Skill Hacking with 30 Day Challenges

April 24, 2021

Skill hacking is the art of developing either a new or existing skill in the shortest time possible.  I'm particularly fascinated with the topic and regularly do experiments to try and accelerate my learning.

On of my favorite and most reliable ways of learning a new skill as fast as possible is the 30 day challenge.  

You choose a specific skill that you want to rapidly improve and dedicate to praticing it for an hour or two per day for 30 days in total.

I've personally done 30 day challenges for all of the following:-

  • Video creation - one video per day to improve my communication and presentation skills
  • Writing - I've done numerous writing challenges where I write a blog post each day to try and improve my ability to create clear and engaging blog posts
  • Pool practice - At one point I did 30 days of drills to take my game to a new level before a big upcoming tournament
  • Language learning - I learned 300 of the most common Hungarian words by doing 1 hour vocabulary learning per day for 30 days.

I've found this 30 day challenge to be remarkebly effective if you want to efficiently level up your game in a certain area.  It can also be a great weapon if you feel that you're in a productivity rut and want to get that positive momentum going again.

You might be thinking that 30 days isn't really enough to achieve a marked impovement.  If you set up your challenges in the right way, though, you'll be amazed at what you can achieve in such a small period of time...

22 Hours to Touch Typing

Every skill has what I call a frustration barrier - a period of time in which you're horribly unskilled, and you're painfully aware of that fact.

In my experience, it takes around twenty hours of practice to break through the frustration barrier: to go from knowing absolutely nothing about what you're trying to do to performing noticeably well.

Josh Kaufman

In the book The first 20 hours, it took Josh Kaufman 22 hours to completely retrain his brain from typing on a QWERTY keyboard to a DVORAK keyboard.

The difference in layout between a QWERTY keyboard and DVORAK keyboard

To achieve such a good result in a short space of time he employed various skill hacking techniques:-

  • 2 very focused sessions of 20 minutes with a short break in-between right before bed.  The timing is important, because it's practice with sleep that that makes perfect.  "After initial training, the human brain continues to learn in the absence of further practice, and that this delayed improvement develops during sleep"
  • Avoided practicing a second skill at the same time.  If you practice or use a second, similar skill shortly after practicing a new skill, that practice can interfere with your brain's ability to consolidate the new information.
  • Painted his keyboard so the keys weren't visible.  He employed this technique to stop his bad habit of looking down at the keys
  • He followed Zipf's and Lewland's law.  Zipf's law states that a very small set of words makes up the vast majority of actual usage.  Lewland's theory states that there are common sets of two and three character groupings that appear over and over again, like TH, AN, ING, and NCE. These groupings are called N-grams.  He built his practice regime around these most common words and patterns.

By following this practice schedule, it only took 22 hours to completely overwrite the 20 years of previous experience touch typing on the QWERTY keyboard.

This just goes to show that if your practice schedule is fine tuned, you can achieve pretty remarkable results in 30 hours or less.

How to Optimize your 30 Day Challenges to Get the Most out of Them

If you decide to take on a 30 day challenge, then I recommend following these key principles to get the most out of it:-

  • Only one skill at a time.  Don't try to run multiple concurrent 30 day challenges.  Your brain, like a muscle, needs time to consolidate and create new connections at the physiological level after being taxed.  Studies show that learning multiple skills at the same time can interfere with this consolidation process.
  • It must be hard.  Geoff Colvin, in his book "Talent is Overrated" , describes a concept called "deliberate practice" (a method of practicing to improve a skill as fast as possible):-

    "It isn't much fun...Doing thing we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands...Instead of doing what we're good at, we insistently seek out what we're not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better do these things over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see - or get others to tell us - exactly what still isn't right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we've just done. We continue that process until we're mentally exhausted."

    If you sit down to practice your skill and breeze through it without feeling mentally taxed at the end of it, then you're probably not doing it right.  It must be challenging and difficult to such a degree that you don't enjoy doing it and you must be consantly pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.
  • It must be focused.  Isolate a skill or subset of a skill with a tight scope.  Don't go too broad.  The tighter the scope the better.
  • Repeat every day for 30 days.  Your goal is to practice hard every day for 30 days without a break.  Set a maximum time limit so your session are clearly defined.  Write and publish one blog post every day with a maximum time limit of 1 hour, for example.
  • Try and find one thing you can improve every time.  Each time you practice you should try and be slightly better than before.  Often that means that you'll need to review your own work and find areas of improvement.  If possible, to put this on steroids, find a coach that's vastly more experienced at the skill you're working on and get actionable feedback after every practice session.
  • Get adequate sleep. 8 hours per night is needed to consolidate the learnings from your practice.
  • No longer than 4 hours per day, 90 minutes max per session.  Here's another quote from Geoff Colvin about deliberate practice sessions:-

    "The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes."

Over to you...

I personally love these 30 days challenges.  Many times I've been in a bit of a rut and needed something to mix things up and get me engaged again.  These 30 day challenges are the perfect antidote to coasting.  

Whether you're boostrapping your own start up and need to level up a skill quickly or you're just going through a rut and want to kickstart your productivity again, I enourage you to take on a 30 day challenge of your own.

Whatever you do, if you commit to it, see it through.  

And let me know how you get on in the comments below!

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