Summary of The First 20 Hours, by Josh Kaufman

This post summarizes chapters one to three of The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast, by Josh Kaufman. These chapters introduce a number of general principles of rapid skill acquisition and effective learning. The remaining chapters, on yoga, programming, touch typing, go, ukelele and windsurfing, are meant to illustrate how the author applied those principles to learning each of these skills. As one reviewer has pointed out, however, there is “relatively little connection between what [the author] writes about (say) the history and practice of Yoga and the principles expounded in the first few chapters.” For this reason, these chapters are omitted in the summary below.

The four basic steps of rapid skill acquisition

  1. Deconstructing a skill into the smallest possible subskills;
  2. Learning enough about each subskill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice;
  3. Removing physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice;
  4. Practicing the most important subskills for at least twenty hours.

Skill acquisition is fundamentally different from learning.  Learning is only instrumentally useful: we don’t acquire a skill by learning; rather, we learn to acquire a skill.  Learning concepts related to a skill helps you self-edit or self-correct as you practice.

Ten major principles of rapid skill acquisition

  1. Choose a lovable project.
    The more excited you are about the skill you want to acquire, the more quickly you will acquire it.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time.
    Acquiring new skills requires a critical mass of concentrated time and focused attention.  Both of these are scarce, so avoid spreading them over different skills simultaneously.
  3. Define your target performance level.
    In a simple, specific sentence, describe how well you’d like to be able to perform the skill you are acquiring.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills.
    Break down the skills into the smallest possible parts, then focus on the critical subskills first.
  5. Obtain critical tools.
    Insure you have all the resources you need before you begin. You can’t learn how to play tennis without a racket.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice.
    Make sure there are no things that can get in the way of practice. Your resources should be easily available; your environment should be free of distractions; and your mind should be free of emotional blocks.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice.
    No one ever finds time for anything; if you want to find time, you must make time.
  8. Create fast feedback loops.
    Get accurate information about your performance as quickly as possible, from coaches or capture devices (e.g. a video camera).
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts.
    Get a countdown timer and set it for twenty minutes. There’s only one rule: once you start the timer, you must practice until it goes off. Set aside time for three to five such practice sessions a day.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed.
    Ensure that you are practicing using form that’s good enough to satisfy your target performance level. Once you are practicing in good form at least 80 to 90 percent of the time, crank up the speed for faster speed acquisition.

Ten principles of effective learning

  1. Research the skill and related topics.
    Spend twenty minutes finding good sources on how to acquire your chosen skill.  These resources won’t teach you the skill; they will teach you how to practice.
  2. Jump in over your head.
    Initially, you’ll be confused.  Recognizing confusion is valuable, since it can help you figure out what you’ll need to research or do next to resolve that confusion.
  3. Identify mental models and mental hooks.
    Mental models are the most basic units of learning: a way of conceptualizing an object or relation that exists in the world. Mental hooks are analogies and metaphors that can be used to remember new concepts.
  4. Imagine the opposite of what you want.
    By considering the worst possible outcome, you can identify important elements that aren’t immediately obvious.
  5. Talk to practitioners to set expectations.
    Talking to people who have acquired the skill before you will help dispel myths and misconceptions before you invest your time and energy.
  6. Eliminate distractions in your environment.
    Distractions come in two forms: electronic (TV, the Internet) and biological (people. pets). Deal with them appropriately.
  7. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization.
    Use this technique when fast recall is crucial, like learning vocabulary words. Otherwise spend this time in practice or experimentation.
  8. Create scaffolds and checklists.
    Checklists help you remember things that must be done every time you practice. .Scaffolds are structures that ensure you approach the skill the same way every time (e.g., the pre-free throw routine of a basketball player).
  9. Make and test predictions.
    Getting into the habit of making and testing predictions will help you acquire skills more rapidly..
  10. Honor your biology.
    Your body needs food, water, exercise, rest, and sleep. Make sure you are getting enough of these inputs.