hours of practice will take you from knowing absolutely nothing to performing noticeably well. That’s roughly 40 minutes each day for a month.

Acquiring a new skill quickly is simple and requires little more than planning, common sense and persistence. Here’s how to do it in five easy steps:

1. Decide what you want to achieve

What do you want to be able to do? Setting a specific target performance level makes it easier to identify exactly what you’ll need to practice to perform at the level you desire.

2. Break the skill into smaller sub-skills

Most of the things we think of as skills (like “tennis” or “market analysis”) are actually bundles of smaller sub-skills that are used in combination. By deconstructing the skill into manageable parts, practice becomes less intimidating, and you can work on improving one sub-skill at a time.

3. Do just enough research to eliminate early misconceptions, and self-correct as you practice

Find a few solid how-to resources about the topic and skim them. The most important techniques and ideas will appear often, so practice those sub-skills first. Avoid too much research; it’s procrastination in disguise. Get your hands dirty as quickly as possible.

4. Remove barriers to practice

The more effort it takes to practice, the less likely you are to follow through. Change your environment to eliminate distractions, and make sure the tools you need are close at hand. Eliminating unnecessary effort reduces the amount of willpower you’ll need to get started.

5. Commit to at least 20 hours of focused, deliberate practice

Once you begin, keep going until you reach your objective or put in at least 20 hours. This commitment is designed to help you persist through early frustrations, and 20 hours is enough time to see dramatic results.

The 20 hour commitment also serves as an important litmus test: if you’re not willing to invest at least 20 hours, the skill likely isn’t important enough to you at the moment, and you’re better off learning something else.

This method is universal; you can use it to learn anything from discounted cash flow analysis to flying an airplane. No matter what skill you choose to acquire, the principles are the same.

The early hours of trying something new are always challenging, but a few hours of intelligent, focused practice can generate significant increases in skill. That’s why having a solid practice strategy before you begin is important. Anything you can do to optimize those critical early hours of practice will help you learn as quickly as you’re capable of learning.

So, what do you want to learn? Get started now. It only takes 20 hours.

Josh Kaufman is the bestselling author of The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything... Fast! and The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business. Follow him at joshkaufman.net and on Twitter at @joshkaufman.