Being able to pick up a new skill quickly is an asset in today’s workplace, but our typical learning habits aren’t always speedy enough. By breaking your goal down into its component parts, you can actually speed up your learning time.
Why? Because many complex skills—from playing a musical instrument to learning a language—are just bundles of smaller sub-skills. By deconstructing the larger skill into all its component parts, you'll not only be able to chip away at each one piece by piece, you'll also be able to understand how they all relate.
Bestselling author Tim Ferriss offers a helpful framework, called "DiSSS," to help you take on major learning challenges this way:
- Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units I should start with?
- Selection: Which 20% of the units should I focus on in order to get 80% of the outcome I want?
- Sequencing: In what order should I learn those units?
- Stakes: What stakes can I set up to create real consequences and ensure that I follow the program?
Taking a cue from Ferriss's DiSSS strategy, here are five steps you can take to deconstruct any skill you'd like to learn faster.
Knowing your end goal is the critical first step to learning anything. It's what will keep you moving in a consistent direction, especially when things get tough—which they will. So it's important you define your goal as concretely as you can.
Say you want to learn a new language. What exactly does mastery look like? The great thing is that you get to decide. For instance, it could be reaching a level of conversational fluency that lets you hold a 60-minute conversation with a native speaker. Or you could set the bar lower. It's up to you.
When you set your goal, try to identify the bigger purpose that's motivating it. Why do you want to learn this skill and not some other? What will you do with it once you do? Trying to learn something voluntarily just for the sake of learning rarely lasts long.
It's okay to be ambitious. When Michael Jordan didn't make his high school's varsity basketball team as a sophomore, he didn’t wake up every morning to shoot thousands of free throws so he could make it the next year. His goal was to become the best.
Now the deconstruction begins. Start by doing some research into whichever skill you want to master, keeping in mind the specific goal and underlying purpose you've set for yourself.
As you find out more about the skill, start listing all the components involved in learning it, no matter how small. Pin down as many as you can, but don't worry about getting everything. You might not know all the components involved until after you start. The point is to start thinking analytically from the very outset.
For instance, if you want to master public speaking, these are a few of the sub-skills things you might sketch out:
- Body language
- hand gestures
- eye contact
- walking style and speed
- slide content
- sequence and speed
- tone and style
- speaking volume
Laying out all these individual components will help you get a grasp of them without feeling overwhelmed. More importantly, you can now see which parts you need to focus your efforts on to reach your goal.
The first few weeks or even days of learning a new skill is the hardest. The beginning—when we're confronted for the first time with how much we don't yet know how to do—is when we're most liable to lose our motivation and quit.
Be honest with yourself and make a list of them. Then, for at least your first five practice sessions, try to avoid any of the pitfalls you've outlined. Needless to say, many of them will be related to the sub-skills you've identified. If you're learning a language, one deterrent might be having to take the bus to meet with the local coach you've connected with, then doing practice exercises after the lessons. So maybe for your first five lessons, you'll decide to meet with your language teacher through a video chat.
Tim Ferriss did something similar when he learned to swim. The pain points he identified were difficulty breathing and exhaustion from kicking. He foresaw how those things might frustrate him and lead him to give up, so he discovered "total immersion swimming," a form of shallow-water swim training.
We all lose motivation eventually, and it’s better to know how you'll deal with it ahead of time. It's just a question of preparation.
According to Pareto's Principle, 20% of your efforts will lead to 80% of your desired outcome.
Here's where breaking down your goal into those sub-skills is really important. Of all the ones you identified, which fifth of them are the most essential to master?
If you're learning guitar, it could be memorizing the four chords that make up a majority of pop songs. If you're trying to become a better cook, it could be mastering three basic techniques that have the widest number of applications—say, for instance, frying, braising, and sautéing. In other words, whichever sub-skills you decide to focus on, make sure they're the most impactful ones.
Even after you've zeroed in on the 20% of sub-skills to pay close attention to, it might still be tempting to try learning more than one of them simultaneously. Many of us already struggle to multitask when it comes to things we already know how to do, so trying to learn more than one new skill at once is just about guaranteed to drag down your progress.
As the founder of the language coaching platform Rype, I hear from dozens of aspiring language students every week who are attempting to master conversational and writing skills when they've yet to learn basic grammar rules. Start small, stay focused, and build up.
Remember that the first step is deconstructing your skill, and if you can manage to do this properly, you're well on your way to mastery.