How to Master Any Skill Rapidly
Rapid skill acquisition happens naturally when you become so curious and interested in something that is worth learning. Think of these principles as ways to identify a skill worthy of temporary obsession, focus on it, and remove distractions or barriers that distract you from effective practice. Here are ten major principles of rapid skill acquisition from the book The First 20 hours by Josh Kaufman :
1. Choose a lovable project. Rapid skill acquisition requires choosing a lovable problem or project. The more excited you are about the skill you want to acquire, the more quickly you’ll acquire it. In practice, finding a lovable project is a very individual matter. You naturally learn things you care about faster than things you don’t. If you focus on acquiring your prime skill (that is, your most lovable project) before anything else, you’ll acquire it in far less time.
2. 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 the same time. 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 of your spare focus and energy into acquiring that skill, and place other skills on temporary hold. You can also make also a list of things you may want to explore sometime in the future, but that aren’t important enough to focus on right now. By adding an item to the list, you’re temporarily absolving yourself of responsibility for acting or thinking about the idea until you decide to promote it to active status. Focusing on one prime skill at a time is absolutely necessary for rapid skill acquisition. You’re not giving up on the other skills permanently, you’re just saving them for later.
3. Define your target performance level. A target performance level is a simple sentence that defines what “good enough” looks like. How well would you like to be able to perform the skill you’re acquiring? Your target performance level is a brief statement of what your desired level of skill looks like. Think of it as a single sentence description of what you’re trying to achieve, and what you’ll be able to do when you’re done. 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.
How you define your target performance level depends on why you chose to acquire the skill in the first place. If your intent is to have fun, your target is the point at which you stop feeling frustrated and start enjoying the practice itself. If your intent is to perform, what’s the minimum level of performance you’re willing to accept at first? Once you reach your initial target performance level, you can always choose to keep going if you wish. The best target performance levels seem just out of reach, not out of the realm of possibility.
As a rule, the more relaxed your target performance level, the more rapidly you can acquire the associated skill. If you’re operating under a world-class mastery mind-set, this may feel like cheating: you’re just lowering the bar so you can “win” faster, right? That’s exactly what we’re doing, and it’s not cheating. Remember, world-class mastery is not the end point of rapid skill acquisition. We’re shooting for capacity and sufficiency at maximum speed, not perfection. It’s important to note that some skills have safety considerations, which you should always include in your target performance level. Getting hurt (or killed) acquiring a new skill defeats the purpose.
4. Deconstruct the skill into sub-skills. Most of the things we think of as skills are actually bundles of smaller sub-skills. Once you’ve identified a skill to focus on, the next step is to deconstruct it—to break it down into the smallest possible parts. For example, playing golf is a skill that has many sub-components: choosing the correct club, driving off the tee, hitting out of a bunker, putting, et-cetera.
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 practice all parts of a skill at the same time. Instead, it’s more effective to focus on the sub-skills that promise the most dramatic overall returns.
Deconstructing the skill before you begin also allows you to identify the parts of the skill that aren’t important for beginning practitioners. By eliminating the noncritical sub-skills or techniques early in the process, you’ll be able to invest more of your time and energy mastering the critical sub-skills first.
5. Obtain critical tools. Most skills have prerequisites to practice and performance. It’s difficult to play tennis if you don’t have a tennis racket, or learn how to pilot a helicopter if you don’t have access to one. What tools, components, and environments do you need to have access to before you can practice efficiently? How can you obtain the very best tools you can find and afford?Taking a moment to identify critical tools before you start practicing saves precious time. By ensuring you have the resources you need before you begin, you maximize your practice time.
6. 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 barriers can be anything from
Significant pre-practice effort. Such as misplacing your tools, not acquiring the correct tools before practicing, or skipping setup requirements.
Intermittent resource availability. Such as using borrowed equipment or relying on a resource that has limited operating hours.
Environmental distractions. Such as television, ringing phones, and incoming e-mail. Emotional blocks. Such as fear, doubt, and embarrassment.
Every single one of these elements makes it harder to start practicing, and therefore decreases your acquisition speed. Relying on willpower to consistently overcome these barriers is a losing strategy. We only have so much willpower at our disposal each day, and it’s best to use that willpower wisely. The best way to invest willpower in support of skill acquisition is to use it to remove these soft barriers to practice. By rearranging your environment to make it as easy as possible to start practicing, you’ll acquire the skill in far less time.
7. Make dedicated time for practice. The time you spend acquiring a new skill must come from somewhere. Unfortunately, we tend to want to acquire new skills and keep doing many of the other activities we enjoy, like watching TV, playing video games, et cetera. No one ever “finds” time for anything, in the sense of miraculously discovering some bank of extra time, like finding a twenty-dollar bill you accidentally left in your coat pocket. If you rely on finding time to do something, it will never be done. If you want to find time, you must make time.
You have 24 hours to invest each day: 1,440 minutes, no more or less. You will never have more time. If you sleep approximately 8 hours a day, you have 16 hours at your disposal. Some of those hours will be used to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Others will be used for work. Whatever you have left over is the time you have for skill acquisition. If you want to improve your skills as quickly as possible, the larger the dedicated blocks of time you can set aside, the better.
The best approach to making time for skill acquisition is to identify low-value uses of time, then choose to eliminate them. As an experiment, I recommend keeping a simple log of how you spend your time for a few days. All you need is a notebook. The results of this time log will surprise you: if you make a few tough choices to cut low-value uses of time, you’ll have much more time for skill acquisition. The more time you have to devote each day, the less total time it will take to acquire new skills. I recommend making time for at least ninety minutes of practice each day by cutting low-value activities as much as possible.
I also recommend pre-committing to completing at least twenty hours of practice. Once you start, you must keep practicing until you hit the twenty-hour mark. If you get stuck, keep pushing: you can’t stop until you reach your target performance level or invest twenty hours. If you’re not willing to invest at least twenty hours up front, choose another skill to acquire.
The reason for this is simple: the early parts of the skill acquisition process usually feel harder than they really are. You’re often confused, and you’ll run into unexpected problems and barriers. Instead of giving up when you experience the slightest difficulty, pre-committing to twenty hours makes it easier to persist. Think of this approach as an exercise in grit: you’re not going to let some silly little issue stop you from doing what you’ve decided you really want to do. You’ll either solve the problem, or do your best until you reach the twenty-hour mark. At that point, you’ll be in a better position to decide how to proceed.
8. Create fast feedback loops. “Fast feedback” means getting accurate information about how well you’re performing as quickly as possible. The longer it takes to get accurate feedback, the longer it will take to acquire the skill. Take the art of cheese making, for example. The subtle chemical processes that create fine cheeses often take months or years to complete, and there’s no way to rush the process without ruining the result. If it takes six months to determine whether or not your cheese is any good, the delay in feedback makes it difficult to acquire the skill quickly.
Fast feedback naturally leads to rapid skill acquisition. 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. The best forms of feedback are near instantaneous. That’s why skills like programming can become mildly addictive: you make a change, and a few milliseconds later the computer tells you whether or not it worked. If you don’t like the feedback (“my program crashed!”), make another change and try again. The more sources of fast feedback you integrate into your practice, the faster you’ll acquire the skill.
9. Practice by the clock in short bursts. Our minds are built to learn—to notice patterns, simulate potential courses of action, and figure out what’s probably going to happen next. They’re not built to accurately estimate time—how long something will take, or how much time you’ve spent doing something. In the early phases of practicing a new skill, it’s very easy to overestimate how much time you’ve spent practicing. When you’re no good (and you know it), time seems to slow to a crawl, and it feels like you’ve been practicing for a longer period of time than you actually have.
The solution for this is to practice by the clock. Buy a decent count down timer and set it for twenty minutes. There’s only one rule: once you start the timer, you must practice until it goes off. No exceptions. This simple technique will make it easier to complete longer periods of sustained practice, even when you get tired or frustrated. The more periods of sustained practice you complete, the faster your skill acquisition. Set aside time for three to five practice sessions a day, and you’ll see major progress in a very short period.
10. Emphasize quantity and speed. When you begin to acquire a new skill, it’s tempting to focus on practicing perfectly—a recipe for frustration. Your performance, of course, won’t be anywhere close to perfection. Instead of trying to be perfect, focus on practicing 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 practice, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill. That’s not to say that you should ignore good form while practicing. Some skills, particularly skills that require physical actions or motions, require a certain quality of form to perform well. If you’re practicing your painting technique, going Jackson Pollack on one hundred canvases in a day isn’t going to help you if your aim is to paint lifelike portraits. Technique matters.
First, ensure you’re practicing using form that’s good enough to satisfy your target performance level. Once you’re practicing in good form at least 80 to 90 percent of the time, crank up the speed for faster skill acquisition. That’s it: ten simple principles that will ensure you go about practicing your prime skill in the most efficient and effective way possible.