The Secret to Learning a New Skill at Any Age

Expert tips for how to learn a new skill without all the stress

The dream of learning a new skill is delicious. It can fill you up with excitement, offering hope for a more fulfilling tomorrow. (Think: Running around Paris equipped with a true Parisian accent.) But the process of learning a new skill is hardly as palatable. It can fill you with dread, offering a potential dose of embarrassment. (Think: Ordering in a Parisian restaurant and being handed the English menu. And a bottle of Ketchup.)

So what are the best ways to bust through the dread, and actually learn a new skill?

“It can be challenging because our brains are having to forge new neural pathways,” says Shelley Murphy, PhD, professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at OISE/University of Toronto. But it’s absolutely achievable. Our brains can build those neural pathways (an ability called neuroplasticity) at any point in our lives, says Murphy.

How? As Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb famously said, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” Every time we practice a skill, we encourage neurons to wire together. Over time, the skill will get easier to perform. But as anyone who has ever attempted to learn something new will tell you, practicing isn’t as easy as it seems.

Here are Murphy’s 11 essential tips to follow when trying to learn anything new, from picking up a new language to learning how to play an instrument.

1. Adopt the “Growth Mindset”

Learning a new skill comes with growing pains—which can be discouraging. Research shows people generally don’t enjoy doing something new because they’re not good at it right away, says Murphy, and that can make them feel uncomfortable. A “growth mindset” helps overcome this. Coined by American psychologist Carol Dweck, it’s the understanding and expectation that challenges and setbacks are part of the learning process. With a growth mindset, we’re more likely to bounce back from frustrations and be motivated to push ourselves further.

2. Build in positive reinforcement

Due to a survival mechanism called “the negativity bias,” our brains are wired to look at the negative. This means that when we’re learning a new skill, we tend to concentrate on the mistakes we’ve made instead of recognizing what we’ve learned. “We have to be really intentional to override that negativity bias when we’re learning a new skill to stay motivated,” says Murphy. Use a calendar to check off the days you practise, make note of your successes, big and small. (If you need help combating those negative vibes, here are 10 ways to get rid of negativity.)

3. Practise daily

Once a week isn’t going to cut it. “You want to make sure you’re firing those neurons (the learning pathways in the brain) frequently and on a regular basis to grow and strengthen those neural pathways,” says Murphy. That’s where that old adage “practise makes perfect” comes from (but “perfect” can be intimidating, so Murphy prefers “practise makes better”). “If you were to practise 15 minutes everyday, that’s much better for your brain, in terms of building that skill, than if you spend a few hours every few days,” she says.

4. Take a break

Research shows that when you practise something and take a break, it helps cement the skill. The break doesn’t have to be long: Practise for 15 minutes, then take a five minute break before practising for another 15. Just be sure to stay off your phone during the break.

5. Hide your phone

Even when our phones are turned over beside us, it can hinder our ability to learn efficiently. “Knowing that it’s there distracts you, because your brain is using some of its resources thinking about it,” says Murphy. It’s called the “brain drain” or the “phone proximity effect.” If it’s in a different room, you’ll have a better chance at learning. (Having separation anxiety? Here’s what you need to know about your phone addiction.)

6. Create a concrete plan for practising

You won’t get to it in your “downtime.” Plan on practising at a certain time, and have a back up plan if it doesn’t happen, says Murphy. One surefire way to stay committed? Learn with a buddy. “You can be accountable to each other,” says Murphy. “It helps build in your commitment to doing the practising and habit formation.”

7. Have different entry points

“Research shows if we use different parts of our brain, we are actually maximizing our learning,” says Murphy. If we use different learning methods, or “entry points,” to trigger different parts of our brains, we can help to deeply encode the information. Remember read, write, recite? Do that, and also listen, watch, discuss.

8. Have reasonable expectations

“If you set up goals that aren’t feasible, in the midst of what life is asking and expecting of you, you set yourself up for failure,” says Murphy. Aim for as little as 15 minutes a day, she says, however many days are possible — you’ll still be strengthening those neural pathways. It’ll just take a little longer to feel comfortable at the skill.

9. Make it a positive experience

“If we have negative mood experiences, we’re likely to have an aversion,” says Murphy. Since learning something new is uncomfortable, it’s important to connect it to a positive feeling. Appreciating your progress, practising with a friend, and giving yourself a reward can help increase dopamine (the feel-good) hormones, and you’ll more likely be inclined to continue.

10. Keep stress at bay

Stress is the enemy of cognition, says Murphy. The absence of stress is the reason children are believed to be better learners than adults. You’re never too old to learn—it’ll just be less efficient if you’re distracted with external stressors. (Try relieving stress with exercise.)

11. Sleep well

Sleep contributes to how our brain works. “When we don’t have adequate sleep, we’re less likely to forge those neural pathways in a deeply encoded way,” says Murphy. The healthier we are — through things like diet, sleep hygiene, mental health — the faster the neural pathways will build and the stronger they will be.

Next, check out a few ways to freshen up pandemic life.