Ended: Dec. 27, 2013
Popper said many wise things, but I think the following remark is among the wisest: “The best thing that can happen to a human being is to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears.” If you want a formula for living a satisfying, productive life, you can’t go wrong with that one.
Pick one, and only one, new skill you wish to acquire. Put all of your spare focus and energy into acquiring that skill, and place other skills on temporary hold. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (2002), recommends establishing what he calls a “someday/maybe” list: a list of things you may want to explore sometime in the future, but that aren’t important enough to focus on right now. By adding an item to the list, you’re temporarily absolving yourself of responsibility for acting or thinking about the idea until you decide to promote it to active status. I can’t emphasize this enough. Focusing on one prime skill at a time is absolutely necessary for rapid skill acquisition. You’re not giving up on the other skills permanently, you’re just saving them for later.
The best approach to making time for skill acquisition is to identify low-value uses of time, then choose to eliminate them. As an experiment, I recommend keeping a simple log of how you spend your time for a few days. All you need is a notebook. The results of this time log will surprise you: if you make a few tough choices to cut low-value uses of time, you’ll have much more time for skill acquisition. The more time you have to devote each day, the less total time it will take to acquire new skills. I recommend making time for at least ninety minutes of practice each day by cutting low-value activities as much as possible.
You won’t need to use all of these principles for every skill you acquire, but you’ll always find at least a few of them essential. I find it’s useful to think of these principles as a secondary checklist. Whenever you decide to acquire a new skill, just review this checklist and decide which principles apply to your project. Here’s the checklist for effective learning: Research the skill and related topics. Jump in over your head. Identify mental models and mental hooks. Imagine the opposite of what you want. Talk to practitioners to set expectations. Eliminate distractions in your environment. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization. Create scaffolds and checklists. Make and test predictions. Honor your biology. That’s it: apply this checklist to your current prime skill and you’ll learn what you need to know to practice efficiently and effectively.
After a bit of research, I settled on an eighty-five inch Manduka PRO mat.12 It’s extra long, super grippy, very durable, and happens to be a nice green color. Works for me.
Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews (2011)
That’s the trick: I need to practice on a regular basis to reap the rewards. Setting aside time in the morning and evening to practice is key. Instead of starting the day by hopping online to check my e-mail or getting right to work, I’m changing my schedule so I can practice before I do anything else.
My primary website, PersonalMBA.com, is my livelihood: I’m effectively a business professor, but I don’t work at a university. Each year, I update my list of the best business books available for readers who want to teach themselves business fundamentals.1
My first book, The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business (2010), was a natural extension of PersonalMBA.com, and went on to become an international bestseller. Part of the process of writing a book is figuring out how to spread the word, so over the years I’ve worked hard to attract new readers.
Hacker News is a social news website: a collection of links with associated discussions. The topics on Hacker News change minute to minute, but usually revolve around new developments in programming, technology, and business, making Hacker News an ideal place to browse for at least semi-informed opinions on new developments in programming.
Keyzen,16 an open-source typing trainer created by Rye Terrell. Terrell developed Keyzen to help programmers learn how to type faster. The program runs in a standard web browser, and includes uncommon punctuation marks like parentheses, brackets, and slashes: characters that programmers use quite often, but most typing trainers skip. Terrell posted the full source code for Keyzen on GitHub, and invited other programmers to use or modify it. The program itself is quite simple: it displays a set of seven characters, beginning with letters on the home row. Your job is to type the characters in that sequence.
Effective skill acquisition, particularly motor skill acquisition, seems to require sleep, which plays a major part in consolidating the skill into long-term memory. Recent research suggests that, for greatest effect, it’s best to sleep within four hours of motor skill practice: even a short nap is better than nothing at all. Any longer, and your brain’s ability to consolidate the information it gathered during practice is impaired.
That’s why I’m practicing typing right before going to bed. If I go to sleep within an hour or so of practice, I can help my brain consolidate the motor movements more effectively. The weird thing is that I can see this working. My first practice session was horrible: I couldn’t get anything right, made mistakes constantly, and barely progressed past the characters on the home row. After a full night’s sleep, when I sat down in front of the computer, I noticed that I was making fewer mistakes. Sleep had consolidated what I’d learned the night before. Our brains are seriously cool.
Interference is the opposite of consolidation: it’s a disruption of the consolidation process. If you practice or use a second, similar skill shortly after practicing a new skill, that practice can interfere with your brain’s ability to consolidate the new information. The critical period for interference also seems to be roughly four hours. If you wait to practice a conflicting skill after consolidation has taken place, you’re less likely to interfere with the improvements you gained in the primary skill. That’s why I’m not practicing QWERTY immediately after practicing Colemak. It would disrupt my brain’s ability to consolidate my Colemak practice, slowing down my rate of skill acquisition. It’s also interesting to note that, after seven total hours of Colemak practice, I’m suddenly having a hard time typing in QWERTY, even though I’ve been touch typing in QWERTY for a very long time. My brain is mapping typing motor movements to Colemak, which seems to be making it more difficult to access QWERTY, at least for the time being.
Along with Das Keyboard, I modified my training method. Typing random characters gets old, so I switched to a program called Type Fu.20 In addition to random characters and words, Type Fu contains a database of proverbs and quotations, which makes practice a bit more entertaining. The program also keeps track of which characters you miss most often, which is handy. I’m finding J, U, V, and B difficult at the moment.
Here’s a useful tactic in these sorts of situations: the best way to change your behavior is to change the structure of your immediate environment. If you don’t want to do something you’re currently doing, make it impossible to do. If you can’t make the behavior impossible, make it as difficult, expensive, or prohibitive as you possibly can. The more effort required, the less likely you are to go back to your previous behavior. Farewell, World of Warcraft . . . it’s been nice knowing you. Before embarking on my Go adventure, I canceled my World of Warcraft account and deleted the game from my computer. If the game’s not installed, I can’t play it even if I want to. I won’t play video games under any circumstances until my Go experiment is officially complete.
You don’t need to pick many skills to acquire: just choose one. Take a skill on your “want to do” list and commit to trying it. Learn that language, play that instrument, explore that game, work on that project, cook that dish, create that art. It’s easier than it feels. Precommit to practicing that skill for an hour or so a day for the next month. Once you actually start practicing, you’ll always pick it up more quickly than you expect. Break it down, make the time, try new things, and your brain will begin picking up the technique automatically: that’s what brains do. When you get stuck or confused, test a new approach. Remember: once you start, you can’t stop until you reach your target performance level or the twenty-hour mark. Struggle if you must, but don’t stop. Show your grit, and keep pushing forward. You’ll get there: all it takes is practice. One final thought: the only time you can choose to practice is today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today. When you wake up in the morning, you have a choice. You can choose to invest your time acquiring skills that will make your life more successful, enjoyable, and rewarding . . . or you can squander your time doing something else. What will you do today?