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Published on February 1, 2021

How to Learn And Practice Skills in the Most Effective Way

How to Learn And Practice Skills in the Most Effective Way

When it comes to learning something, there are several other skills involved that we don’t always notice. Things like studying skills are important in how we gather and retain knowledge for example. The main way to developing your skills is to practice those skills.

There are many ways where you can practice and apply what you learned, but there are some methods that are much better to use than others.

Below, I talk about some of the most valuable ways to practice skills that I’ve used in the past. These continue to be my go-to practice methods whenever I learn something and want to apply it right away.

1. Deliberate Practice

As the saying goes:

“It takes exactly 10,000 hours of practice to be considered an expert at something.”

Over the years, many people have echoed this quote as a measurement for how much one should work on something. And while there are many angles that you can analyze that quote, it represents one key and often overlooked concept: deliberate practice.

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Anders Ericsson was the first to uncover this phenomenon and has explained in his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, how deliberate practice can be leveraged and how many authors who explained this in the past are misguided about their interpretation.

Deliberate practice is the method to overcome learning plateaus with rapid and quick bursts of continued improvements, Ericsson explains.

Another way to look at it is through the progression from naive practice to purposeful practice and finally to deliberate practice. Generally speaking, there are three key elements needed for deliberate practice:

  • There is the discipline necessary to get things done but also finding meaning in the task by making goals around it and having a personal investment in it.
  • The field you’re practicing in has to be in a well-defined field. For example, you won’t see deliberate practice in things like gardening, consulting, or most hobbies. You will see it in competitive settings, musical arts, sports, and chess to name a few.
  • You’ll also need a teacher or mentor or something equivalent to that. The equivalent would be finding someone already skilled at what you wish to learn, study their techniques, and apply them in your own life. This allows you to create a feedback loop as you have a point of contact or information if things didn’t go as planned.

Some other methods to help with deliberate practice are things like:

  • Breaking a skill down into different parts
  • Having a schedule that keeps you motivated
  • Having a coach (Even though you can learn without one, it’s better to have one.)
  • Seeking feedback online

2. Spaced Repetition

One of the big flaws with deliberate practice is the fact that it’s very niche in how you can apply it. For example, I’m unable to use deliberate practice to improve my stretches or workout regimen at all as I have no desire to compete. All I’ve ever wanted from it was to relieve various aches and pains from sitting at a desk and working. It’d be a whole other story if I had plans to run marathons with a competitive attitude.

Instead, what would be more applicable to me and for many other people is spaced repetition. It’s a technique that is overlooked by schools—among many other learning techniques—but is very relevant to how we learn. In fact, it’s the perfect method to retain information, practice skills, and grow meaningfully as we get older.

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As the name suggests, spaced repetition is all about encountering certain pieces of information regularly. The more often it shows up, the less often you’ll need your memory refreshed on it.

But another contributing factor to this is the gradual increase of these occurrences. The book Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio is one of my favorites, but simply reading it once per month might not be enough for me to retain certain passages. If I wanted to memorize the entire book front to back, I’d have to be reading through the book constantly and reiterating the passages in my head daily.

When it comes to practicing something more worthwhile than memorizing words from a book, there are two key things to keep in mind:

  • The amount of information you’re retaining;
  • And the amount of effort that’s needed to retain that level of information.

Putting those factors in mind, how you can use spaced repetition in your own life is as simple as following these four steps:

  1. Review your notes. Within 20-24 hours of the initial intake of information, you’ll want to make sure the information is written down and reviewed. During the reviewing process, you’ll want to read them and then look away to see if you can recall the key points.
  2. Recall the information the next day without the use of your notes at all. Do this during periods where not much is going on, like when you’re sitting down, going for a walk, or relaxing in general. You can also increase efficiency through flashcards or quizzing yourself on concepts.
  3. From that point on, every 24 to 36 hours, recall the information over the next several days. They don’t have to be lengthy recalls. Merely remember the session and what was discussed. At this point, check your notes, but try not to rely on them all the time.
  4. Finally, study it all over again after several more days have passed. If you’re studying for a test, make sure it’s done a week before that. A week gives your brain enough time to reprocess concepts.

3. Feedback Loop

Another popular method that I use to learn skills is a feedback loop. This particular method is similar to deliberate practice in that you’ll be looking for feedback through some point of reference.

However, the feedback loop takes a slight turn in that you’re the one who’ll be giving yourself feedback.

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Another way to explain it is that it’s the process where a learner appreciates the information about their performance and leverages it to optimize the quality of their learning methods or style.

Creating a feedback loop for your learning pursuits is simple if you follow this 6-step process:

  1. First, establish goals and definite outcomes—everything from the goals to the level of proficiency you want and when you want to gain competencies in that area.
  2. Second, begin with the basics of the basics before delving into bigger challenges. Simple information creates the foundation and becomes a crucial element to taking on bigger challenges.
  3. Third, test yourself. To see if you’re learning—or wasting time—you’ll need to find some way to test yourself. This can be through in-depth discussions on the subject or taking some kind of test online. If it’s a skill you can apply, you can base it off on the number of positive reviews on a job that demands that skill or the efficiency in performing the task now compared to before when you first started.
  4. Fourth, teach other people. If all is going well, then step up the skill by teaching it to others. Even though you’ll be improving as time goes on, teaching people now is another way of reinforcing concepts and getting new perspectives.
  5. Fifth, reflect. Self-reflection is the ultimate way of getting feedback as you can look at your progress and make self-assessments. Are you progressing enough? Are you satisfied with the results? If the answer is no, then ask how can you move to a higher aim or proficiency.
  6. Lastly, look for a mentor. Even though the feedback loop can be done by yourself, having a guiding hand can help you with being a better learner. It’s a new perspective and can allow you to grasp concepts faster.

4. Teaching What You Learn

While those methods above are wonderful in learning and practicing your skills, I’m a big fan of learning-by-teaching as well. Several studies revolve around this method as a way of retaining information, understanding concepts, and ultimately being better at the skill or subject.

One study that comes to mind is where researchers uncovered that teaching improves the teacher’s learning as it compels the teacher to retrieve information from previously studied subjects.[1]

This makes a lot of sense as I often do research for these articles. Even though I’m well versed in the topic I write about, I still make a point of researching these topics. New information is constantly rising to the surface and from that, you could learn some new things.

When it comes to practicing skills efficiently using this, you simply need to create a teaching atmosphere. Some things that come to mind are things like:

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  • Writing articles on the subject and making a point of showing research to prove points or statements
  • Tutoring individuals
  • If you’re going to school, you can always propose to your teacher for future lessons to have them organized by students themselves and teach your peers.

5. Seeking Help

The final way to improve your efficiency to practice skills is to look for help. This can be very difficult to do as we think when we need help, it means that something is wrong or broken.

In this case, we think that seeking help to improve and practice our skills means we’re broken or we’re wrong. Most people never want to admit that and see this as negative and that looking for help is a sign of weakness.

In reality, it’s the opposite.

How I got to this point in my life was by reaching out to other people and doing things that I wouldn’t normally do. I got back into reading and started to read some self-help books that gave me some valuable lessons that I could apply in my own life.

With that in mind, I see looking for help as a sign of strength in that you’re accepting your weaknesses and doing something about them. Those changes will take some time. But by seeking help, you’re speeding up the process in how quickly those changes and improvements happen.

Similar to the feedback loop, you’re able to get new perspectives and insights that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of. So, don’t be afraid to be looking for help in various ways.

Final Thoughts

As long as you are willing to practice skills, you have multiple systems that you can tap into to boost the efficiency of learning and growing in any field you like. Applying these will be challenging at first, but if you’re passionate enough about improving yourself in particular fields, these are good upgrades to consider.

More Tips on How to Practice Skills

Featured photo credit: Clark Young via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on February 11, 2021

7 Reasons You Won’t Start Studying Until It’s Too Late, And What To Do About It

7 Reasons You Won’t Start Studying Until It’s Too Late, And What To Do About It

For most of us, the experience of studying for an exam can be captured in one word: panic. You’ve got 18 hours, exhausted, and sitting there staring at an equations sheet full of gibberish. Why? Why didn’t I start earlier?

Believe it or not, there are forces acting against you, pulling you away from starting early enough so that you can comfortably learn new material. Here are 7 of the most insidious reasons why you don’t start early, and what you can do about it.

1. You’re anticipating hard work

Procrastination is generally viewed as this guilt-ridden character defect shared almost universally by all students. The problem is, this is exactly what we should expect to happen from an evolutionary perspective.

Humans are known to be cognitive misers:[1] we conserve mental resources whenever possible, especially when facing tasks not viewed as “essential to our survival.”

In other words, we put off studying until the last minute because (1) we know the work is hard and will require a lot of mental energy, and (2) until there’s the threat of actually failing the exam (and therefore potentially being humiliated publicly) we’re not in enough emotional pain to motivate us to start studying.

Additionally, when your brain anticipates multiple outcomes that are all viewed as “painful” (the pain of studying vs. the pain of failing out of college) you become immobilized, unable to choose the lesser of two evils, and push off the work even further.

Schedule in time for yourself first and then fill in the gaps with study time.

As Niel Fiore discusses in bestselling classic, The Now Habit, part of the reason you procrastinate is because you see no end in site.

Think of the difference between a 100 yard dash and a marathon. In the first case you’re able to give maximum effort because you can see the finish line and know it will be over soon. The marathon runner is not so lucky. They know there’s a long road ahead filled with pain and exhaustion, and subconsciously conserve their effort to ensure they can make it through all 26.2 miles.

This is all to say, if you know you get to go hang out in your buddy’s dorm room and goof off for an hour after you study, you’re much more likely to want to invest that energy.

As a side benefit, you end up taking advantage of Parkinson’s Law. Because your work expands to fill the time allotted, by scheduling less time for studying, you actually become more productive and focused.

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2. You’re sleep deprived

Who in college isn’t pounding the caffeine?

Students who force themselves through weeks upon weeks of 4-6 hour sleep nights, are significantly deteriorating two aspects of their mental performance critical to studying for exams: motivation and vigilance.

Studies show that poor sleep negatively impacts motivation.[2] But really, no one needs a study to tell them how much worse your outlook on life is when you’re low on sleep.

And vigilance,[3]the ability to maintain concentrated attention over prolonged periods of time, is also significantly reduced during a period of either acute (staying up all night studying), or chronic (cutting sleep short for multiple days) sleep deprivation.[4]

Set yourself an end-of-the-day alarm.

Yes, studying more consistently for shorter chunks will allow you to spread it over a longer period of time; therefore, preventing the need to deprive yourself of sleep just to get your coursework done. But really, it’s a psychological issue.

There are a million things we’d rather stay up and do, than go right to bed after a full day of classes, only to have to get up and do the same thing over again. This is a chicken/egg problem: if I don’t get sleep I procrastinate studying, but if I go to bed I’ll just have to get up and study. Again, lose-lose. We need to break the cycle.

Set yourself an alarm. But not in the morning. Set your alarm for 45 minutes before when you should get to sleep and allow yourself to sleep for a full 8 hours. If you adhere to that you’ll be surprised how many hours of free time seem to materialize.

Study time + free time + sleep = happy and successful students.

3. You have a false sense of security

You may think you’re being a diligent student, sitting there in the lecture, listening intently, copying down page after page of notes from the professor. You might even be following along and raise your hand here and there. But there’s a big difference between feeling like you understand something, and actually being able to reproduce it on a test.

This is what we call passive learning, and it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll spend a lot of time and effort trying to learn new material, without actually being able to retain any of it.

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Quiz yourself.

Don’t be fooled by your professor’s overly logical explanations. This dude already knows the material, so it’s easy for him to explain it in a way that others find understandable. The real challenge is whether or not you can do the same.

If you’re wondering if you actually understand something, quiz yourself. Or better yet, explain it to someone (or yourself, but be warned: people tend to stare).

As Einstein liked to say, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

By routinely quizzing yourself, you’ll get a dose of reality of whether you actually know the material or not, instead of what most students do: assume they know it until the night before the test, when they proceed to freak out because they can’t do any of the practice problems.

4. Not all study time is created equal

Fact: seven hours of studying over 7 days is much more effective (more learning per time spent) for understanding new material than 7 hours of studying in one chunk. This is especially true for technical courses with new jargon you have to internalize.

Chunk your study time.

The brain uses a ton of energy (20% of our resting metabolic rate), and there’s only so much you can expend per day. To maximize your retention of new material, you want to take advantage of both active learning and recovery.

Because the brain consolidates new neural pathways during sleep, particularly during REM sleep, the more sleep cycles you intersperse between your study hours, the more likely it is that you will retain the material and be able to whip it out on test day.

This also allows you to take advantage of spaced repetition. Instead of having to constantly review your material to keep it in the forefront of your memory, you can follow a cycle of ever-increasing time intervals between review sessions (the “forgetting curve”), decreasing the overall amount of time needed to re-learn material you might have forgotten from the beginning of the semester when the final rolls around.

5. The planning fallacy

Humans systematically overestimate what can be accomplished in the short-term, and underestimate what can be accomplished in the long-term.

Ironically (and sadly), we only have this problem evaluating our own tasks – providing a pretty accurate picture of how long things will take when evaluating someone else’s situation objectively.

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Use the 50% rule.

Estimate as conservatively as you can, how much time it’s going to take to study for your exam, assuming you start early and work consistently.

Done?

Okay. Now add 50% to that estimate.

This will give you a more accurate picture of how much time you really need to allocate to starting studying.

6. You think you have more study time than you do

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    Pull up your Sunday schedule. What do you see?

    Oh looks like I’ve got a big chunk of free time from 4pm to 10pm. Perfect, I’ll just squeeze in 5 or 6 hours of studying and then call it a night.

    Try again. It’s more like 2-3 hours.

    This is another type of planning mistake: overestimating how much productive time we can extract from any given period.

    Things we tend to forget: we need to eat; we need to sleep; there will be interruptions (yea right like you’re actually going to shut off your phone).

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    But another thing we fail to account for: the body goes through 90-120 minute activity cycles (called the Ultradian Rhythm). So even though you may be sitting there, highlighting your textbook for 3 hours straight, you really only have the ability to absorb material for 1.5 to 2 hours before you need a period of rest.

    Cut your estimated hours in half.

    If you think you have 8 hours on Sunday after the game to study, forget it. You actually have 4 or less when you take out time for eating, breaks, and normal daily activities.

    7. You can’t get motivated or focused

    A lot of us tend to sit around and wait…

    Waiting for the wave of motivation to strike us to finally get started on the homework assignment due in 24 hours, or studying for the midterm.

    Here’s the problem: motivation comes and goes, but the demands of school and learning and everyday life don’t. And if you’re relying on your motivation to keep you focused, everything you’re doing is going to be in a perpetual state of lateness and last-minute-ness, because there’s never enough motivation to go around.

    Focus on the process, with the end in mind.

    Why are you in school? Why do you want a degree? Get clear on exactly what your motivations are.

    But thinking about the future is not enough. That vision of the future that drives your emotional intensity needs to be linked to your daily activities. (e.g. “Each day I study for Calculus brings me one step closer to being a doctor and making a difference in people’s lives.”)

    What is the one set of activities each day that will virtually guarantee success in your coursework?

    And what can you do to organize your day, set up incentives, quit things that don’t matter, etc. to virtually guarantee you will do that one set of activities day in and day out, despite motivation?

    Featured photo credit: Melanie Deziel via unsplash.com

    Reference

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