How an hour a day can make you fundamentally competent in anything in less than three weeks

Two years ago, society as we know it was vastly transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The protective measures implemented by the government inevitably included a great many restrictions. Therein, several of our means for leisure and expelling stress were removed from the picture.

During the circuit breaker, many had to resort to alternative means to let off steam and spend their time. There was an increase in demand for home karaoke sets. A whole bunch of people started learning a new musical instrument.

Yet how often is it that people say they want to learn something but end up feeling disillusioned and giving up midway through?

Something the government often talks about is the upskilling of workers. They also give us these Skillsfuture credits to spend on that.

This raises the question: Just how easy is it to pick up a new skill, exactly?

Between lazing around with your eyes glued to the television and chugging away at a new skill, it is obvious which one requires much less effort. In fact, the former is like the go-to leisure option for many in addition to mindlessly slogging through social media feeds.

This article aims to explain why picking up a new skill might not be such a bad and tasteless option after all.

The 10000 hour rule

Have you heard of the 10000 hour rule before? Basically, to achieve world-class expertise in a skill, you will have to spend like 10000 hours on it.

This rule was basically popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, a seeming proponent of hard work versus talent. He also provided several examples like that of Bill Gates and the Beatles.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, 10000 hours equates to around 20 hours a week for 10 years.

That’s kind of crazy, or more like very.

But in truth, this rule actually doesn’t apply to normal people like us who, rather than seeking to be absolute world-class, are just seeking to be proficient enough!

The 20 hours rule

Did you know that the law of diminishing returns applies to learning?

It’s basically like this. Let’s say you consistently work hard at something. The most dramatic improvements are usually at the start. After that, you need to invest more time and effort for you to register a similar degree of improvement in said skill. It is like the feeling of ‘hitting a wall’ in your efforts.

According to Josh Kaufman, it only takes 20 hours to acquire a new skill, becoming reasonably good at it. It is during this time that the most dramatic improvements are seen. This ‘law’ has, of course, been tested and verified in specific, real-world cases.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? In fact, you may inevitably end up wondering: doesn’t this feel too good to be true?

Let’s look at some of the obstacles that hinder our skill acquisition.

Lack of a system

A usual culprit that hinders our skill acquisition is none other than the metaphorical equivalent of wandering around like a headless chicken. What do I mean by that?

Let’s say that we want to get better at a video game. How would you approach, target the specific problem of raising your rank in it?

For a great many people including myself, we see a familiar and frustrating pattern whenever we look back on these incidences.

Basically, what happens is this: A wave of motivation comes over us and we devote more time to the game, playing a good several rounds. However, the results are not very satisfying. We do better sometimes and we do worse sometimes. Come to think of it, isn’t it pretty luck dependent? We’ll only be able to get promoted if we ride on a fortunate winning streak!

Here’s the thing — we’re probably being stubborn and having too high an opinion of ourselves. Maybe there are some areas in which we are superior at, which make us feel good about ourselves. Yet even then, there are several other integral aspects to the game as well! We may be pretty average at these aspects, and if we just let them remain stagnant, there’s no way our overall performance will rise!

And yet, we rely just on instinct in playing the way we are used to, playing to get a kick out of it and not tracking any specific parameter. Time goes by and we never really improve that much. But even so, we are still confident that we have what it takes!

How’s that any different from headless chickens flapping our wings and wandering about?!

If we seriously want to improve, we need a system, systemically delving into all the different and necessary aspects.

Sometimes there are these cool people who make their own systems, self-teaching through trial-and-error. Sometimes there are these geniuses who seem to be rather proficient in the skill from the get-go, being ‘reasonably good’ from the beginning!

However, I feel that most of the time, the most reliable and consistent way for humans across the board is utilising those tried-and-tested systems. These have all the core aspects broken down already.

Do you know the power of experts?

With the many hours that experts have invested in a skill, they have the ability to do what the Chinese call一针见血, which is basically to identify the root of the problem and alleviate it with a single glance. This saves you a whole load of time wandering down wrong paths.

At least before you are competent enough in a skill that you are free of basic errors in your form and can totally DIY, it’s best to follow a systematic approach. You’ll be stumbling in the dark and frustrated by fruitlessly trying to brute force it otherwise.

The presence of a system grounds and illuminates the way for the new learner. Internalising the skill and properly understanding its components leads to mastery.

Sticking to it properly

With an effective system for learning, one naturally comes to be motivated to spend their time on it. For otherwise, if you never ever see results, it just feels so bleak and pointless!

Everyone has different sensibilities, having different learning styles along with having different interests. Some people like to learn one thing at a time whereas others like myself will get bored easily with just that one thing, preferring to learn many things simultaneously.

Thus, there’s no saying that spamming 20 hours of a new skill within that first month for its acquisition is absolutely necessary. For myself, I know that if I had to just focus solely on one activity alone out of all the ones I’m currently learning, it would bore me to death. I’m in this ‘variety is the spice of life’ camp, thus I have to alternate between activities and progress in them all at once.

Whatever the case, you gotta have a schedule of sorts and stick to it. It can totally be loose and allow flexibility if you’re the more spontaneous type. All the same that’s still structured enough to induce consistency.

For me myself, besides regular classes for stuff, there are two main strategies that work. One I call the ‘daily routine’ strategy. Last month, I realised that my Japanese reading habit wasn’t going along so well. Thus, I resolved myself to read at least two pages of it before going to bed every night.

Two days into said routine, I could already be certain that it would stick around with me for at least the mid-term. Just yesterday, I finished reading chapter 4 of the book, having breezed through over 50 pages with this habit. Only two chapters remain, and then I’ll move on to the next volume. Yeah!

For the above strategy, you can simply make up for missing a day by doing more the next day. As long as you are physically capable of continuing, there’s really nothing stopping you. This is a path you can tread with relative ease, and you do so daily.

The next strategy I call the ‘spontaneous slotting’ strategy. The precondition to this strategy is that there are some activities you enjoy and would like to get better at. Meanwhile, these activities are (relatively) easily accessible for you. The way this strategy works is that as soon the urge to do this activity arises, you are quickly able to satisfy it.

For example, I’m taking singing lessons and I’m working from home. Whenever I get inspired to randomly emit a few lines, I just do so — there’s no one there to hear and judge anyway. Yay.

For example, I like playing tennis. Today, I suddenly felt like playing tennis and so I asked my friend if he will be free later on. Long story short, I’ll be playing tennis on the dot after work ends later. (Refer to this article on where to learn tennis or find tennis partners.)

If you constantly use ‘spontaneous slotting’, you’ll be able to invest hours into stuff and get better at them without actually having to consciously plan for it in advance.

The premise of this strategy is that if you like something, you’ll naturally be motivated to do it.

Anyway, think of how people form habits. Which ones stick and which ones don’t? If you think about it, it’s quite simple. People stick with habits if they feel motivated enough for them. People abandon habits if they don’t feel motivated enough.

Therefore, the dumbest thing to do is to have unrealistic expectations of yourself. You’re setting yourself up for failure by setting yourself up for feeling discouraged.


Find a passion. Slowly but surely, in whatever way, rack up the necessary base hours (20). Enjoy yourself, deriving fulfilment.

And there you have it, folks! A new skill!

Being systemic equals working smart, sticking to it equals playing hard.

Effort applied along right path? Win.

Understanding this 20 hours rule, there’s so much that we can do and enjoy in our lifetime!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here