How to Use Baby Steps to Learn New Skills [Plus an Easy 3-Step Formula]

2 conversations 7 minute read

When I’m talking to someone about learning new skills, I always get the same reply:

“I’d like to, but I don’t have the time.”

I find this strange because most of the time — that’s not the case. It can be a matter of priorities, motivation, or just laziness (being lazy is fantastic!). All of that is fine, but there’s something you might think is true, but I’d like to respectfully challenge — that learning new things is hard.

Learning new things is not hard; it’s time-consuming. Yes, they could be tricky if you’re trying to go fast, but that’s just too stressful for most learning you’ll do in your life. If that’s what you’re here for, sorry, your post is in another castle.

So, you’ll be the proverbial tortoise, and I’ll be master Splinter, showing you how to learn new skills using baby steps.

Never Productive How To Use Baby Steps To Learn New Skills
— Mahatma Gandhi —

First, It’s okay if you don’t have the time to learn new things. You can use this strategy to develop your current skills as well. Use it to be better at work or have better relationships. Heck, you can use this strategy to beat all your friends in your favorite game.

TL;DR:

Here is the strategy in a nutshell:

  • Step 1: Pick a baby step, a small new habit that helps you build your skill.
  • Step 2: Get started. Make your baby step today.
  • Step 3: Be persistent. Make your step every day. You will fail at times, but that’s okay.

You’ll be astonished to find out how much you can achieve by making a tiny bit of progress every single day.

A Story About Baby Steps

When I first got my exercise bike, I was pumped. I decided to use it for 20 minutes every day.

It did work for a while, but after a few months, I quit.

A few more months passed, and I decided it’s time. My bike was collecting dust and T-shirts no more!

I decided to try out an idea by BJ Fogg — doing very little at a time. Instead of climbing a mountain every 3 months, you climb a hill every day. That helped a ton.

I decided to cut my exercise time — from 20 minutes to 3 minutes.

Was I extremely lazy?

Yes and no.

You see, 20 minutes were enough to get me kind of tired. That made me feel as I’ve trained “enough.” So, I stopped at the 20-minute mark every day.

On the other hand, some days I didn’t have that time, so I skipped. Maybe once or twice a week. It was still enough to stop the habit from forming.

What about 3 minutes? The 3 minutes didn’t have the same effect. I always had the time, and I was never tired from just 3 minutes. I usually did around 20 minutes and 30 on my good days (maybe once or twice a week). The 3 minutes were the trigger — they got me started. The final duration could be 3 minutes — it still builds the habit, but it was easy (and many times — automatic) to do more.

This combo actually stuck. My average time was at 25 minutes in the third month, and my good days clocked over 40 minutes. I also felt weird not to ride the bike. I have successfully built a habit.

How Do Baby Steps Lead You to Success

Never Productive How To Use Baby Steps To Learn New Skills
“Heroes in a Half-shell” — Look at him go. He’s definitely looking for Sasuke!

To baby step towards mastering a skill you need:

  1. Something you want to be better at.
  2. A tiny amount of time to work on that every day (2-3 minutes is more than enough).
  3. Consistently putting in the small amount of work necessary daily to build the habit. I repeat — daily.

Pro Tip: 
Never skip twice. While building a habit, it’s okay to forget once — you’re human, and things happen. Don’t feel bad, and make sure you do it the next day!

Don’t fret because 3 minutes aren’t enough to master the guitar (pun intended). You’ll quickly find that it’s almost impossible to do just that, and you often spend much more time. The point is not to master the guitar in those 3 minutes but to build the habit of practicing daily.

Get Started!

Yeah, cliché as it may be, this is one of the hardest things. If I had started, just started, to build all the ideas I had, I would’ve retired on my very own island now.

If you’re like me, you have many ideas, a lot of dreams, and a lot of things you have to finish to carry out. So many, in fact that you find your days are too short.

Have you ever wondered how ambitious people accomplish such great things?

Ambitious people get started. That’s why they achieve so much.

Then, if they happen to stumble, they start again.

You know, as well as I do, this is easier said than done. Here is what helps me when I find myself procrastinating on the great things future me should do.

Motivation Overload

I always say motivation is fleeting, and I always push people to build better habits. In this situation, however, I find motivation very useful. Not only motivating yourself but stuffing yourself with motivation. Yes, exactly like a turkey. Yum!

I’m sure you know how to get pumped about an activity, but here are a few ideas:

  • Stalk someone successful in your activity online. Imagine living their life (yes, improved, you have better taste than that).
  • Learn something new about that thing you want to do. You can’t wait to try it out already!
  • Watch a great speaker firing up an audience about that thing. Get fired up yourself.

Finally, remember that motivation is your starting point. If you’re serious about any of the skills you’re learning, you’ll quickly build a habit to replace motivation.

Momentum

Momentum is one of the most powerful things in this universe. Or not, I’m not that great at physics. For doing stuff, on the other hand, momentum is golden. That goes double for learning new skills.

Can’t start working on your project? Do something else productive instead; in other words – productively procrastinate. Once you finish the first task, everything else seems more straightforward. Not ready yet? Do a few more tasks.

I usually find that just a single productive endeavor is enough to put me on track. And that’s relatively easy if you pick the right tasks.

Pick easy tasks, nothing creative, that you can do in a couple of minutes. They shouldn’t be amazing; they only have to make you feel productive.

When I feel too lazy to write on this blog, I do marketing. The marketing I do is easy. I check social media, reply to all posts, schedule some new posts, and browse to my RSS feed for ideas. This takes 5 to 15 minutes, and 90% of the time, I just can’t wait to get to writing after I finish.

Use the Force (Luke)

Never Productive How To Use Baby Steps To Learn New Skills
— Han Solo, the One Who Shot First —

Do you know what works better than intrinsic motivation?

A knife to your throat. That got too dark. Let me try again:

A lightsaber to your throat! Much better.

Anyway, sometimes even motivation can’t get you going (e.g., night owls in the morning). In those cases – you use force. Here are a few useful apps to help you brute-force things in place:

  • Getting distracted a lot? Turn off your phone and turn on Cold Turkey on your computer (I’m not affiliated, I just love the software).
  • Can’t get out of bed in the morning? Get Alarmy (iOSAndroid; again not affiliated — it’s an excellent app). It will get you out of bed. I Promise.
  • Can’t do something in time, or at all? Set a goal in Beeminder (nope, I’m basically bad at affiliate marketing, okay?), and you’ll pay real money if you fail. To a charity, preferably. It works like a charm and can replace coffee if you put too much on the line o0.
  • Can’t build other skills? Use the ancient teachings of Google-fu to find the answer; you will.

You Will Fail. It’s Not a Big Deal!

It’s just after New Years’. Gyms are filled to the brim with people getting fit.

Now, it’s 4 weeks later. Gyms are empty again. They can be fit later.

It’s a matter of time for someone not in the habit of hitting the gym to skip a day. The next day is the most challenging day of their journey towards physical health. They’ve lost their momentum, the task at hand is arduous, and skipping yesterday was so easy. Why not skip again?

Most new habits fail for the same reason. You miss one day, and it’s as if you were never building a habit in the first place.

So, just never skip, right?

Nope. You’re human; you will fail sometimes. Here are a few options for how to handle the need for taking it easy:

  • If you want to skip a day — skip tomorrow, not today. Planning the skip leaves it to the rational part of your brain and not the “munch cheesecake at 4 am” part of the brain.
  • If you’ve already skipped the day — make sure you realize that was your choice. And your choice was excellent. Don’t beat yourself up, and make sure you don’t skip on the next day!
  • If all else fails — get a partner (or a few) in crime. Usually, when you want to take it easy, the rest of the team wouldn’t — the resulting peer pressure will get you moving like it’s no tomorrow.

The Formula For Building Skills

Never Productive How To Use Baby Steps To Learn New Skills
— Henry S. Haskins — Man, in this case, includes all people even superheroes. I’m pretty sure what Henry meant.

Here is a quick rundown of the formula:

  • Step 1: Pick a baby step, a small new habit that helps you build your skill.
  • Step 2: Get started. Make your baby step today.
  • Step 3: Be persistent. Make your step every day. You will fail at times, but that’s okay.

That’s it. It sounds simple because it is simple. Use this process to push your work, side projects, and hobbies forward.

Today I learned — learning is the greatest pleasure in life.

Good Luck,

How to Use Baby Steps to Learn New Skills [Plus an Easy 3-Step Formula] Jordan 1 — Never Productive
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3 years ago

[…] Here’s a new hack on how to learn new things quickly. […]

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3 years ago

[…] innate desire to grow and better yourself. You’ve been born with natural curiosity, a want to learn new skills, and the desire to be better. In a perfect world, you’d spend your whole days doing constructive […]

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