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.

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 DietBet.com, 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.

[Image: Flickr user Rob Ellis]

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18 Comments

  • I wasn't really that impressed with the first episode of TFX. I'll probably watch some more another time, but two weeks is too ridiculous. He really didn't learn how to play the drums in two weeks. He talks a lot about the need to take breaks, which is true, and then in the show he was up late at night studying and admitted he was exhausted. Where are the breaks??? His acronyms are kind of BS ... they have good concepts but they're just totally made up. The pareto principle is a pretty important concept ... while I'm sick of hearing it, I think there are still a lot of people that need to understand it.

  • bvdonjuan

    Cheeky BS. Ten thousand hour rule applies for anything of true, long term value. Do you want a heart surgeon with 1 week experience? How about a pilot with 40 hours of flying experience? Or your next wedding… hire some musicians that started playing two weeks ago. Come on… get real.

  • ptsf

    Not the point though - it's not about being a tried expert, it's about being able to complete the skill; e.g., while everyone would rather have a professional pilot on an airplane, if something happened wouldn't you like to have someone who could complete the necessary skills in the heat of the moment? That's the whole reasoning behind first-aid/CPR training - you're not a doctor, but you could save a life.

  • Dr. David Orman

    There is more to learning than cramming, hacking or taking short cuts. In many ways, it is hollow and empty. Case in point, "winning" kung fu championships by pushing people off the podium. The process is as equally (if not more) important as the product. Otherwise, it is a mad dash just to get to the next thing, like a mouse to a piece of cheese.

  • Hana Hrstkova

    How can we teach people appreciate and understand nature as more than just a resource? In five days?

  • Michelle

    Great summary of your process, Tim and a great reminder that both body and mind are needed to learn, regardless of what our school systems try to do to our next generation! Thanks to FastCompany for sharing the Drumming ep with those around the globe!!

  • jeremiahJB

    How can I learn or aquire the DISSS and Cafe format to begin learning at an accelerated speed?

  • Jasmine Elliott

    A lot of the public seem to think it is due to Malcolm Gladwell's book. It may have been a wrong turn of phrase, but it is a good point that in many minds it is considered a rule. If you believe that something is a rule, too often your ability to see anything else is limited or nonexistent. It's a point Tim Ferris makes in his book, 4 Hour Chef.

  • mikesty

    He makes the point that it isn't a rule? I haven't read 4HC cover-to-cover and I dont know if I ever will, but it's a great book to have.

  • Jerry Nord

    Learning a learning strategy and practicing it, is one of the great gifts you can give yourself this year, so thanks...and now on to the practice part.