This is sometimes the best solution, but it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Are you learning skills just to have fun, or are you seriously pursuing a skill with the ambition of becoming world-class? These goals require different means. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle.
You may know that person who is trying to learn to cook, paint, climb, speak Italian, play the guitar, surf, make movies and program. All at the same time. Chances are they are not making much progress on anything.
Then we have those who are completely focused on one thing. The professionals who devote their lives to fine-tune one skill and achieve excellence at what they do. The Lionel Messi’s, Roger Federer’s and Usain Bolt’s.
But what about the rest of us? Chances are that you find yourself somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. How many skills should you be learning at the same time, while still making fast progress?
By understanding what situations it’s best to follow (one path or the other), you can improve your skill learning process and become a much more effective learner. Learn when it’s best to focus on one skill, and when you can improve several at the same time.
Learning multiple skills
I know many people who are successful at learning several skills at the same time. A good example is Danny Forest, who has been learning three skills a month for the last three years. Through the approach of learning three skills for 30 minutes each, every morning, Danny has achieved fast improvement in over 80 skills.
This approach works well in certain situations. Specifically, it works very well when you define the skill you’re learning very well. Most complex skills such as playing chess, learning an instrument or speaking a language, require months and years to learn well. But you can master a specific part of that skill (a sub-skill) in a much shorter time. You can specialise in a particular chess opening, learn to play one song perfectly or focus on perfecting your verb endings in the present tense. The size of the sub-skill should be in proportion to how much time you have. In 15 hours, you may be able to learn one or two sub-skills very well.
When is it good to learn several skills at the same time? Mathias Barra mentions four situations.
- To take the pressure off, when you want to have fun with learning and don’t have too high expectations of improving fast. If your goal is mostly to have fun or you find yourself easily bored, it’s probably beneficial to learn several skills at the same time. If learning as fast as possible is not a priority, then it doesn’t matter how many skills you’re learning.
- To transfer the highs from one to the other. When we’re learning skills, we’re all stuck at plateaus now and then. These are times when you don’t see much improvement. If you’re learning several skills at the same time, you’re likely to at least see progress in one of the skills and can use this as motivation to keep working on the other skills as well.
- To avoid burnout while improving. This is critical. If you feel like going all-in on learning one skill at a time is too much, you may want to vary the skills you are learning. If you’re just starting a skill you’ve never practiced before, beginning to practice like a professional is not well-advised. Another solution to this problem is to devote less hours per week to the skill you’re learning.
- To bring techniques from one skill to another. The more skills we learn, the better we become at skill learning. By continually learning different skills in diverse domains, you will develop a wider repertoire of learning methods that are available when you need them. I will, however, argue that it’s not necessary to be learning skills at the same time to draw benefit from this repertoire. By having learnt salsa dancing, chess and how to deliver a Thai massage previously, I can draw on all these experiences at any time while learning future skills.
Learning several skills at the same time is usually best when:
- You have sufficient time.
- You want to achieve progress on several skills at the same time.
- You find yourself easily bored with one activity.
- You don’t want to devote all your resources into one project.
Focusing on one skill
Focusing on one skill is key if you want to make the fastest possible progress in a set time. When you wake up in the morning, there is no question in your mind what your focus will be that day. You will be close to obsessed with the skill you’re learning, and you’re thinking about it most of the time, also when you’re eating lunch or resting. You might even dream about it.
A benefit to this approach is that you’re thinking about the skill also when you’re not actively practicing. This will give you more ideas of what to try, and you will quickly see how things are related. The only thing you need to watch out for is not to overload your capacity. You may want to take your mind completely off the activity now and then so that you can come back with a fresh mind.
Focusing on learning one skill at the time is the best approach if one skill is much more important than the others. If this is your big project and most of your success depends on doing well at this one thing, it’s still possible to learn other things at the same time. But you will devote way less energy and time to these projects, and there is no doubt what the main priority is. It’s totally fine to be learning other skills that don’t have the same importance at the same time. Just don’t expect to see the same results here.
What to do?
How many skills to learn at the same time depends on your ambitions for what you’re learning. If your goal is to improve as fast as possible, I recommend focusing on 1–3 skills at a time. And if you choose to work on several skills at the same time, you might want to pick one of the skills as your main priority. As you improve as a skill learner, you will improve your chances of successfully developing several skills at the same time.
Another thing that is essential to consider is how much time you have available. If you only have a few hours for skill learning per week, it may be best to choose one skill. If skill learning is all you’re focusing on, you can commit to several projects at the same time.
What skills to learn at the same time
If you choose to learn several skills at the same time, it’s usually best to pick skills that are in different domains. Example of domains are physical, musical, cognitive, creative, artistic and so on.
You can, for example, be learning a physical skill like beach-volleyball or climbing and at the same time, learn to speak a language or play chess.
If you have already spent a couple of hours one day practicing an active skill, your body may not recover properly to put full effort into another skill that requires a lot of energy and movement. I had this issue with seemingly unrelated skills such as salsa dancing and ultimate frisbee. Both skills require extensive use of fast legwork, so if I practiced both skills the same day, the quality went down.
Similarly, if you spend three hours each day studying Spanish, I wouldn’t recommend learning another language or another mental skill such as chess, at the same time. They are drawing on the same energy sources and can interfere and decrease the quality of your practice.
Mathias Barra suggests that it’s possible to learn several languages at the same time. But keep in mind that he’s a polyglot, an expert language learner. I think this can be a good approach for some people, but probably not for beginners in language learning. I regard myself as intermediate at language learning and don’t think it would the most beneficial approach for me yet. I simply get too exhausted, even while focusing on learning one language at a time.
Take home message
- How many skills you should learn at the same time depends a lot on your ambition level within that skill.
- If your goal is to get ‘good enough’, you can learn many skills at the same time.
- If your goal is to achieve swift progress at one skill, the best approach is to focus on one skill at a time. When I fully immerse myself in one skill, I have breakthroughs more often and move quickly to the next level.
- Most of us find ourselves somewhere in-between these two approaches, and I would recommend focusing on improving 1–3 skills at a time.
- The only way to find out what works best for you is through experimentation. Best of luck with your skill learning.
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