I recently watched a TED talk by Josh Kaufman that said you can learn anything in 20 hours. He made the very valid point that most people give up on things too soon because the early stages of learning a new skill make them feel stupid (and nobody likes to feel stupid.)
20 hours!? So I can learn something in a day?
Probably not. I’ve seen this trick used in book titles “Learn to write an iPhone app in 24 hours.”
When you open it you see there are 24 chapters each of which takes about an hour to do.
Trust me, your brain will be fried if you try to do it all in a day and I’m pretty sure you’ll be feeling stupid and giving up before the sun sets.
When your brain is taking on new information it’s easy to become overwhelmed. The down time between practising is as important as the practice time itself. New ideas have chance to be processed and new motor skills get chance to sink in when you step away from whatever you’re learning.
In my experience 15 minutes can seem like quite a long time when you’re working on something new. Let’s say you set aside 15 minutes twice a day – you’d have to do this for 40 days to hit the 20 hour target.
Now 20 hours seems like quite a lot of time – right?
20 Hours Of “Practice”
Practice is not reading about something. You can’t learn to play the piano by spending 20 hours reading books about playing the piano. You actually have to put your fingers on the keys.
You should know where you’re going. If you just sit down with no idea about what you’re doing or where you want to get to then you’re not practicing – you’re just noodling.
Think of it like walking. If you can see clearly where you want to get to then 10,000 steps will get you there. If you don’t set your sights on anything then 10,000 steps could just as easily leave you right where you started.
“We haven’t got a plan so nothing can go wrong!” – Spike Milligan
I love that quote. It signifies freedom to just go for it and have fun.
It’s also an excuse for not ending up anywhere in particular. You can just spend those 10,000 steps walking around aimlessly and having fun.
However, if you actually want to get good at something you need to define what “something” is and work towards getting there. So, have a plan!
Make It Simple And Clear
You should set yourself a simple and clear goal. For example “I want to be able to play Lady Madonna by the Beatles on the piano” is a good goal.
You’ll know what questions to ask (you can probably find a video showing you how on YouTube) and you’ll have a measure of how well you’re doing (by whether anyone else can recognise what you’re playing.)
An example of a bad goal is “I want to be really good at the piano.” That could mean many different things.
How do you define “good”? It means something different to someone who’s never played than to someone who can already play.
Where would you start? Learning to read music? Working on scales? Do you want to be good at jazz piano? Or classical? Or pop?
If you don’t know what questions to ask then you’re already introducing a lot of stress into the equation.
So pick something that you can’t do right now that if you could do it you’d feel proud. Then start asking questions to figure out what you need to do next.
Break It Down
Once you know where you’re heading you need to break it down until you find an achievable goal for your 15 minute practice session.
Before you start the timer you should search Google for tutorials, or get a “beginner’s guide” book and find a first step that makes sense.
Read/watch enough until you have a clear idea of what you need to practise, then go and do your 15 minutes.
There Is Only One Rule
The one rule is you’re not allowed to feel stupid until you’ve reached 20 hours.
When you start something new you’re going to be clumsy and it’s going to feel difficult. That’s how it is for everyone, but we rarely see that part of it.
If you can’t remember how difficult it was when you first learned to do something, just try doing it with your other hand. Writing, cleaning your teeth, whisking eggs, etc. Doing them with your weaker hand would certainly make you feel stupid. But you know that if you spent 20 hours using your weaker hand you’d be just fine at it.
I got into running as soon as I discovered that my iPhone could log where I’d been and draw it on a map. That excited me. Every short run I did got added to my log and I could look back and see how far (literally) I’d gone.
Without any record of what you’ve done it’s easy to lose momentum. For anyone who’s trying to lose weight, or build muscle, or get better at a sport, you know it’s a slow process. Seeing the work you’ve put in, and measuring the changes, are important in keeping up the motivation.
For us, we’re just interested in the 20 hour mark. Until we pass it we’re not allowed to give up. But we want logging it to be simple – right? No writing down on bits of paper or entering things into spreadsheets.
When practicing drums I’d often have certain exercises that I needed to work on at different tempos and I’d tried and failed to keep good records of this in note books.
I decided to build a Practice Log feature into my iPhone app – PolyNome.
In short, you can create a preset with a name and hit play. When you hit stop it logs the time you just spent against the preset name. If you’re playing an instrument and the tempo is of interest, the tempo is also logged, but for learning Spanish, or practicing chord shapes on the piano you can just mute the click and use PolyNome to log the time you’ve spent practicing.
You can also use the countdown timer to alert you when 15 minutes is up.
You can enter notes against each practice event. Maybe you’d write how you felt at the start and end of the session. Did you accomplish more or less than you thought.
It’s a place to log what you’re thinking so later you’ll be able to look back and see how long it took you to start feeling like you were getting somewhere.
On the main Practice Log page you can look at the total time you’ve spent working on any preset in any date range. You can see graphs of how you’ve done and compare one day or time period to another.
I’ve found that it makes me feel good at the end of a week to see a record of the work I’ve done.
Dividing It Up
If you want more detailed breakdowns you can create a Playlist of Presets. If you’re learning Spanish, one might be named “Reading Practice”, another “Speaking Practice” and another “Conversation with Spanish person”.
By viewing the Practice Log for the “Spanish Playlist” you can see how your time has been split between those activities and realise maybe you need to spend more time working on one aspect.
It’s Never Too Late
If there’s something you’d like to learn – be it an instrument, a language, computer programming or scuba diving – start now. Don’t be put off by how long it might take to get good. Those thoughts only exist in people who haven’t got on the first rung of the ladder.
Once you’ve done your 20 hours you’ll feel proud of what you’ve achieved. You’ll feel like a pianist who wants to get better rather than someone who wants to play the piano. That’s a much more empowering position to be in.
Many times we feel like we’ve missed our chance to learn a new instrument or skill because we know it takes many years to master. BUT, if it only takes 20 hours to get good enough to enjoy it then those “many years” will be a fun journey rather than something you have to do before there are any rewards.
Trust me – I’m a drummer – and I love playing because there’s always more to learn not because I can do it all.