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Deep Habits: Spend Six Months to Master Skills

June 10th, 2015 · 33 comments

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Musical Wisdom

Not long ago, a reader pointed me to an article written by Josh Linkner, a jazz guitarist turned tech entrepreneur. In this article, Linkner recalls a piece of wisdom common among professional musicians: a new (musical) technique takes six months to master. As he expands:

I may have understood the scale, riff, or chord…but it took a good six months to internalize it and make it my own. If I wanted to perform something fresh, new, and bold, I needed to begin the learning process six months prior.

Linkner then makes the natural connection between the world of music and business. The same six month rule, he notes, applies to many skills that might give you a competitive edge in your professional life:

If you want to become reasonably knowledgeable in Asian currency fluctuations, salmon fisheries, or assembly line logistics, a solid six months of study will bring you to point where you can hold a thoughtful conversation.

I strongly agree.

I know I sometimes fetishize the long process of developing a craft through deep work, but it’s important to remember that this long process often partitions into many smaller, reasonably self-contained projects — each of which delivers its own benefit to your career.

Linkner, in other words, is identifying a pragmatic way to structure the task of building rare and valuable skills. Instead of asking what you should be doing for the next decade to become too good to be ignored, ask what you could do in the next six months to become demonstrably better at something that matters.

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On an unrelated note, I recently read an advance copy of Laura Vanderkam’s excellent new book, I Know How She Does It, which tackles the topic of how successful women manage the tension between professional and family life. Unlike many treatments of this topic, which rely on anecdotes and personal opinion, this book instead draws from an extensive data set of detailed time logs that Laura gathered from a large sample of successful women. The result is surprisingly optimistic and refreshingly unemotional. If this topic interests you: take a closer look.

(Photo from joshlinkner.com)

33 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Spend Six Months to Master Skills

  1. Dane says:

    Cal – If you had six months and a skill you wanted to master, how would you spend that time?

    1. Roger says:

      I echo what Dane has asked; Cal, can you give concrete examples of how you’d spend your time in order to master a skill in 6 months?

      You mentioned, “…it’s important to remember that this long process often partitions into many smaller, reasonably self-contained projects — each of which delivers its own benefit to your career.” If you could give examples of a few fields/topics you’ve mastered that had to be broken into self-contained projects it would help me get a clearer idea of the process so that I can better implement it for my particular mastery-goals.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      For me, in my academic life, a “skill” learned in six months is often a particular tranche of the relevant research literature. In that time, I can learn the main results and gain some mastery over the basic techniques, arriving at a state that I call “research ready” (i.e., I now know enough that I could conceivably make novel contributions to the topic).

      In my writing life, a “skill” might be getting up to speed on the main written ideas on a topic that’s relevant to, say, a book I’m working on.

      1. Dane says:

        When you learn the main results, are you still using the research bible/textbook method you wrote about a couple years ago, where you summarize those results in your own words? And for mastering techniques, does that mean trying to reproduce proofs or working through problems using the technique?

        I remember an anecdote Feynman applying new techniques to his favorite problems, which I suppose would help him master the technique and maybe solve previously unsolved problems.

        1. Joe says:

          I can’t speak for Cal, but I’ve been using the research bible method for a while now and it would seem to apply to this idea of six months to basic competency. I’m a writer and at the moment I’m studying what are the obligatory conventions and scenes of genres I’m not all that familiar with. I’m learning how to use a method from Shawn Coyne, to analyze stories into it’s components and so on…
          As I go through the process of learning, I often encounter connections to other things I’ve encountered and documented in the R bible. I go back, refresh my memory and see how it applies to this story grid thing I’m learning.
          As I progress I find that it learning the concepts aren’t hard, but when it comes time to apply it, I struggle and realize how little I know and I return to the R bible, and make adjustments as I become more adept at the skill.
          Often it only takes days to understand the concept, a couple months to remember it, and maybe six months to apply it without any R bible hand holding.

  2. Dan Dickson says:

    Great post. I’ve been thinking a lot about skill development lately and have come to an idea: There are two types of people in this world: those who work all day on a computer and those who don’t.

    For those of us who do……I have found focusing on improving my basic knowledge of everyday tech including windows 8 (my operating system), upgrading my mouse, and upgrading my keyboard, practicing keyboard shortcuts etc has lead to a big increase in my productivity. These are such basic things to improve for an office worker – but they can help so much.

    1. Cristi Vlad says:

      On a similar note, earlier this year when I renewed my laptop with a smaller one I learned the time saving value of keyboard shortcuts. My last laptop was powered by Windows 7. This new smaller one came with Windows 8 and a touchscreen (great feature, though I didn’t use it much so far).

      On my last one I was used to “Alt+F4” to terminate windows, applications,etc. Somehow, the new one had a pre-programmed keyboard shortcut for this combo. It took some frustration until I decided to get deeper into this issue and make the same functionality for the combo that I had on my previous laptop.

      We seem to forget how much value we can derive from automation and the rapidity in our processes once we develop the skills…

      1. dan dickson says:

        so true.

        1. Chris says:

          As the says goes, practice makes perfect, just have to work on it more.

  3. tyelmene says:

    This acknowledgment of ~six months as the naturally functional time chuck to truly acquire a competency is very important to note. The trick is to conceptualize at the beginning of the 6-month term the framework of the skill you want/need to grasp. Among the other time scales; the 20-hour simple skill pickup and the 10,000-hour so-called expert level mastery, I think that a 6-month internalization is the best aim to shoot for to attain a real benefit. And I hypothesize that functionally decomposing one’s thorough 6-month acquisition of competence/understanding into those 20-hour burst individual skill learnings can advance the effect. However, I don’t think it’s a great idea to have very long time goals/objectives such as 10 years or greater. Life at that scale is a malleable fiction. What I do believe is vital at life scale is the answer to ‘who are you?’… what life constants you will possess, be known for; honesty, helpfulness, etc. I think this is a reasonable way to grow.

  4. Robert says:

    For vast majority of us it is easy to get distracted or lose focus after few days or weeks we try to concentrate on developing a skill. This mostly due to the aboundance of stimulus and culture, IMO.

    It is interesting to look at the great masters of past to put the 6 months your are mentioning in the right perspective. The time and commitment they put to learn and to create some of the world’s best piece of art is mind-blowing Take for example Michelangelo. It took 2 years to him to complete the David and 4 years to pain the celling of the Sistine Chapel.

  5. Brendon says:

    Is there really anything special about the time period of six months?

    In the linked article, Josh Linker writes that brain surgery takes more than 6 months and learning to make a grilled cheese sandwich takes less. In other words, there is nothing magical about 6 months and different skills will take different amounts of time to master.

    I’d say the real take-away is that it takes time to master any skill. Development of skills follows a non-linear function: curve-fitting suggests a power law or exponential function. The point of mastery is a point of diminishing returns – where further improvement yields little marginal utility. In some cases, such as making a grilled-cheese sandwich, that occurs when quality beyond a given threshold is not appreciable.

    In cases where skill is judged relative to the performances of others, such as playing a musical instrument, that occurs when we are far enough into the long tail that there are few others of comparable ability. In these cases, the length of time required to achieve “mastery” is related to the length of time that other people are willing to spend developing the same skill.

    The scope of the “skill” and the length of time it will take to master are related. Fixing one variable allows us to determine the other. So we could plan skill development in 6-month chunks by selecting as the scope of what we want to master, what can be mastered in 6 months.

    Is 6 months special or is it arbitrary? Linkner’s evidence is all anecdotal. He references an idea gestation period which could have some real science behind it. I’ve experienced the phenomenon of learning something that took a while to fully sink in, although that is distinct from the idea of working on something continuously for that entire time, and the period may not have been 6 months.

    1. JoAnne Burek says:

      That’s a very good question. It reminds me of something I learned a long time ago in computer programming project management: all successful projects take nine months. What that means is that a project is manageable if it can be done in nine months. A project that takes two years is ugly–resources switch out, priorities change, you lose momentum or focus, etc. A project that takes less than nine months is too trivial to require project management discipline.

      I will bet that these factors apply to learning a skill. Define the specific skill so that you can nail it within six months, or you may lose interest, get bored, or get discouraged. And if the skill takes significantly less than six months to learn, then it was trivial.

  6. Rachel Bayles says:

    Good morning –

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve downloaded it and it’s already providing a much needed counterpoint to the messages I normally get that women are doomed to a life of perpetual frazzlement and misery.

  7. Hi Cal —

    You have a great site and usually have excellent content, but I take issue with this blog. Six months sounds like a relatively arbitrary period. Not to mention that the subjective utility of time is not even distributed across all actors.

    Can you expand your thinking please?

    Gratefully,
    Preston

    1. Study Hacks says:

      It is somewhat arbitrary. The point here is seek skill goals that cannot just be tackled in a week of high-energy enthusiasm, but also do not require a demoralizing open-ended commitment

  8. Jordan says:

    Sounds like a great method for really mastering a skill and having it stick. I often get into a bad habit of getting into something, but forgetting to really practice and a few months later have completely forgotten what I learned because it didn’t stick. Devoting a few months to really mastering it would definitely help that problem. Thanks for sharing this!

  9. Anna says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation, but a great bit UGH! to the “refreshingly unemotional” language here. Would you describe an evidence-based book written by a man, or one not aimed at a female audience in the same way?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      The lack of emotion is “refreshing” with respect to recent literature on overload, busyness, and 24-hour work cultures (most of which are books written by men). Many of these titles, for the sake of drama, try to paint this emotional picture of work being completely overwhelming, thus setting up some radical solution (follow your dreams and move to Indonesia!). I like that Laura looks at the data regarding busy people and notes it’s not necessarily this terrible thing…

    2. JR says:

      Even if he was referring to how the book is unemotional compared to other books targeted at women, he would be right. Most books or articles I have read concerning the issue offer not much asides from “You can do it all! Don’t listen to what anyone says! Damn the patriarchy!” This is much cooler, and something that I’m going to read (and recommend to my friends, both male and female).

  10. That was a very thoughtful reminder. It really need a time to master everything. Its something like you entered a job and you have to undergo in a six month probationary to master every details of your work. This is a good example of having patience for taking a way for skills development.

    http://www.itsallaboutthesearchbar.com/

  11. Shipra says:

    Hello,
    I am a big fan of your work and have greatly benefited from your books and articles. I have successfully made my life easier and a lot less stressful because of you and your work. However, I am having a bit of trouble in regards to using my passions to find a grand project that I am interested in. I know what my passions are, and I have taken a lot of time to explore, but I still have a great deal of difficulty channeling that passion and turning it into an activity that is unique and that I can enjoy. I would be truly grateful if you could give me some pointers and lead me in the right direction so that I may pursue my passion. Thank you.

  12. Roberta says:

    Almost two years ago, I moved as an RN from Medical ICU to a night float position. This meant I would work in whatever nursing zone needed me that night. I intuitively gave myself 6 months to learn the nuances, quirks, and policies of each department. I didn’t want to expect to know everything at once because I would then be frustrated. I’m happy to say I’m welcomed wherever I go because people can count on me and I can take patients many other nurses floating for one shift cannot. I heartily endorse this concept.

  13. Shiri says:

    Cal, thanks a LOT for the book recommendation. I wasn’t aware of this new book and it’s high time this topic was broached from a scientific perspective. On my list it goes — with a priority status.

    Re: learning new skills, it’s worth a reminder that sometimes you don’t need to actually *master* a new skill to get benefits from it. cf. Josh Kaufman’s “First 20 Hours” – sometimes just getting an average grade proficiency is all you need to get great gains in your work (or fun).

  14. Anon says:

    Thought some here would find this interesting – http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-paul-ford-what-is-code/

    And thanks for the book recommendation, plan to read.

    1. Aleksandra says:

      wow whoever you are Anon, thank you for the link. I’ve started learning programming and it’s just such a useful discovery this article is!

  15. Adam Thomas says:

    I am going to remember this when I am frustrated.

    This is a good reminder to reread Be So Good… and use this as my bookmark 🙂

  16. D says:

    Thank you for book reccommendation on the work-family interface, I was definitely curious on your approach given that you also have a family. As an aspiring scientist coupled to another aspiring scientist thinking about kids soon, we think a lot about this. Its important that men and women both think about this balance, but the literature definitely skews the responsibility on women (there are unique challenges to being a working mother but we also want insight on sharing responsibility). Will check out Vanderkam and look forward to more reflection on this topic.

  17. Julie says:

    Deliberate practice is one way to master skills but the only determinant. I found this article interesting in how it explores multiple perspectives as well.
    https://www.msu.edu/~ema/HambrickEtAl.pdf

    Sometimes an idea can get pounded upon too heavily at the exclusion of others.

  18. Israil Kurbaniyazov says:

    This might be a bit irrelevant here, I am afraid, but, can anybody provide a novel solution to my long-time concern: how I’ll be able to see the big picture or map of where I will be going prior to developing a particular skill? Last year this time I found myself learning how to teach online. I felt a remarkable sense of accomplishment the time I was awarded a certificate with distinction (92% out of 100). With a newly-published article of mine in a magazine, I concluded that time and commitment I put in academic writing courses a few months ago paid off. These accomplishments keep me going and going with committing myself into mastering something new.

    Another reason of keeping learning, sometimes I think, is that a desire to master a particular competence is often given a birth by random motivation. This inclination, in turn, blindfolds me to understand where this so-called six month skills navigate me in my job and in my career later.

    I know that the point is keep learning, but there is a bitter pill to swallow: if you don’t know what port you’re sailing to, no wind is favourable. So, before engaging in developing new skills for a six-month period, how can I know where I will be going? What questions should I ask myself? Or do I have to stop thinking too much; instead, I should keep going? My current occupation is in foreign language teaching.

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