A Proven System That Helps You Learn New Skills Quickly

Quickly learn how to acquire new skills, based on the book The First 20 Hours | Built by BooksWant to get to the next level in your career?

Be a life-long learner.

After working in sales for five years, I noticed that every time I learned and used a new skill, my personal brand improved. It was known that I wanted to learn something new, I made visible efforts to illustrate my progress and coachability, and then I became a resource for others who wanted help in that same area.

In our ever-changing business environment, the ability to adapt and be a life-long learner can boost your career immensely. Yes, time and resources are limited, so you must be deliberate and diligent.

The Book

In the book The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman*, Kaufman discusses the 10 steps needed to learn a new skill quickly. He gives several real-life examples to illustrate how the steps work. Now, don’t think this is some magic trick for instant mastery after 20 hours (I wish!); instead, Kaufman argues that the process of learning a new skill gets easier after you get over the 20-hour hump.

Full disclosure: I read this book because I needed to learn a new skill for my personal life. However, by going through the defined steps of skill acquisition, I found I can use Kaufman’s technique in my career as well.In order to get to the next level of your career, you need to continue learning skills that set you apart. Find out how you can quickly learn new skills with deliberate practice.

The steps for deliberate practice are:

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

In order to elaborate on each step, I will walk you through my example: learning to speak Croatian.

1. Choose a Lovable Project

Okay, not every skill you need to learn is lovable on the surface, but you need to find a way to like parts of the new skill. Why? If you don’t at least enjoy it a little, chances are you will not stick with it.

Rovinj, CroatiaLast Spring, I found out my husband and I were moving to Croatia. In order to prepare, I decided I would teach myself Croatian. In school, I did not enjoy my language classes and I did not retain the languages I learned. What makes Croatian different? I focused on the benefits of speaking the language: interacting with new people, visiting local businesses (like yoga and art studios), and traveling to more remote places (with incredible food and wine).

2. Focus Your Energy On One Skill At a Time

When looking at the next level in your career, you may find that there are several skills you need to acquire. However, it is important that you are only focusing on one at a time. Prioritize based on available time, your resources, and the urgency. If there are four skills you want to learn and one of them is a requirement for the job you want, do that one first.

Gearing up for our first international move, there were many things I wanted to focus on: speaking Croatian, building a website for my blog, taking tennis lessons, learning how to take portraits indoors, and maintaining a personal travel blog.

When evaluating those skills for time, money, and urgency, it was clear that I needed to start learning Croatian first. The personal blog did not actually require a large amount of time to learn, and the rest could be done after we moved.

3. Define Your Target Performance

As with most things in your professional career, it is important to set a goal. You need an idea of what success looks like.

Knowing that I would not be investing the time it takes to become fluent, my Croatian language target performance was to speak at the level of a Croatian first grader.

Girl Talking.jpg

My vocab, grasp of grammar, and ability to converse should allow me to communicate at least with seven-year-olds.

4. Deconstruct the Skill Into Sub-Skills

The skill you are pursuing is probably complex, at least to you. In order to tackle it in record time, you have to break the skill down into smaller, manageable sub-skills. Figure out the order in which you want to focus on them.

Since Croatian is a “medium” level language, I knew it was important to prioritize the sub-skills. Here are the sub-skills and the order: letters/pronunciation, common phrases, common verbs, verb tenses, grammar cases.

5. Obtain Critical Tools

Now that you know what you are learning, figure out how you plan to learn. Gather resources and reach out to people who can help. This may include free and paid courses, phone apps, textbooks, classes, worksheets, a tutor or mentor, and new tools.

Thankfully, we live in a world with Internet. Free Apps to Learn CroatianIn order to teach myself Croatian, I gathered tons of resources, free and paid: borrowed textbooks, iPhone apps, borrowed Pimsleur lessons, my own worksheets, online quizzes, language blogs, YouTube videos, and my husband (as a mentor).

6. Eliminate Barriers to PracticeLearn time management and prioritization strategies, based on the book "168 Hours."

The biggest excuse for not practicing? “I don’t have time.” Well, you best find that time! Evaluate how you spend your 168 hours per week and make adjustments to how you spend your free time so you can focus on your target skill.

Last Spring, I was working a full-time job and trying to build a few blogs in my spare time. I used “I don’t have time” as an excuse daily. To combat that, I kept a time log for two weeks and discovered that I wasted hours every day on social media and television. It was time to use my time more productively.

7. Make Dedicated Time to Practice

Now that you have nothing in your way, plan out how you will practice your new skill. To create a short-term goal, figure out how you are going to reach the first 20 hours: an hour a day for 20 days, half an hour a day for 40 days, etc.

When learning Croatian, I committed to spend at least half an hour every day studying. It was long enough to complete a lesson but short enough to keep my attention. Honestly, it turned out that I was so interested in the lessons that I usually studied for an hour each day.

8. Create Fast Feedback Loops

Wouldn’t it suck if you spent all of this time learning a skill only to realize you have been doing it wrong? It is important to have checkpoints throughout your acquisition process so you can course-correct, have reinforcements, and get guidance.

While studying, I would test out phrases and words with my husband. Although Google Translate is not perfect, I found it very useful if I wanted to see the meaning of a Croatian word or phrase. I created my own quizzes and flashcards to test my memory.

9. Timed Practice in Short Bursts

Time yourself. Take SHORT breaks if needed. Disable ALL distractions. Focus.

I did all of those things when studying Croatian every day. No multi-tasking or shortcuts.

10. Emphasize Quantity and Speed

Research says that after mastering 80% of a sub-skill, your brain can move on to the next sub-skill. Do not get stuck trying to perfect; try to get to 80%, then move on.

I have spoken English for 28 years, and I still do not know all of our vocabulary and idiosyncrasies; I cannot expect to know all of the Croatian language in a few months. But in order to make a dent, I had to try and learn several new words every single day. Like, 20 new words every day. It felt like a lot, but it moved my acquisition along much quicker.

The Results

As a result of my deliberate practice, I was able to interact with Croats when we arrived. Granted, the conversation was rudimentary and many times I had to ask the person to switch to English – but it worked!

The best part? Even when life got in the way and my practice became inconsistent, I was able to recall the words and phrases I had learned months prior. By practicing with intention using those 10 steps, the Croatian I learned was long-lasting knowledge.

Try it out. Identify the one skill you want to learn, plan it out using those 10 steps, and GET IT DONE. To make the process easier, I created a worksheet to help you plan out your practice (sign up for access!), and Kaufman also has several resources on his website.

skill-worksheet-screenshotSign up for the free resource library to get this worksheet and more!



Good luck!

*This article contains an affiliate link for the book, The First 20 Hours! As a bookworm, I only recommend books I really enjoyed reading. I hope you enjoy them, too!


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