14 Tips For Learning Any Skill Incredibly Fast

Tim Ferriss

Photo: Jeff Kubina

Tim Ferriss’ new book, “The 4-Hour Chef” is definitely about learning to cook rapidly. But it’s also about learning just about any skill.He writes:

“Whether you want to learn how to speak a new language in three months, how to shoot a three-pointer in one weekend, or how to memorize a deck of cards in less than a minute, the true recipe of this book is exactly that: a process for acquiring any skill. The vehicle I chose is cooking.” 

Along with the recipes, there are great insights into learning, and some great tricks you can use every day. We’ve broken out a few of the best tips. 

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

There's a basic, four-part framework you can apply to any skill.

Deconstruct

'What are the minimum learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?'

Selection

'Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?'

Sequencing

'In what order should I learn the blocks?'

Stakes

'How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?'

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

First, deconstruct the task. People often give up on tasks because the amount of information is overwhelming.

The key is to find something defined to focus on, and to break it into smaller, more manageable parts.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Start with tools you can use quickly.

Learning to conjugate verbs is awful. It's boring, and there's no immediate impact. But by learning a few helping verbs (to be, to have, to want, etc.) not only do you learn conjugation, you unlock a large, functional chunk of the language. Small, useful victories keep you on track and accelerate learning.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

By finding the simplest building blocks, you'll progress faster.

Ferriss gives the example of learning Japanese. There are 1,945 characters in the language, some with as many 15 strokes. But there are only 214 radicals which make up all of those characters, and those have clues to meaning and pronunciation as well. It's much more manageable, and provides a clear path forward.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Find someone who's been doing or teaching the skill for years.

Find an expert, not necessarily the best in the world, but someone near the top. Give them a reason for talking to you, because asking for a favour isn't a compelling pitch. Ask questions, such as how they would train someone who's poorly suited for something, who the best little-known teachers are, and what an eight-week training course for someone with a million dollars on the line would look like.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Make progress through the 'minimal effective dose.' A small step is easier to turn into a habit, and you're less likely to skip it.

People frequently fail when they try to do everything at once. They approach a massive project and quickly get discouraged. Taking small, but high-value steps takes less time, and you learn more in the long run.

If you're learning a language, pick the highest value, most frequently used words in a language and learn a few each day. If you're learning to cook, pick the most common cooking techniques to learn first.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Don't overtax your working memory by trying to do too many things at once.

One of the principal barriers to learning something is the limitation of working memory. That's the memory focus you use for the task at hand, which fills up quickly when something's new and unfamiliar. When it's overtaxed, you make more errors. The key is to work on only one step at a time until it becomes second nature before moving on.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Try doing the opposite of what everyone else teaches.

Every Boy Scout knows the 'teepee' method of creating a fire, with the smallest kindling and newspaper in the centre and big logs on the outside. The exact opposite of it--a layer of smaller logs, on top of a base of much larger ones, topped by newspaper--works better, with less management. Flipping a problem on its end can yield an easier solution.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Eliminate as many options as possible.

Information and advice get overwhelming, and we use the search for more information as a distraction and excuse. Make a one-page cheat sheet for all of your most important options and information. You'll make faster decisions and spend less time searching, which saves a huge amount of time.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Acknowledge that you're probably terrible at self discipline, and create real stakes for failure.

No matter how much you want to accomplish something, or how well you plan, people tend to drift because they aren't good at self discipline. You have to create external stakes. One way is to use the science of human behaviour, specifically our aversion to losing. One example is setting up an anti-charity--an automatic payment to an organisation you dislike--if you don't hit your goal.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Watch out for the low points in advance so they don't derail you entirely.

Just by the way your brain works, there are limits to learning. At first you're really excited, you learn a lot, and exhaust yourself. Then you have a drop off as things get more difficult. Then, later once you've mastered the basics, you start to plateau. That's another failure point. Watch for them and plan in advance.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Hack the way that your brain remembers things.

Your brain remembers the things you study in the beginning and end of study sessions. Split sessions in two to minimize the time in the middle. The Von Restorff effect means recall peaks with unique items too, so insert different or compelling interludes into lists or tasks that are monotonous.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef.

Give yourself a margin of safety.

Ferriss uses Warren Buffett as his example here. Buffett famously buys stocks at a discount, so he'll likely do well even if things go badly.

The same lesson applies to learning a skill. Making sure you'll have a good, measurable outcome even if you mess up keeps you on track. You avoid the worst failures, and get something useful out of your effort no matter what.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

Learn from outliers, but only the right kind.

Michael Phelps is not a particularly good person to learn from. You can't replicate his ridiculous physical gifts or the portion of his life he devotes to swimming. The best people to learn from are those who started out as average, then became outliers. They actually have techniques you can replicate.

Source: The 4-Hour Chef

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