Do you have something you’ve wanted to learn but felt like you never had the time? A new skill? A new sport? A new area of study? A new habit?
I love to learn. It’s pretty much my favorite thing.
Because I love it so much, I’ve spent some time learning about learning.
The human mind is amazing. We are great learning animals. But we can multiply our effectiveness by learning more about ourselves. It’s a feedback loop.
Learn how we learn.
This is a massive topic. In future posts I’ll be talking about spaced repetition, mnemonics, and other learning techniques.* Today I want to focus on one technique I’ve used that has made unusual improvements in my life. This applies to anything you want to improve upon; a new skill, an old skill that you’ve let slide, a new area of study - whatever you want to get better at.
10,000 Hours to Mastery.
I imagine if you’re the type of person who’s reading this article, you’ve likely heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory. If not - he states that there seems to be a reliable correlation between mastering a skill, and the time spent intentionally practicing that skill. At the highest level of performance, this seems to be right around 10,000 hours.
But do you have to master a skill to reach a level that is rewarding?
I’ve been a fitness coach for 14 years. One thing that amazes me is the variance in fitness levels possible to humans. Just when you think you’re dealing with a high-level athlete, you are introduced to a nationwide pool and see that there is a slew of people who can out-perform this person. Cast a wider net - a global playing field, and you realize that only one or two out of the nation-level can even compete on the world stage.
You can be damned fit, and still be really far from being the fittest.
In other words, you don’t have to master a skill to be pretty damned good.
10,000 hours is a daunting task. I’m not knocking mastery. I respect that level of performance immensely. But there are many levels below mastery that can still be rewarding.
Josh Kaufman has made a brand from exploring the first 20 hours of learning. He understands that the first 20 hours of devoted learning can be some of the fastest progress. Out of the 10,000 hours needed for mastery, most of those are spent for incremental, sometimes almost imperceivable changes. But the first 20 hours can be the difference between zero skill and being “someone who plays guitar”.
So I came up with 10 minutes per day, and it’s made a huge difference.
This seems really stupid-simple, and it is. But let me show you the power of this simple idea.
- Excuses are hard to come up with when your only commitment is to spend 10 minutes per day learning a new skill. If procrastination has been an issue for you, try this. Commit to practicing 10 minutes per day for 10 days. Even 20 minutes can create the “I don’t have time” excuse. Literally, get set up on what you need to do and set an alarm to go off in 10 minutes. Focus completely on the new skill until the alarm goes off. That’s it. Any prep time should be done before the 10 minutes, but I’ll caution you to not make a habit of getting ready to get ready. Minimize friction so that you can just jump right into the 10 minutes each time.
- Short practice sessions increase focus. When you know you only have a few minutes, it’s easier to stay lasered in on what you’re doing. It may take practice. I know some people have to get “warmed - up”, but remember that we are not yet concerning ourselves with quality. The goal is to practice 10 minutes. That’s it.
- Avoid frustration by keeping your sessions short. The first 20 hours that were mentioned above can also be pretty frustrating. You pick up the guitar for the first time and not only does it sound like crap - it also hurts! The new subject is confusing. The math doesn’t work out. You can’t complete one “real” push-up. Novice level isn't a comfortable place to be. But knowing that it’s only going to last for 10 minutes makes it tolerable.
- Short sessions force you to be efficient. You will seek better ways to learn when you know you are only spending 10 minutes per day. This isn’t something to worry about in the beginning. At first, I just want you to get into the habit of 10 minutes per day. By doing this, you will begin to see ways that you can improve the quality of the time you’re spending. Remember - you can’t steer a parked car. Inefficient practice will lead you to more efficient methods.
- Short daily sessions are far superior to longer weekly sessions. Here’s where I get to be a little geeky. Ready? Here we go...
Because of this, I think we will develop far better retention and skill levels by practicing 10 minutes per day for 6 days instead of 1 hour once per week. You’ve spent the exact same amount of time actually practicing, but you’ve invested 6 “cycles” of neurological development instead of one.
Not to mention the law of diminishing returns. 6 sessions of 10 minutes each are almost completely focused minutes. 1 session of 60 minutes is likely to include some frustration, attention drift, interruptions, bathroom breaks, etc...
To drive home this example, think about it in terms of the first 20-hours mentioned above. If that’s done in 18 weeks of 10-minutes per day, you will be FAR better than if you practice the first 20 hours in 3 days.
Obviously, the more time you put in the faster you’ll improve. Of course, someone who practices 6-hours per day is going to outpace you. Especially in the beginning.** But...
It’s only the beginning.
I’m not telling you to restrict yourself to only 10-minute practices forever. I started meditation this way, now I do 20 minutes. I started writing this way, now I average 4 hours per day.***
But if you’ve struggled to start something, whether it’s a new hobby, a new career, or an existential re-awakening, starting with a goal of 10 for 10 is a great way to start. Don’t even think about what’s beyond that yet. Just do the 10 for 10 and see where you’re at. My suggestion from there is not to rush it. Before trying to add minutes to each practice, try just adding days. Can you get 20 unbroken days of 10 minutes each? 30 days? 100 days?
Eventually, you will discover that you either don’t want to keep pursuing this skill (a valuable lesson), or you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how much you’ve progressed from such a small commitment. When that happens you can decide whether or not to try 15 minutes. Or keep a 10-minute daily minimum with an allowance to go into overtime.
And if I’m full of crap and none of what I’ve said rings true. There’s one thing I guarantee:
10 minutes a day is a hell of a lot better than 0.
*Those links will take you to some resources on those topics if you want to dive in now instead of waiting for my future articles.
**Remember the mastery example above? Eventually, the law of diminishing returns will catch up to you both. So the short session person after 30 years might seem almost as good as the long session person. Other factors apply, such as predisposition, attitude, mentorship, methods, etc...
***That’s every day. 7-days per week. Not to brag. It’s just that there is a hidden tip there. One I’ll expand on more in a future post.
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