The Secret to Learning New Skills

Do you apply the 50% rule to your hobbies?

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Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

When I’ve needed to learn new skills for school or work, it’s always been easy to stay motivated. I had the external pressure of a grade or a boss to keep me on track.

However, I’ve always had a harder time staying focused when I try to learn new skills for fun: languages, drawing, writing, and playing instruments, for example.

Without an external motivator, it’s easy to let life get in the way. One day without any practice becomes two, and soon enough I’ve forgotten that I was even trying to learn guitar.

I’m sure that many people can sympathize with my struggles. How many of us have instruments and lesson books collecting dust in the corner of a closet?

Fortunately, a few years ago I learned a rule that has made sticking with new habits much easier: the 50% rule.

The 50% Rule

The 50% rule is simple — whenever you’re learning and practicing a new skill, half of your time should be devoted to having fun with it.

I first read this in a guide to drawing written by Irshad Karim. His website, drawabox.com, contains detailed guides to improve your technical drawing skills.

“Draw a Box” has some of the best tutorials on the internet, but Karim emphasizes that spending all your drawing time following his lessons would lead to burnout. Instead, every budding artist should devote half their time to just drawing the things that they like to draw.

I believe this philosophy should be extended to all kinds of skills and hobbies — from learning an instrument to learning to program.

Having fun with your new skills is helpful in several ways:

  • You’re less likely to get burnt out on boring lessons and tutorials.
  • You can stay motivated by remembering why you’re learning the skill in the first place.
  • You’ll improve your abilities by putting theory into practice.

Examples

You can see how helpful this rule is by thinking through two common skills that people typically learn for fun.

Languages

To learn a foreign language, you’ll need to spend time studying grammar and memorizing vocabulary. If you spend all your time in conjugation tables though, you’re going to get bored out of your mind.

In addition to pure studying and memorization, language learners should also spend time immersing themselves in the language. This is the fun part. You can watch movies, listen to music, and talk with native speakers. These interactions will remind you why you’re learning the language in the first place, and they’re also incredibly helpful in the learning process.

Instruments

Learning a new instrument typically requires many technical skills, for example, practicing scales, learning chords, and studying music theory. It’s easy to get so lost in the technical side of music that you never get around to actually playing a song.

A better way to learn an instrument is to split your time between focused practice and playing for fun. Not only will you stay motivated by playing your favorite songs, but you’ll also learn how to implement all the skills you’ve been learning.

Implementation

I have had much more success sticking with new habits and hobbies since implementing the 50% rule. Whenever I’m learning something new, I ask myself how I can have fun with it.

When I write, I spend time trying to master the rules of grammar and learning to improve my “voice.” But, I also make sure to spend plenty of time just writing for fun.

When I draw, I spend half of my time learning techniques and half of my time just drawing whatever I feel like.

By keeping things fun, I not only stay on track, but I also progress a lot faster.

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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