The Simplest Ways to Learn New Skills Fast

Sep 3, 2015

As business owners – and as human beings – it’s easy to become complacent. We get really good in a few key areas and then we dedicate all our time and attention to developing those skills. In some ways, this is good. Honing in on the things we have a natural aptitude for is how we become masters of our crafts, and really, really great at our jobs. At Support Ninja, we often talk about concentrating on the things you’re good at and delegating the rest of your to-do list to others. And we stand behind that…but it doesn’t mean that you should ever stop learning.

The most interesting people are always those who aren’t afraid of reinventing themselves. They also tend to be the most successful because they have more to offer.

If you’re familiar with pop-science writer, Malcolm Gladwell, you may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule. According to Gladwell (and the studies he based his theory on), it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something. That sounds like a lot, right? And it is. For most of us, we just don’t have that kind of time to dedicate to learning a new skill. Especially if we can’t immediately see what the return on that time investment would be. Yeah, it would be great to be fluent in a second language, but do you have 10,000 hours to dedicate to Spanish lessons?

Probably not.

So, the key is not to want to become a master right from the beginning. You don’t need to be a master. What you need is a reasonable level of skill to make the new ability either enjoyable or beneficial to your professional or personal life (hopefully, it will be both). Becoming adequate at something does not take 10,000 hours. In fact, it’s possible that you could learn a new skill in day.


Let’s explore some techniques for learning new things fast.

Changing Your Mindset

As with most things, learning a new skill is often hindered by our own self-imposed barriers.  The two big ones when it comes to acquiring new skills are:

  1. We’re not specific about our goals
  2. We want to be experts immediately — and are frustrated when that’s not the case

If you want to lose weight, you can’t say, “It would be really great if I were 20 pounds thinner” and expect to magically lose the weight. Instead, you would have to come up with some kind of plan and a clear goal. For example, the goal could be, “I want to lose 20 pounds in six months and I plan to do this by follow “x” diet and doing “x” exercise five times a week”. The chances of you achieving your goal just rose by about 50000% percent because you know what you’re working towards and the steps you have to take to get there.

The same is true of learning a new skill.

Say you want to learn to code. Don’t just idly think “It would be great if I could code”. Instead, research the many different ways to learn how to code (many of them free) and set yourself a timeline. Here’s a start: “I am going to practice coding every day  for one hour, and in six months time, I will be able to build my own website”. Easy, right? Saying “I will spend one hour today learning how to code” makes the task of learning an unfamiliar skill way more achievable than just saying “I want to learn how to code”.

The second barrier is a little harder to overcome because you have to accept that you’re not going to be very good in the beginning. Unless you’re a genius or prodigy, the beginning stages of learning something new are going to be slow going, hard and occasionally very frustrating. You have to trust that there will come a point where it all starts to make sense. You also have to trust that there will come a point where you will be adequate at it…and then good…and then it might even be fun.

You can’t get to that last point without slogging through some hard stuff first though.

Define Your Own Reasons For Learning a New Skill

Before we get to the techniques for learning a new skill, we need to get one other big thing out of the way: comparison. Comparison is just human nature. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to others in order to see how we stack up. Most of the time, this behavior is not very helpful but it’s especially damaging when it comes to learning something new.

If you take up piano playing and immediately start comparing your first efforts to Mozart, you’re going to quit after the first five minutes. And the thing is, you don’t need to be as good as Mozart. You didn’t want to learn piano so you could become a world-renowned pianist; you wanted to learn for fun. So keep it fun and ditch the comparisons.

This is true for every single skill you want to learn, even the ones that you hope will benefit your career. Don’t look at people who are already successful in the area and discourage yourself from pursuing the skill. You don’t need to be them and you don’t need to be successful in the way they are. Look to them for pointers on how to get better, but don’t look at them as a reason why you should give up before you’ve even started.

Simple Techniques For Learning New Skills

As learning new skills does not have to be overwhelming or intimidating, let’s break it down into three key areas. You don’t need to go through a master class in how to learn new skills before you even get to the actual learning.

Here’s how you start:

Set a Specific Goal

The benefits of learning something new go far beyond just learning that specific skill. In fact, your brain actually changes in quite a substantial way, which is why the more you practise, the easier the skill becomes until it’s automatic. This means that other things, which are only tangentially related to your new skill, become easier, too.

However, when you’re first beginning, it doesn’t help you at all to try and become good at ALL things at once. Instead, you should have one very specific goal and you should have a timeline for achieving that goal. Write down the umbrella skill you would like to learn, and then list all the different components of that skill. Then narrow down that list further to the skill you would most like to learn first, or the one that’s fundamental to knowing all the others.

Accept Failure as Part of Learning

Okay, we’re all a little sick of hearing that you have to fail if you want to succeed because failure sucks. No one wants to fail. With the internet, it’s actually gotten easier to avoid failure because there are step-by-step guides on how to do just about anything.

In the beginning stages of learning a skill, take advantage of all the Youtube videos, articles and books you can get your hands on. But once you have the fundamentals down, don’t run to these resources every time you hit a problem. Instead, try to figure out how to solve the problem yourself. A big part of learning and retaining new skills is understanding the nature of problems and creating your own solutions.

Here’s the reality: you’re going to fail; it’s up to you to learn how to fail better.

Commit to Long Term Learning

Remember in college where the big midterm or final came up and instead of studying over several weeks, you just tried to binge-learn everything the night before the test? How much of college algebra do you remember today?

We don’t retain the information we try to cram into our brains over a very short period of time. It’s natural when we’re learning something new to try and learn as much as possible. We get a bit obsessed, consumed with learning as much as we can as fast as we can.  But if we want to actually remember how to play the piano five years from now or still be able to build a website six months from now, it’s better to spread our learning over time.

Instead of dedicating entire weekends to learning or hours at a time, commit to smaller study times. Sometimes even fifteen minutes a day is enough to refresh the skills you learned before and build on them slowly. It’s also important to choose your study time wisely. When are you most focused? If you have a busy family life or are tired after work, it may be better to wake up earlier and dedicate the first hour of the day to your new skill.

Use Your Skill Outside of Study Time

Most adults learn by linking new information to things they already know. It’s all about making connections. We’re also need-driven learners, meaning that we learn things that we think we need to know. If your new skill seems useless or totally inapplicable to your everyday life, you’re unlikely to want to continue pursuing it or to learn it very fast. That’s why you should find ways to practise your skill outside of your study time. Get creative with this!

If you’re learning how to code, think about how you would recreate objects in your daily life in your new language. Likewise, when you visit websites and notice a particularly cool feature, see if you can figure out the basics of the code behind it. The more you use your new skill, the more your brain will adapt until it becomes automatic.

Get a Mentor

This one depends on the skill you’re trying to acquire, but for almost all things, it’s helpful to get feedback from someone who has some level of mastery or experience in it. If you’re redoing your house, ask for feedback from your father who works in construction, or your colleague who recently remodelled their kitchen. If you’re learning how to code, ask someone for feedback on your first self-built page or system — whether it’s someone you know in person or follow on the Internet. The great thing about the internet is that there’s hundreds of thousands of people who are happy to share their knowledge and expertise with you. Many of them do it  for free every day.

When you find yourself hitting a roadblock, reach out to someone and ask for advice. Obviously, their expertise is invaluable when you’re still learning, but another benefit is that you’ll get an outsider’s perspective. By seeing things through their eyes, you might have a breakthrough. You might also learn a new approach that you’ve never thought of and it can help you avoid many days of feeling like you’re slamming your head against the wall — which are the kind of days that make you quit.