The First 20 Hours

The key to learn any skill is to define what you think is “good enough”, and focus on the small parts that make that “good enough” skill. That’s the main premise of the book. The rest of the book shows you how its author (Josh Kaufman) learned 6 nonelated skills in 20 hours. Still, it’s very interesting and I recommend it.

Author: Josh Kaufman.

Date Finished: 12/06/2013

Here’s a link to the Amazon page.

What Is Rapid Skill Acquisition?

Rapid skill acquisition is a process—a way of breaking down the skill you’re trying to acquire into the smallest possible parts, identifying which of those parts are most important, then deliberately practicing those elements first. It’s as simple as that.

Rapid skill acquisition has four major steps:

  • Deconstructing a skill into the smallest possible subskills;
  • Learning enough about each subskill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice;
  • Removing physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice;
  • Practicing the most important subskills for at least twenty hours.

That’s it. Rapid skill acquisition is not rocket science. You simply decide what to practice, figure out the best way to practice, make time to practice, then practice until you reach your target level of performance

Skill Acquisition vs. Training

There’s also a huge difference between skill acquisition and training. Training, in this context, means improving a skill you’ve already acquired through repetition. It’s what happens after you’ve acquired a basic skill if you want to keep improving.

Training and learning will certainly make it easier to finish the race, but they’re not skill acquisition. Without a certain amount of skill acquisition, training isn’t possible or useful. Preparation and conditioning can make some forms of skill acquisition easier, but they can never replace practice.

Relearning how to run at a basic level, however, is skill acquisition.

The Three Stage Model of Skill Acquisition

  1. Cognitive (Early) Stage—understanding what you’re trying to do, researching, thinking about the process, and breaking the skill into manageable parts.
  2. Associative (Intermediate) Stage—practicing the task, noticing environmental feedback, and adjusting your approach based on that feedback.
  3. Autonomous (Late) Stage—performing the skill effectively and efficiently without thinking about it or paying unnecessary attention to the process.

The 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 for practice.
  8. Create fast feedback loops.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed.

1. Choosing 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.”

If you want a formula for living a satisfying, productive life, you can’t go wrong with that one.

In practice, finding a lovable project is a very individual matter. For example, learning to speak and write Mandarin Chinese is not on my current list of skills to acquire because I have no urgent need to learn it at the moment, and I have a lot of other projects I’m more interested in tackling. If I decide to move to a Mandarin-speaking part of China in the future, it may become lovable, but I’m not there yet.

On the other hand, I’m intensely interested in learning how to play Go, the world’s oldest strategic board game, which originated in China more than three thousand years ago. It’s a beautiful game, and I’ve wanted to learn how to play since I stumbled across it years ago.

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.

2. Focusing Energy on One Skill

One of the easiest mistakes to make when acquiring new skills is attempting to acquire too many skills at the same time.

It’s a matter of simple math: 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.

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. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (2002), recommends establishing what he calls a “someday/maybe” list: a list of things you may want to explore sometime in the future, but that aren’t important enough to focus on right now. By adding an item to the list, you’re temporarily absolving yourself of responsibility for acting or thinking about the idea until you decide to promote it to active status.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Focusing on one prime skill at a time is absolutely necessary for rapid skill acquisition. You’re not giving up on the other skills permanently, you’re just saving them for later

3. Defining the Target Performace 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. In the words of Charles Kettering, the inventor of the electric automobile ignition system: “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”

How you define your target performance level depends on why you chose to acquire the skill in the first place. If your intent is to have fun, your target is the point at which you stop feeling frustrated and start enjoying the practice itself. If your intent is to perform, what’s the minimum level of performance you’re willing to accept at first?

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. If you’re operating under a world-class mastery mind-set, this may feel like cheating: you’re just lowering the bar so you can “win” faster, right?

That’s exactly what we’re doing, and it’s not cheating. Remember, world-class mastery is not the end point of rapid skill acquisition. We’re shooting for capacity and sufficiency at maximum speed, not perfection

4. Deconstructing 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. For example, playing golf is a skill that has many subcomponents: choosing the correct club, driving off the tee, hitting out of a bunker, putting, et cetera.

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

6. Eliminating Barriers to Practice

There are many things that can get in the way of practice, which makes it much more difficult to acquire any skill. These barriers can be anything from

  • 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.

7. Making Time for Practice

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

8. Creating 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 more sources of fast feedback you integrate into your practice, the faster you’ll acquire the skill.

9. Practicing in Short Bursts

In the early phases of practicing a new skill, it’s very easy to overestimate how much time you’ve spent practicing. When you’re no good (and you know it), time seems to slow to a crawl, and it feels like you’ve been practicing for a longer period of time than you actually have.

The solution for this is to practice by the clock. Buy a decent countdown timer 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.

10. Emphasizing 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.

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.

Learning

You can think of the checklist I just outlined as a way to intentionally make your personal learning curve steeper. The principles themselves are simple techniques that make the first two theoretical stages of the skill acquisition process (cognition and association) easier to do in practice.

Once you start practicing something new, your skills will naturally and noticeably improve in a very short period of time. The trick is to start practicing as quickly as possible. Not thinking about practicing or worrying about practicing, but actually practicing.

It’s all too easy to feel like you’re investing a lot of time in a skill without practicing very much at all. If you’ve wanted to learn something for a long time, you dream about being good at it, but you’re hesitant to get started, you can spend years of mental and emotional energy without improving one bit. If you don’t know where you’re trying to go or don’t have a solid strategy to get there, you can waste equal amounts of energy in unproductive wandering.

These ten principles are designed to help you eliminate this nonproductive thrashing and replace it with activities that are fundamental to the skill acquisition process. 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. Simple as that.

Ten Principles of Effective Learning

  1. Research the skill and related topics.
  2. Jump in over your head.
  3. Identify mental models and mental hooks.
  4. Imagine the opposite of what you want.
  5. Talk to practitioners to set expectations.
  6. Eliminate distractions in your environment.
  7. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization.
  8. Create scaffolds and checklists.
  9. Make and test predictions.
  10. Honor your biology.

1. Researching the Skill

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.

If you want to be able to bake the perfect croissant, pick up a few good books related to baking and pastries. 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 in your own kitchen, saving you a ton of trial and error.

2. Glance the Concepts

Some of your early research will contain concepts, techniques, and ideas you don’t understand. Often, something will appear particularly important, but you’ll have no idea what it means. You’ll read words you don’t recognize, and see practitioners doing things you can’t fathom.

Don’t panic. Your initial confusion is completely normal. In fact, it’s great. Move toward the confusion.

Dr. Stephen Krashen, the language acquisition expert I mentioned earlier, calls this 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.

3. Identifying Mental Models and 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.

5. Talking with Experienced People

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.

7. Using Repetition and Reinforcement

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.

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.

8. Using Checklists

Many skills involve some sort of routine: setting up, preparing, maintaining, putting away, et cetera. 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. Think of the basketball player who establishes a pre–free throw routine. Wipe hands on pants, loosen the shoulders, catch the ball from the ref, bounce three times, pause for three seconds, and shoot. That’s a scaffold.

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.

9. Making Predictions and Testing

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.

10. Resting

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, etcetera.

Why We Don’t Pratice

Why don’t we practice? Simple: we’re busy and we’re scared. Shakespeare said it well a long time ago, in a play titled Measure for Measure: “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”

The major barrier to rapid skill acquisition is not physical or intellectual: it’s emotional. Doing something new is always uncomfortable at first, and it’s easy to waste a ton of time and energy thinking about practicing instead of practicing.

Fortunately, the frustration barrier is deceptively easy to break through: skill acquisition always feels bigger than it actually is. By creating time for practice, doing a bit of early research, and leaning into the initial discomfort, you will always see major progress in the first ten to twenty hours of practice. All it takes to reap the rewards is a small burst of effort, persistence, and a bit of grit.

You don’t need to pick many skills to acquire: just choose one. Take a skill on your “want to do” list and commit to trying it. Learn that language, play that instrument, explore that game, work on that project, cook that dish, create that art. It’s easier than it feels.

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.

One final thought: the only time you can choose to practice is today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today. When you wake up in the morning, you have a choice. You can choose to invest your time.