Making the time to learn new skills

Does your to-do list — or your project list or someday/maybe list, if you follow the Getting Things Done methodology — have things like learning to play golf, learning French, or learning to play an instrument? You may have been intimidated by the frequently quoted statistic that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something.

But as Josh Kaufman points out in his informative and entertaining TEDx Talk, that 10,000-hour rule only applies if you want to become an expert in a highly competitive field: a star athlete, a world-class musician, etc. If you just want to be reasonably good, he says, you can learn a new skill with just 20 hours of practice — a number that’s a lot less intimidating.

Kaufman has a book which elaborates on the TEDx talk, but you can get the gist of his thinking from that talk, from his conversation with Jonathan Fields on the Good Life Project website, from his document entitled The First 20 Hours: Secrets of Rapid Skill Acquisition (PDF) on, and from the information on his own website.

Kaufman recommends that you follow these steps to learn any new skill:

Deconstruct the skill

Decide exactly what you want to be able to do, and set a target performance level. Then break the skill down into smaller pieces. That’s the same advice you’ll see for tackling any large project.

Listening to Kaufman talk about having a well-defined target made me think about how I approached learning French some years ago. My goal in learning French was to know enough to perform basic tourist activities: reserve a hotel room, buy a train ticket, order a meal in a restaurant, etc. Having that focused goal kept me from being overwhelmed — especially since language skills don’t come easily to me. When Kaufman discussed his work on Good Life Project website, he gave an example very similar to this.

Kaufman’s ChangeThis document has a nice example of deconstructing a skill you’ve chosen as your goal:

Take golf for example — in the course of a single game, you do many different things: driving off the tee, selecting clubs, chipping out of bunkers, and putting on the green. Each of those activities is a skill in itself.

Learn enough to self-correct

It’s easy to get caught up in theoretical learning, from books and other resources, rather than actually practicing the skill. Kaufman urges you to learn just enough of the basic concepts that you can self-correct when you’re doing your practice. Beyond this, focusing on learning rather than jumping in and practicing is just a way of procrastinating, he says.

Remove the barriers to practice

You can easily get derailed from practicing a new skill, especially at the beginning when you’re no good at something. So set up your environment to minimize distractions, and make it as easy as possible to do the practicing. On the Good Life Project, Kaufman talks about keeping that guitar you want to learn to play close at hand, not buried away in a closet where it’s difficult to access.

Practice at least 20 hours

Pre-commit to those 20 hours — twice a day for 20 minutes for one month will do it. In his book (and on the Good Life Project) Kaufman recommends setting a timer for those 20 minutes, because we tend to be horrible at estimating how long we’ve been doing something.

And as he says in his ChangeThis document:

If you’re not willing to commit to at least 20 hours of practice, then drop the project and learn something else. Life is short.

2 Comments for “Making the time to learn new skills”

  1. posted by Gail on

    Very informative. Thanks for sharing

  2. posted by Katja on

    I’m torn on Kaufman’s talk. On the one hand side he is right about deconstructing a skill and not needing 10,000 hours to learn something. But I strongly disagree on the message he sends on the 20 hours – to me, it sounds a lot as if 20 hours would be enough to become good at something in general. Which, for a lot of fields, is simply untrue. 20 hours of focused learning can get you to being mediocre to good in a very very small portion of the chosen skill. Yes, investing 20 hours, you will be able to master a great portion of your holiday in a foreign language, but as soon as you leave the carefully chosen paths that you have learned, you’re lost again. Trying a new sport, you will see massive improvements in the first 20 hours (and thereafter), but that doesn’t mean that you’re good at that sport in general. Or even mediocre.
    And I think this is the important point: 20 hours won’t get you from cannot do this to good at this, but 20 hours can be a solid foundation to further improve from.
    Yet again: I’m very much with him on “If you’re not willing to commit to at least 20 hours of practice, then drop the project and learn something else. Life is short.”


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