11 Strategies for Learning New Skills

Whether you’re working from home, or you find yourself out of work during quarantine, there’s no time like the present to focus on professional and personal development.

We are often taught that skill begins with genetic gifts—that the talented are able to effortlessly perform feats the rest of us can only dream about. This is false. Skill begins with brief, powerful encounters that spark motivation by linking your identity to a high-performing person or group.

This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world-shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them. And from that revelation taking the time to develop the skills to help you achieve the talent and then the goal.

Personal development can contribute to your maturity, success, and satisfaction. Many people build personal development skills throughout their lives to better themselves and reach their goals.

A skill set is a collection of skills and abilities. Each person has a different skill set depending on their interests, natural abilities, personal qualities, and technical skills.

Skills can expand your professional competency and allow you to perform your job well.

Strategies for Learning New Skills

Let’s start with preliminary tips. These tips are set to help you have a great foundation when working on your personal development journey.

1. Visualize Daily

The key to effective visualization is to create an intense connection: to watch and listen so closely that you can imagine the feeling of performing the skill.

For physical skills, project yourself inside the performer’s body. Become aware of the movement, the rhythm; try to feel the interior shape of the moves.

For mental skills, simulate the skill by re-creating the expert’s decision patterns.

Chess players achieve this by replaying classic games, move by move; public speakers do it by reciting great speeches complete with original inflections; musicians cover their favorite songs; some writers achieve this effect by retyping passages verbatim from great works.

2. Make Mistakes

Making mistakes is no fun. But being willing to be stupid—in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes—is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections.

When it comes to developing skills, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts you use to get better.

One way some places encourage “productive mistakes” is to establish rules that encourage people to make reaches that might otherwise feel strange and risky—in effect, nudging them into the sweet spot at the edge of their ability.

3. Avoid Luxury

We love comfort. We love state-of-the-art practice facilities, oak-paneled corner offices, spotless locker rooms, and fluffy towels.

Which is a shame, because luxury is a motivational narcotic: It signals our unconscious minds to give less effort. It whispers, Relax, you’ve made it.

The skill hotbeds are not luxurious. In fact, they are so much the opposite. Seek to be in humble spaces as they help focus attention on the deep-practice task at hand: reaching and repeating and struggling.

When given the choice between luxurious and spartan, choose spartan. Your unconscious mind will thank you.

4. Don’t Fall For Beginners Luck

Most of us grow up being taught that talent is an inheritance, like brown hair or green eyes. Therefore, we presume that the surest sign of talent is early, instant, effortless success, i.e., being a prodigy. In fact, a well-established body of research shows that that assumption is false.

Early success turns out to be a weak predictor of long-term success. If you have early success, do your best to ignore the praise and keep pushing yourself to the edges of your ability, where improvement happens.

If you don’t have early success, don’t quit. Instead, treat your early efforts as experiments, not as verdicts. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

By possessing useful skills, you are not only providing an invaluable service to society as someone who shows effort to improve, but you are also making your life a lot less difficult.

The reason so many people struggle with everyday things is due to a lack of applicable skills that could easily be learned by using the right methods of learning.

Now we present some tips to create, practice, and improve your skills along the way.

5. Find Your Sweet Spot For Learning.

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot. Here’s how to find it:

  • Comfort Zone: Ease, effortlessness. You’re working, but not reaching or struggling.
  • Sweet Spot: Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You’re fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you’re stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again.
  • Survival Zone: Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You’re fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you’re stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again.

Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” The key word is “barely.”

Ask yourself: If you tried your absolute hardest, what could you almost do? Mark the boundary of your current ability, and aim a little beyond it. That’s your spot.

6. Break Down Every Step Into Chunks.

From the time we’re small, we hear this good advice from our parents and teachers: Take it a little bit at a time. This advice works because it accurately reflects the way our brains learn.

Every skill is built out of smaller pieces or chunks.

To begin chunking, first engrave the blueprint of the skill on your mind.

Then ask yourself:

  1. What is the smallest single element of this skill that I can master?
  2. What other chunks link to that chunk?

Practice one chunk by itself until you’ve mastered it—then connect more chunks, one by one, exactly as you would combine letters to form a word. Then combine those chunks into still bigger chunks. And so on.

7. Practice 5 Minutes a Day Over an Hour a Week

With deep mindful practice, small daily practice “snacks” are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow—incrementally, a little each day, even as we sleep.

Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional practice forces your brain to play catch-up.

The other advantage of practicing daily is that it becomes a habit. The act of practicing—making time to do it, doing it well—can be thought of as a skill in itself, perhaps the most important skill of all. Give it time. According to research, establishing a new habit takes about thirty days.

8. Pay Attention Immediately After Your Make a Mistake

Most of us are allergic to mistakes. When we make one, our every instinct urges us to look away, ignore it, and pretend it didn’t happen. This is not good, because as we’ve seen, mistakes are our guideposts for improvement.

Brain-scan studies reveal a vital instant, 0.25 seconds after a mistake is made, in which people do one of two things—they look hard at the mistake or they ignore it. People who pay deeper attention to an error learn significantly more than those who ignore it.

9. Practice In Slow Motion.

When we learn how to do something new, our immediate urge is to do it again, faster. This is known as the Hey, Look at Me! reflex. This urge for speed makes perfect sense, but it can also create sloppiness, particularly when it comes to hard skill. We trade precision—and long-term performance—for a temporary thrill.

So, slow it down. Try adding mindful hobbies to your day. Super-slow practice works like a magnifying glass: It lets us sense our errors more clearly, and thus fix them.

10. Use The Sandwich Technique

Deep practice is about finding and fixing mistakes, so the question naturally pops up: What’s the best way to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes? One way is to employ the sandwich technique. It goes like this:

  1. Make the correct move.
  2. Make the incorrect move.
  3. Make the correct move again.

The goal is to reinforce the correct move and to put a spotlight on the mistake, preventing it from slipping past undetected and becoming wired into your circuitry.

11. Stop Before You’re Your Exhausted

In our society there’s a long tradition of working until total exhaustion. This tradition has its uses, particularly for improving fitness and mental toughness, and for forging emotional connections within a group.

But when it comes to learning, the science is clear: Exhaustion is the enemy. Fatigue slows brains. It triggers errors, lessens concentration, and leads to shortcuts that create bad habits.

It’s no coincidence that most talent hotbeds put a premium on practicing when people are fresh, usually in the morning, if possible. When exhaustion creeps in, it’s time to quit.

A practice session should end like a good meal—with a small, sweet reward. It could be playing a favorite game or it could be more literal.