We all have something we always wanted to learn how to do. It could be a new language, or how to swim, or speak in public, or learning to code, etc. But, where is the time to learn? You’re stretched thin between work, family and friends. By the time your obligations are done, you’re tired and ready to call it a day.
If only there was a way you could learn something without taking too much time out of your day. There is good news.
According to Josh Kaufman, author of The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything...Fast!, with just 20 hours of focused, strategic practice, you can go from knowing absolutely nothing to performing noticeably well.
That is roughly around 40 minutes a day for a month, so what are you waiting for? Let’s see how we can do this. If you prefer listening to reading, you could skip to the video below.
Decide what you want to be able to do
This is determining your target performance level by asking yourself how good do you want or need to be. Once you know this, it’s much easier to find specific practice methods to help you get there as quickly as possible.
Your target performance level doesn’t have to be your final destination. It’s just your first milestone - a marker that lets you set a direction, and measure your progress.
Deconstruct the skill
Break down the skill in to the smallest possible sub-skills. This helps to eliminate the early feelings of overwhelm and make it easier to get started.
For example, playing golf could be split in to the following sub-skills - driving off the tee, selecting clubs, chipping out of bunkers, and putting on the green.
Determine the critical sub-skills
Identify the most important sub-skills, and practice them first. These are the ones that will give you the greatest increases in performance, and accelerate your overall rate of skill acquisition.
It’s usually not very difficult to identify the key sub-skills: just pick up a few books or training resources, and spend an hour or so skimming them. The most important techniques and ideas will appear often, in multiple sources, allowing you to establish which sub-skills are critical with more confidence.
If you are learning to play a musical instrument, for example, knowing just a few chords gives you access to tons of songs. If you want to learn a new language, learn the most common 2,000 words and you'll have 80% text coverage.
Practice one sub-skill at a time
Practice learning one sub-skill at a time. Not only will the practice feel less frustrating, you’ll be able to track your progress more effectively.
Take golf as an example. Driving off the tee, hitting with an iron, chipping out of a bunker, and putting on the green are completely different sub-skills, so it’s best to practice each in isolation. Driving, using an iron, and putting happen most often, it’s probably best to practice those first.
Learn enough to get started and Self-Correct
Learn enough about each sub-skill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice. Use reference materials to catch yourself when you make a mistake, and correct yourself.
An hour or two of research is all you need: too much research is a subtle form of procrastination. Do your homework, get the core concepts, then shift to real practice as quickly as possible. Your early failures give you useful feedback about what’s really important, and accelerate the rest of your learning considerably.
For example, when learning to code, don’t wait to read 20 books on the subject before you start writing a program. Just skim through three introductory books, understand the critical concepts, and spend most of your time actually writing real programs - breaking them in to smaller parts, working on one at a time, testing and fixing bugs along the way.
Identify and remove anything (physical, mental, emotional) that distracts you from focusing on the skill you want to learn. The more effort it takes to sit down and begin, the less likely you are to practice.
Close the door. Keep your study materials where you can see them. Unplug your TV. Disconnect your internet. Mute your cell phone. Do whatever it takes to keep your attention on the task at hand.
Practice at least 20 hours
Practice the most important sub-skills deliberately for at least twenty hours. This is where most people fail - they dabble for a bit, get frustrated or distracted, then do something else.
There’s nothing magical about the 20-hour mark, and was chosen purely for psychological reasons. 20 hours is easy enough to pre-commit, and long enough to see dramatic results.
Your brain is a system built to learn: that’s what brains do. Practice, and your skills will improve extremely quickly.
Below is Josh Kaufman sharing how having his first child inspired him to approach learning in a whole new way.
h/t The First 20 Hours - Josh Kaufman