Josh Kaufman has taught us about the 3 barriers to learning something new and that you don’t have to be an elite ninja master of the universe to learn new things (and what’s been really interesting is to see how those ideas apply to the quest to live in the grey).

Today, we’re gonna share with you exactly what Josh suggests to do so that you learn how to learn and can acquire any new skill – personal or professional – as quickly as possible. Don’t forget there’s a pattern here- everything Josh says about learning a new skill also can be directly applied to doing what it takes to go from black-and-white to grey! Pretty cool, huh?

1. Set a concrete, specific Target Performance Level.

Setting what I call a target performance level makes it much easier to identify exactly what you’ll need to actually practice. It sounds simple, but this is an extremely common point of failure: most people never decide what they want, so it’s impossible to figure out how to get it.

– Define what you want to be able to do in a clear, concrete manner – the more detailed, the better.
– Likewise, deciding on ONE skill to work on at a time is crucial. Remember: you’re not deciding that you’re never going to pick up any of the other skills on your list. You’re just deciding you’re not going to focus on them right now. Pick one skill: everything else can wait.

2. Deconstruct the skill to avoid overwhelm and make practice more efficient.

Most of the things we think of as skills (like “public speaking” or “playing the guitar”) are actually bundles of smaller sub-skills that are used in combination. By breaking the skill into more manageable parts, practice becomes way less intimidating, and you can work on improving one sub-skill at a time.

Most skills follow a similar pattern: a few subskills are critical, while the remainder are rarely used or contribute less to the end result. Practice the most important sub-skills first, and you accelerate your overall rate of skill acquisition.

3. Use 80/20 research tactics to find the most important subskills quickly.

Next, find a few books, courses, DVDs, or other resources about the skill. Don’t try to finish them all in detail: skim them all, one after another. The most important techniques and ideas will appear often, in multiple sources, allowing you to establish which sub-skills are critical with more confidence.

An hour or two of research is all you need: too much research is a subtle form of procrastination.

Do your homework, then shift to real practice as quickly as possible. Practicing the skill in context is the only thing that generates lasting results.

4. Anything that gets in the way of focused, deliberate practice is an enemy that needs to be destroyed.

Want to learn how to play the guitar? Guess what: keeping your guitar in a case, in the back of a closet, on the other side of your house pretty much guarantees you’ll never practice.

One of my friends (and former clients), Tim Grahl, has a great rule of thumb:

“I assume that future Tim is going to be stupid, lazy, and make bad decisions, so I set up my environment to prevent that from happening.”

Instead of relying on willpower to force yourself to practice, it’s always more effective to change your environment to make practicing as easy as possible. Little changes, like placing your guitar in an easy-to-reach location, make an enormous difference.

Likewise, anything that distracts you or pulls focus while you’re practicing holds you back. Close the door. Unplug your TV. Disconnect your internet. Mute your cell phone. Do whatever it takes to keep your attention on the task at hand.

Anything that gets in the way of focused, deliberate practice is an enemy that needs to be destroyed. No mercy.

5. Use precommitment psychology to break through early resistance.

Now, the moment of truth: are you willing to rearrange your schedule to complete at least 20 hours of deliberate practice? (That’s roughly 45 minutes of practice a day for the next 30 days.)

Sit down, take out your calendar, and do the math. When exactly are you going to practice? What are you going to give up, reschedule, or stop doing to make the time?

If you “don’t have time,” or aren’t willing to accept the necessary tradeoffs to MAKE the time, that’s a sign the skill isn’t a real priority at the moment.

There’s no shame in that. If you’re not willing to commit to at least 20 hours of practice to acquiring a new skill, then you’re probably better off dropping the project and doing something else. It’s better to clarify your true priorities and make a conscious decision to stop than dabble just long enough to feel guilty about giving up.

If you’re willing to invest at least 20 hours of focused effort in learning a new skill, precommitting to putting in the time makes it much more likely you’ll practice enough to acquire the skill. This technique is called a “pre-commitment,” and it’s extremely effective at changing behavior.

This last note from Josh is one of our favorites because it is a direct call out to those who use time as an excuse to not pursue a life in the grey. Just replace ‘skill acquisition’ with ‘living in the grey’:

Whining is NOT An Effective Skill Acquisition Strategy

One last thing: I recommend removing the phrase “I don’t have time” from your vocabulary. You have all the time you’re ever going to have, and you’re in full control of how you choose to use that time.

If a skill is a big enough priority to learn, you have to MAKE TIME to practice it. If it’s not important enough to rearrange your schedule, be honest with yourself, drop it, and move on.

Whatever you decide, stop whining. Whining is not an effective strategy for skill acquisition.

Rapid skill acquisition isn’t easy. It requires a huge burst of very intense effort. Skills require practice, full stop. It’s supposed to be hard… but the results are well worth the investment.

A big thank you to Josh for breaking this all down! How have Josh’s words helped you and your quest to learn or live in the grey?



Josh Kaufman is the bestselling author of “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast” and “The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business.” You can find more of Josh’s ongoing research at


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