How to Learn Anything… Fast – Josh Kaufman
two years ago I became very curious about the process of learning something new deciding finally to sit down and learn that thing or in my case several things that have been in the back of my mind for a long time now and so I decided to really take a step back and do some research to figure out how do we learn how do we learn things quickly how would do we learn learn things in a way that allows us to go from knowing absolutely nothing about a skill to being really good in a very short period of time and hopefully to have that process be as fun and exciting and not frustrating and not stressful .
so I decided to go to the library and look up what cognitive psychology says about how we learn and there’s one idea that keeps coming up over and over and over again the 10 that was an hour rule it takes 10,000 hours to learn something the 10,000 hour rule was popularized in a book called outliers by Malcolm Gladwell fantastic book the research is really fascinating so the original idea of the 10,000 hour rule came from studies it was a gentleman by the name of K Anders Ericsson at the University of Florida who studied people like chess grandmasters and people who win the PGA Tour at golf people who are the very best in the world at whatever.
it is that they do and what dr. Erikson found was very simple the more you practice the more time you spend in what he called deliberate practice focusing and systematically working the elements of the skill the more time you spend better you get and in every discipline what you usually find is the people at the pinnacle of their careers.
The people that are the best in the world have spent around ten thousand hours over a period of at least 10 years systematically practicing that element of skill so that set of research is valid as far as it goes but it doesn’t go very far and here’s why most of us when we decide to learn something new for ourselves we do not have the goal of setting out to be the very best in the world at some very narrow competitive field right but since this idea came to the popular consciousness five or six years ago.
we’ve played a society-wide game of telephone about this particular idea so dr. Erickson was saying something very specific it takes 10,000 hours to reach the top of ultra competitive easily ranked performance fields right very specific but as that message passed from one person to the to another it became it takes 10,000 hours to master something it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something.
it takes 10,000 hours to learn something but that last statement it takes 10,000 hours to learn something is demonstrably not true it’s not true and thank goodness it’s not true because we can decide to sit down for ourselves and spend a little bit of time going from knowing absolutely nothing about any subject .
you could think of putting a little bit of practice and becoming very very good in a very short period of time and what my research over the past two years has indicated is the order of magnitude of going from knowing absolutely nothing to being really good and knowing that you’re good is about 20 hours not 10,000 20 hours is about 40 minutes a day every day for about a month even in the busiest schedules if you can clear a half an hour to 45 minutes a day to sit down and finally learn that thing you’ve always wanted to learn you will be astounded absolutely astounded at how good you become in a very short period of time . so what I discuss in the first 20 hours is a method of sitting down deciding to learn something you’ve never done before and then learning that in as effective and efficient a way as you possibly can.
The method very broadly has five steps and they’re very simple,
The first step is decide exactly what you want:
what do you want to be able to do what is it going to look like when you’re done what are you going to be able to look at yourself and say I did this thing that I’ve always wanted to do what does it look like the more clearly and completely you’re able to define exactly what you want to be able to do the easier it will be for you to find ways to accomplish that desire to end result as quickly and efficiently as possible. I call this defining a target performance level what how well do you want to be able to perform and what does that performance actually look like in the moment.
The second step that you do is what I call deconstructing the skill:
so most of the things that we think of as skills aren’t really just one skill they’re bundles of smaller sub skills that we all that we use in combination with each other right so imagine a skill like golf golf is not just one thing it’s a bundle of all sorts of things,
For example driving off the tee and chipping on the green have very little to do in common with each other very few skills overlap there but they’re both important if you want to be able to play golf well so instead of trying to learn golf as a global skill you break it apart into these smaller parts and you practice the most important sub skills the thing that you’re going things that you’re going to use most first that allows you to focus on the elements of practice that actually give you the performance that you’re looking for so you’re breaking the skill down into the smallest parts you possibly can and practicing the jewelle sub-skills .
The third step is researching:
researching just enough that you’re able to identify the most important sub skills involved in whatever it is that you want to learn how to do but also understanding and being able to self-correct as you’re practicing so go out and find three to five books courses DVDs trainers people or resources that can help you do that initial deconstruction and understand which are the sub sub skills that are going to help you get as good as you possibly can as quickly as possible now the trick is don’t allow that research to become a form of procrastination in itself the best approach is to pick three four or five resources you don’t go through them completely you skim them and what you’re looking for in that initial research process go through lots of different resources and see identify the ideas that come up over and over and over again that’s a very clear indication that those concepts and those techniques are particularly important.
Those are the things that you should know so you can self correct as you practice and those are the sub skills that you should probably practice.
The fourth step is removing barriers to practice:
Asking it easy to sit down and actually do the thing you want to get better at so in our lives we have thousands of distractions we have the television and the internet and social media and family members and and friends and all of the things in our lives that make us so busy during the practice process it’s extremely important to make sure that you are not distracted by outside forces turn off the TV block the internet close the door turn off your cell phone remove.
the distractions that that can take your focus away from whatever this thing that you’re trying to practice is and make sure that that time the you have set aside to practice in a way that was going to make you better is as undivided and focused as possible likewise anything you can do to make it easy for yourself to practice do that so instead of relying on your willpower to force yourself to sit down every single time use a little bit of willpower once and make it easy for yourself to do the things you want to do .
For example one one classic skill that people usually want to learn playing the guitar which is easier picking up a guitar that is right next to you sitting on a stand by the chair that you usually sit on or getting a guitar out of the case that’s in the back of a closet on the other side of your house every time you want to practice right by making it easy having the guitar next to you you make it easier to remind yourself that practice is a priority and you make it easier to actually pick up that guitar and start practicing in the moment anything you can do to remove friction or remove effort from desiring to practice to getting started is a benefit it helps you do what you’ve already decided to do .
Fifth and very important step pre commit:
to at least 20 hours of focused deliberate practice before you begin and that pre commitment is very important because it serves a couple of different purposes the first is the pre commitment itself deciding I’m going to invest at least 20 hours in this skill where I’m not going to do it at all is a check upon yourself how important is this really if it is important to you and you’re willing to make that pre commitment of at least 20 hours of practice it does a number of important things the first is the early hours of practice are frustrating for everyone everybody at the beginning of everything is absolutely horrible.
They know it and so understanding that that is a fundamental feature of how skill acquisition work by pre committing to at least 20 hours of practice you are guaranteeing to yourself that you are going to make it through those early frustrating hours where nothing is working or you come up again against an unexpected obstacle or you’re really horrible and you’re not very comfortable with that by pre committing a certain amount of time you are guaranteeing to yourself that you are able to push past the early frustration and actually see results from your practice so the idea of pre committing 20 hours is really there’s nothing magical about that number it’s a line in the sand 20 hours of deliberate practice is long enough to see really dramatic results going from knowing absolutely nothing to being very good in a short period of time but it’s not also..
it’s a barrier to committing to that practice time in the first place and that’s really it there’s no magic to it it’s just focused strategic effort invested in something you care about and something that is going to be rewarding to yourself and to your life learning is is a uniquely human activity we’re all learning we’re all capable of learning hundreds or thousands of different things over the course of our life and what this process really does it may strike you as common sense it is it’s intentionally .
Learning the process of learning is not difficult what we’re doing in this process is really just removing all of the frustrations all of the barriers all of the things that get in the way of us sitting down and doing the work and so instead of doubling a little bit here and doubling a little bit over there and not really amassing enough time to get good at something we’re shaping our behavior in such a way that we will actually see results from the time and attention.
we’re spending improving something so it is common sense and really when you sit down and learn something these are the things that everybody naturally does we just have a choice we can do it the hard inefficient way or we can do it the easy straightforward strategic way and if you do it the strategic way you can save yourself a lot of time a lot of energy and a lot of effort playing that way Lea’s is a really great example of a classic motor skill right you are learning.
how to move your body in such a way in a certain time in and make certain shapes with your fingers and we’re just to make music come out of the instrument right so it’s it’s very akin to learning how to skateboard or learning how to windsurf or any other of the you know learning how to chop with a knife when you’re cooking those types of physical movement skills in in the research literature are called motor skills and so one of the interesting things about learning motor skills is if you there’s there’s.
a tremendous amount of research in motor skill literature that says if you practice shortly before sleeping you actually learn or or remember you can consolidate the the practice in a way that helps you perform better the next day and so the practice strategy for gelila was very simple 40 minutes every day before I went to bed I practiced in the practice looked something like this usually with deconstruction if you feel like you’re being too simple you’re probably doing it right and so I I started got a nice cool a light and the very first thing was it didn’t have Springs on it .
I had to put strings on it otherwise you couldn’t play right sometimes there are environmental things things that you need to make sure are present certain tools certain characteristics before you can start practicing so I got a new Glalie I put strings on it I tuned it and the early hours of practice were very simple I was learning chords which basically shapes of the fingers on my left hand pressing down on the fretboard and then strumming patterns on on the right hand so the early hours of practice were this is a G chord and this is a D chord and this is an E minor chord and this is the C chord very simple and I would just go back over and over trying to memorize the chord name and the shape of the fingers and make sure that my technique was good enough.
I was pressing down on the frets in a way that caused it to sound relatively good right very simple very straightforward so isolate the left hand shapes of chords right hand was very much strumming patterns so I’m doing something different doing something more complicated the same thing on the left hand something different on the right hand you have no idea how much I practice the sequence over and over and over again and the repetition is really important because by doing it over and over again you allow your brain to go through what’s there.
there are three phases of learning so cognitive you’re really thinking about it you’re really focusing it’s like this is a G chord this is a D chord you’re really really thinking about it the interrelating part of the learning process is where you’re starting to do it on your own it’s starting to feel more natural you don’t have to spend as much time and energy thinking about it and eventually the third stage of learning is where it’s automatic you can just do it as it turns out you can play approximately 60% of songs ever written with two chord progressions so twinkle twinkle little star how I wonder what you are very simple one four five progression right there was a a wonderful band in Australia called axis of Awesome they are a a comedy rock band .
they have a song that they call the four chords on and and the gag is that you can play every pop song ever written if you know four chords and you know how to switch between them just a small town girl livin in a lonely world midnight train going anywhere Adele I heard that you settle down thank you found a girl and you’re married now every night in my dreams I see you I feel you that is how I know will to go on I hesitate no more no more it cannot wait I’m yours is your amazing weed amazing things I could I would go wherever you will and can you feel no night gee we will be loved and she will be loved.
when I find myself in times of trouble mother Mary comes to me sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner no woman no cry’ a mother shorty is a dream I come from an anon anon sir Jolly swagman camped by a Billabong hey I just met you and this is crazy but here’s my number it’s a call me sexy lady woof woof football wasn’t Gangnam style time to say goodbye closing time every new beginning comes from some other beginnings end thank you I get .
I love that song and so you can really start to see you know I started out with the simplest of this simple where does my left hand go and where does my right hand go and what do what do I do together practice that enough so learning the chords learning the percussion became reasonably automatic and then just layered the songs on top of it one of the nice parts about this process is you get to 20 hours you have a certain level of skill if you want to keep improving just do it again do another 20 hours and decide what you want to go from there so learning learning songs that require more than just simple strumming going up and down.
the fretboard that’s the next challenge and it’s nice the the first 20 hours that I put into learning the instrument has prepared me for that next step and I’ll get as far as I can go in 20 hours see where I am and just layer the practice on top of each other over and over and over again until I’m as good as I want to be and you know that’s that’s the really nice part about this learning process in general you can use it to learn anything literally anything so what is that thing for you what do you want to learn what lights you up go and learn that thing it only takes 20 hours then the motivation to keep going through the part of practice when you’re horrible you just it’s depressing.
how little it’s progress you kind of make deal what does the literature say from your research in terms of how far you should push yourself to be out of your comfort zone to keep failing to kind of stretch yourself versus building it up in a sort of more incremental way so that you constantly feel like you’re making progress and you get that kind of psychological reward of knowing I’ve just done that you know you don’t kind of crash too often if you don’t mean what’s what’s the sort of right balance to get that because that can be a hard thing to sure distraction the research literature actually says very little about this topic because you know most most of the research about skill acquisition at least of this type tends to focus more on the longer term you know becoming extremely good at something .
the best that they’ve that they found is is a result that keeps coming up over and over and over again which is you your rate of learning your rate of skill acquisition is absolutely the highest in those first couple of hours across every skill it’s called the the power law of practice or the power law of learning you improve a tremendous amount in those early few hours but how to go about that process in the in for professional or personal skills not a whole lot of research on that that’s actually where the idea of the first 20 hours came from because by making that pre commitment to practicing at least 20 hours before you start doing anything what you’re part of what you’re doing is transferring what you feel the excitement .
whatever it is that you want to get out of the skill by making that pre-commitment you’re kind of advancing that into the future right you’re making it easier for yourself to remember that there’s a reason why you’re going through this pain right now is because you want to get something from it setting like there’s a limit on it so it doesn’t feel like it’s an indefinite amount of pain exactly it’s a manageable amount and you know .
what if if you really don’t like something or you’re really horrible at it 20 hours isn’t a tremendous amount of time and so if you if you reach the 20 hour mark and you say you know what this is not for me this is not something that I’m interested in or I’m not good at I don’t think I can invest more time and get any more use out of than fantastic drop it at that point now you have 20 hours worth of personal experience about what that thing actually looks like the biggest failure is is dabbling for an hour – and deciding I’m not talented at fill-in-the-blank whatever it is that you’re doing and not continuing to explore something that that you may be really good at and that may be really beneficial to you you.