How to learn a new skill
A few simple steps to help you prepare and keep you motivated while you learn a new skill4 min read Published: 1 Feb 2022
Whether in school, work, or your personal life, picking up a new skill is a great challenge to take on.
Learning a new skill is great for your wellbeing. Having a goal on the horizon can inject your day with purpose and give yourself a motivation boost. And if you reach it, you’ll find that new opportunities for socializing, working, and expressing yourself are open to you.
To give yourself the best chance of success, we want to show you what research (and common sense) tells us about effective learning.
First, let’s focus on your preparation.
Why do you want to learn this new skill?
Maybe it’ll give you better career options, allow you to meet new people, or give you something to do in your free time. You could call this your material motivation; the practical thing you want to get out of this new skill.
You’ll probably also have a personal reason you’ve picked this particular skill over others. Let’s call this your emotional motivation. Perhaps learning this new skill will give you greater confidence, or has a personal significance.
So let’s say you wanted to learn French. Your material motivation is that speaking another language will let you work and live in French-speaking countries, but your emotional motivation is that you have French ancestry and it’s an important part of your identity.
Out of these material and emotional motivations, create a mission statement that you can repeat to fire you up.
‘I want to learn X because it will let me do Y, and will help me feel Z’
Learning can get tough quite quickly, so having a reminder of why you’re committing to this new routine is really important.
Assess where you are as a learner
How do you typically learn something new? This challenge will be a test of your strengths and weaknesses, so it’s good to be honest with yourself. If there’s something you struggle with, be prepared to build that core skill up to help you with this new skill.
If you’re easily distracted, make sure you take this into consideration when planning your learning sessions. Do you struggle with retaining information? Ensure you recap what you’ve learned each week. This is all about making your new challenge achievable and stress-free.
Setting a routine
Do you have a set time each day or week you want to work on this skill? Think about your other commitments and find a time and intensity that works for you.
The main thing is not to burn out too quickly - learning something should always feel challenging, but it should also feel fun and manageable. Throwing yourself into something too hard might demotivate you and make it more likely you’ll give up.
A long-distance runner spends most of their training time on easy runs. You should take the same approach.
No matter what you’re learning, there’s a community out there to support you. How you engage with that community is up to you. To find it, let’s look at some popular platforms and what they’re best for.
- Best for: ‘How to’ videos, beginner courses, solutions to common problems, practical advice
- Look for: Channels with instructional playlists, and responsive creators
- Best for: Discussion, debate, crowd-sourced problem solving, links to helpful resources
- Look for: Subreddits dedicated to beginners, and if you can’t find them visit r/FindaReddit to ask
- Best for: Daily motivation, following influencers, simple tips and short tutorials
- Look for: Particularly helpful influencers with Patreon accounts. Signing up for 1-1 tuition could help you navigate tricky new areas.
- Best for: Groups dedicated to your new skill, marketplace for relevant materials, tracking local events
- Look for: Local groups for meet-up opportunities or classes
- Best for: infographics, inspiration
- Look for: examples of where you want to be with your skill
Spotify/other audio streaming platforms
- Best for: podcasts
- Look for: Instructional podcasts with clear episodic goals
Working with others - yes or no?
Finding an online community will help you find one in real life, and could be the start of a new social routine. But if you prefer to work alone, you should be able to find all the materials and support you need online, too.
Whether you work with others or not, choose the option that gives you the most enjoyment.
Do your research
- Are there any useful sites dedicated to learning this new skill? Keep a record of all online resources somewhere you can easily access it, like your browser favorites folder, Google Keep or your phone’s notepad.
- Do some background reading. Learn more about the skill and how you want to apply it
- Speak to others in the same boat, or find areas where other learners hang out
- Break your learning down into simple goals (e.g. ‘by week 2 I’d like to be able to X’). Don’t worry, you can always adapt these as you go.
- Now’s the time to get the books, tools, videos, podcasts, classes (or any other materials you’ll need) together and organized.
- How will you be interacting with new information? Will you take notes? Run through practical sessions? Practice? Try to maintain one workspace that you can easily sort through to help you consolidate your learning.
A few general tips
Though every new skill has its own requirements for beginners, there are a few things every learner can do to make their learning more manageable. Follow these simple rules to give yourself the best chance of success!
Every session needs a goal
Each time you work on your new skill, you need an objective to keep you anchored. Otherwise you might drift from one point to the next without a clear focus. Make your session objective simple and modest to help you get the most from the time spent.
Set realistic milestones
Focusing too much on the end-product of your learning could demotivate you or set unrealistic expectations. It’s much better to work towards monthly milestones determined by your progress the month before.
If you find your interest or energy dipping, you might be at risk of burning out and giving up. Just remember that (particularly while this skill is new and a little awkward to practice) you shouldn’t strain yourself. Learn what feels natural and engaging each week, and stick to your plan.
Work little and often
Ten minutes a day is likely to be better than 70 a week, primarily because your mind is being asked to confront this new information more regularly and create connections. Plus, your learning is less likely to feel overwhelming or draining, keeping your energy and enthusiasm up.
Practice (and application) makes perfect
Learning a language? Speak it out loud. Learning a new craft? Practice it. True learning is about applying something creatively to the world around you, so make sure you're using every opportunity you can to express what you're learning.
Enjoying your new pursuit is so important to persisting with it. So make sure you’re not putting too much pressure on yourself or your learning sessions.
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