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Learning fast

July 3rd, 2013 No comments

Today I came across a seductively simple 5-step approach to learning a new skill fast.

In a video interview with Jonathan Fields of The Good Life Project, author Josh Kaufman describes how to get ‘good enough’ at a new skill within 20 hours of practice. The five steps, as set out in his book The First 20 Hours: how to learn anything…fast are:

  1. State the level of performance you want to achieve with the new skill. What is it you want to be able to do? So not just ‘learn French’ but instead ‘go to a restaurant where the waiters speak only French, and spend the entire meal speaking only French’.
  2. Deconstruct the sub-skills you need to achieve that level of performance. It’s really hard to practice ‘being a good golfer’. But you can practice ‘driving the ball 100 yards from the tee’.
  3. To help you do step 2, do some research to find out what those sub-skills are (eg skim-read between  3 and 5 ‘how to’ books, identifying the key skills those books identify). Josh warns against over-researching and getting stuck at this stage: this step is about taking a quick overview of the subject area so you can focus in on the key sub-skills.
  4. Make it as easy as possible to actually start practicing – eliminate as many barriers to practice as you can. So if you’re going to learn some chords on the guitar, keep your guitar out of its case on a stand where you can easily reach it in your practice place – not buried at the back of a cupboard.
  5. Pre-commit to practising those sub-skills for at least 20 hours. Then do the practice.

‘Accelerated Learning: how to get good at anything in 20 hours’ on YouTube

I find the first step really appealing – it makes the goal much more achievable: rather than boiling the ocean you are encouraged to think of a very concrete goal. And this step also guarantees that what you are learning is something you can actually use – you only learn the skills you need, rather than mastering the whole field.

Josh Kaufman is happy to agree that taking this approach doesn’t make the practice itself any easier – the first few hours are still going to be tough and discouragain, and all learners will make mistakes. And it’s only when you get to the end of step 5 that the practice actually begins – I know from my own experience that I can spend a long time in steps 1-4, avoiding starting on step 5…

There’s a lovely little moment at the end of the video interview where the interviewer Jonathan Fields is visibly excited by this approach and keen to try it out. But he resists naming what he is going to try to learn, because he realises that he has not fully committed to actually putting in the 20 hours of initial practice. Until he’s ready to make that commitment he won’t be going public.

Early in the video Josh explains how his approach fits with the often-quoted figure of 10,000 hours of practice needed to master a skill. Really mastering a skill – for example, being able to play golf against Tiger Woods and have a chance of beating him – would indeed take around 10,000 hours of focused, deliberate practice. That’s what it takes to be one of the best in the world. But you can get surprisingly good at a new skill – according to Josh – in only 20 hours (that’s 40 minutes a day for about a month).

I’m very interested in giving this a go, and have already thought of a skill I’d like to get better at. But I think I’ll do some practice first before I go public on my commitment… just to see if I can get beyond step 5.

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