There is so much I don’t know how to do. And so much that I want to know how to do.
But making the leap from someone who wants to know how to do something to becoming someone who knows how to do that thing, is often a bigger leap than we give it credit for.
Why we hate and love to learn
Learning new things sucks a lot of the time. By their very nature, new things are outside of our understanding; we don’t have to skills to do them, and many of us shy away from the very important step in between “wanting to do” and “doing”. We don’t like to struggle. We don’t like to feel inadequate, or to fail, or to look stupid in front of our peers or just ourselves.
So, often, we simply choose not to.
But learning new skills and becoming expert, or at least adequate, at something once unfamiliar is good not just for being smarter and better at your job, but learning new things makes us happier too. Our brains literally create happy feelings when we learn a new skill. Knowing how to do things is fun! Plus, the feeling of mastery that comes — not from learning — but from finally knowing how to do something is incredibly empowering.
That empowerment leads to increased confidence, which can lead to taking a risk on that new job or project or relationship, which can lead to an all-around better life. So I’d say, in spite of the fear that often accompanies it, learning new things is one of the best ways you can spend your time.
As humans, we crave new experiences and opportunities. We can live without them, but we thrive when we have them. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to give up on a skill halfway through when emails and meetings get in the way.
So today, we’ll take a look at how to make adding a new skill a realistic and successful proposition. Because I want you to get all those happy brain chemicals *and* be happier and better at work.
Making the time
As much as you might really, really want to learn that new skill, a lot of the time, life will get in the way.
And many of us leave it at that. “Oh well, just too busy to learn Excel today, but I’m sure I’ll find time later this week.” But how often does that later-this-week session really happen? Not often.
There will always be another meeting, another project, another TV show to get in the way of the time you “meant to” spend on your new skill.
We are what we make time to do. Deciding to make the time for a new project or skill is as simple as deciding how high a priority it is for you. If you can’t ever seem to find the time for your new skill, it’s because you’re letting other things crowd it out. You’re deciding (whether actively or passively) not to give your new skill your time.
Rank your daily tasks, and then insert your new skill in as high a spot as you can get it.
(If you can’t manage to rank it in the top 3-5 on your biggest priorities, this might not be a great time for you to try taking on another thing. Focus on getting your biggest priorities out of the way, then move your new skill into a newly cleared spot when you can.)
Be smart about how much time to commit to your project too. Just like leaving it open to “whenever I have the time” usually meaning “this doesn’t get done”, working on something “until you get it” often leads to frustration that can cause you to quit early.
Treat it like a real commitment. Give yourself deadlines and block out specific, smart time on your calendar. It makes a huge difference in how seriously you take a side project like learning something new. Be smart about the times you pick too; schedule learning sessions for when you’re most energized and productive, not times that you think are most convenient.
Know yourself: if you get tired at the end of the day, don’t block out that time for your new skill. As much as your might *want* to get energized and learn something new then, you’ll be setting yourself up to fail if you schedule too optimistically, and not realistically.
I love the tip in this article: commit to 20 hours at your new task. Block out 20 hours worth of time (maybe 5 hours a week for one month) that you will spend learning something new, and then reflect on your progress once you’ve completed your initial 20-hour time block.
This concept is great because it gives you a simple way to block out time on your calendar for your new task, every day or every week, and has a specific goal to shoot for. It helps prevent bowing out early, and keeps you conscious of the fact that you’re making progress, which is often hard to feel when you’re learning something outside of a classroom.
A time commitment strategy also gives you a built-in opportunity to look up from your project and assess how it’s going. After 20 hours, you’ll know whether or not this is something you want to stick with, and if you should keep up the same schedule of learning or make changes to better suit your schedule.
Holding yourself accountable
Acquiring a new skill takes a lot of hard work. And unlike school, there’s nobody there to ask you to turn in a completed assignment every week, and no one giving you grades or telling you how much progress you’ve made.
Usually, it’s just you. Just you, wading through books and tutorials and good old fashioned trial-and-error until you break through, growing your understanding and making progress on your own.
So without a taskmaster to keep you focused and plowing ahead, how do you make sure you finish the things you start?
Having a strict schedule is a good way to keep yourself moving forward. If you’ve decided, “every day between 10 and 11 am I will work on building a WordPress site”, then sticking to that schedule will help you make progress even on days when you don’t feel like it.
Because that feeling — “I really don’t feel like doing this today. I can skip it and try again tomorrow.” — is a slippery slope. Anyone who’s ever tried to break a bad habit knows that feeling and how easy it is to slip backwards.
It’s important to see your commitment to the time as a success, even if your use of that time isn’t especially productive. Some days you’ll struggle, and you’ll make no progress at all. But the mere fact that you put in that day’s effort and thought means that you haven’t quit, and you’ll be able to try again tomorrow. Keeping up momentum is key for long term success.
Many people also choose to share goals on social media, or tell their friends and coworkers about a new goal, as a way of keeping themselves accountable. You might want to avoid this strategy, though, as research has proven that people who talk about their goals publicly before achieving them tend to bail out more often than people who keep it to themselves. It turns out, sharing your goals gives you the same feelings of satisfaction as achieving your goals does, so you can confuse yourself into thinking you’ve already succeeded before you even start.
Instead, choose to share your successes once you’ve had them. Plan milestones and special treats ahead of time, so you can look forward to them and revel in your amazing progress. Take a moment to enjoy your successes before plowing ahead to the next thing.
And if you do mess up, and skip a week of class or don’t pick up that tool for a few days, don’t give up. Just because you got off schedule for a bit doesn’t mean you have to quit for good. On the contrary! Reflect on what caused you to take a break, and think about how you can prevent that happening in the future.
Did something you value more come up? How can you predict similar distractions?
Were you trying to practice your new skill at an inopportune time, like when your energy was low or you were likely to be interrupted? Shake up your calendar for next week, and try a different time.
Were you missing something you needed? A tool? Encouragement? A space to practice in? Address this issue now, and don’t try to force it again (it obviously wasn’t working!).
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your learning process. You might not have the perfect system right away (in fact, you probably won’t), so don’t be afraid to pivot and try something new. Changing strategies doesn’t mean you’re not smart enough or too busy; it just means you’re finding the way that works best for you.
How to tackle any new skill
Below is some of my best advice for taking on any new skill, and ensuring you see it through to success:
Break it into small pieces. Deciding to become a better writer is a big proposition, and trying to tackle it all at once can be a bit overwhelming. So break it into small, achievable chunks. Try getting better at writing emails, then tackle starting or improving your blog. The more you can focus and master one task at a time, the better you’ll feel and the better you’ll do.
Be realistic about your results. Some skills can be mastered in a weekend of focused effort; some require weeks of practice. Get a sense of what results to you can expect and when, by researching your new skill. Talk to someone you know who’s already an expert and follow blogs of people who have taken on a similar goal, so you can stay practical about progress and milestones.
Stay positive. For everyone, and especially if you are successful in your career and day-to-day life, struggling with a new task can feel really uncomfortable and fighting the urge to quit can be hard. When that feeling comes up, instead of thinking about your failures, think about what doors will open for you once you’ve mastered this skill? What opportunities will you finally be able to seize? Envision yourself succeeding, and focus on small wins all along the way.
Remember you don’t need 10,000 hours. A lot of focus has been placed on Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis that 10,000 hours are required to become an expert at something. But Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours makes a pretty compelling counterargument — you don’t need to be The Beatles of Ruby on Rails, or the Michael Jordan of organizing your office. You just need to get to that point where you understand the essence of a new task; where you can sit down and do it and *have fun* because you know what you’re doing.
Study the big picture, not the details. Remember you’re learning a new skill so you can be better, smarter, happier, more successful. So don’t get hung up on mistakes or minor details you don’t understand. When I first learned to drive, I was so obsessed with monitoring my speed and mirrors and shifting gears that I barely noticed the one thing I was actually supposed to be doing: looking ahead and driving the car. Things come together with practice, so focus on progress and practice over perfection.