The Smartest Way to Build Skills

This smart dog has a surfing mini habit.

He started with a surfing mini habit. #smartdawgz (photo by San Diego Shooter)

Skill-building is one of life’s most impactful, fun, and important pursuits. Our skills make us into more interesting, more useful, happier people.

  • Work skills can gain you money, respect, and great job security. 
  • Social skills can make you friends, boost your romantic life, and make people want to be around you.
  • Other skills can bring you joy and pleasure, such as playing a song on piano or guitar, surfing a wave, or knitting an ugly Christmas sweater.

Basically, skills are great. What’s the smartest way to develop them?

Phase One: Create a Habit

Most people trying to build a new skill make the mistake of doing too much at once. They’ll play guitar for four hours on the first day until their fingers bleed. Then they have to wait to recover, physically and mentally, before playing again. In this time, many things can sabotage their skill development (decreased interest or distraction are most likely).

The main issue with doing too much at the start is that it can set an unrealistic precedent. If you practice piano for three hours on your first day, you might think that five minutes of practice is not good enough. It can put you into the dreadful all-or-nothing state of mind where you think you have to practice a long time if you’re to practice at all. This perspective makes forming a habit nearly impossible.

When building a skill, it’s not actually important initially to make progress in it. Progress in skill-building is secondary to consistency of practice. That is, it’s secondary to habit. Here’s why.

How Weak Commitment Anchors Ruin Goals

Weak commitment is the #1 reason why people fail to develop skills. One day, you may plan to become a great chess player, but plans can change, so what’s keeping you to that goal? A commitment anchor.

Every commitment has an anchor. The anchor is whatever makes you stick to your commitment. In marriage, the commitment anchor is your spoken and public demonstration of lifelong commitment to your spouse, the legal documentation of marriage, and the hassle and cost of divorce. It’s a very strong commitment anchor!

The weakest type of commitment anchor is the simple decision to do something. We use this one all the time. With a “desire anchor,” there are no consequences if you change your mind. The only anchor, the only thing keeping you to your plans, is your initial desire to do it. When your desire fluctuates (and it always will!), the anchor won’t hold and your decision will easily be reversed. For example, I’m in Thailand, and I was planning to rent a motorbike tonight to go see the park, but I changed my mind. I’m writing instead.

Weak commitment anchors are fine. You don’t want a heavy commitment for every little decision. The burden would be too great. You should be able to quickly and painlessly change your mind about inconsequential things like what you’ll eat for dinner tonight. But we too often overuse this weak anchor, and use it for important commitments we’d rather not break, such as the skills we’d like to build.

Mini habits are perfect for phase one of skill-building because they prioritize habit development over skill development and results. They have a deceptively powerful anchor as well. 

Every boat needs an appropriately-sized anchor to effectively hold it in place, and the same goes for commitments. Marriage is a huge decision and commitment. It’s a massive ship, and that explains why the commitment anchor is so heavy! The consequences of divorce are extreme and unpleasant, matching the seriousness of the initial commitment.

A mini habit anchor works in a different way. It is a simple decision to do something small every day (the weakest type of anchor), but since a mini habit is so easy to do, the commitment is also lightweight. If marriage is a huge ship, a mini habit is like a toy boat—it’s a small, easy, and nearly weightless burden on your life. That’s why the standard “weak” commitment anchor is heavy enough to hold it in place. 

This is advantageous for us, as we’re used to using the weak anchor and it actually works with a mini habit!

Why You Should Start Skills with a Habit

Starting your skill with a habit is brilliant because of the natural progression of skill-building. In practically every skill, there’s a period of initial struggle followed by a breakthrough into mediocrity. In other words, when starting a new skill, you’re going to be terrible at it. When the brain doesn’t have the neural connections required for you to surf, you’re not going to be able to do it. Through repeated attempts and perhaps guidance from a teacher, you’ll learn more of what to do (and not do). Eventually, you’ll get up on the board and surf a wave!

The first goal of skill-building is to get yourself to the minimum required skill level. Once you can get up on the board and surf, write your first book, deliver a speech, or juggle three tennis balls, you’ll be able to fine-tune and expand upon those skills. 

Skill building is like carving an ice sculpture. At first, you’re just hacking away at excess ice. When you get through that, you can carve the more intricate details of the sculpture.

You need a habit-formation strategy (that is built for consistency) to get you through this first phase because it’s marked by a lack of positive feedback and is easy to quit. A habit is special in that it keeps going without positive feedback, emotional readiness, or self-belief. That’s why trying to skill build any other way is extremely challenging and probably foolish. You’re going to be failing, feeling discouraged, and doubting yourself constantly in the early stages. A strategy like mini habits that is engineered for consistent-action will get you through that.

Phase Two: Fine Tune Your Skill

Once you’ve established a daily habit in your area of skill, you’ve broken through failure and gracefully landed in mediocrity. Congratulations! Now, you’re a below average novelist! (I jest, but this moment really is something to celebrate.)

Phase two calls for practicing and increasing your skill. Developing a habit in phase one creates an opportunity for more of that behavior without overextending yourself and dropping the whole thing. Once the habit is in place though, you can try more advanced techniques and demand more of yourself.

An underrated aspect of habits is how they decrease your risk. If I already have a writing habit, and I try an ambitious goal of writing a book in one month, failure to reach that goal only means that I revert back to my basic writing habit. This is in stark contrast to what happens when pursuing an ambitious goal without a writing habit, in which failure means I’d stop writing (and without practice, skills slowly shrivel and die). 

In my fitness journey, I started with one push-up a day. That was the habit phase. Since then, I’ve made my jump to the gym. I’m still pretty weak, but in my relative weakness, I’ve put on 20 pounds of muscle and made huge strides in strength, lifting technique, knowledge of exercises, routine structure and more. All I’ve learned will contribute to future strength gains.

Once I knew I would show up at the gym consistently (habit), it was just a matter of fine-tuning my approach. I’m still working on it, of course, but I’m getting better and better at it. I can even consider some of the extreme exercise programs, as I should be able to stick with them better than I ever have in the past, and I know I won’t stop exercising even if I don’t stick with the program.

Develop the habit, and then fine-tune the skill. This is the smartest way to develop a skill. Like habit development, skill development works best with consistent effort.

Example: Imagine you have five hours of time (300 minutes) in one month to dedicate to a skill, and these are your two options.

  1. You can practice all five hours on the first day.
  2. You could practice 10 minutes a day for 30 days.

Why option 2 is superior:

  • Since sleep is an integral part of learning, option two gives your brain time to learn what you’re practicing. This spread out format is a better match for how the brain learns new behaviors. On day 20, you might even be practicing more advanced aspects of the skill. 
  • Practicing the skill daily will make it habitual, which means more automaticity and less resistance to the behavior. A one day burnout session is more likely to increase your resistance to the behavior.
  • Not even counting the power of habit, it’s easier and less intimidating to do something for 10 minutes over 30 days than for five hours on one day. 
  • Since you do it every day, you’re mindful of the skill. Mindfulness in an area leads to more creativity and problem solving.
  • You don’t get burnt out.
  • Option two is proof of your commitment. Anyone can do anything on one day, which is why one day of anything doesn’t mean much. This is a good thing. When you have one terrible day, it doesn’t define you. What you do consistently defines you.

Now, 10 minutes isn’t a magical amount of time. A mini habit is usually one minute or less. When considering how much time to devote to a new skill, think about the skill itself. Some skills require prep time and travel (surfing, for example). Other skills are easy to pick up and put down (juggling, writing, knitting, etc.). Depending on the skill, choose an amount of daily practice time that’s easy and unintimidating. 

And don’t forget the secret power of a mini habit—you can always do more than your small target!

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