In a time when “soft skills” are in higher demand than ever, perhaps the greatest skill for any professional is the skill of lifelong learning. Being able to adapt to new situations and skillsets makes you more valuable as an employee, and opens up the possibilities for projects and and initiatives you can lead. Plenty of thought leaders bill themselves as being professional learners; Josh Kaufmann swears you can learn anything in 20 hours or less, and Tim Ferriss is obsessed with cracking the habit code of the world’s most successful and efficient people. Whichever way you slice it, learning is lucrative.
Regardless of which method you decide to adopt, there are a few universal elements that can help you pick up a new skill in near-record time. The next time you need to master something under a deadline, use these shortcuts to get ahead faster. Here’s how to learn new skills quickly.
There’s a reason why so many thought leaders bill themselves as professional learners.
1. Find an entry point
Self-education expert Tim Ferriss swears by the DiSSS method: deconstruction, selection, sequencing and stakes. While converts report that his method makes it easy to learn nearly anything in four hours or less, the DiSSS method — like many shortcuts — starts with a pretty basic stepping stone: finding an entry point. Before you dive into a new task, survey the situation and find your best point of entry. That often means visualizing your end goal and working backwards to find the best course of action. Whichever way you approach the goal, make sure you start at the right place before diving in.
2. Consult an expert
If you’re trying to learn a new skill, set up a few meetings with experts and seasoned pros to get their two cents. Odds are, they can recommend a training course, some solid reading material, or a bit of helpful, first-hand knowledge to get you headed in the right direction. Designating a mentor is a great way to bring an expert’s perspective into your work, and they’ll also make for a great lifeline whenever things go off the rails and you need to phone a friend in a pinch.
3. Think visually
Ever heard someone describe themselves as a visual learner? Newsflash: most of us are visual learners. According the the Visual Teaching Alliance, 65 percent of us are visual learners, meaning things like infographics, charts, illustrations and more dynamic data portrayals are key to helping us adopt new skills. If you’re trying to learn something complex, swap the textbook for a program or app and see if it gets you there faster.
4. Keep a bullet journal
On that note, don’t be afraid to lean on visual timelines, either. Bullet journals have gained popularity for their ability to help hectic thinkers visualize progress. The detail-oriented journals function as mini timeline trackers, and a perfect for people with a million random to-do lists who are trying to stay organized and juggling lots of goals. If you’re trying to pick up a new skill quickly, a bullet journal might provide the organization needed to get you from A to B.
5. Set SMAART goals
When staring down an insurmountable feat, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of work in front of you — especially when it’s mostly mental. Before you let the volume of tasks scare you into retreat, start off by setting SMAART goals: specific, measurable, attributable, actionable, realistic and time-sensitive goals for conquering the overall challenge. Approaching your new task from these very specific parameters will help keep you on track and moving toward a clearly defined end goal. Take the tasks one step at a time, make sure you’ve got a system in place for measuring your progress, assign someone to teach you parts of the task you don’t understand, don’t bite off more than you can chew and give yourself a timeline for achieving them.
6. Anticipate your quitting points
Anytime we set out to tackle a big challenge, we’re bound to get defeated somewhere along the way. Before you launch into the learning process, spend some time thinking about the challenges you’ll come up against, and set a loose plan for how you’ll address them. For example: how will you juggle the new skill with existing responsibilities? How will you make time to learn and practice as you go? What will you do if it takes you longer than you thought to pick up the skill? What will you do when you feel uninspired? How will you refine your skills once you have the basics in place? If you’re someone who thrives off encouragement, write yourself notes to celebrate your achievements along the way, and have a plan in place for combating off-days.
7. Clear your head
Too much focus can actually be a deterrent. If you’re trying to power through a tough challenge, remember that it’s a marathon — not a sprint. To keep your head clear and make space for the brainpower needed to build a skill, Entrepreneur suggests meditating to give your brain a break. Daily meditation has been shown to drastically improve mental focus and make us sharper throughout the week. Not sure where to begin? Apps like Headspace are great tools for newbies.
Read more: Payscale