Top 10 ways to learn or improve any skill fast

18 minutes reading time

If it’s knowledge, it can be acquired. If it’s a skill, it can be learned or improved. Period. Even if you don’t have the talent or IQ of a genius, you can get dramatically better at almost anything you want in life.

It might take a lot of willpower, persistence and deliberate practice, but you can do it. There’s nothing that can stop you, if you’re determined enough.

A tremendous help when it comes to knowledge and skills acquisition is to do it the right way. You want to shorten the learning curve as much as possible.

When you’re going for new knowledge, it’s good to know the best learning practices; and when it comes to skills, you want to know the best tips and tricks for learning and improving any skill fast. In this article, you will learn exactly that.

Let’s start with the initial and hardest requirement for acquiring any new skill.

Learn or improve any skill

1. Get emotionally, financially and timewise invested in the skill

For every single thing you want to achieve in life, first ask yourself why. Always start with why.

Because only when you have a strong why (the emotional drive to improve yourself) can you conquer all the obstacles on the way to your goal. Skills are no exception to that. Imagine your emotional drive like an elephant that can’t be stopped when properly directed.

There are many different “whys” that can drive you when it comes to acquiring new skills. Here are a few most common ones:

  • With every new skill, you double your odds of success.
  • Most skills bring better earning potential.
  • You make sure your talents don’t go to waste.
  • To keep you mind, body and soul sharp.
  • To enter a new industry.
  • To be more respected.
  • New skills bring more ways to create.
  • Life is much more fulfilling and interesting.
  • It’s fun to master many things, and so on.
  • Find your why first!

Sometimes you can have a strong why, but somehow still lie on the couch and feel sorry for yourself. In practical terms, that means you have to direct your why into concrete action, not towards self-pity. The best thing you can do is to schedule (or timebox) regular weekly practice session. If it’s not on your calendar, you probably won’t do it.

For many people, putting money where their mouth is helps a lot. I’m not one of them. I can buy an online course and forget about it if I’m not strategically and emotionally engaged.

But for many people, buying something leads to solid commitment. If you’re one of them, enroll in that class, buy that online course or book, get a coach or make any other type of serious financial commitment.

Everything that gets in the way of focused, deliberate practice is an enemy that needs to be crushed completely and destroyed forever.

Talent is overrated

2. Make sure a lack of talent isn’t your excuse

Talent absolutely helps. It can help a lot. But you can’t be talented for everything. Even more importantly, talent is not an “all-or-nothing” game.

If you don’t have the talent, it doesn’t mean you can’t get better at something. So make sure a lack of talent isn’t your excuse for not getting better at something or acquiring a completely new skillset.

Let me give you a few examples from my life.

  • I’m very talented for everything analytical. My analytical skills are really strong. I can structure an article, a presentation or a mind map at the drop of a hat. Self-reflection is instinctive. Through conversation, I can understand people really quickly, and so on. Improving my analytical skills is a breeze. When it comes to applying analytical skills to new domains, I can learn it lightning fast. Business planning, life strategizing, process optimization, market analysis, stock analysis, book summaries, it all comes naturally to me.
  • I’m very untalented for grammar. In high school when it came to language subjects, I was extremely good at writing essays, expressing my opinions or extracting the main points out of literature. But I really sucked at grammar. I barely passed grammar exams. That didn’t stop me from writing and publishing more than 2,000 pages of text in my life. I’ve been very slowly improving my grammar throughout the years. I’m still struggling to understand many grammatical concepts, but that doesn’t stop me. My improvements are slow, but I’m not standing still. That’s what matters.
  • There is one thing I’m even more untalented for than grammar. That’s sports. Again, in primary school and high school I was the one who couldn’t catch the ball. So instead I skipped gym classes. But for the last three years or so, I’ve been heavily investing into my motor and sports skills. It often sucks that most people can do some exercises by default, while I’m struggling. But that never stopped me. I’m getting better, I’m catching up. Comparing myself three years ago and today … what a difference in mastering athletic moves.

Thus, having double standards when it comes to talent makes sense. If you don’t have the talent for a skill you want to learn, think of talent as being overrated. Hard work beats talent every time. With all the hard work, you’ll develop more stamina, willpower and persistence. Lucky you.

There is one big value added if you don’t have a skill. You understand how life looks like when you’re not talented for something and you know what it takes to learn it the hard way. People who are talented for something usually don’t have that unique perspective. By possessing a unique perspective, you can always write a book or become a teacher or a coach.

How to find a mentor

3. The best advice ever is to get a mentor or a coach

I experimented with dozens of different tips, tricks and recommendations when it comes to learning and acquiring a new skill. There is one pattern that stands out. It’s the most important recommendation when it comes to learning a new skill – get a mentor or a coach.

But don’t get just anybody. Get somebody who is really good at coaching – the best you can afford. Make sure that the person you choose for coaching acquired their skills the hard way. Even more importantly, analyze their track record, make sure that in the past the coach successfully taught several people the same thing you’re trying to achieve.

  • My personal trainer is the most talented guy for sports and training other people. He sees every detail when it comes to performing exercises the correct way. He knows which weak points needs to be abolished, he can properly direct my practice and improvement etc.
  • Each of my published articles in English is copyedited. But it’s not just copyedited. My proofreader writes me comments, warning me about the common mistakes that I make, expressions that can be improved, and so on.
  • I recently just started working with a pronunciation coach. In a few lessons, I learned more than in weeks of doing research by myself. What also happened to me was that I practiced things the wrong way, reinforcing wrong pronunciation. What a waste.

These are just three examples from my life. I had many mentors before that taught me many different skills – from sales to innovative thinking.

If you hire a professional coach, it can be quite expensive, but most often definitely worth the investment. At least if you know why you’re doing it and if you find the right coach. The only investments I never regret are investments in myself.

There are many benefits when it comes to coaching:

  • You usually progress based on a carefully prepared plan that already worked for others.
  • They immediately see poor or wrong execution. Practicing the wrong way is the worst thing you can do.
  • A good coach makes sure you’re always at the edge of your abilities.
  • They know how to interleave practice correctly.
  • You get immediate feedback on your performance and improvement.
  • They can always push you in the right direction.
  • You can model the coach.

Last but not least, having a coach is a solid financial and time investment. You strictly set the dates when you’ll have practicing sessions. You have to pay for those sessions. All that gives you additional motivation. It’s hard to say to your coach: “I will give up now”.

Role models can also be a great help

Besides getting a coach, finding a few role models can help a lot. You can model the success of people who have already achieved what you want to achieve, at least to a certain extent. Finding role models is not only excellent way for speeding up the skill acquisition process, it’s also very motivating.

Thus, find a few people you admire and respect who have mastered the skill that you want to master – read interviews with them, watch videos of how they perform, examine their road to success, read about their (humble) beginnings, and so on.

Skill improvement chart

4. Have realistic expectations when learning a new skill

There’s nothing that will stop you from acquiring a new skill faster than big disappointments. If you have unrealistic expectations of how fast you can learn a new skill, you’ll start falling behind your expectations sooner or later, and then you’ll quit. I had such unrealistic expectations for learning how to code.

If you don’t manage expectations properly, the excitement of skill acquisition can quickly turn into bitterness. But what are realistic expectations? There is no one right answer. Even performance psychology researchers have different opinions.

But we can definitely set some soft limits and hard facts about the investment needed for new skill acquisition:

  • You can master the pure basics of any skill in around 25 – 30 hours of deliberate practice. That’s enough to orientate yourself and execute a few basic moves.
  • To reach the global mastery level, approximately 10,000 hours of practice is the big investment needed. But the hours invested account only for around 10-20 % difference in performance. Only practice isn’t a sufficient condition for mastery.
  • There are many other factors that determine how far you’ll get. Talent, quality of practice, stability of the curriculum structure, possible shortcuts (like participating in reality shows) and other similar leverages have a big influence on how quickly you can become good at something. But you don’t need to be a global master, all you need to do is become so good that they can’t ignore you.
  • The time it will take you to become good enough at something is somewhere between 25 and 10,000 hours. By respecting the best learning practices, you can get much closer to 25 than 10,000.
  • The beginnings are slow and very frustrating with every skill. After initial frustrations, steep learning acceleration takes place. Then at some point, you reach a plateau and it’s harder to get better and better. When it comes to skill acquisition, getting through conscious incompetence and plateaus is the hardest. That’s where your willpower, stamina, determination and “whys” come into play.

These are the facts you must consider when managing your expectations. The beginnings are always hard and frustrating. The first few hours of deliberate practice suck when you realize how incompetent you really are at that particular initial moment.

But then the next 25 – 50 hours are extremely important. If you have the right plan in place and if you practice the right way, you can progress extremely fast.

Make sure that 25 – 50 hours is the minimum commitment you’re prepared to invest in acquiring a new skill. If you do the math, that’s not that little. You must practice between 45 and 90 minutes, 3 times per week for 3 months. That’s the investment needed for mastering the basics.

If you don’t know where and how to start or how to organize yourself, do the following: Combine the 30-day challenge and Hour of power concepts. For the next 30 days, commit to practicing 1 hour per day. If you’re not prepared to make such a commitment, forget about acquiring any new skill.

Practical examples

My personal experience is in line with that. With any new skill, making the first step and orientating myself is always extremely frustrating. We live in the post-information age and the body of knowledge for any skill is huge, complex and comprehensive. You must push yourself to focus on the best information and it takes time to separate the wheat from the chaff. It took me 6 months to orientate myself when it came to internet marketing.

Then in 30 hours of deliberate practice, you can understand the basics. Photoshop, blogging, SEO, HTML, CSS, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, the lean startup, proper exercise form etc., it took me around 30 – 50 hours to understand the basics of these skills (or knowledge). With an online course, books, personal coach or YouTube tutorials, that was an investment needed for understanding the skill and properly executing the basics.

But when it comes to mastering something, we can definitely talk in years. It took me 5 years to become a master of lean startup methodologies. It took me 5 years in venture capital to really understand what makes a good startup investment, term sheets, and so on.

It goes the same for my friends who excel at specific skills. The best programmers have been writing lines of code since they were 10. The best athletes have been doing sports from when they could walk. Any kind of mastery requires years of hard work. There are exceptions, but they prove the rule.

5. Set very specific goals for what you want to master

For every new skill you want to master, you can find hundreds of books, online courses, coaches and other resources. That can be very intimidating. In a tyranny of choices and options, we tend to do nothing in the end. That’s something you want to avoid.

One good way to avoid the tyranny of choice is to define what kind of a skill you want to acquire very narrowly and in detail; and then find the best resources for that. Additionally, defining practical value is a big plus. Make sure there is always a problem you’re trying to solve by acquiring a new skill. Let me give you a few examples.

Vague skill acquisition goal Smart skill acquisition goal
I want to learn how to program I want to learn HTML/CSS and basic JavaScript so I can build landing pages for my products.
I want to learn one of the backend languages that is in high demand so I can easily get a job.
I want to learn how to sell I want to be able to confidently and clearly present our company’s products to the target market, manage main objectives and close sales.
I want to be better at sports I want to learn the proper form of the main complex fitness exercises, like squats, pull-ups and deadlifts.

Once you master one narrow definition of a skill, you can of course add a new one. The only point of this approach is to not get overwhelmed. Besides having no emotional drive and unrealistic expectations, being overwhelmed and lost in the information overflow is the biggest danger that can stop you on your way to acquiring a new skill.

6. Preliminary research and a skill acquisition plan

Once you have a specific goal for which skill exactly you want to learn, it’s time for preliminary research and a skill acquisition plan. Preliminary research is about finding the best resources.

For every skill, if you invest several hours into research, you can find the best books, tutorials, online courses, coaches (and interviews with them) and other resources. You can drown in resources, so make sure you go to the best knowledge and find the resources that fit your character and the narrow definition of what you want to master.

Then you want to make a skill acquisition plan. Every skill usually consists of several sub-skills, which are the core building blocks for performing that skill.

Thus, the first step is to parse every skill into small manageable sub-skills. Again, the main point of deconstructing a skill is to make learning manageable and to not feel overwhelmed. Deconstructing a skill can also help you identify and focus on the most important sub-skills.

At this point, you should have everything necessary for preparing a skill acquisition plan:

  • A very exact definition of what you want to learn and why
  • An overview of what mastering a certain skill really means (a semantic map with a list of sub‑skills)
  • The best resources for learning a new skill or, even better, a coach
  • Scheduled weekly practice for several months with enough space between practicing sessions for the new skills to sink in
  • A few role models for additional motivation and for modelling them

An example of a skill acquisition plan

To get more practical, here is how a simple skill acquisition plan would look like:

Category Description
What? I want to master HTML/CSS to build my own landing pages for infoproducts and consulting services.
Why? To present my products exactly as I want them, experiment with new landing page building blocks quickly (A/B testing) and make money blogging.
Time commitment One month, three hours per day.
  • Coding editor (Sublime Text 3)
  • Hosting, FTP and uploading files
  • Git & Github
  • HTML Syntax and elements
  • HTML Page structure and grouping content
  • HTML Formatting page content
  • HTML Links, images, tables, links, forms
  • CSS Syntax
  • CSS Selectors
  • CSS Box Model
  • CSS Cascade and inheritance
  • CSS Formatting
  • CSS Transforms, transitions and animations
  • CSS Page layout, grid system and flexbox
  • Sass & Post CSS
  • Bootstrap
  • WordPress & Plugins
  • Lynda Photoshop/HTML/CSS/JS courses
  • Head First HTML/CSS book
  • The missing manual HTML, CSS
  • W3School
  • WordPress plugins for landing pages (as an alternative)
  • A friend who mastered these languages and builds landing pages.
  • Front-end development meetup group.
Practical application I will build two landing pages, one for my coaching sessions and one for an online course.
Models Examples of the best landing pages for infoproducts.
Financial investment $100

Supportive environment for skill acquisition

7. Build yourself a supportive environment

You can’t succeed in anything alone. You always need strong support from your environment. Acquiring a new skill is no exception.

You need to organize your environment in a way that supports your training, and you need to surround yourself with people who believe in you and know how to motivate you when thoughts of giving up pop up in your head.

The best approach when organizing your environment is to assume the worst about your self‑discipline. Assume that at some point you’ll be lazy, unmotivated and ignorant.

At that point, you’ll need a supportive system that pushes you back on the right track. Here are a few examples of what you can do:

  • Set up a series of reminders for a timeboxed practice session (on your desktop, phone etc.).
  • Put books and other resources at the reach of your hand (desktop table, your bed etc.).
  • Change your desktop wallpaper into one big motivational reminder.
  • Rearrange your software icons and bookmarks to support skill learning (bookmark the resources, if you’re using an app for skill acquisition make it easily accessible etc.).
  • Join meetups, make new friends, make sure you’re surrounded by people who want to achieve the same thing as you or who have already achieved it.
  • Reward yourself with something small every time you perform the practice.
  • Get a client or commit to a project at your job, so you will have a deadline to really master the skill. But make sure you have realistic expectations. Always under promise and over deliver.

Don’t rely solely on self-discipline. Build yourself a supportive environment. That’s really important, it’s half of the success equation.

Feedback system

8. Immediate implementation and feedback system

You can read 100 books about swimming and it can’t compare to jumping into water once.

You absolutely want to do research, prepare a learning plan and understand the skillset from a logical perspective, but it’s even more important that you simultaneously put the skill into practice as soon as possible. That’s how you learn the most. A practical project will also help you not get stuck in the analysis-paralysis.

The good news is that most skills are about solving practical problems. That also means that most skills are in high demand. Consequently, it’s really easy to join different projects and slowly brush up on your skills with practical work. The simple rule is to practice your skills wherever possible.

If you want to improve your writing skills, open a blog and start writing, if you want to learn web design, design a blog, if you want to learn how to sell, open a lemonade stand.

Working on practical projects has another additional benefit. You get immediate feedback on your work and new ideas on how to improve. You can always engage experts and peers to show you how to do things better and give you additional recommendations.

As additional help, you can get valuable feedback in other ways:

  • Record yourself
  • Observe yourself in the mirror
  • Benchmark your performance to the performance of your models
  • Crowdsource improvement ideas, and so on

When it comes to skill acquisition, make sure you have a really good feedback system.

Best learning practices - skills

9. Respect the best learning practices

When it comes to acquiring a new skill, the same rules apply as they do for acquiring new knowledge. The problem is that the best learning practices are most often counterintuitive.

We assume that crammed learning sessions where we repeat the same thing over and over again and practice in the same way work best. But that’s not true. That kind of an approach is the least effective.

In summary, the best learning practices are:

  • Chunking strategy: Break down the learning material into manageable chunks (sub-skills in this case).
  • Focused attention: Have zero distractions when you’re learning something new and be completely focused. Your working memory must be focused on learning.
  • Take breaks: After a session of 45 – 60 minutes, take a small break to restore your attention.
  • Spaced repetition: It’s better to practice for 1 hour 5 times than for 5 hours 1 time.
  • Deliberate practice: Do focused drills and exercises until you get better at a particular chunk.
  • Interleaved practice: Use different concepts, approaches and techniques in the same learning session, mix your practice – speed up, slow down learning, take tests, practice different things, and so on.
  • Get out of your comfort zone: Don’t practice the thing you already mastered, practice things that are a little bit out of your comfort zone. Always be at the edge of your abilities.
  • The point where you master a chunk: You master something when practice turns to boredom. Practice a chunk until you get bored.
  • Rest: If you want to improve, you need to get enough sleep and you must rest between the practicing sessions. There is no improvement without rest. When acquiring knowledge or skills, you’re making changes to your brain. That requires time and rest.
Four stages of learning a new skill

Noel Burch – Four stages for learning any new skill, graphics GWS Media

Four stages of the learning process and the dip

Another very useful thing to know when it comes to learning are the four stages of the learning process. The first stage is unconscious competence, where you don’t even know what you’re doing wrong. That’s the calm before the storm, where you can have unrealistic expectations and self‑assessment.

Then comes conscious incompetence and big frustrations with it. It’s the hardest stage that you have to persist through, as we’ve talked about. The next level is conscious competence. At this stage, you are aware of your mastery level, you know what you’re doing well but you also know how you can improve.

The last stage is unconscious competence. You achieve this final stage when you can perform a skill without thinking. That’s where the mastery level resides.

Seth Godin - The dip

When you enter the conscious incompetence you have to face the dip. There are five main reasons why you might quit when you find yourself deep in the dip:

  1. You run out of time
  2. You run out of money
  3. You get scared
  4. You’re not serious about it
  5. You lose interest

Make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

10. List the skills you want to master and rank them properly

Sit down, take a piece of paper, and list all the skills you would currently like to master. You can probably easily list 10 – 15 skills. Logically, you can’t master all of them at once. At best, you can learn 2 – 3 skills simultaneously, one or two at your job and one or two in your free time.Which skills to pursue first

So, the final question is how to prioritize the skills you want to master. There are several criteria that can help you do that:

  • Point of the skill: Firstly, there are several categories that skills can fall into. The point of acquiring a new skill can be to increase your earning potential, have a hobby (something you like but won’t be paid for) or improve your overall quality of life (relationship skills, fitness etc.).
  • Supply and demand: When it comes to the skills’ market value, you want to develop skills that are in high demand and low supply. These are the skills that will dramatically increase your earning potential. Hobbies, on the other hand, usually have zero market value.
  • Talent: Your talents must not go to waste. That’s a lesson that was already written in the Bible. Categorize skills into those for which you’re talented, neutral and untalented.
  • Your goals and yearly focus: Your skills acquisition plan must be part of the long-term goals you’re trying to achieve. For example, changing a job or improving your health can be connected to specific skill acquisition.
  • Current opportunities: Assess the current opportunities you have in your environment. Can the company you work for pay for your skill acquisition? Do you have a friend or a spouse that mastered something and they are prepared to coach you? Can you easily join a paid project?
  • Resources you have: As we’ve seen, every skill acquisition requires emotional, financial and time commitment. Skills that are harder to acquire demand more resources. Realistically assess what kind of skill acquisition you can currently afford.
  • Life situation: Sometimes life forces you into a situation where you must acquire new skills. An injury, job loss, breakups, promotions, migrations, these are all situations that usually require and push you into developing new skills. When it happens, accept that, don’t resist, and improve yourself.

Build an array of skills you want to acquire and all the mentioned criteria. Then rank the skills from the best ones to acquire at the moment to the least attractive ones. After that, it’s time to put everything you learned about skill acquisition into practice.

From unqualified to qualified

In summary – the best tips, tricks and recommendations to learn or improve any skill fast

In summary, the best tips, tricks and recommendations for learning any new skill are:

  1. Find a strong emotional reason why you want to learn a new skill.
  2. Timebox regular practice sessions in your calendar and don’t miss them no matter what. Start with a 30-day challenge where you practice a skill one hour every day for a month.
  3. Have double standards when it comes to skill acquisition. When you’re not really talented for something, see talent as overrated.
  4. Have realistic expectations. Beginnings always suck big time and the hardest thing to do is to pass the conscious incompetence stage. But you can master the basics of every skill if you invest around 20 – 50 hours. Then things get a lot easier, until you reach a plateau.
  5. If possible get a mentor or a coach or at least find a few role models you can model and look up to.
  6. Very narrowly define what you want to master, parse the skill into small manageable chunks (sub-skills), prepare a learning plan for yourself, and go straight to the best resources.
  7. Practice at the edge of your abilities. Do spaced repetition. Focus your working memory (or attention) with deliberate practice with zero distractions. Interleave practice. Rest.
  8. Build yourself a strong supportive environment (people, habit triggers), apply for practical projects and have many feedback loops. With feedback loops, you will make sure you’re not reinforcing wrong execution.
  9. Develop highly valuable skills that are in high demand but short supply. Make sure none of your talents go to waste.
  10. Finally, enjoy the learning process!

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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