How People Learn: 7 Tips to Master New Skills

Illustration of man reading a book

When it comes to mastering a new skill (whatever it may be!), understanding a bit about how people learn can help you transform from total newbie to proficient.


Well, when you have a more solid grasp on what it takes to be an effective learner, you’re armed with all sorts of tips and strategies that you can put into play to make your time spent picking up new skills that much more impactful.

But, if you’re like most people, you probably haven’t yet taken a magnifying glass to your own learning capabilities to analyze how you could improve.

Fortunately, that’s what we’re for. Let’s dig into everything you need to know to master whatever new skill is on your list—with far less headaches and hair pulling.

Use Toggl to track your time and keep an eye on your progress when you’re mastering new skills!

Why is it so challenging to learn new skills?

When it comes to learning new things, it’s often tough to get started.

But why?

When the desire to expand your skillset is there, why is it still so challenging to get motivated and get moving?

Well, there are a few different hurdles that come into play here.

First and foremost, there’s the issue of time.

It’s something that so many of us are short on—nearly on a daily basis. We’re treading water and cranking our way through our never-ending to-do lists, which means that curiosity and learning are often pushed to the back burner.

In short, learning new skills takes time—which is something that most of us don’t have in spades.

Secondly, there’s the more psychological barrier: Learning new things is scary.

It involves putting yourself out there (and potentially setting yourself up for failure!).

So, many of us become totally resistant to change and instead stick with our predictable, daily routines—so that we don’t have to even concern ourselves with the fear of falling flat on our faces.

Finally, there isn’t a step-by-step, tried and true formula that we can follow to pick up new skills.

Everybody has a different learning style and approach.

And, when finding the one that works best for you can prove to be difficult, it’s typically far easier to toss up your hands and resolve to master that skill tomorrow—but, “tomorrow” never actually arrives.

Think about it this way: If picking up new skills was a total breeze, we’d all constantly be expanding our own knowledge.

But, in reality, it requires plenty of elbow grease and commitment—which means our desire to learn is often squelched by the demands of our everyday work lives.

How long does it take to learn new skills?

We’ve already talked quite a bit about the time commitment that learning new skills requires.

But, how much time? How long does it actually take to add a new skill to your repertoire?

You’ve probably heard that oft-repeated fact that new habits take somewhere around three weeks to form.

However, that rule doesn’t necessarily hold true for everyone. One 2010 study from University College London, for example, found that habit formation actually takes closer to 66 days.

Even that isn’t the golden rule for everyone. In short, the time it takes to form new habits and pick up new skills will vary greatly depending on a number of factors—including what it is you’re trying to learn, how often you practice, and how quickly you’re able to pick up and retain new information.

How people learn new skills (and how you can too!)

With all of that in mind, what steps can you put into place to transform yourself from a novice to an expert?

Here are seven different tips that successful people use to make learning a new skill a little more doable.

1. They Form a Plan

We know two things for sure about learning new skills: Time is a limiting factor, and the whole process can feel overwhelming.

For that reason, the most effective learners start with a plan. This makes the learning process feel far more manageable, and also helps them prevent cramming—which can actually be detrimental to your learning.

Cramming might feel beneficial in the short-term.

However, it doesn’t help you commit information to memory for the long-term. Studies show that cramming allows you to recognize information as familiar—but that information is not necessarily remembered.

So, before you roll up your sleeves and jump right in for an ultimately ineffective cramming session, sit down and create a more spaced out roadmap for yourself:

  • What key skill are you trying to learn?
  • Are there sub-skills that fall under that?
  • When do you want to have this skill mastered by?
  • How often are you willing to practice?
  • When will you practice?

That’s all information you need to know before you actually get started.

With all of that sorted out, you can create smaller milestones for yourself and also pencil practice sessions into your calendar—so you’re more equipped to stay committed and hold yourself accountable.

2. They start small

Speaking of smaller milestones, that’s another tactic that can be especially beneficial when mastering a new skill.

Rather than looking at the whole overwhelming process, start small.

Remember, your brain can only handle so much information at a time, so it’s better to start with more bite-sized tasks. You’ll make progress, without feeling buried under facts and figures.

Commitment to something new isn’t easy, but focusing your practice will make it easier to get to that point of seeing the results you want in hours instead of weeks or months,

-explains Sujan Patel in an article for the Zirtual blog.

For example, let’s say that you want to master email marketing.

What comes into play with that overarching goal? You need to:

  • Figure out the best email marketing platform
  • Get signed up on that platform
  • Learn tactics for building a list of subscribers
  • Practice crafting attention-grabbing subject lines

And so on and so forth. Start with something easy—like just signing up for a specific platform—and you’ll get the ball rolling on chipping away at that larger skill.

3. Focus on sub-skills

We’re talking a lot about breaking the learning process down into smaller, more manageable parts. But, for good reason—it’s a highly effective strategy.

Focusing on sub-skills (in other words, the smaller competencies that are needed for your larger skill) can also help you make some meaningful progress.

An article written by Sean Kim for Fast Company uses public speaking as a great example. Improving your public speaking is the overarching goal, but there are some smaller skills that are rolled into that, including:

  • Body language
  • Presentation
  • Delivery

The trick here is to figure out which sub-skill will have the most impact in witnessing improvement right away.

When Pareto’s Principle dictates that only 20% of your efforts and input will lead to 80% of your desired results, it’s important to focus your efforts on the things that will actually make a difference. You need to make the most of your 20%.

So, perhaps you know that delivery is your biggest issue with public speaking right now. The content of your slides is solid, you just can’t talk about them in a way that’s engaging and compelling.

Dedicating your time to improving your overall tone and style will help you see an immediate uptick in your public speaking skills—as opposed to if you had dedicated unnecessary time to playing around with the fonts and graphs on your slides.

4. They take notes

Learning a new skill is going to require plenty of memorization. And, that’s not always as easy as it sounds.

Many consider diligent notetaking to be a groan-worthy task that was only applicable during their school years.

However, it can make a huge impact when learning new skills (even outside of the classroom!).

Need an example?

Some of the world’s most successful people swear by the power of note-taking. Everyone from Bill Gates and Richard Branson to Tim Ferriss and Sheryl Sandberg are always jotting things down.


Because note-taking can significantly improve your memory—particularly when those notes are hand-written (as opposed to typed on a computer).

That’s why writing your own flashcards in school, for example, was such a helpful study activity.

With that in mind, take all of that important information you need to master your new skill, and take some time to manually write it out.

That will make a big difference in your long-term comprehension.

5. They find a mentor

We all learn differently—which means that some of us learn better by watching or hearing from someone who is already an expert on our desired skill.

This is one reason why a mentor relationship can be so helpful. You have a resource to show you the ropes, answer your questions, and guide you through those sometimes murky waters of learning something new.

In fact, one study shows that 80% of learning for new employees actually takes place between mentors and mentees.

So, do the work to seek out someone who could lead you as you master a new skill. Having that resource in your corner will be a huge asset to you.

6. They use deliberate practice

You’ve heard the old saying about how practice makes perfect. However, it’s not just repetition that will make you better at something—you need to create the right environment for your practice sessions to make them far more effective.

The concept is called deliberate practice, and there’s a lot involved—from consistency and seeking feedback to achieving the right level of concentration and reflecting on your own practices sessions to see how they can be improved.

While it involves some commitment, deliberate practice is a great way to really maximize the time you spend on learning new skills.

We wrote an entire post diving into the concept of deliberate practice. Make sure to check it out to leverage your own practices sessions to your advantage!

7. They stick with it

Here’s the final thing you need to be aware of: Learning a new skill takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight. It requires commitment and the ability to push through those many roadblocks that will likely crop up.

You’re going to hit walls when attempting to master a new skill—that’s to be expected.

But, that doesn’t give you permission to just walk away and write the process off as too hard. Instead, it should serve as your motivation to work even harder.

If you’re serious about learning a new skill, then you need to be serious about the level of commitment that will require. All of the above tips can be helpful.

But, ultimately, it’s your own dedication that will help you see results when mastering something new and unfamiliar.

Ready to get started?

Learning a new skill isn’t always easy. However, it can be oh-so-worth-it.

To do so, you need to be prepared to invest the necessary planning, time, and elbow grease to make it happen.

Like what? To recap, here are the must-know tips we’ve covered:

  • Set a goal and make a plan
  • Start with something small and easy to get the ball rolling
  • Focus on sub-skills
  • Take diligent notes
  • Find a mentor
  • Use deliberate practice
  • Stick with it (even when things get tough!)

Put those strategies to work, and you’re far more likely stick to your own plan and transform yourself from clueless to competent. Good luck!

March 27, 2018