How to: 10 Steps to Learn Any Skill (and Why They Will Change Your Life)

How to: Learn Any Skill
17 MINUTE READ

How to: Learn Any Skill

Perfect for you if:

  • You can’t remember the last time you read a book or picked up a new skill.
  • You struggle with boredom, depression, anxiety or a lack of purpose.
  • You’re looking for ways to supercharge your learning skills.

When was the last time you read a non-fiction book? Or made real tangible progress learning a new skill? Was it a week ago? A month? A year? At school?

This is a serious question. The fact is that the moment you stopped learning is the moment you stopped growing. Your development froze at the moment you decided to ask no more questions or read no more books.

“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”
Albert Einstein

Non-learners generally fall in to two buckets.

  1. People who claim they have no free time.
  2. People that suffer from a lack of inspiration.

Of the first group, only a very small minority are in a genuinely difficult position. Even then, genuine difficulty is usually only temporary.

How many hours a week do you spend watching TV (for the average American it’s over 5 per day)? Or mindlessly browsing ‘news’ or social media? Or chatting with colleagues at work? You owe it to yourself to take this time back.

“Lack of time is actually lack of priorities.”
Timothy Ferriss

If someone gave you an alternative, could you get your work finished by 5 P.M. each day? How about 3 P.M.? Work expands to fill the time available to it. The truth is that many of us lack alternative uses for our time. We work because we have no alternatives except for work. How long have you been living to work rather than working to live?

The second group has even fewer excuses. “Only boring people get bored” my grandma used to tell me. She was right:

“Progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.”
Viktor Frankl

There are so many skills to learn. So many lists and options readily at our finger tips. Never have we lived in a time where so much information is so accessible and affordable. Never have we had so much choice and freedom.

There is more free, high quality learning material available on the internet than a million people could process in a million life-times. There are free online resources to learn maths, languages, science, cooking, history or yoga. There are air-fares to surf beaches for less than the cost of a round of drinks. There are free parks, museums and libraries full of knowledge just waiting to be uncovered.

“We can discover the meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Viktor Frankl

But perhaps the most important reason to learn a new skill this year is meaning. Meaning in the active pursuit of some goal. Meaning in the added richness and complexity of the world around us that learning brings. Meaning in the people we meet and the communities we join along the way.

If you are bored, or anxious, or depressed or lonely or demotivated then I offer you this one simple solution: learn something new this year. It doesn’t matter much what it is. Pick something new and decide to learn it and learn it well.

Unfreezing yourself is as simple as reversing the decisions you’ve made.

And it will change your life in ways you cannot possibly imagine.

10 Steps to Learn Any Skill

  1. Week 0: Decide What to Learn.
  2. Week 1 – 4: Get Started Right Away.
  3. Week 2 – 4: Read the Manual. 
  4. Week 2 – 4: Make a List.
  5. Week 5: Commit to a Goal.
  6. Week 5: Make a Plan.
  7. Week 6 – 21: Practise.
  8. Week 6 – 21: Teach.
  9. As Needed: Take Breaks.
  10. Every Week: Be Persistent and Patient.

1. Decide What to Learn.

Suggested Timing: Week 0.

There are thousands of subjects, languages, sports, musical instruments, or skills to learn.

But, whether stuck for inspiration or paralysed by choice, it can be harder to pick something to learn than we think.

Make a list.

Nothing unlocks inspiration like a good list. These days most can be found with a quick online search.

Why not check out the Dewey Decimal system for ideas? Or the wikipedia page of Olympic sports? Or some lists of valuable career skills?

Think laterally and borrow liberally. What are your friends good at? Or your bosses? What were Einstein’s hobbies? What juicy ideas can you find in the exclusions list of your health insurance?

Prioritise the list.

Narrowing down the list once you’ve got it can be more problematic. When prioritising projects, think in terms of:

  1. Utility; and
  2. Excitement.

Skills with high utility are useful to you and/or other people, the more immediately practical the better. When a skill has high utility you’ll have more opportunities to enjoy and practice it every day. You might even be able to use it to boost your income.

Skills with high excitement are just that. Learning to do a backflip (ideally on a pair of skis) is not particularly useful. It is, however, awesome. If it gets you out of bed and exercising 6 hours a day, chalk it up as a win.

A big part of both utility and excitement is people. Learn to cook or dance with your partner because it will bring you closer together. Learn to run because it’s a great excuse to bond with friends. Learn languages because it increases the number and depth of connections you can make. Learn to teach or give first aid because it will help you to help others.

Whatever you choose, don’t forget that the vast majority of your happiness in life is accounted for by your relationships.

An ideal skill scores highly on both utility and excitement. If you have to choose, excitement always wins. Forcing yourself to learn because you feel you should is a tortuous path to self-improvement.

Go with your gut.

Don’t get caught up in other people’s ideas of what you should and shouldn’t learn.

The path to self-improvement is only wide enough for one. When the going gets tough, the only person’s determination you’ll have to fall back on is your own.

Both utility and excitement are personal and subjective. The important thing is that you feel personally motivated by your choice!

Also, don’t overthink it. You’re not making a life commitment. The best way to get learning is just to…

2. Get Started Right Away.

Suggested Timing: Week 1 – 4.

Narrow your list down. Write down the very next action you can take to get started. Do it right away.

Search for a nearby class and call to sign up. Pull on a pair of trainers plus the closest thing you have to exercise clothes and go for a run. Read an article, buy a book or watch an online lesson or lecture.

Don’t invest lots of money into equipment. Don’t sink lots of time into planning. Instead, get started. Test early. Build momentum. This valuable experiment will familiarise you with the realities of your choice.

How do you feel about the new skill after a couple of early pilot sessions?

Not what you were expecting? No worries! Celebrate ticking “Try XXX” off the bucket list. Now go back and pick something else.

Still excited and motivated? That’s awesome! Keep doing what you’re doing and in the meantime…

3. Read the Manual.

Suggested Timing: Week 2 – 4.

“All I have learned, I learned from books.”
Abraham Lincoln

Our ability to access, learn from and add to the knowledge of the collective is at the core of human progress.

This idea applies to all skills. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been eating, socialising, running or breathing your whole life. At least one person has done more of it, more thoughtfully than you.

As a result, they’ve worked out better ways of doing and of learning how to do it. If you’re lucky, they’ve written this knowledge down. If you’re even luckier, they’re still alive.

Resist the urge to dive in. Instead, spend a couple of weeks finding these people – be they friends, family, teachers or fellow learners.  Find their knowledge in books, speeches, poems, articles, guides, frameworks, films and podcasts.

There are no shortcuts in learning but there are many quick routes to failure. Drinking deeply from the experiences of others will save you years of future dead ends and frustrations.

Consider also researching at one or two levels of abstraction from the skill you’re trying to learn. For example, when learning “Russian”, also research “Language Learning” and “Learning” or “Memory”.

As your practical experiment and theoretical research continues…

4. Make a List. 

Suggested Timing: Week 2 – 4.

Make a list of everything and anything you come across that might be helpful for learning your skill.

Some of the things you write down might include:

  • Inspirational goals and milestones;
  • Different learning approaches;
  • Useful equipment and tools;
  • Great schools and/or teachers;
  • Clubs, societies and communities; and
  • Any extra reading or research.

Whatever it is, write it down. Don’t worry too much about organising or prioritising your list at this stage – you’re in collection mode.

Once you’ve gathered a mighty list it’s time to…

5. Commit to a Goal. 

Suggested Timing: Week 5.

By now you’ve probably learned enough to have a stab at setting a good first goal.

Write your goals down.

Even if you ignore all the other steps below, make sure you write down your goals.

The simple act of writing down a goal or resolution makes it up to 10x more likely that you will achieve it.

When you write your goals, make them positive, present and first person. Write them as if you have already achieved them.

Make your goals SMART.

The best goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time Bound.

An example of non-SMART goal might be “I learn to play the violin”.

An example of SMART goals might be “I pass my grade 1 violin exam with a Distinction by Y month” or “I play these X violin pieces to 5 friends on Y date. ”

Stick to a 3 – 4 month (12 – 16 week) timeline.

If you’ve ever set 12 month goals you’ll probably be familiar with how vague and uncertain these can feel.

The fact is that the future is highly unpredictable. We also tend to overestimate what we can achieve in a day but underestimate what we can achieve in a year.

To solve this, break down your goals into 3 – 4 month milestones and focus on the next milestone only. This will keep your plan tight, realistic, immediate and tangible.

Set multiple, tiered goals.

Setting multiple, tiered goals is a great way to stay on track in the face of unexpected set-backs.

Make the first goal wildly ambitious. The second goal should be challenging but realistic. The third should focus on completion over performance.

For example, for running you could set three goals:

  1. “I complete X marathon within the top 100 competitors on Z date”
  2. “I complete X marathon within Y time on Z date”
  3. “I complete X marathon on Z date”

These tiered goals make it much less likely that you’ll give up completely in the event of an unexpected injury or training setback.

Make a commitment.

The first commitment you make is to yourself. This is why writing down your goals is so important.

The most powerful commitments you make are to others:

  • Tell your partner, friends, family and colleagues.
  • Tell the members of your learning group or club.
  • Commit to and work towards the goal with someone else.
  • Raise money publicly for charity.

Nothing is more motivating than making a public commitment to others. They will pick you up when you are down and hold you accountable if you fail.

Once you’ve made a commitment to your first milestone…

6. Make a Plan.

Suggested Timing: Week 5.

Set aside a few hours to hammer out a good plan that covers What, How and When.

N.B., Each part of the plan will influence the others and even your original goals.

Don’t be afraid to go back, iterate and change things as you go through the process.

What are you going to do?

Start with your goal, and break it down into the components you will need to work on to get there.

What are the major components? What do you need to achieve? What are the big obstacles? Why aren’t you already there yet?

Use the ABCDE technique to prioritise the things that will have the greatest positive/negative impact on your goal.

Write A next to items you must do. B is for should dos. C is for dice to dos. D is for things you can delegate. E is for anything you can eliminate.

Now order your list by priority and sequence to give yourself a rough to-do list.

How are you going to do it?

During your research you’ll have uncovered many different ways to learn your skill.

Some will clearly be better than others. Some will come down to personal conditions, limitations or preferences.

In any case, go with your gut and focus on as few approaches as possible for the next 12 – 16 weeks.

When are you going to do it?

With the “What” and the “How” in place it’s time to decide on the “When”.

It can be helpful for many skills to borrow a training periodisation approach from athletics.

In the 16 weeks leading up to a goal a typical program might look like:

  • 8 weeks basic training;
  • 4 weeks specialising in key skills;
  • 3 weeks overtraining specifically for the goal; and
  • 1 week of tapering and recovery.

So, for a language exam taking place in 16 weeks you might spend:

  • 8 weeks learning vocabulary and grammar alone and with teachers;
  • 4 weeks working on specific reading, writing, listening and speaking exercises;
  • 3 weeks pushing yourself hard on past and example exam papers; and
  • 1 week of light speaking, reading and vocabulary flash cards.

This level of planning might seem like over kill but it will make a massive difference to your progress.

With your plan in place it’s time to double down on…

7. Practise. 

Suggested Timing: Week 6 – 21.

Practice every day.

Do something every day that moves you towards your goal.

If possible, schedule a regular time(s) each day to focus on your skill.

Earlier is always better. You are most well rested earlier in the day. There is also less opportunity for surprises to have deviated you from your best laid plans.

That said, everyone’s schedule is different. Make or find time in your day, every day, even if only in the unexpected moments of waiting.

Practice little and often.

Scientific research is very clear that the tortoise always beats the hare.

You have a maximum of 4 – 6 hours of really good, focussed work in you each day. No more. You might work for longer but you are no longer at your best.

For maximum productivity, consider breaking these hours up into ~2 hour segments with ~15 – 30 minute breaks in-between. During these breaks, go for a walk or do something totally different.

Disconnecting occasionally from your practice will allow your brain refresh itself. It will also disengage attention in a way that promotes creative insight.

Practise purposefully.

Avoid slipping into illusions of confidence. Identify your gaps and weaknesses honestly. Work always on the things that you find most difficult.

Test yourself by recalling the main points at the end of every page or chapter. Synthesise concepts in lectures as they’re explained instead of parroting.

Learning is a physiologically intensive process. It is not easy and effortless. If it feels that way – you’re probably not learning.

This is especially true when it comes to using teachers. Teachers are tools that have three purposes:

  1. To introduce and break down difficult concepts.
  2. To help you overcome obstacles in your learning.
  3. To keep pushing you forward into unchartered territory.

Teachers are not there to spoon information into your head whilst you listen passively. Nor can they.

Work and practice purposefully by yourself. Remember what teachers are there for and use them accordingly.

Defeat distraction.

Distraction is the first enemy of productive practice. Luckily, it is easy to defeat.

First, refuse to multitask. Physically clear everything away and turn anything off that might distract you during your practice.

Next, if you can, work at your new skill in a quiet, dedicated place where others cannot disturb you.

The ability to work single-mindedly on the task at hand is one of the most important productivity hacks there is.

Pounce on procrastination.

Procrastination is the second enemy of productive practice. It is caused most often by lack of will or lack of skill.

There are two easy ways to overcome a short-term lack of will and regain momentum:

  1. Break the current task down into smaller, easier steps. What is the very next thing you can do?
  2. Decide to work on the current task for e.g., 10, 15 or 20 minutes and then take a short break.

Overcoming a lack of skill is often as simple as making a mini-plan to learn whatever it is that is holding you back (see practise purposefully).

If these approaches don’t help or you suspect your problem might go deeper, it might be time to take a break (see step 9).

8. Teach.

Suggested Timing: Week 6 – 21.

Teaching forces you to break down, synthesise and internalise complex concepts (a.k.a., learning).

As you learn, bring to mind a specific person and ask yourself how you would go about teaching them this concept.

Run through the words and frameworks your would use in your head. Can you explain it clearly? Where are your gaps?

You can do this exercise no matter what stage you’re at, even if you don’t have an opportunity to teach the skill in real life.

9. Take breaks.

Suggested Timing: As Needed.

Taking planned and regular breaks at the end of each milestone is as important as it may feel counterintuitive.

Give yourself a fortnight or more of total time off after each milestone to celebrate and rest – you deserve it!

Here are several reasons why it is also one of the best ways to supercharge your long-term learning:

Time to recover.

Pushing yourself hard over a long period leads to a build up of physical and mental fatigue that is deadly to productivity.

At best, failing to take breaks will drastically reduce your future productivity. At worst, it could lead to burn out that lasts weeks, months or years.

If you’re worried about losing fitness, stamina or momentum why not try light work at a complementary skill?

If you run, try cycling or swimming. If you’re learning a language, try singing lessons. If you’re learning a musical instrument, try painting.

You may even learn valuable things that you can bring back to your primary skill (a.k.a., Medici effects).

Time to forget. 

Every gardener knows that pruning is an essential part of long-term growth.

The same is true of learning. Forgetting is actually an integral part of mastering any skill.

When we take a break our brain has time to spring clean and allow the suffocating dust of unimportant detail to settle.

Don’t fear forgetting, embrace it. Your brain is laying the foundations for you to come back stronger.

Time to reflect and reposition.

One of the most valuable habits you can develop in productivity is making time to actively step back and take stock.

Set aside at least half an hour to reflect on the last milestone. What went well? What would you have done differently?

Now set your targets on the next milestone. How can you make the next push 1% better?

Set some new goals, make a new plan and get ready for the next push.

10. Be  patient and persistent.

Suggested Timing: Every Week.

Learning is not quick and it is not easy. There are tricks to avoid common pitfalls but there are no shortcuts.

Learning is also an exciting roller coaster of starts, stops and set-backs that can, at times, make even the bravest passengers want to get off.

That is why the most important qualities to cultivate when it comes to learning are patience and persistence.

Failing = Learning.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas Edison

It is impossible to learn without making mistakes and it is very difficult to make mistakes without learning.

This golden rule applies not only to “What” you’re learning but also “How” you’re learning it. No matter how much research you do there will always be a thousand things you wish you’d known when you just started.

In either case, don’t let fear of failure paralyse you. Instead learn to:

  • Expect the unexpected.
  • Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn.
  • Think of obstacles not only as opportunities but even as part of unconventional solutions.

Approach every skill learning adventure as a game, challenge and experiment.

Adopt a growth mindset and your mind will grow.

Plateauing.

You’ve stuck to your plan. You’re practicing purposefully. Heck, you’ve even doubled down and yet you still just can’t seem to progress.

Sound familiar? There is nothing as frustrating in skill learning as hitting a plateau. There is also nothing more inevitable and natural.

If the block is sudden and measurable in minutes or hours, consider taking a short break. Go for a walk. Chat to a friend. Let your brain work its way out of whatever local optimum it’s stuck in.

A more stubborn plateau combined with persistent lethargy or demotivation is consistent with impending burn out. Get a good night of sleep. If that doesn’t work, consider taking a longer break and reassessing your plan and pace.

If you’re feeling good but still can’t seem to make progress no matter what you do then keep going. A little dose of patience and persistence will see you though.

Baking a cognitive leap means gathering all the ingredients together at the same time under just the right conditions.

Learning is rarely a linear function of effort. Keep gathering ingredients and the leap will come.

Regressing.

In every skill learning journey there come a few alarming points at which progress feels like it’s suddenly going backwards rather than forwards.

If you’re practicing purposefully and you’ve ruled out fatigue then the good news is that this phenomena is both temporary and natural.

As we learn new information, our brain automatically starts throwing up temporary structures and frameworks to store and link it together.

Every so often though we gather enough new information to realise that the current structures and frameworks are no longer fit for purpose.

As a result, our brains enter into a period of renovation and remodelling – shuffling furniture in and around itself in the process.

This can be a disarming experience when you try and find your favourite comfy chair. It is, however, only temporary.

Within a week or two you’ll have found most of your old belongings in their new places.

You’ll also have plenty of new space to run around in.

Conclusion

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Mahatma Gandhi

“Develop in to a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading, cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.
Charlie Munger

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this article, it is this: That learning a new skill will be one of the most eye-opening and rewarding decisions you take. It will (re)connect you to the people around you. It will unlock new places and new experiences you never even knew existed. It will grow you through your triumphs and your setbacks.

Write down the first skill that comes to your head now. Perhaps it’s a life-long dream, perhaps it’s something that occurred to you as you were reading.

Now write down the very next action you need to take to get it started.

Now do it.

Congratulations. You are already on your way to a brighter, more meaningful future.

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