Learn a new skill by developing a 30-day program of incremental, bite-sized progress.
Today we’ll be exploring how to acquire new skills.
Grandma Cuddles has a superpower. Not only does she run the meanest, leanest day care center in the greater Metro area, but she’s also a superlearner. When she decides it’s time to master a new skill, she does it quickly, and with ruthless efficiency. In a world where they say you’ll change careers seven times, there’s no better skill than the ability to get up-to-speed quickly on something new.
Cuddles’s doctor recently recommended she learn Yoga. Cuddles has biceps to die for—running a daycare center, she has to crack the whip all day long. But other than biceps, she could use a good makeover. So, she’s turned her razor-sharp intellect on reshaping her body from the inside out. When her razor-sharp intellect takes on a task, get out the bandages, because it will slice right through anything in her way.
When you want to master a new skill, follow Grandma’s example.
1. Identify the key elements to master
Start by finding the most important components of a skill. What are the basics that underly everything else? Talk to people who are good at what you want to learn. Read blog posts. Read books. With just a little bit of exploration, you’ll be able to identify a few key elements.
If you’re learning photography, you might decide that understanding lighting, composing good shots, and doing post-processing will get you the most photography bang for your efforts.
If you’re learning to write stories, understanding the basics of constructing a plot, writing dialog, and improving your grammar might be what you decide is most important. You’ll want to focus your initial learning on mastering these elements.
Very quickly, Grandma discovers that increasing flexibility, mindfulness, breath control, and balance are key elements to mastering yoga.
2. Create a 30-day challenge
Grab a blank calendar and design a 30-day challenge for yourself to practice the foundational skills. Decide how much time you’ll devote each day to learning. Then write down 30 incremental things you’ll do each day to move yourself along the learning curve. Each day should focus on just one new skill, but those skills combined should add up to real progress.
As a photographer, your challenges might look like this:
- Day one: Learn how to operate your camera (or your camera app if you’re using a smartphone)
- Day two: Compose and shoot ten pictures using the rule of thirds
- Day three: Use an image editor to rotate and crop each picture three or four ways to begin getting a feel for cropping
… and so on. You can layer on more and more skills every day.
Grandma Cuddles has decided that on day one she’s going to touch her elbows with the opposite hands. For her, that’s a stretch. Day 2, she’ll touch her waist. Day 3, her upper thighs. By day 10, she’ll be bending at the hips ... something she hasn’t done for years.
The goal is steady progress, even if it’s very small.
Of course, there’s a limit to how flexible Cuddles can get in just 30 days. If she just can’t quite get into a one-legged Bird of Paradise pose when she comes to that on her curriculum, that’s fine! It’s not a race. The goal is steady progress, even if it’s very small.
She can reassess where she is, how fast she’s going, and then change the rest of her 30-day challenge to be more realistic based on how fast she’s progressing.
3. Do focused, deliberate practice
When you’re doing your daily challenge activity, be deliberate with that time. Turn off your phone and eliminate other distractions. Concentrate on nothing except your practice session.
Turn off your phone and eliminate other distractions.
Brains learn best when they can focus on a problem. During your practice, deliberately choose one thing to master, and put your attention there. Each day of the challenge should push you a little past your current skill level, so your brain is engaged in finding ways to stretch past what you can do now.
4. Rotate skills
You don’t need to practice the same elements of a skill every day. In fact, you want to practice on several different elements, so your brain learns to fit them all together. It’s called the Interleaving Effect.
Grandma Cuddles spends her daily Yoga time doing some work on flexibility, but also mixing in balance. She’ll do her stretching by touching her elbows. Then, she'll spend a few moments balancing on one foot for a few seconds. She might mix in a few breaths from the diaphragm.
At first, she can do these exercises separately each day. But as she masters the easier levels, she can combine them. Day 20 of her challenge, for example, might focus on taking five full breaths while balancing on one leg, and then stabilizing by touching her knees. By day 30, she’ll be doing single leg deadlifts like a pro. Only, you know, whatever the actual yoga version of that is called.
5. Spaced repetition
The 30-day challenge is about adding something new, no matter how small, to your repertoire daily. But reviewing prior material is important, too.
Brains work in mysterious ways!
You don’t need to review everything you've learned every single day, of course. You can use spaced repetition to review any given skill one day after you learn it, three days after that, a week after that, two weeks after that, and so on. You want to space out the review so you’re reviewing material right at the point where you’re about to forget it. This actually reinforces the learning more than reviewing everything every day. Brains work in mysterious ways!
Cuddles decides to put it to the test. She creates a 30-day challenge that gradually helps her increase in flexibility, balance, and breath. Each day she does a focused, disciplined learning session in each area. About halfway through, she starts combining them so she’s pushing two elements at once. And lo and behold, her razor-sharp intellect razors work! By the end of the month, she’s got poses like Bird of Paradise firmly in her crosshairs.
You can master a new skill, too. Identify the most important elements of the skill. Craft a 30-day challenge of bite-sized chunks to develop your expertise. Mix up your daily practice between the various elements, and used spaced repetition to make it stick. Pretty soon, no matter how fast technology tries to make you obsolete, you’ll be able to master whatever life throws at you. Cuddles may live life with a razor-sharp intellect, but you’ll be the one on the cutting edge.
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