When neurosurgeon Josh Kauffman became a new dad, he was hit with a wave of despair.

Between work, nappies and chronic sleep deprivation, how will I ever have the time to learn anything new again? he thought.

Like the billions of other new parents who’ve felt the same way before him, he was a sleep-deprived wreck and assumed he’d never have free time ever again. So he allowed himself to wallow in the pain for a short while.

Then he started thinking.

How long does it *actually* take to learn a new skill, anyway?

Google, best-seller books, and all the big blogs all seemed to answer the same way–10,000 hours.

But Kauffman, who is also a self-professed “cognitive psychology geek”, decided to do some more digging. He wanted to understand where this seemingly random number originated and what it actually meant.

He came across research conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University that studied world-class performers of every kind: professional golfers, violinists and chess grandmasters to name a few. He found that the top performers in these fields put in around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve their level of mastery. The more time a person spent practicing, the higher the probability that they’d reach the top of their particular field. So it turned out that The 10,000 Hour Rule was a measure of how long it took to master a new skill, rather than how long it took to simply acquire one.

Feeling a bit more upbeat, Kauffman did some more digging. And what he discovered sent chills of excitement through him.

The 20-hour Rule

We all know the “learning curve”. It’s that frustrating yet thoroughly rewarding period of time where you go from being a complete newbie to developing a basic level of proficiency relatively quickly.

The learning curve. Source: How to learn anything in 20 hours | TEDx |

As seen in the image above, the time it takes to develop basic proficiency happens fairly quickly and then tapers off as you try to move from proficiency to mastery. That learning curve differs immensely between various skills but Kauffman found that most skills can be acquired, at least at a basic level of proficiency, within just 20 hours.

Just 20 hours of deliberate, focused practise is all you really need to build basic proficiency in any new skill. Broken up, that’s just 45 minutes of practise every day for 1 month.

But if it’s that easy, why doesn’t everyone learn a new skill every month?

Three reasons: lack of time, lack of focus and not knowing where to start.

Finding the time to focus.

Let’s tackle the focus bit first. In the age of never-ending distractions, finding your focus is hard. Very hard. In his #1 best-selling book, Deep Work, Professor Cal Newport proposes that as a society, we’ve lost the ability to focus deeply on just one thing at a time. This is bad because our brains are wired to work best when we focus on one complex task rather than continuously switch between them. But we’ve collectively become a giant group of multi-taskers and we suck at it. He suggests that whilst it is a difficult habit to cultivate, becoming awesome at deep work is very much worth investing in.

Newport and other authors offer four strategies to help you commit to moments of deep work:

  1. Monastic: shut yourself out of the world for a period of time and just get it done in one go. Think cabin in the woods for a week to finally write that novel.
  2. Bimodal: Set a 3-6 hour chunk of time everyday for deep work and work on nothing but that task. This is similar to the Monastic Approach but done daily and without the cabin in the woods thing.
  3. Rhythmic: Similar to the bimodal approach, the rhythmic strategy works in a similar way to the Pomodoro Technique and chunks your work and rest period into timed blocks (with an actual timer). A popular method is to work 25 minutes and rest for 5 but you can experiment with this to find the flow that works for you.
  4. Journalistic: Dedicate any unexpected free time during the day to deep work.

That’s all well and good, I hear you say, but I’m in the hospital 12 hours a day. I don’t have 4 hour chunks of time to commit to deep learning.

Finding 20 hours a month of free time seems impossible, right? Between work, family, commitments and Netflix, who has the time?  

But you can find those pockets of time if you look hard enough. The latest research suggests that people, on average, spend up to 135 minutes a day mindlessly browsing on the internet. That’s over 2 hours of wasted time a day. 60 hours a month.

I don’t think I need to explain that any further.

Yeh, but when you only have 5-10 minutes free at a time, how do you do anything constructive with them? I hear you ask.

Simple. You plan it beforehand.

Newport’s journalistic approach to deep work functions great with small pockets of time if you have a list of structured items you need to get through to learn your new skill. Think of it this way: if you had a to-do list of 50 items that you had to get done this week, how would you approach it? With that kind of pressure on you, you’ll find the easiest tasks to complete (reschedule that physio appointment, respond to that email etc.) and get them done in the 5 minute free blocks you find throughout your day. But the key here is that you’ve already got them written down. You don’t need to think. You just need to do.

You can use the same approach to learn a new skill. You know that you will be able to find random 5-10 minute blocks of free time throughout your day so you plan accordingly.

But how do you break down a new skill into 5-minute segments when you don’t know what you don’t know?

Knowing where to start: building a knowledge tree using the Feynman Technique

Elon Musk is the 21st century Leonardo da Vinci and he has a very particular way of learning.

Musk once spoke about how he has been able to achieve, in a few short years, what would take most people dozens of lifetimes to do. He attributes his prolific learning to a mental model called The Feynman Technique. Named after Nobel Prize Winning physicist Richard Feynman, this mental model is based on the premise that you should learn not to memorize, but to deeply understand.

“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree-–make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”–Elon Musk

Musk learns by first looking at the most fundamental concepts in any given subject and tries to understand it before moving on to the next level of the “tree”. To give you an example, look at the following two cases.

Source: Elon’s Surprising Strategy for Thinking About Everything | www.inc.com |

All the A’s look different in case 1 yet they are the same letter. By studying the A’s in case 1 after looking at the A’s in case 2, you will come to realize that certain defining features create the letter “A”. The two strokes that join at the top, the horizontal stroke in the middle, the space above that stroke etc. Eventually, you will be able to recognize a letter “A” regardless of what it looks like and even be able to construct your own because you know the fundamental features of the letter “A” (if typography is your thing!). If you were to only look at case 2 without comparing it to case 1, you’d have no way of identifying the unique features that make an “A” what it is and therefore couldn’t possibly create a version of your own. This ability to deconstruct a skill or body of knowledge to its fundamental principles is necessary for effective learning and the subsequent application of that learning.

According to Kauffman, the first step to learning a new skill quickly and efficiently is to learn how to deconstruct a skill into its most important parts. You could spend hours upon hours getting stuck into the nitty-gritty details of a new skill but that would be inefficient. The details would have no “branches” to hang onto. Instead, focus the first 20 hours of learning a new skill building the “trunk” of the skill tree using the following steps.

  1. Build the “trunk”–Find a few resources on your chosen skill and spend a few hours skimming through to get a feel for the basic principles. As you do this, you’ll notice that a pattern will begin to emerge. The resources are likely to differ on the details but the big picture will almost always remain the same. Spend this time understanding the big picture and “trunk” of the skill.
  2. Deconstruct the skill into smaller sub-skills– This is when you start to look at the details. Now that you’ve built up the “trunk” with the big picture, flesh it out with the “branches” and sub-skills involved in learning that skill. This is when you learn what really makes an A, an A. Understand the different methods, strategies and practices involved in your new skill and break them down into smaller parts. It’s not difficult to identify the most important sub-skills. Pick up a few books on the topic and you’ll eventually see the same methods and techniques being mentioned over and over again. That’s what you need to focus on.Let’s take cartooning, for example. To make one cartoon, you’ll need to learn how to construct a simple story, draw common shapes, construct those shapes into simple sketches, put colours together, shade those colours and the list goes on. Each of those activities are important skills in themselves. Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexity of drawing, just break down the skill into sub-skills, then further down into tiny chunks, and practice one at a time. That’s what we do at Medmastery. Our core strength is to deconstruct complicated medical topics and to turn the most important sub-skills into bite-sized lessons and videos that you can learn on the go. We focus on the sub-skills that will get you to a level of deep proficiency as quickly as possible.
  3. Learn enough to know that you’re on track– Don’t waste your time practising the non-essentials. Knowing the big picture and having identified important sub-skills, select the one that will give you a headstart on your learning journey and help you identify when you might be on the wrong track. For example, if you were to learn English, it would be helpful to know that the 25 most common words account for over 33% of usage. Many languages follow a similar pattern. If you can already identify 33% of the language you’re trying to acquire straight off the bat, you’re much more likely to continue learning the skill and also recognize when you’re hopelessly wrong. Focusing on these words would help you reach proficiency much faster than say, focusing on learning and absorbing all the grammatical rules.
  4. Get your hands dirty!– The steps above should not take more than 3-4 hours of your total 20. The best way to learn is to just do. Be ok with stuffing up at first. Build an environment around yourself to nurture effective learning. That means switching off distractions and committing to spending a certain amount of time every single day to honing your craft.

And don’t forget to enjoy the ride!