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How To Learn Anything You Want In Just 20 Hours

Have you ever heard that you need 10.000 hours to achieve mastery in a field? This concept was introduced by Anders Ericsson, a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, and was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his popular book “Outliers“. The book was so successful that this concept was replicated through various media, and has been quoted as the time needed to really learn something ever since.

But, how is that possible? I mean, 10.000 hours equal to a full-time job for approximately 5 years, and none of us ever needed that much time to learn something new. There is obviously something going wrong here.

Due to the popularity this concept has gathered, it was ‘forgotten’ that the 10.000-hour rule is based on ultra-competitive performers on their respective fields, like chess grandmasters or professional athletes. It was never meant to be an equivalent to learning something new, or even becoming good at it.

Well, then, how much time is really needed to learn something new? In his best-selling book “The First 20 Hours: How To Learn Anything… FAST!“, Josh Kaufman supports that 20 hours are all you need. By completing just 20 hours of deliberate practice, you can go from knowing absolutely nothing to being noticeably good in the subject at hand.

Now, how is THAT possible? I mean 10.000 hours seem really a lot, but 20 hours seems like a REALLY low number. The answer lies in the learning curve, illustrated below. The learning curve shows that the most massive improvements happen in the early stages of learning. It is therefore there that we can put our focus on, and 20 hours can actually be enough.

Learning Curve Chart by Josh Kaufman

Learning Curve Chart by Josh Kaufman. Source: Josh Kaufman’s TED talk, which you can watch at the end of this post.

It is obvious, though, that just jumping into learning without any plans or techniques won’t be adequate. If you want to learn something new in 20 hours, it’s possible and tested, but you need to follow a few simple steps. As Josh Kaufman says:

There’s a way to practice intelligently. There’s a way to practice efficiently, that will make sure that you invest those 20 hours in the most effective way that you possibly can.

Foundation

Before diving into the exact process, there are some foundational concepts that can and will help you in this process. To begin with, choose to learn something that you like. You might have wanted to learn how to dance or how to play the guitar your whole life. Choose the subject that makes you click.

You should also try to learn one thing at a time. While it is possible to do more, assuming your life is busy in some way, it’s best to have your brain working on one task during its diffuse moments.

And, finally, you had better wrap your head around the fact that this is possible! Josh Kaufman, in his book, illustrates how he applied the 20 hours rule to learning web development, how to play the ukulele, practice yoga, relearn touch typing, windsurfing and Go, an old, very complex, board game. Many have replicated his process, and so can you.

1. Deconstruction

The first step is to deconstruct the skill. As soon as you get to pick your target performance level (an important step), it’s time to start researching. Don’t overdo it though. Your goal is to identify the smaller skills that comprise the whole subject you are trying to learn. It’s not to learn everything there is about it.

The goal here is to break the skill apart as much as possible, in order to identify the most important items you need to tackle first. The more crucial the things you practice are, the least amount of time you will need to improve.

In this metalearning book disguised as a cookbook, “The 4-Hour Chef“, Tim Ferriss describes deconstruction using the question:

How do I break this ‘amorphous’ skill into small, manageable pieces?

To achieve that, he offers 4 tools in the book:

  1. Reducing. This process is about identifying patterns and repeating elements in a skill, which will greatly reduce the complexity and amount of work.
  2. Interviewing. Ask people that are great at what you’re learning (not the greatest as those will be hard to reach) about things you should or shouldn’t do. Try to identify the unconventional advice each has to offer, as most often there lies their success.
  3. Reversal. This process is about the existence of different perspectives, which could lead to greater results. For example, traditional language classes teach grammar first and build on vocabulary much slower. The opposite has proven to be more effective for achieving quick fluency.
  4. Translating. This tool revolves around identifying a few core questions, which, when answered, will provide you with a quick foundation on the new skill. Tim Ferriss, in his book, explains how the translation of 13 simple sentences can give him an understanding of a whole language’s grammar.

2. Learn enough to self-correct

We often pick up a substantial amount of reading material, and “commit” to finishing it all before getting to practice. This habit, especially in accelerated learning, is just another form of procrastination.

What you need to do is to learn just enough that will allow you to get to practice as fast as possible. The goal is to be able to correct yourself as you go, constantly correcting your course.

To achieve that, first absorb knowledge through a few (3-5) sources, selected utilizing the 80/20 rule. Those could be books, videos, courses, or anything for that matter. Then try to associate the information with preexisting knowledge and mental models (find out more about this in my article on chunking). The next step is to jump into practice, as fast as possible.

There also exist ways to externally provide that correction and feedback, effectively creating fast feedback loops. Practicing in the presence of a mentor, or using an app that will give you immediate feedback on whatever it is you are practicing are just 2 of the existing techniques.

3. Remove practice barriers

This mainly involves all the potential distractions, like tv, cellphone or internet. Even if you have the best intentions, cues to procrastination will arise. You should make your best efforts to prevent that from taking you off course. Read my article on how to beat procrastination to find out how to achieve this.

4. Practice at least 20 hours

Well, the 4th step is to actually put in the 20 hours of practice time. It is best to devote 40-45 minutes per day for a month, allowing your diffuse mode of thinking to continuously enhance your comprehension. An effective strategy is to allocate the 45 daily minutes ahead of time for the whole month, reducing the chance of you resorting to excuses.

Separating your learning like this allows for continuous corrections in your process, and lets you consistently speed up the effectiveness of your practice. It also allows you to space out your learning repetitions, which is one of the fundamental techniques in accelerated learning.

Getting over the frustration barrier

Most skills have what Josh Kaufman calls a “frustration barrier”. We humans really hate to feel stupid, and that is actually one of the largest barriers to actually sitting down and doing the work. By devoting these 20 hours, following the steps above, you not only will get past this “frustration barrier”, but will also build a solid foundation on the skill to expand upon in the future.

So, what are YOU going to learn?

Call to Action

While mastery is a whole other topic, these 20 hours of deliberate practice will get you from knowing nothing to being good at your subject. I’d love to learn more about your achievements and/or struggles you faced in the process. Post on the Facebook group, or contact me directly!

Josh Kaufman’s TED Talk

This article is largely based on and inspired by Josh Kaufman, his book “The First 20 Hours: How To Learn Anything… FAST!” and his amazing TED talk, which you can (and should) watch below!

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