July 12, 2016

The Entrepreneur’s Guide on Forming New Habits and Learning New Skills

by Sujan Patel

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You know as a startup founder that it takes a lot of time, energy, and skill just to get the train to leave the station. 

School didn’t cover things like sourcing and vetting manufacturers and suppliers, handling customs for international business, marketing, customer onboarding, developing consumer and wholesale funnels, or payroll taxes.

And if they did, it was glossed-over textbook knowledge, not necessarily practical information meant for real-world application.

As you’re building your business, you’ve got to adapt, learn new habits, and teach yourself things you never thought you would spend time learning – let alone trying to master.

That’s just the way it is, whether you’re a cash-strapped startup or you’ve got deep-pocketed investors backing you.

Those new skills and habits broaden the reach of what you can accomplish, as they help you tackle core operational tasks while outsourcing the rest to administrative assistants and freelancers.

So how difficult is it to learn those new tasks and change all of your bad habits to give your startup a fighting chance?

The short and kind of ugly answer: “As long as it takes.”

Learning Takes Less Time That You Think

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Spiritual influencers will assert that you can form new habits in 21 days, and it takes you 10,000 hours to learn a new skill.

Anyone who pushes that on you is absolutely wrong.

The “21 days” mantra about forming new habits was founded on ideas shared by Maxwell Maltz, who was a plastic surgeon in the 50s.

Based on his observations during patient recovery on how long it took patients to get comfortable with physical changes after surgery, he published a book called Psycho-Cybernetics.

In his book, he wrote:

“These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

This concept was then applied to habits in general, and it was eventually accepted as gospel that it takes 21 days to commit a new habit.

In 2010, University College London conducted a study on habit formation based on Dr. Maltz’s original findings.

The team found that on average, it takes 66 days for a habit to form – more than triple the original estimate of 21 days.

From 66 days to 10,000 Hours

The concept of “10k hours to learn a new skill” can be traced back to a 1993 paper called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, written by K. Anders Ericsson.

Following that study was a book titled Outlier written by Malcolm Gladwell in 2007 that solidified the concept with the masses. Gladwell’s concept of 10,000 hours became gospel to many for years.

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A recent study debunked the myth of 10,000 hours, stating that: “Individual differences in accumulated amount of deliberate practice accounted for about one-third of the reliable variance in performance in chess and music, leaving the majority of the reliable variance unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors.”

In other words:

People learn (and master) skills at different rates based on different factors.

Why Is It So Hard to Learn New Skills and Form New Habits?

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Many of us are resistant to change 

Save for a select few people who are built like sponges and soak up everything they encounter, most of us are prone to angst and anxiety when trying something new or trying to change our daily living to implement new habits.

I don’t know many people who aren’t terrified at the idea of failing at something, even if that failure is just a temporary thing.

Luckily, our brains are designed to learn new things and pick up new skills quickly. It’s part of our adaptive nature as humans.

Scott Grafton, a professor at UC Santa Barbara's Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, says:

"It's useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit. When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music. With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior." 

When we come up against those challenges, and that anxiety starts to surface around learning something new or our brains push back, the easiest way to respond is to quit and go do something else, something we’re more comfortable with. 

That’s what most of us do.

You Don’t Need To Master Anything 

If you really believe that it takes 10,000 hours to master something, you’re far less likely to commit to it right now, and more likely to quit.

This is where it’s important to shift your thought process and expectations. You don’t need to master a skill to get a measurable result.

 Josh Kaufman believes it takes far less time. In fact, you can probably learn just about anything in as little as 20 hours:

 

 

For entrepreneurs who want to learn a new skill or develop habits that to lead business success:

  • It’s better to focus on performing well enough to produce meaningful results.

It only takes a little bit of practice to go from knowing nothing to getting reasonably good enough at something that you’ll see the results you want.

How Entrepreneurs Can Commit to Forming New Habits and Learning New Skills

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Break it down

If you focus on trying to achieve skill mastery, or immediately trying to live life as if a habit were already formed, failure is going to come faster than you think.

The best approach is to treat learning something new the same way you treat business goals.

When you have a much larger goal you want to achieve in your business – like “landing 5,000 retail partnerships” or “reducing customer churn by X%” – you break that goal down. You create a roadmap with a starting point (aka, where you’re at now) and fill it with the milestones and micro goals that will lead you to your bigger goal. 

Kaufman recommends that same approach when trying to learn something new, based on his experiences learning to windsurf.

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1. Visualize the Objective

First, he recommends recognizing what it is that you want to be able to do. That’s your big target goal or “target performance level.” This is where you define what skilled performance looks like. You’re not reaching for master-level knowledge, so where do you need to be in order to get the results you’re looking for?

Understandably, the amount of time it takes you to learn a new skill greatly depends on your desired performance level.

2. Create a Roadmap

Next, you need to break the skill down into smaller parts. This process of “deconstruction” is necessary because most of the skills we want to learn are just bundles of other smaller skills that are done at the same time.

So, if you break a skill down into more manageable, smaller skills that are easier to learn, you can eliminate a lot of that angst and tension we normally experience when we try to learn something big or form a major new habit.

3. Tackle the Simple Tasks

Lastly, he recommends that you practice the most important smaller skills first. Practice the things that are most certain to give you the highest value and lend to the greatest increase in overall performance of that main skill you’re aiming for.

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.

For example, let’s say you want to learn conversion rate optimization (CRO).

 It can seem like an overwhelming task when you consider some professionals spend years mastering CRO.

Instead, break it down into much smaller skills:

  • Improving headlines
  • Writing better calls to action
  • Doing audience research to create more targeted copy
  • A/B testing

Tips for Speeding Up Skill Acquisition and Habit Development

If anything, you’ve learned that life isn’t as simple as the Matrix. We can’t upload an idea or a habit and have it mastered instantly. If you want to benefit from a new skill or habit there’s going to be work involved.

There are, however, a number of ways you can speed up the process.

1. Start Simple 

Life is complicated enough, and now you’ve gone and added the challenges of starting and running a business. Don’t make everything more complicated by trying to learn a bunch of new skills or form or refine multiple habits at the same time.

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You might feel like you can take on the load, but research has shown that we’re terrible multitaskers, and that your performance will only go down if you try to juggle too much.

  • Your brain can only handle so much input at a time.

2. Make a Daily Commitment 

The more consistent you are with developing habits or working on your new skill, the faster you’ll achieve success. Kaufman suggests that you can learn something new – to the point of getting your desired results – in about 20 hours.

That’s a mere 45 minutes a day for about a month.

Make sure to:

  • Set aside a little time each day to practice, read, educate yourself, and commit to your new thing
  • Maintain consistency by committing to the same time each day – you’ll develop a cue based on time and circumstance
  • Keep to that consistent schedule, which will make it easier to practice and more likely that the new habit will stick

Peter Bregman, author of the bestselling productivity book 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things done, recommends starting at an even more managable commitment.

"Spend as little as 5 minutes a day focused on learning the new skill." Says Bregman, "Spend a minute of that time reflecting on what’s working and what would work better. Do that everyday. If you want to spend more than 5 minutes a day, you can. But spend at least - as little - as 5 minutes a day."

You'll likely find it easier to commit to 5 minutes a day, and that will often turn into the longer sessions that will really make the difference.

3. Set Reminders 

Entrepreneurs are generally busy people, and you’re probably no exception. Even with a strong passion or desire to commit to a new skill or habit, it can be easy to forget to set aside time to practice when you have a thousand other tasks clamoring for your attention.

Instead of leaving it all to chance, use notifications on your phone or other device to help you execute your habit and remind you to practice that new skill.

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4. It’s OK to Miss a Day

You don’t need to be perfect. Trying to be perfect is only going to generate stress when you mentally punish yourself for neglecting learning or practicing a new habit. It’s absolutely okay to make a mistake – and science backs me up on this. 

One of the interesting things discovered in the study I mentioned previously involving habits tracked over 84 days was that missing a day had no measurable impact on the success or failure of developing a new habit or skill.

Treat failure the way every entrepreneur should: you have permission to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them and refine your strategy to get back on track.

Don’t neglect your own mental health, either. If you just need to take a day to relax and refresh, take it.

  • Making the good the enemy of the perfect only leads to burnout. 

5. Focus on the Goal, Not the Timeline

Don’t get caught up in the timelines of 21 days, 66 days, 10,000 hours, etc. Realize that learning new skills and developing habits is a larger process, not an event. You don’t just do it for a while and suddenly you’re done.

Embrace the process by:

  • Making a long-term commitment
  • Focusing on the goals that you’re trying to achieve
  • Continuing to expand on that one thing, even after you reach your goal – learn more, do more, and stay consistent to make sure it’s firmly seated

6. Eliminate Temptations

When you’re trying to work on a new skill or habit, make sure you’re in an environment that will help you stay focused.

To create this environment, you should: 

  • Shut down your smart device
  • Turn electronics off
  • Ignore social media and email
  • Limit other outside distractions

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7. Use Visualization

Professional athletes often use visualization to help them achieve goals, picturing the success of their actions before they make the real attempt.

In an article for Huffington Post, social scientist Frank Niles points to studies proving that these visualizations can actually increase athletic performance by improving:

  • Motivation
  • Coordination
  • Concentration

Visualization is just the process of seeing what things look like. You’re creating a mental image of a future event. It’s no different than when a startup founder sets a business goal – you first need to have an idea of what that goal is and then picture what success looks like.

8. Sleep on It

If you want to speed up the rate at which new skills or habits are committed to memory, perform them regularly just before going to bed.

A 2013 study from Brown University found that sleep vastly increases learning capacity. In the study, they tracked brain scans of participants for a baseline, then watched again as the participants performed a new task.

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Following this, some participants were allowed to sleep for 3 hours, before all of the participants were asked to perform the task again a few hours later. The participants who slept had marked changes in brain activity during sleep, and they performed the task better after resting than those who were not permitted to rest.

9. Find Someone to Learn From

Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, also has a book called The 4-Hour Chef. In it, he talks about ways to streamline learning a new skill. One point he pushes is finding someone who has been doing or teaching that skill for years.

Ferriss writes: 

“Find an expert, not necessarily the best in the world, but someone near the top. Give them a reason for talking to you, because asking for a favor isn’t a compelling pitch. Ask questions, such as how they would train someone who’s poorly suited for something, who the best little-known teachers are, and what an eight-week training course for someone with a million dollars on the line would look like.”

Everyone Learns in Different Ways

Remember the factors I talked about earlier: don’t base your success or failure on the performance of someone else. We all learn and process information in different ways, and different factors contribute to the speed at which you pick up something new and stick to it.

Measuring your own performance against someone working with a totally different set of factors is bound to result in disappointment.

Make Time for It

If you want to learn something new or apply new habits, you’re going to have to set aside some amount of time on a regular basis to get the job done.

 If your schedule already feels packed – like there’s never enough time in the day – you’re going to have to make some sacrifices.

 Consider eliminating or cutting down on:

  • Surfing the web
  • Playing video games
  • Netflix binges
  • Trips to Starbucks, etc.

If you’re already short on personal time and most of your time is spent in your business, then find ways to outsource or delegate tasks to free up a little time in your workday.

That can be as simple as getting a virtual assistant to handle emails and phone calls to give you an extra hour each day.

From Noob to Not-Quite-A-Noob

It’s not difficult to achieve

All the skills you need to build your business, and the habits you want to improve on or acquire, are easily doable. Contrary to what the self-help gurus try to sell you, you don’t need to spend weeks, months, or even years of your life to achieve your goals. 

Recognize what you want to do and the skills you need to get there, and then identify the performance level you need to attain to see measurable results.

That, combined with the additional tips I’ve listed, will help you enact lasting change that will impact your personal life and your business in a positive way.

What’s your approach to learning new skills and forming habits? How do you make time each day to make it happen? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below: