Top five tips for success when learning a new skill

Posted on May 4, 2017 by Eleanor McKenzie
Learning to play piano

Learning a new skill can be an exciting adventure, but it can also be challenging. Whatever challenges we imagine are involved in the particular skill we are tackling, we should always remember that there are numerous benefits: it may be an asset that helps you to advance at work, one that enables you to start a new business, or one that simply enhances your leisure time. Regardless of what you are trying to master, there are approaches to learning and retaining information that will make the process easier.

For one thing, if you look at a skill, whether it is learning a language, playing an instrument or a taking lessons in software programming, you will simplify the task by thinking of it as a collection of smaller sub-skills. When you break something down into its component parts, you will not only find that it starts to feel simpler, but you will also now understand how its various parts relate to each other. For example, life coach and author Tim Ferris –the man who is famous for the 4-Hour Workweek– has a framework for learning that he calls DiSSS. The key points of this framework are:

  • Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units I should start with?
  • Selection: Which 20% of the units should I focus on in order to get 80% of the outcome I want?
  • Sequencing: In what order should I learn those units?
  • Stakes: What stakes can I set up to create real consequences and ensure that I follow the programme?

So, with Tim’s instructions in mind, here are five top tips for learning a new skill.

1. Set your goal

Know what your end goal is before you start. This will help to keep you on track, especially when you reach the point where you feel like giving up. You should also decide at the beginning, what level of mastery you want to achieve. For example, if you’re learning a language, do you want to achieve a level of fluency that allows long conversations with a native speaker, or do you just need enough to feel confident in restaurants and supermarkets, or ask for directions? The important thing here is to set your own level. Don’t think about what other people can do with this skill, just focus on what you want to achieve with it.

2. Deconstruct the skill

This tip suggests you do some research into the skill and make a list of all its components. For example, if you want to learn the piano, you will need to read music as well as master the instrument. You will need to learn scales before you can play compositions. Break the process down into parts and think about them analytically. Which should come first, or are there sub-skills I can learn in tandem? But, the most essential benefit of this tip is that it stops you from thinking that you have a mountain to climb; instead you have a series of easily climbed hills.

3. What might make you quit?

We are usually enthusiastic in the first few weeks of learning a new skill, however, it can also be the time when we are most likely to give up. So, before you begin, be honest with yourself and write down all the things that might dim your motivation and make you quit. You will probably know from past experience just what is likely to cause this. For example, if travelling to the class is likely to become a pitfall, have a look for a teacher that can teach you via Skype or similar. We all lose motivation at times, but when you’re prepared for it, you are less likely to give into it.

4. Focus on the main sub-skill

Tim Ferris is a fan of Pareto’s Principle that says, ‘20% of your efforts will lead to 80% of your desired outcome.’ To use this tip, look back at the second tip and decide which of the sub-skills is most essential to achieving your goal. If you want to improve your cooking skills so that you can appear on Masterchef, you might decide that the 20% you need to focus on are the basic cooking techniques that have the widest application.

5. Take one step at a time

Let’s suppose you have identified your most important 20% of sub-skills. It might be tempting to master all of these at once, but that would be a mistake. Focus on one sub-skill at a time. If you’re learning a language and verb tenses are one of the sub-skills, don’t try to master past, present and future simultaneously, because you are setting yourself up to fail. When you understand all the variables in one tense, then you can move on to the next. And, certainly don’t try to run before you can walk.

Overall, learning a new skill is about pinning down your motivation, approaching the learning with some logic and knowing what the flashpoints are that might set up barriers to your success. If you follow this route, you will be on your way to mastery.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.