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Graphic of gold banner with "20 Hours" written on itAshley Sanders is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Michigan State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @throughthe_veil or on her blog, Colonialism Through the Veil.




"Skill is the result of deliberate, consistent practice. And in early stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolute quality. The faster and more often you practice the more rapidly you'll acquire the skill." (Kaufman, Chapter 2)

As a grad student, it is incredibly difficult to learn how to perform new skills at the level necessary for academic work.  And yet, we're expected to do so, whether it’s learning a foreign language, technical equipment, digital skills, or research methodologies. What’s more, if there’s something we want to learn just for the fun of it or for our health (yoga or meditation, for example), forget about it! We often feel our schedules couldn’t possibly accommodate it. Josh Kaufman's book, The First 20 Hours, offers a solution: rapid skill acquisition (RSA).  Kaufman defines 10 principles of RSA, walks the reader through each one, and offers tips and suggestions from his own experience. In this post, I’ll briefly outline the ten steps.  With persistence and practice, one can acquire any skill.

The 10 Principles of Rapid Skill Acquisition:

  1. Choose a lovable problem - when you become so curious about something that other things fall away, at least temporarily. Over the next month, I will apply RSA to learn Drupal, a web-publishing platform, from the ground up. I already use Drupal in my work at H-Net, but I want to have a better grasp of how the backend functions to troubleshoot technical problems.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time. Instead of trying to brush up on language skills, learn Python (a programming language), and Drupal, I am only focusing on Drupal.
  3. Define your target performance level. Visualize what you'd like to be able to do when you have acquired the skill. I want to be able to build a Drupal site from installation on a server to the finished product and be familiar with additional plugins I can use to improve the site.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into sub skills. For example, I already know how to install a content management system (CMS) on a server through file transfer, but I need to learn how to create a MySQL Database for Drupal as part of the installation process.
  5. Obtain critical tools. For example, for yoga, you would want to have a mat, comfortable clothing, and a bottle of water. To learn Drupal, I need my laptop, a fast internet connection, and a resource book or two.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice. This one is really important! During the time you practice, turn off the TV, sign out of email, and at least silence your phone.  Close all other browser tabs and turn off all social media sites and apps if working on your computer. Let others know you’ll be unavailable (unless there’s an emergency, of course) for at least 90 minutes. Plan ahead. Finally, address any emotional blocks, such as fear, doubt, or embarrassment by talking through your anxieties with a trusted friend and establishing an accountability system for practice time (not for perfection!)
  7. Make dedicated time for practice. Schedule it on your calendar and set a reminder. If it’s difficult to find a time, keep a time log and choose to eliminate low-value uses of time (checking Facebook for an hour during planned work-time, for instance). Make time for at least 90 minutes of practice a day.  Commit to practicing for at least 20 hours.
  8. Create fast feedback loops. Look for tools like computer programs or training aids online. Ask other grad students, family, or friends who know what you’re trying to learn to serve as coaches. Capture devices like video cameras can give you a sense of how you're performing. Integrate as many feedback loops as you can into your practice. While I’m learning Drupal, I have a couple of guides that walk through steps and provide examples of what my work should look like at each stage. I also know several people who understand how the backend of Drupal works who can help if I get stuck.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts. Try using the Pomodoro technique: Set a count-down timer for 25 minutes. Once you start the timer, you must practice until it goes off. Take a five minute break to stretch, clear your mind, and then get back to it! Shoot for 3 Pomodoros a day.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed. Don't focus on practicing perfectly! This is going to be a hard one for us, but it, too, is very important—maybe even the most important step to help us get past some of our common mental blocks.

A final note: Relying on willpower to overcome distractions is fighting a losing battle. We only have so much willpower at our disposal each day, and it's best to use that willpower wisely. Use it to remove soft barriers to practice. By rearranging your environment to make it as easy as possible to practice, you'll acquire the skill in far less time.

In my next post, I’ll report back on the effectiveness of Kaufman's techniques when applied in a grad student’s busy life. If the experiment is successful, I hope to apply this technique to a number of things on my to-do list— from brushing up on foreign languages to learning Krav Maga.

Have you used RSA? How did it go? Share your tips for picking up a new skill in grad school in the comments section below.

[Image by Ashley Sanders, used with permission of the author.]

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