How to Learn Anything with Focused Practice

Do you speak Greek? | nito

In June, it feels that summer will last forever. The next few months stretch out in front of us and as the weather heats up and plants burgeon in gardens and in the wild, a feeling of possibility closes around us. The days are longer, kids are out of school, and we remember that we wanted to learn how to do that cool hand lettering they have on the signs at that market uptown. Or to play the bassoon. Or to speak Greek.

But where to begin? Learning anything new can seem a Sisyphean task. But to the contrary, neuroscience informed us years ago of the brain’s ability to learn new skills throughout the lifetime. It might be harder to learn something after you leave school behind, but it is possible, especially if you use the three principles of focused practice. Focused practice is a learning technique that is simple, effective, and can be applied to virtually anything.

1. Breaking it Down

When we break something complicated down into manageable chunks, we give our brain a chance to attend to what’s important, without bombarding ourselves with too much, too soon. Furthermore, formulating realistic goals around each of the smaller components of a task and articulating those goals clearly will increase our chances of success.

If you’re coming up with goals for your mission to speak Greek, an example of a goal that is too vague and too big to be realistic might be, “I will learn to speak about Greek art.” If that is what you really want to do, then it would be more realistic to break it up into a few different areas:

  • I will learn 50 art related words
  • I will learn 20 basic verbs + 10 verbs related to art
  • I will come up with 100 sentences about art, using the words and the verbs I learn

Well-defined goals such as the three mentioned above make the task much more approachable.

2. Eliminate Distractions for Accurate Practice

All the time, our brains process sensory information from our environments. Our ears hear the noises around us, our eyes can pick out objects in front of us – especially if those objects are moving, and our noses can tell us if the cookies in the oven are closer to being done or burnt beyond edibility. When you eliminate extraneous noises, smells, and other distractions from your environment, you give your brain a break so it can focus.

As you practice your new skill, pay attention to your accuracy. If you’re working on playing minor scales on the bassoon, don’t let that wrong note go uncorrected. Fix it immediately, repeat it, and move on. If you practice the wrong notes, you’ll learn the wrong notes. Aim to practice your task correctly, every time.

3. Be Consistent

The more habitual something is, the more natural it feels. Choose the same time every day to sit down for your focused practice, and stick to that schedule. It might be hard at first, but it will get easier.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. We’re not going after mastery here, so when we read that it only takes 20 hours of focused practice to learn a skill, that doesn’t sound so difficult at all. When there’s something you want to learn, follow each of the principles of focused practice, and your skills will improve

This summer, the world is your oyster. Crack open that oyster and learn something new with focused practice. Then, share what you learned with us. We won’t expect you to play like Kenny G or to draw like an Instagram inspiration, but if you go from knowing nothing to knowing something, then it’s fair to say that some learning took place.

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