- Acquire a skill or knowledge rapidly by being specific, prioritizing the most relevant parts, and deliberately practicing
- Acquire just enough learning to deliberately practice and self-correct
- Practice is necessary in acquiring skill and knowledge
- Credentialing can hurt rapid skill acquisition
- Three-stage model of skill acquisition
You learn something rapidly if you are curious enough about it Use curiosity to guide your thinking
I find it useful to think of these principles as ways to cultivate a “temporary obsession.” Rapid skill acquisition happens naturally when you become so curious and interested in something that other concerns fall away, at least temporarily.
Ten major principles of skill acquisition
Kaufman is a bit redundant. You can integrate these principles into the steps (?)
Think of these principles as ways to identify a skill worthy of temporary obsession, focus on it, and remove distractions or barriers that distract you from effective practice. Here are the ten major principles of rapid skill acquisition:
- Choose a lovable project.
- Focus your energy on one skill at a time.
- Define your target performance level.
- Deconstruct the skill into subskills.
- Obtain critical tools.
- Eliminate barriers to practice.
- Make dedicated time for practice.
- Create fast feedback loops.
- Practice by the clock in short bursts.
- Emphasize quantity and speed.
Choose a lovable project.
“The best thing that can happen to a human being is to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears.”
Rapid skill acquisition requires choosing a lovable problem or project. The more excited you are about the skill you want to acquire, the more quickly you’ll acquire it.
In practice, finding a lovable project is a very individual matter.
If you focus on acquiring your prime skill (that is, your most lovable project) before anything else, you’ll acquire it in far less time.
Focus your energy on one skill at a time.
acquiring new skills requires a critical mass of concentrated time and focused attention. If you only have an hour or two each day to devote to practice and learning, and you spread that time and energy across twenty different skills, no individual skill is going to receive enough time and energy to generate noticeable improvement.
When I try to learn everything at once, however, I don’t really learn anything. Instead of making progress, I spend too much time switching between different skills, getting frustrated, and moving on to something else. That’s a recipe for extremely slow skill acquisition.
Pick one, and only one, new skill you wish to acquire. Put all of your spare focus and energy into acquiring that skill, and place other skills on temporary hold.
Define your target performance level.
A target performance level is a simple sentence that defines what “good enough” looks like. How well would you like to be able to perform the skill you’re acquiring?
Your target performance level is a brief statement of what your desired level of skill looks like. Think of it as a single sentence description of what you’re trying to achieve, and what you’ll be able to do when you’re done. The more specific your target performance level is, the better.
Defining your target performance level helps you imagine what it looks like to perform in a certain way. Once you determine exactly how good you want or need to be, it’s easier to figure out how to get there.
How you define your target performance level depends on why you chose to acquire the skill in the first place.
Once you reach your initial target performance level, you can always choose to keep going if you wish. The best target performance levels seem just out of reach, not out of the realm of possibility.
As a rule, the more relaxed your target performance level, the more rapidly you can acquire the associated skill.
Deconstruct the skill into subskills.
Most of the things we think of as skills are actually bundles of smaller subskills. Once you’ve identified a skill to focus on, the next step is to deconstruct it—to break it down into the smallest possible parts.
Once the skill is deconstructed sufficiently, it’s much easier to identify which subskills appear to be most important. By focusing on the critical subskills first, you’ll make more progress with less effort.
Deconstructing a skill also makes it easier to avoid feeling overwhelmed. You don’t have to practice all parts of a skill at the same time. Instead, it’s more effective to focus on the subskills that promise the most dramatic overall returns.
Deconstructing the skill before you begin also allows you to identify the parts of the skill that aren’t important for beginning practitioners. By eliminating the noncritical subskills or techniques early in the process, you’ll be able to invest more of your time and energy mastering the critical subskills first.
Obtain critical tools.
Most skills have prerequisites to practice and performance.
What tools, components, and environments do you need to have access to before you can practice efficiently? How can you obtain the very best tools you can find and afford?
Taking a moment to identify critical tools before you start practicing saves precious time. By ensuring you have the resources you need before you begin, you maximize your practice time.
Eliminate barriers to practice.
Significant prepractice effort. Such as misplacing your tools, not acquiring the correct tools before practicing, or skipping setup requirements.
Intermittent resource availability. Such as using borrowed equipment or relying on a resource that has limited operating hours.
Environmental distractions. Such as television, ringing phones, and incoming e-mail.
Emotional blocks. Such as fear, doubt, and embarrassment.
Every single one of these elements makes it harder to start practicing, and therefore decreases your acquisition speed.
Relying on willpower to consistently overcome these barriers is a losing strategy. We only have so much willpower at our disposal each day, and it’s best to use that willpower wisely.
The best way to invest willpower in support of skill acquisition is to use it to remove these soft barriers to practice. By rearranging your environment to make it as easy as possible to start practicing, you’ll acquire the skill in far less time.
Make dedicated time for practice.
If you rely on finding time to do something, it will never be done. If you want to find time, you must make time.
You have 24 hours to invest each day: 1,440 minutes, no more or less. You will never have more time. If you sleep approximately 8 hours a day, you have 16 hours at your disposal. Some of those hours will be used to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Others will be used for work.
Whatever you have left over is the time you have for skill acquisition. If you want to improve your skills as quickly as possible, the larger the dedicated blocks of time you can set aside, the better.
The best approach to making time for skill acquisition is to identify low-value uses of time, then choose to eliminate them. As an experiment, I recommend keeping a simple log of how you spend your time for a few days. All you need is a notebook.
The results of this time log will surprise you: if you make a few tough choices to cut low-value uses of time, you’ll have much more time for skill acquisition. The more time you have to devote each day, the less total time it will take to acquire new skills. I recommend making time for at least ninety minutes of practice each day by cutting low-value activities as much as possible.
I also recommend precommitting to completing at least twenty hours of practice. Once you start, you must keep practicing until you hit the twenty-hour mark. If you get stuck, keep pushing: you can’t stop until you reach your target performance level or invest twenty hours. If you’re not willing to invest at least twenty hours up front, choose another skill to acquire.
The reason for this is simple: the early parts of the skill acquisition process usually feel harder than they really are. You’re often confused, and you’ll run into unexpected problems and barriers. Instead of giving up when you experience the slightest difficulty, precommitting to twenty hours makes it easier to persist.
Think of this approach as an exercise in grit: you’re not going to let some silly little issue stop you from doing what you’ve decided you really want to do. You’ll either solve the problem, or do your best until you reach the twenty-hour mark. At that point, you’ll be in a better position to decide how to proceed.
Create fast feedback loops.
“Fast feedback” means getting accurate information about how well you’re performing as quickly as possible. The longer it takes to get accurate feedback, the longer it will take to acquire the skill.
Fast feedback naturally leads to rapid skill acquisition. If feedback arrives immediately, or with a very short delay, it’s much easier to connect that information to your actions and make the appropriate adjustments.
The best forms of feedback are near instantaneous.
Coaches aren’t the only source of fast feedback. Capture devices, like video cameras, can help you watch yourself as you perform. Tools like computer programs, training aides, and other devices can immediately indicate when you make a mistake or something is amiss.
The more sources of fast feedback you integrate into your practice, the faster you’ll acquire the skill.
Practice by the clock in short bursts.
The solution for this is to practice by the clock. Buy a decent countdown timer3 and set it for twenty minutes. There’s only one rule: once you start the timer, you must practice until it goes off. No exceptions. This simple technique will make it easier to complete longer periods of sustained practice, even when you get tired or frustrated.
The more periods of sustained practice you complete, the faster your skill acquisition. Set aside time for three to five practice sessions a day, and you’ll see major progress in a very short period.
Emphasize quantity and speed.
When you begin to acquire a new skill, it’s tempting to focus on practicing perfectly—a recipe for frustration. Your performance, of course, won’t be anywhere close to perfection.
Instead of trying to be perfect, focus on practicing as much as you can as quickly as you can, while maintaining “good enough” form.
Skill is the result of deliberate, consistent practice, and in early-stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolute quality. The faster and more often you practice, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill.
That’s not to say that you should ignore good form while practicing. Some skills, particularly skills that require physical actions or motions, require a certain quality of form to perform well.
First, ensure you’re practicing using form that’s good enough to satisfy your target performance level. Once you’re practicing in good form at least 80 to 90 percent of the time, crank up the speed for faster skill acquisition.
So Does It Work?
When you start, you’re horrible, but you improve very quickly as you learn the most important parts of the skill. After reaching a certain level of skill very quickly, your rate of improvement declines, and subsequent improvement becomes much slower.
The trick is to start practicing as quickly as possible. Not thinking about practicing or worrying about practicing, but actually practicing.
The more time and energy you spend moving through the first two phases of the skill acquisition process and the less time you spend doing things that don’t help you, the more quickly you’ll acquire the skill.
What About Immersion?
The downside of immersion is that it usually requires making the skill your primary focus for an extended period of time.
Unfortunately, most of us have commitments we can’t (or don’t want to) walk away from: family, work, mortgage payments, et cetera. In these cases, immersion can be difficult or impossible.
In the worst-case scenario, the idea of immersion becomes an active barrier: if you keep waiting for an immersion opportunity before committing to acquiring a new skill, you can waste years of valuable time.
Take the immersion opportunities as they come, but don’t count on them. These techniques are designed to help you acquire new skills even if you only have an hour or two to spare each day.
Well Begun Is Half Done
You won’t need to use every one of these principles for every skill you acquire, but you’ll always find at least a handful of them essential.
I find it’s useful to think of these principles as a checklist. Whenever you decide to learn something new, just go though the checklist and decide which principles apply to your particular project.
Doing a bit of research before you jump into practice can save you precious time, energy, and emotional fortitude.
Learning makes your practice more efficient, which lets you spend more of your practice time working on the most important subskills first.
- Research the skill and related topics.
- Jump in over your head.
- Identify mental models and mental hooks.
- Imagine the opposite of what you want.
- Talk to practitioners to set expectations.
- Eliminate distractions in your environment.
- Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization.
- Create scaffolds and checklists.
- Make and test predictions.
- Honor your biology.
Research the skill and related topics.
Spend twenty minutes searching the web, browsing a bookstore, or scanning the stacks at your local library for books and resources related to the skill. The goal is to identify at least three books, instructional DVDs, courses, or other resources that appear to be connected to the skill you’re trying to acquire.
The intent of this early research is to identify the most important subskills, critical components, and required tools for practice as quickly as possible. The more you know in advance about the skill, the more intelligently you can prepare. The goal is to collect a wide body of knowledge about the skill as quickly as possible, creating an accurate overview of what the skill acquisition process will look like.
For rapid skill acquisition, skimming is better than deep reading. By noticing ideas and tools that come up over and over again in different texts, you can trust the accuracy of the patterns you notice and prepare your practice accordingly
Instead of reinventing the process, you’ll find existing techniques that have been perfected over many years by the masters of the field. If you see the same technique or process described in multiple resources, chances are good it’s important to know.
Once you’ve found what appear to be the most useful techniques, you can experiment with them
Jump in over your head
Early research is one of the best ways to identify critical subskills and ideas, but it’s also very likely you won’t know what they mean yet. The meaning comes later, once you’ve started practicing.
comprehensible input. By default, the new information you’re consuming isn’t very comprehensible, since it’s not connected to anything you know or have experienced.
Over time, the same information will become comprehensible once you have some experience under your belt.
Noticing you’re confused is valuable. Recognizing confusion can help you define exactly what you’re confused about, which helps you figure out what you’ll need to research or do next to resolve that confusion.
If you’re not confused by at least half of your early research, you’re not learning as quickly as you’re capable of learning. If you start to feel intimidated or hesitant about the pace you’re attempting, you’re on the right track. Provided you’re working on a lovable problem or project, the more confused you are at the outset, the more internal pressure you’ll feel to figure things out, and the faster you’ll learn.
Not being willing to jump in over your head is the single biggest emotional barrier to rapid skill acquisition. Feeling stupid isn’t fun, but reminding yourself that you will understand with practice will help you move from confusion to clarity as quickly as possible.
Identify mental models and mental hooks.
As you conduct your research, you’ll naturally begin to notice patterns: ideas and techniques that come up over and over again.
These concepts are called mental models, and they’re very important. Mental models are the most basic unit of learning: a way of understanding and labeling an object or relationship that exists in the world. As you collect accurate mental models, it becomes easier to anticipate what will happen when you take a specific action. Mental models also make it much easier to discuss your experiences with others.
You’ll also notice a few things that look like something you’re already familiar with. These are mental hooks: analogies and metaphors you can use to remember new concepts.
The more mental models and mental hooks you can identify in your early research, the easier it will be to use them while you’re practicing.
Imagine the opposite of what you want.
A counterintuitive way to gain insight into a new skill is to contemplate disaster, not perfection.
What if you did everything wrong? What if you got the worst possible outcome?
This is a problem-solving technique called inversion, and it’s helpful in learning the essentials of almost anything. By studying the opposite of what you want, you can identify important elements that aren’t immediately obvious.
Talk to practitioners to set expectations.
Early learning helps you set appropriate expectations: What does reasonable performance for a beginner actually look like?
When you jump into acquiring a new skill, it’s very common to underestimate the complexity of the task, or the number of elements involved that are required to perform well. If the skill involves the possibility of social prestige, the associated mystique can also cloud early expectations.
Talking to people who have acquired the skill before you will help dispel myths and misconceptions before you invest your time and energy. By knowing what you can expect to see as you progress, you’ll find it much easier to sustain your interest in practice, and avoid becoming discouraged early in the process.
Eliminate distractions in your environment.
Distractions are enemy number one of rapid skill acquisition. Distractions kill focused practice, and lack of focused practice leads to slow (or nonexistent) skill acquisition. You can preempt this by taking a few minutes to anticipate and eliminate (or reduce) as many distractions as possible before you start practicing.
The most significant sources of distraction come in two forms: electronic and biological.”
Your television, phone, and Internet are electronic distractions. Turn them off, unplug them, block them, or otherwise remove them from your environment while you’re practicing unless they’re absolutely necessary for the practice itself.
The fewer distractions you have while practicing, the more quickly you’ll acquire the skill.
Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization.
Here’s the catch: your memory isn’t perfect. Whenever you learn something new, you’ll probably forget it unless you review the concept within a certain period of time. This repetition reinforces the idea, and helps your brain consolidate it into long-term memory.
Researchers have found that memory follows a decay curve: new concepts need to be reinforced regularly, but the longer you’ve known a concept, the less regularly you need to review it to maintain accurate recall.
Spaced repetition and reinforcement is a memorization technique that helps you systematically review important concepts and information on a regular basis. Ideas that are difficult to remember are reviewed often, while easier and older concepts are reviewed less often.
By creating flash cards as you’re deconstructing the skill, you’re killing two birds with one stone.
Once you’ve created your flash cards, it only takes a few minutes each day to review them. By systematizing the review process and tracking recall, these systems can help you learn new ideas, techniques, and processes in record time. If you review the decks consistently, you’ll memorize necessary concepts and ideas extremely quickly.
It’s important to note that skill acquisition is usually much more involved than academic learning.
The best use of this technique is in instances where fast recall of information is essential. If you’re learning common vocabulary words in order to acquire a new language, spaced repetition and reinforcement is valuable. In instances where fast recall isn’t crucial, you’re usually better off skipping the flash cards in favor of maximizing practice and experimentation time.
Create scaffolds and checklists.
Creating a simple system is the best way to ensure these important elements happen with as little additional effort as possible.
Checklists are handy for remembering things that must be done every time you practice. They’re a way to systematize the process, which frees your attention to focus on more important matters.
Scaffolds are structures that ensure you approach the skill the same way every time.
Creating scaffolds and checklists makes your practice more efficient. They also make your practice easier to visualize, which helps you take advantage of mental rehearsal, which can help with some forms of physical practice.
Make and test predictions.
Based on what you know, can you guess how a change or experiment will turn out before you do it?
Getting into the habit of making and testing predictions will help you acquire skills more rapidly. It’s a variation on the scientific method, with four key elements:
- Observations—what are you currently observing
- Knowns—what do you know about the topic already?
- Hypotheses—what do you think will improve your performance?
- Tests—what are you going to try next?
I recommend using a notebook or other reference tool to track your experiments and form hypotheses as you practice. By keeping track of your predictions and generating new ideas, you’ll have more fruitful experiments to test.
Honor your biology.
the optimal learning cycle appears to be approximately ninety minutes of focused concentration. Any more, and your mind and body will naturally need a break. Use that opportunity to exercise, rest, have a meal or snack, take a nap, or do something else.
This principle dovetails very nicely with practicing by the clock. By setting your timer for sixty to ninety minutes before you start practicing or researching, it will be easier to remember to take a break when you’re done.
You can also split your practice into several smaller parts, with a short break in the middle if needed: twenty minutes of practice, ten-minute break, twenty minutes of practice, ten-minute break, et cetera.
Stacking the Deck
You won’t need to use all of these principles for every skill you acquire, but you’ll always find at least a few of them essential.
I find it’s useful to think of these principles as a secondary checklist. Whenever you decide to acquire a new skill, just review this checklist and decide which principles apply to your project.
Putting Theory into Practice
I have no experience with any of these skills. Using the techniques and methods I just described, my goal is to acquire each of them in thirty days or less. My estimated time of acquiring each of these skills is approximately twenty hours, averaging sixty to ninety minutes of practice each day.
Practice an hour a day for one month until you reach the 20-hour mark.
Precommit to practicing that skill for an hour or so a day for the next month. Once you actually start practicing, you’ll always pick it up more quickly than you expect. Break it down, make the time, try new things, and your brain will begin picking up the technique automatically: that’s what brains do. When you get stuck or confused, test a new approach.
Remember: once you start, you can’t stop until you reach your target performance level or the twenty-hour mark. Struggle if you must, but don’t stop. Show your grit, and keep pushing forward. You’ll get there: all it takes is practice.
Kaufman, J. (2013). The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast! Portfolio.