These days, acquiring new professional skills is no longer optional it’s compulsory. With technology constantly evolving at a rapid clip, you need to keep up just to stay competitive. The problem is between work and family commitments, social obligations, personal fitness, personal nutrition, two dogs, a goldfish and a DVR queue, who has the time?
The good news is you don’t need a ton of time to learn new skills. By committing less than an hour a day for a month, you can master most skills well enough to feel competent. In some cases, even just committing 15 minutes can be effective. The key is to be consistent and focused.
So if you’ve always wanted to learn how to use Excel, design a mobile app, or learn to play the oboe, it’s never been easier or more convenient.
Define Your Goal
First make sure that the skill you’re about to commit to is applicable or relevant to your career goals. You don’t want to waste your precious time and energy learning something that you really don’t need to know. Do your research to know what skills are prerequisites.
You should also ask yourself if the new skill is realistically attainable. If it’s something that requires more than a few spare hours after work or on weekends (say neurosurgery or rocket science), you’ll obviously need to make a larger, more encompassing commitment such as going back to school.
Or perhaps it’s a skill that you don’t particularly have a penchant or aptitude for. In either case, it might be better to reconsider your intentions or decide if there’s an alternative solution.
Make a Game Plan
Once you’ve defined your goal, you need to decide how to attain it. Fortunately there are myriad options to consider, from the more formal structure of MOOCS (massive open online courses) and online university extension courses to books and online tutorials on everything from coding to designing to data analysis.
Whatever you decide, make a schedule for yourself and try to stick with it consistently.
Trial by Fire
Usually the most effective way to learn anything quickly is simply by doing it. If you decide to go the self-taught way, try to learn the basics of a skill and then jump right into a project using those skills – for instance, designing your own blog or creating a simple power point presentation. When you come up against a problem, which is expected and desired in the learning process, you have a plethora of resources, both on and off line to help you through it. And most importantly, you’ll gain practical rather than theoretical knowledge.
Start With 40 Minutes
According to neurosurgeon and best-selling author Josh Kaufman, any new skill can be acquired in 20 hours or less. Kaufman points out that the often-cited “10,000 hour” rule (recently quoted in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book “Outliers”) that says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill is only valid when talking about elite athletes, musicians or other easily ranked performers. Yet somehow the 10,000 hours has become the rule for not just mastering, but also learning a new skill.
Obviously, high-level mastery of a skill requires a serious time commitment that can’t be achieved in your off-hours. In other words, it’s unlikely you’ll become an Olympic ice skater or a skilled concert pianist in your spare time. However, you can learn how to code, design a web site or speak a new language. You can even learn a new instrument; just don’t expect to be Yo-Yo Ma.
In his book, “The First 20 Hours” Kaufman argues that completing 20 hours of focused deliberate practice—whether it’s learning to program a Web application or play the ukulele—will get you from knowing absolutely nothing to performing noticeably well.
But even as little as 15 minutes of focused practice every day will lead to results. As my piano teacher once said, it’s better to do a little each day, then a lot every few days. The key is commitment and enthusiasm. If you love what you’re doing, you’re more likely to succeed.