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Can You Really Learn a Skill in A Week? The Secrets Inside Tim Ferriss' Insanely Fast Learning Strategy

Productivity guru Tim Ferriss eschews the idea the it takes months or years to learn a new skill. In his new TV show he proves it only takes a week (and the right mindset). Here, he explains how.

[Image: Flickr user Rob Ellis]

Tim Ferriss is best known for rethinking traditional working life—like by reducing the 40 hour workweek to 4. Now, in his new T.V. show, the Tim Ferriss Experiment (which airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on HLN) he disassembles the rule that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. We talked to him about the method and the madness needed to learn to drum like rock star, race rally cars, and learn a language in only one week. According to Ferriss, this kind of rapid skill acquisition requires managing your neurotransmitters, figuring out why your bones might break, and other elements of the hacker mentality. Find a selection of the interview below.

The premiere episode: Becoming a rockstar drummer

If you’re trying to cram three months of training into one week, the most important thing is separating techniques from attributes: If you're trying to learn parkour (an extreme type of obstacle course training), you need to figure out where you can cheat by refining technique and jumping to intermediate or advanced stuff. You also have to recognize that there are challenges and obstacles like tendons snapping because you don't have the time to develop the increased power output or strength. The attributes take time to develop and they're genetically limited, whereas the technique is something you can deconstruct and really learn quickly if you approach it with the proper framework and hacker mentality. Separating those two things out is very important.

Mental work is physical work

I view the mind and body as very interdependent. This might sound weird, but I think that the separation of mind and body is completely false. If you look at the brain, it's an organ like anything else. If I'm trying to learn a language in a week—which is certainly thought of as a mental skill—there are physical components, too. In one of the episodes, I have to learn Tagalog well enough in about 3.5 days to be interviewed on live TV for about six minutes. That's really stressful, really difficult. But why did I choose Tagalog as opposed to say Vietnamese? Because I had to avoid tonal languages, languages that click, where you have to actually physically change the vocal chords. So it's thought of as a mental skill, but there's a physical component, too.

Similarly, if you don't have the technique, you are continually misspending your neurotransmitters. You're going to hit a wall cognitively, but it has a physical, biochemical basis. One of the advantages I have is that I think of the mental and physical as biologically mediated. And you can cheat that too, with performance-enhancing supplements included, or with just training, with something like meditating.

When people think of mental activity, they tend to think of it as an ethereal zapping of electricity that has no cost to the body. That's not true, the brain is a massive blood and oxygen sink. You need stimulus and recovery in mental work in the same way that you need stimulus and recovery for sports. Just as you have physical over-training in the weight room, there is mental over-training with too much time in front of a screen or thousands of small minute to minute decisions over time with no rest. This contributes to biological duress. When this happens you're not adapting, you're actually degrading performance.

Why taking breaks is important

You need stimulus and recovery in mental work in the same way that you need stimulus and recovery for sports. Your body needs time to regenerate neurotransmitters, so it's in your best interest to take breaks. There is a reason why power lifters take five to six minutes to rest between sets, the energetic system takes that long to replenish properly. You have to have an awareness of the fact that just because you're not moving your body doesn't mean that you aren't working.

While you can learn tons of skills, you need to have a focused framework

You need a framework for dissecting a skill, and to work through it very logically. I used two frameworks that I call DiSSS and CaFE.

DiSSS stands for deconstruction, selection, sequencing and stakes. Deconstruction is taking something like startup investing and breaking into down into smaller components so that I can study it more effectively: you have, say, company selection, company evaluation, perhaps it's team evaluation, deal flow, exit strategy, secondary market. These are all elements of successful angel investing. Then you have selection, what are the most important of these components to focus on. Doing 80-20 analysis: identifying the 20 percent of inputs that contribute to 80 percent of the outcomes that you want. So that might be something as simple as founder selection. Or it could be valuation—you're buying something at a discount, something that's distressed, shares that are sold because an employee wants to buy a house, or something like that. Sequencing: In what order do you learn these things, in what order do you practice these things.

Tim Ferriss

Then there's stakes: building incentive so that you actually follow the program. Why do people quit diets or play the guitar for two sessions, put it down, and never pick it back up? Because there's no penalty, there's no cost. You don't get fired from your job if you quit the guitar. But if you use something like stickK or, you can actually put your money on the line, where if you don't follow your program, and you have a referee to keep you honest, you have money that will go to an anti-charity, your least favorite charity on the planet. A good friend of mine has $1000 on the line for the American Nazi Party to lose X number of pounds by Y point in time.

CaFE is a secondary framework: compression, frequency, and encoding. Compression is how to prevent overwhelm by taking the fundamentals of a given skill and compressing them into one or two pages, so whenever you feel completely underwater, you can return to it. Frequency is the optimal training regimen: when are the breaks, how long are the breaks, when do you study. Then encoding is what most people think of as memory tricks, how do you make slippery material steady, how do you use imagery and mnemonics to memorize a shuffled deck of cards so you remember the order or how do you remember 300 to 400 vocabulary words in a day.

Those are the two frameworks by which I do everything. Having that structure is really helpful: It gives you a roadmap and makes learning a more concrete process.