How long does it take to acquire a new skill?
If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers, you might have heard the number “10,000 hours” floating around. According to Gladwell, who was referring to a 1993 study published by the American Psychological Association, it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert.
But that number has largely been misinterpreted, according to Josh Kaufman in a TED talk he gave in 2013. The key word in Gladwell’s book is “expert.”
It doesn’t take 10,000 hours to learn something. It takes 10,000 hours to become a tip-top performer in a highly competitive field. That 1993 study was looking at professional athletes and world-class chess players, not people who want to learn how to play Taylor Swift songs on the guitar. (And thank goodness, because most of us don’t have that kind of time.)
The real key to learning something quickly is to take a deliberate, intelligent approach to your learning. To help you get a better sense of what that approach looks like, check out the 10 steps outlined below.
(In the spirit of learning how to advance your skills, check out HubSpot Academy’s “World Certification Week” — a week of inspiring and educational talks broadcast on Google Hangouts.)
How to Learn Anything Faster
First thing’s first: You’ll need to get specific about the skill you’d like to learn. “Writing” by itself is a little vague. Do you want to learn to write poems? Blog posts? Essays? Books? Same with “rowing” — do you want to row on a team, or by yourself? Each of these are a little different, and would require you to take different steps.
Once you’ve got a specific skill in mind, follow these steps to learn it quickly.
1) Break the skill into parts, and practice the most important parts first.
Deconstructing a skill into smaller pieces doesn’t just make it seem more manageable; it also lets you distinguish the most important things you’ll need to learn.
“Most of the things we think of as skills are actually big bundles of skills that require all sorts of different things,” said Kaufman in his TED talk. “The more you can break apart the skill, the more you’re able to decide, ‘What are the parts of the skill that will actually help me get to what I want?'”
Then, you can practice those things first. The result? You’ll be able to improve your performance in less time.
For example, let’s say you want to learn how to play the guitar. You can break that skill down into components like reading music, proper posture, proper finger placement, learning scales, learning chords, finger picking, and so on.
So which are the most important? You might argue that learning common chords and the finger placement for those chords are two of the most important skills, since knowing only a few chords means you’ll be able to play a ton of songs.
If you’re not sure what the most important parts of your skill are, then reserve that piece for the next step.
2) Learn from an actual expert.
No matter what skill you want to accomplish, there’s likely someone out there who’s already good at it. The fastest way to get good at something yourself is to find a person who’s already getting the results you want, figure out how they got to where they are, and model your own journey after theirs.
“It doesn’t matter what your age, gender or background is — modeling gives you the capacity to fast track your dreams and achieve more in a much shorter period of time,” wrote Tony Robbins, a motivational speaker and self-help author, in his book Power Talk.
Here’s where you might sign up for lessons, ask to go to coffee with a friend or coworker who’s already good at the skill you’re looking for, watch a film that follows an expert’s journey, and so on. There are a ton of different possibilities for how to learn from someone who has already gotten where you want to be — and thanks to the internet, you have a world of resources available to you.
If you don’t know anyone personally who’s an expert at the skill you want to learn, then you’ll have to do some research. Use your network. Spend some time searching online and you’ll likely start seeing names come up over and over again, who you can then study up on. You can also literally search for experts online using “expert search engines” like ExpertiseFinder.com.
3) Learn from multiple sources.
Studies show that the more different ways you experience a piece of information, the more likely you are to retain it. Why? Because different media activate different parts of our brains — and when several different parts of our brains are working at once, we can retain knowledge better and remember things more quickly.
So don’t just read books and articles related to your skill. Try listening to podcasts, watching videos, using apps to practice, and even jotting down notes as you learn.
But learning things in theory is only a part of building a new skill. Which brings me to my next point …
4) Spend one-third of your time researching, and two-thirds of your time practicing.
You can only learn so much about how to do a skill from researching it. You can spend all the time you want reading about how to shoot a soccer ball, but when you get out there on the pitch, don’t expect to have a perfect shot on your first try. You know what they say: Practice makes perfect.
But if you’re starting from scratch, you’ve obviously got to do some research first, otherwise you won’t know where to begin. So what’s the right ratio between practice and research?
Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code and The Little Book of Talent, suggests using what he calls the “rule of two-thirds.” It means you should spend only one-third of your time studying up on something, and the other two-thirds of your time actually doing it.
“Our brains evolved to learn by doing things, not by hearing about them,” Coyle told TIME Magazine. “This is one of the reasons that, for a lot of skills, it’s much better to spend about two thirds of your time testing yourself on it rather than absorbing it. … If you want to, say, memorize a passage, it’s better to spend 30% of your time reading it, and the other 70% of your time testing yourself on that knowledge.”
Kaufman suggests learning enough in theory to be able to recognize mistakes and self-correct. Once you reach that point, you can move on to focusing most of your time practicing.
5) Pre-commit to practicing for at least 20 hours.
Remember that it doesn’t take 10,000 to get good at something; it takes 10,000 hours to become a tip-top performer in a highly competitive field. To get good at something, Kaufman says it takes about 20 hours of focused, deliberate practice. So once you get into the practicing phase, make a commitment to practice for at least 20 hours before even thinking about quitting.
Now, 20 hours is a lot less than 10,000 hours, but it’s still a big time commitment to carve out our busy lives. It’s the equivalent of about 40 minutes per day for a month.
That time commitment is the part where people have the most trouble — but it’s also the key to success. It’s not necessarily fun to practice the same skill over and over again, day after day. People tend to hit what Kaufman calls “the frustration barrier,” which is when we feel like we aren’t improving quickly despite committing a lot of time and effort. This is where we lose confidence — and it’s where we tend to quit.
That frustration is a barrier to progress. But if you pre-commit to spending at least 20 hours practicing the skill, you’ll have a much better shot at sticking it out through those moments of frustration.
6) Get immediate feedback on your performance.
Once you get into the practicing phase, make sure you’re seeking feedback on your performance and correcting mistakes before they become ingrained.
According to Gladwell in his book Outliers, what really separated the Beatles from other bands at the time wasn’t just practicing; it was that they got in front of live audiences as much as they could in order to get immediate feedback on their performance.
Feedback can come from a mentor, a coach, a friend — from many different sources, depending on the skill you’re learning. But the point of it is for you to learn where you’re making mistakes that you don’t know you’re making, and learn correct or alternative strategies. The quicker you’re able to get feedback and correct your form and mistakes, the quicker you’ll improve.
7) Give yourself deadlines.
If you’ve done some reading on productivity, you may have heard of Parkinson’s Law. It goes like this:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Remember that paper in college you had all semester to write, and yet you ended up writing the whole thing the weekend before it was due? Yeah, that was Parkinson’s Law.
The trick to turning Parkinson’s Law in your favor is to set deadlines for yourself. When you give yourself less time to get something done, it’ll make you do it more efficiently. In other words, you need to kick your own butt a little bit.
I’ve found that the most effective way to do this is to plan something in advance that’ll require me to practice beforehand. For example, when I decided I wanted to become a better and more experienced public speaker, I planned several speaking events in different cities months in advance. Instead of procrastinating, having actual events on the calendar — ones that I couldn’t get out of, seeing as they were in front of live audiences in different cities — forced me to spend time preparing and learning.
Or, you can do what this woman did: Take videos of your progress over time, and publish a time lapse at the end. Take a look:
Looking for ways to put pressure on yourself in shorter periods of time? Try using the Pomodoro technique, a time management technique based on periods of distraction-free work followed by short breaks. Free tools like e.ggtimer.com and Tomato Timer are especially helpful.
8) Focus, focus, focus.
To learn quickly, it’ll be important to commit your full focus and attention to the time you spend researching and practicing your skill. These days, that’s easier said than done thanks to our short attention spans and constantly buzzing devices.
Multitasking is a common bad habit we’re all guilty of, but research shows it can make us a lot less effective and increase mistakes — not to mention stress. If you think you’re an exception, consider this: Only 2% of the population is actually capable of multitasking effectively. For the other 98%, all it does is cause us to be 40% less productive and make 50% more mistakes than non-multitaskers.
To help you stay focused when you’re working on your skill, start by putting away your cell phone and removing notifications from your computer if you’re using it. The Pomodoro technique can also be helpful here (see #6).
9) Get enough sleep.
Sleep plays a big role in our ability to learn new information and skills. When we’re awake, new situations and stimuli can prevent new memories from consolidating in our minds. But when we’re asleep, we’re better at consolidating new memories. One study from a German research lab found that sleep helps our memory formation most if you know you will need the information later — like when studying notecards for a test.
In fact, some scientists believe the brain can actually change its own structure and organization in response to changes within our bodies and in our environment, like when we’re learning a new skill.
This is a theory called the brain plasticity theory, and it suggests those all-important structural and organizational changes in our brain take place when we’re asleep. Without adequate sleep, we have a hard time learning something new because our brain doesn’t have the opportunity to review and “absorb” the new information.
When you get enough sleep while you’re learning a new skill, you’ll be able to consolidate those memories faster and make fewer mistakes overall.
10) Don’t quit after the honeymoon phase.
Remember when I talked about those moments of frustration in #5 when people tend to quit? This is what Seth Godin calls “The Dip.” People quit because they run out of time, run out of money, get scared, don’t take it seriously, or lose interest.
When we experience the opportunity to learn something new, we enter what many people call the “honeymoon phase.” This is where we experience releases of dopamine as we experience new things. In other words, we’re hardwired to appreciate and seek out novelty because it makes us feel good.
But when the “honeymoon phase” fades, well … that’s when we experience “the dip.” Our progress slows, we get frustrated, and many of us quit.
This is exactly why we pre-committed to 20 hours of practice before we quit. Make sure you keep track of that time to help motivate you when you feel a dip coming, and fight through it. Commitment through these moments of weakness are game-changers when it comes to getting good at a new skill.
What are your tips for learning new skills quickly? Share your experiences with us in the comments.