How to develop new skills

In our dynamic and competitive industry, we’re in a constant need to acquire new knowledge and develop new skills to stay up to date. Can we optimize this process and make it more efficient? In this post, I’ll summarize and blend key concepts from three books I’ve recently read, combining topics and routines I feel are relevant to this subject: effective learning, developing habits and expert performance analysis.

Part I: Effective learning

Learning is hard and complex.

We procrastinate. We give up fast. We forget rapidly, as we don’t repeat even though we know that learning without repetition is futile. We have difficulties in understanding the material.

Before jumping into specifics, the general approach to more effective learning starts with being in good physiological condition (health, food, air, physical activity, sleep, mood), learning in a pleasant environment (get some fresh air in the room, remove distractions, discreet and quiet music helps as well), and also have proper planning (daily and weekly, including breaks and fun, learn in 45-60 min chunks) and motivation. After that, it is just the matter of how you navigate and the way you are learning (be mindful about what you are learning, distinguish the important from the unimportant, notice key concepts, repeat in your own words, etc).

Learning styles

We all approach learning differently. Peter Honey and Alan Mumford classified learning into four styles:

  • Activist (learn by doing, learning methods: brainstorming, problem solving, puzzles, projects)
  • Theorist (logical and systematic, objective and rational, learning methods: reading, researching, tutorials)
  • Pragmatist (putting learning into practice, learning methods: time to think about how to apply learning in reality, use cases)
  • Reflector (learn by observing, cautious, collecting data and taking the time to work towards an appropriate conclusion, avoid leaping in and prefer to watch from the sidelines, learning methods: group discussions, mentoring, observing, time out)

The first important step is to find our own preferred learning style using the Honey and Mumford quiz, for example the one at

It is also always good to combine different and proven strategies from other styles of learning.

Learning methods

I’ll mention two learning methods: SQ3R and MURDER.


  • Survey
    • Just skim the material. Note the headings, figures, tables and a summary
    • Read few first sentences, or summaries
    • Gain insight
  • Question
    • While surveying generate questions. Convert headings and sub-headings into questions
    • What is this chapter about? How does this information help me?
  • Read
    • Read actively: answer formed questions
    • Reduce speed for difficult sections, stop and re-read
    • The underlining is useful only in the second reading (when you are able to distinguish the important from the irrelevant)
    • It is important to highlight only the main ideas
  • Replay
    • Most important phase of active learning: summarize in your own words
    • Take notes and comments
    • Try recalling and identifying major points
  • Review
    • Ongoing, systematic process (after 1/2/30 days)
    • Go back over the material and your notes


  • Mood
    • Establish an appropriate mood. Choose right time and place
  • Understand
    • Learn with understanding
    • Paying careful attention to the meaning of the material
  • Recall
    • Immediately try to recall the material from memory
  • Digest
    • Correct any recall errors
    • Organize and store newly learned material in memory
    • Categorize information
    • Prioritize information
    • Develop a concept map (relationships between ideas, images, or words)
  • Expand
    • Analyze and evaluate the material
    • What would you ask the author? What would you criticize? What could you apply? From which aspect the author dealt with this topic? To what stuff the author paid more attention?
  • Review
    • Systematically review the material as with SQ3R
    • Re-read if necesary

Pareto principle

For the end of part one, I’ll mention the Pareto 80/20 principle. This is the law of the vital few: roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Applied to learning: 80% of the results of  learning comes from 20% of effort. We could draw the following conclusions:

  • Be selective, not comprehensive
  • Look for “shortcuts” instead of “running the race to the end”
  • Strive for excellence in selected matters, not soundness in all the things
  • Set a small number of valuable goals where the 80/20 principle will work for you, not against you

Part II: Developing habits, getting started

Many people don’t even get started, because of their minds’ resistance. Or they start but don’t keep going when resistance comes up. By creating the habit of mindfulness, we can learn to see what was going on, to deal with the frustrations and to be able to make more conscious choices.

One change only

Let go of the idea of doing everything. Create space for your habit change, by doing one at a time.

Mission: Pick any one, very small and easy change to start with.

Overcome the childish mind

The mind wants pleasure, and wants to get out of discomfort. When things become uncomfortable, it wants to quit.

To overcome that – make a habit ridiculously easy. The mind won’t object, because it’s easy. Humble beginnings, gradually build the habit up.

Mission: What is the smallest step you can take to get started?

Make a promise to someone else

One of the best things you can do. It is a more powerful motivator, than just doing it for yourself. It will not be so easy to give up.

Mission: make a vow to someone else and choose time.

The rhythm

Every habit must be tied to a trigger – this is key concept to building habits. You should rely on the automaticity of habit (triggers), not just willpower.

Pick a trigger that’s already in your daily routine (waking up, going to bed, eating breakfast, first coffee, arriving at work). You could pick a trigger that happens more than once a day (getting to your desk, drinking water), or less often (sleeping in on weekends, seeing friends once in awhile at the bar).

Once you’ve picked the trigger, you have to do everything possible to remember to do the habit immediately after the trigger happens!

Put roadblocks and incentives

Incentives: Create little rewards for doing the habit each day. Enjoy telling partners you did it. Make the habit enjoyable. Do it with a friend.

Roadblocks: More important. Accountability. Lots of reminders.

If you set up the right environment, you don’t rely on the willpower alone to overcome the childish mind.

Mission: set up reminders (sticky note on laptops, digital reminders, etc)

Create commitment

Power of public commitment is a huge motivator, which doesn’t let you off the hook. Set consequences of not doing the habit.

Mission: make a commitment to others and set consequences

First small step

The act of taking this first small step is incredibly powerful. Once you start, you often keep going. If you don’t start you can procrastinate for hours, days trying to avoid something difficult, powerful.

The easier the step, the better.

Movement generates movement.

Mission: do the first small step.

Part II: Developing habits, mindful change

Use mindfulness to understand how change works, and enjoying change.

Feedback loops

No amount of willpower can overcome a setup of feedback loops.

  • Positive feedback for creating the habit: rewards, praise, physical pleasure, spending time with a friend, getting stars on a chart, feeling of accomplishment, enjoying the actvity with a smile

  • Negative feedback for not doing the habit: embarrassment of people knowing you didn’t do it, losing a bet, consequences, experiencing some kind of difficulty or loss

Set up rewards (treat, massage, gaming, relaxing tea, shopping) and consequences.

Make the change social! Running? Get a running partner. Join a mediation group. Get a personal trainer.

Mission: create positive feedback loops. Make your habit more social.

The spotlight of mindfulness

What is more effective than rewards? Enjoy the task yourself! Breakthrough: the task becomes a reward.

How? Enjoy the unenjoyable habits, by learning to appreciate the habit and let go of wishing it were different.

The secret to unlock that: mindfulness. Pay attention to yourself and your surroundings – the beauty of the moment. You will be uncomfortable, but you could see your mind trying to run from the discomfort, and loosen up and allow yourself to feel and accept the discomfort.

Once you pay attention – the discomfort is not so bad!

If you can be mindful, and appreciate the moment as you do the habit, you can enjoy the activity more.

Mission: do the habit again, mindfully

The mirror of change

Something even more powerful than the accountability: reflecting on what I am doing.

Self-reflection is a powerful tool for changing your life.:

  1. It makes you remember what you’ve done, being conscious, no auto-pilot
  2. Helps see mistakes, and adjustments to overcome those obstacles in future
  3. Gives positive feedback


Mission: start one-sentence habit journal, or a habit review each week

Be mindful of your movie

Beware of envisioning yourself at the end goal, before starting and doing the habit. Beware of the ideal in our heads. Habit will turn out to be much harder this way.

Mindfulness can help us turn our attention to reality. Be curious and really pay attention to reality.

Grow a plant – don’t attach to results

Don’t attach too tightly to the results of a change. Instead, focus on creating a good environment: what are you bringing to the change? What is your intention? What is your effort? What is your enjoyment and mindfulness.

Part III: Expert performance

The book Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise systematically examined superior performers, experts, prodigies, musicians, athletes, grand master chess players, and concludes that there is no such thing as innate talent. There are no magic genes and higher intelligence plays no noticeable role. Nobody is naturally gifted at math. There are only many years of sustained, intense training, that the authors call deliberate practice. The degree and effectiveness of training plays a more significant role of determining who excels of those who work to develop a new skill. This is because the mind’s and body’s natural ability to adapt in face of challenges.

People are generally satisfied to live in the world of “good enough”. We learn enough to get by our day to day life, but we rarely push outside of our comfort zone.

If you wish to get significantly better at something, you can. With deliberate practice, the goal is not just to reach your potential, but to build it — to make possible what was not possible before. This requires challenging homeostasis, getting out of your confirm zone, forcing your brain or your body to adapt.

But simple practice isn’t enough.

Deliberate practice is a purposeful practice (trying very hard), with an addition that it knows where it is going and how to get there — it is informed and guided by the best performers’ accomplishments and by understanding what they do to excel. It develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. It takes place outside one’s comfort zone, and requires constant trying of things that are just beyond our current abilities (maximal effort, so this is not fun or enjoyable). It is very intentional and aimed at improving performance. It is deliberate — it requires a persons full attention and conscious actions. We must focus on specific goals. It involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback.

The key takeaway is this: In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones how have some initial advantage in intelligence or talent.


  1. Vodič za učenje – Kako da sa manje truda i vremena postižete odlične rezultate by IT Akademija
  2. Essential Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change by Leo Babuta
  3. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson, Robert Pool


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