How long does it take to learn a new skill? Not as long as you probably think.
Most people have heard of the “10,000 hour rule” – popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers – the idea that it takes at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill. Based on research by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, the “rule” is valid, as far as it goes. If you want to step on a golf course and seriously compete with Tiger Woods, that’s what you’re in for.
Here’s the problem with the “10,000 hour rule”: it doesn’t apply to the types of skill acquisition most people undertake. Aside from competitors in very narrow, ultra-competitive performance fields like sports, chess, and music, it’s way more common for people to decide to learn something for certain benefits: business success, personal interest, or enjoyment. You and I are playing a different game, so we can play by different rules.
In my new book, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast, I explain how you can learn any new skill in less than 20 hours of deliberate practice – that’s around 45 minutes a day for about a month. Here are a few tips for how to structure those 20 hours:
Decide What You Want
Most people have a very fuzzy idea of what they want to be able to do. Setting a “target performance level” helps you focus on practicing in a way that will help you get better results immediately. Targets like “learn to speak Italian” aren’t enough: think “book hotels and order meals in Italian while traveling” instead. The more specific and concrete your target is, the more useful it will be.
Most of skills we think of are actually comprised of smaller skills. For maximum efficiency, break the new skill apart and practice the most important sub-skills first. For example, you can learn to play hundreds of chords on a guitar or piano, but you can play the most of songs using only 3-6 common chords, so learn the most-often-used chords first.
As a society, we are excellent at filling our days with distractions. Between phones, computers, television, and the internet, it’s difficult to find time and attention to concentrate. Use a bit of willpower to eliminate these barriers to practice and you’ll greatly increase the likelihood of actually sitting down and dedicating focused time to practicing. Make a conscious effort to turn off your phone, close the computer, and focus singularly on the skill in front of you.
A bit of research will help you to identify and correct missteps as you practice, As you practice, you’ll get better at noticing when you’re making a mistake, allowing you to correct it. Find 3 to 5 resources about what you want to learn, and browse them quickly, looking for important ideas, terms, and techniques. But be wary; research can quickly become a sneaky form of procrastination. Research just enough to jump in and get your hands dirty, then sit down to practice.
Practice For At Least 20 Hours
The biggest barrier to skill acquisition is emotional, not psychological. By setting an attainable goal of 20 hours, you are committing to pushing through any initial feelings of frustration or incompetence. Pre-committing before you start makes it more likely you’ll persist long enough to get results.
There’s no substitute for focused, deliberate practice, but these principles can help you get the best results from the time you invest. Decide what you want to be able to do, do a bit of research, remove barriers, make time for practice, and jump in.
You’ll be good before you know it.
Josh Kaufman is a business professor, advisor, and best-selling author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business and theThe First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything.
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