How to learn a new skill in 20 hours

Learn a new skill

It gets boring when you try to learn a new skill. We all have a busy schedule and hope to be successful.

Maybe one day, when we do become successful, we will have enough time.

Then perhaps we will start working on all those things we always wanted to do.

You really want to learn how to play that musical instrument but who has the time to learn it. It will take so much effort and focus.

If things are going well, there is so much money to make that you cannot really waste this opportunity.

If things are bad, it is so important to do everything you can now so that you can make ends meet.

Also, learning a new skill takes 10,000 hours. Can you really learn any challenging new skills ever in your life? Is it just a pipe dream?

Why is it important to learn a new skill

In our blog on money and happiness, we talk about how true happiness comes from skill and discipline.

We think we can use our money to buy happiness but in the end, even using money, we are just buying skills.

You can buy expensive paintings, but the value in them came from the discipline of the artist. It is only with a certain skill that anyone goes about creating value.

learn to make a pot

Now we know how important skill acquisition is. However, the problem remains, who has 10,000 hours to spare.

Even if the skill in question is one that you are really passionate about, 10,000 hours is a big commitment.

One that could result in complete chaos in your present lifestyle.

Learn a new skill quickly

I recently saw a ted talk from the author Josh Kaufman. I was so impressed by it that I could not help but read his book named The first 20 hours.

It is what inspired me to write this blog too.

Josh says that the 10,000 rule by Malcolm Gladwell holds true, but only if the desired result is expert-level performance.

Mr. Gladwell researched peak performers in various fields when he came up with the 10,000 rule.

We don’t need expert-level performance to achieve a skill. All we need is to pick up the essentials.

As we learned in the previous blog on Pareto’s principle, we don’t really need to master everything to perfection to be sufficient.

Most times a minority of causes can result in the majority of results.

Josh says that it only takes about 20 hours of deliberate practice to reach a good level of proficiency in a skill.

How to perform Rapid skill acquisition

Rapid skill acquisition according to author Josh Kaufman is a way of breaking down the skill into smallest possible parts, identify which of those parts are most important and then deliberately practicing those parts first.

Thus, when the goal is to learn a skill quickly when we need to do is to pick up the essentials of the skills as quickly as we can.

Thus Rapid skill acquisition is a four part process where you-

1. Deconstruct a skill

Break down a large skill into small subskills that work together. This will involve a lot of understanding and researching of the topic.

Once you get a basic understanding of the problem at hand, so much so that you can explain it to a layman (Feynman technique) then you can begin to break down the skill in parts.

You will know by now what the different sub-skills are and which ones are essential.

2. Learn enough to self-correct

Learn enough so that you can correct it from feedback.

By focussing on the essentials and forming mental models you can find out if what you are doing is working or not.

If it isn’t, try again and change something until it works, then move to another thing. Remember we only have to learn until we can self-correct.

We don’t want to get into the academic trap where we try to learn anything and everything.

Just learn the essential skills enough to practice on your own. Learning can enhance the practice but can never substitute it.

3. Remove barriers

We don’t like to feel dumb, however, when trying to learn a new skill that is exactly how we feel.

We constantly face one issue after another and it is easy to want to give up. This frustration barrier kicks in every time we try to learn a new skill.

This is why it is important so that we remove all the distractions around us be it our cell phones or a pestering sibling.

Often times even our limiting beliefs can get in the way thus it is important to tackle the problem with a growth mindset.

4. Practice for at least 20 hours

Practice, Practice, and Practice. Most of the time you spend learning a skill must be devoted to deliberate practice.

It is essential to give conscious attention.

I suggest using the Pomodoro technique that we mentioned in our blog How to work when you don’t feel like it.

Once you start practicing, don’t give in and stop. Continue for 20 hours no matter what.

If you can’t continue then it is better to look for a new skill. It is also important that you only focus on learning one skill at a time.

By working in short bursts and resting, you are giving your brain time to absorb the concepts you threw at it. It is just 90 minutes each day for 2 weeks.

You can do it!

Ten principles of Rapid skill acquisition

  1. Choose a lovable project
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time
  3. Define your target performance level
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills
  5. Obtain critical tools
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice
  7. Make dedicated time to Practice
  8. Create fast feedback loops
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed

Well most of what you need to learn a new skill fast is in the four steps of Rapid skill acquisition above.

You can view these 10 principles as a checklist when you are trying to learn a new skill. Not all of them will apply for every skill you wish to learn.

On their own, they are self-explanatory; still let us go over each of these in brief.

Choose a lovable project

“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable”


Choosing a lovable project should be the first thing you should decide before you decide on a skill to pursue.

What is it that you want to accomplish? Be specific when describing your project.

Do you want to play guitar at your birthday party in a few weeks?

Which songs do you wish to play? What kind of guitar do you want to play?

Once you know your project in its specifics, you will feel excited about the skill you wish to learn.

“I wish to play ________song on an acoustic guitar in 2 weeks on my birthday in front of my friends and family”  

learn a new skill

Focus your energy on one skill at a time

Focusing on more than one skill is a recipe for disaster.

If you do have many hours you can dedicate for deliberate practice, then, instead of dividing your focus into different skills put more hours in one.

Complete one skill and move on to the next. You will be able to do more this way.

This is because it takes time to readjust your focus and get back in the groove.

If you try learning more than one skill, you will spend more time and energy just switching focus instead of practicing.

Define your target performance level

We don’t have to paint a million-dollar masterpiece, we need to paint at a level that we find acceptable. Set a goal that is outside of your comfort zone.

The point isn’t to be the best, it is to get things done. If your goal is to play a song then your focus will be on the chords used in that particular song.

You do not have to learn how to play like Slash, something that most veterans cannot.

The less aggressive you are when choosing your target performance level the faster you will be able to acquire your skill.

Deconstruct the skill into subskills

As we explained before, most of the skills are a bundle of smaller sub-skills. If you get it just skip to the next principle 😛

You have to first focus on the skill you want to learn and then break it down to its smallest parts.

After breaking down a skill, it becomes easier to identify which subskills are most important.

For example, playing football requires stamina, speed, accuracy in shooting and passing, dribbling, positioning, and maintaining team formation.

The most essential skills are clearly speed, stamina and passing and shooting accuracy.

Once you can deconstruct a skill you can begin practicing essential bits without feeling overwhelmed. 

Obtain critical tools to learn a new skill

If you want to practice a skill, you need tools. Cannot learn a guitar if you do not have a guitar.

play guitar

Once you obtain tools, you can get out of your own way and escape the analysis paralysis that excessive research can trap you in.

Get the tools you need as fast as you can and begin practicing. It is better if you have the tools necessary to practice the skill on your own.

Practicing on a tool that you do not own is possible but it comes with its own limitations.

You cannot always keep your friend’s guitar. If you cannot have tools of your own, make the most of your time you get with them.

Eliminate barriers to practice to learn a new skill

As mentioned before as well, the more you practice the faster you will acquire the skill you want to learn.

Once you have the tools necessary, make sure you set-them-up right.

Isolate yourself from distractions. If you need help with that, you can read our blog on Procrastination.

Do not let yourself be stuck because of limiting beliefs. Keep practicing despite the initial resistance or emotional blocks that you feel.

Especially be wary of Perfectionism it is easy to feel stupid when you are learning something new for the first time.

It is ok, you are in the learning phase and mistakes are just part of the learning experience.  

Make dedicated time to Practice

Do not wait for time to come; you will have to make time in your schedule for your skill.

Try to make at least 1 hr 30 minutes of your time that you keep separate just for deliberate practice. 

The best way to make time is to use the Eisenhower matrix. Evaluate your schedule each day.

Eisenhower matrix

Figure out what is not urgent and not important and eliminate it or delegate it. Keep going no matter what until you reach the 20-hour mark. 

Create fast feedback loops to learn a new skill

A feedback loop, just as it is in technical language, is when the object creates an output from the input and then based on that output evaluates what the next output should be like.

In easy terms, you need to know as quickly as possible if you are performing well or not.

The longer it takes you to self-correct the longer it will take you to learn a skill.

The best form of feedback is instantaneous that is why it doesn’t take really long to learn to code. You make a change and you get feedback, now you can correct it.

learn a skill code

This is probably why videogames are so addicting, you know instantaneously what you should try to correct.

Coaches, training aides, a recording camera in some cases even a mirror can be your feedback source.

Make the feedback loop as short as you can and you will be able to acquire the skill much faster.

Practice by the clock in short bursts

It is better to practice with a countdown timer next to you.

If you use a phone, it is a good idea to turn notifications off or place it on airplane mode.

Once you start, don’t stop for the sustained period of practice you allot to yourself.

Give a minimum time of at least one Pomodoro(25 minutes) if you can continue longer then by all means go for it.

Once you start don’t stop until the 25 minutes run out.

Make sure you give yourself at least a total of 90 minutes each day (3-4 pomodoros is ideal) for deliberate practice. Cannot stress that enough.

Emphasize quantity and speed to learn a new skill

Practice as much as you can and focus on quantity and speed.

Everyone wants to create a masterpiece in their first attempt while painting but that is obviously not going to happen.

Instead, do it fast and keep repeating while maintaining a good enough standard.

You can spend hours aiming your bow and arrow it will not help you hit the target.

The one who hits the target first is the person who shoots the first arrow, observes where it goes, corrects his aim and form then shoots again.

Author Josh Kaufman recommends that you ensure that your form is good enough to satisfy your target performance level.

Once you can maintain a good form more than 80% of the time, crank up the speed for faster skill acquisition.

This is because faster speed and higher quantity enable you to go through the feedback loop many more times than if your goal was to be perfect.

In Conclusion

This week it is time to revisit all the skills you always wanted to learn.

Choose which skill you want to start with and go to the first step, choosing a lovable project.

Make time in your day and get to work. I highly recommend that you read the book.

The entire time I was reading the book I wanted to stop reading and get working on a skill.

Not only was it highly informative, it was a highly motivating call to action.

Josh explains how in less than one year he was able to learn 6 different skills that were all very different than each other.

The core fundamental is just to ‘Practice the essentials’.

If you have trouble deciding which skills you really want to learn do not worry we have you covered.

We provide a free eBook called The perfect beginning that might help you out.

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Well, that’s all for this post. Have a good day and a good life. 

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