Think fast

In “Outliers,” a fascinating look at what separates high achievers from the rest of us, author Malcolm Gladwell cites a study that suggests it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to develop expert-level performance.

Who’s got 10,000 hours to spare?

Not many of us, which is why in his new book, “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast” (Portfolio, 2013), author Josh Kaufman offers a systematic approach to rapid skill acquisition. His method shows you how to deconstruct complex skills, maximize productive practice and remove common learning barriers. By completing just 20 hours of focused, deliberate practice, Kaufman argues, almost anyone can go from knowing absolutely nothing to performing noticeably well.

“We’re shooting for the results we value with a fraction of the effort. You may never win a gold medal, but you’ll reap the rewards you care about in far less time,” he states.

Whether you want to play the ukulele, get the hang of windsurfing or increase the skill level of a roomful of sales reps, Kaufman says it’s possible to reach a proficiency that produces high returns and have 9,980 hours to spare. His 10 principles of rapid skill acquisition:


  1. Choose a loveable project — the more excited you are about the skill you want to acquire, the more quickly you’ll acquire it.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time— If you try to learn everything at once, you don’t really learn anything.
  3. Define your target performance level — what does “good enough” look like? Think of it as a single sentence description of what you’re trying to achieve and what you’ll be able to do when you’re done. Once you determine exactly how good you want or need to be, it’s easier to figure out how to get there.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into “subskills” — Once a skill is deconstructed, it’s much easier to identify which subskills appear to be the most important. By focusing on the critical subskills first, you will make more progress with less effort.
  5. Obtain critical tools — What tools, components and environments do you need to have access to before you can practice efficiently? By ensuring that you have the resources you need before you begin, you maximize your practice time.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice — Barriers can include insufficient pre-practice effort (misplacing your tools or not acquiring correct tools); intermittent resource availability (using borrowed equipment or relying on a resource that has limited operating hours); environmental distractions (ringing phones, incoming email); emotional blocks (fear, doubt and embarrassment).
  7. Make dedicated time for practice — No one ever “finds” time for anything. Identify low-value uses of time and choose to eliminate them.
  8. Create fast feedback loops — Get accurate information about how well you’re performing as quickly as possible. The longer it takes to get accurate feedback, the longer it will take to acquire the skill. Coaches aren’t the only source; so are video cameras, computer programs, and training aids.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts — In early phases of practicing a new skill, it’s easy to overestimate how much time you’ve been practicing. Buy a countdown timer and set it for 20 minutes. 
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed — In early-stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolute quality. Instead of trying to be perfect, focus on practicing as much as you can as quickly as you can while maintaining “good enough” form.