A Simple Strategy for Getting Better at Things

How often do you catch yourself saying, “I wish I were better at _____.” Maybe you want to be better at exercising regularly, your relationships or your work. Maybe you’d like to be more artistic, athletic or multilingual.

Getting better at things requires work. It doesn’t happen too often that you can immediately get better at something with a trick or gimmick. However, I think a lot of people don’t improve simply because they don’t know how.

In this article I want to outline a simple strategy to get better at anything. It does require work. But it can help simplify the process of thinking about improvement.

Is it a Habit or a Skill?

Most of the things you want to get better at are largely habits, skills or some mixture of the two.

Exercising is a habit. Although there is some skill in exercising well, that’s not the weak link for most people. Most people know *how* to run, move or work out, they just don’t do it as much as they’d like. When you find yourself wanting to do something more regularly or consistently, you’re trying to improve a habit.

Speaking another language is a skill. You may need a habit of practicing, but it’s not enough to just will yourself to speak French or Japanese—you need to learn how to do it first. When you don’t know *how* to do something, or don’t know how to do it well enough, what you’re trying to improve is a skill.

Most things you’ll want to improve will have a mix of habits and skills. Maybe you want to read more books. On the one hand, reading is a habit—you need to read more. But it’s also a skill—vocabulary, fluency and subject familiarity all influence how quickly and deeply you can read.

The first step is deciding whether what your trying to improve is mostly a habit or mostly a skill. A good rule of thumb is that if your main problem is with doing something you already know how to do, but doing it consistently, that’s probably a habit. If your main problem is not knowing how to do something well enough, that’s probably a skill.

How to Get Better at Habits

Improving a habit has three main parts: formulating the desired behavior, conditioning the habit and maintaining it once it has formed.

Step One: Picking the Habit

The first step is to clearly articulate what you’re trying to improve. You want to replace the vague sense of unease that maybe you should be better at something with a decision to improve something specific.

A good habit should be something you do regularly. It should happen either every day or after a particular context or trigger (right after work, every time you speak to someone, when you wake up). If it’s a habit of absence (quitting smoking, giving up junk food) it should include some concrete alternative to fill the vacuum.

Some examples of vague improvements turned into concrete habits:

  • “I need to get in shape.” —> “I’m going to exercise for 30 minutes after work each day.”
  • “I should read more.” —> “I’m going to read for 10 minutes before bed every day.”
  • “I should drink less.” —> “I’m going to limit myself to 3 alcoholic drinks once per week.”
  • “I want to lose weight.” —> “I’m going to limit junk food and high carb meals to one day per week.”
  • “I want to be more organized.” —> “Everything has a home. I will put things back in their place once every day.”

Step Two: Conditioning the Habit

The next step is to stick with the behavior long enough that it becomes automatic. This requires effort in the beginning, but, if you do it right, should become easier and easier until you no longer think about doing it.

Most suggestions for making habits will pick a time period that’s easy to commit to, but long enough that the conditioning work will be largely finished. Some people recommend 21, 30 or 60 days. One study suggested that the average habit takes 66 days to condition to automaticity, but that there was a great range in habits and participants (from 30 to over 200 days).

My suggestion is to pick an amount of time that seems reasonable. Ironically, harder habits are probably better with smaller commitments. This is because they often become easier faster, so you might not start a difficult habit to exercise once every day if you know you have to maintain it perfectly for 90 days, but you might keep it up for 30 days.

Step Three: Maintain the Habit

Most habits are metastable. That means that they can endure for a long time, but if something pushes them out of balance they will fall back to an easier behavior. Exercise is an example of a metastable habit because even if it is automatic for you, it does require time and energy. A prolonged illness, vacation or overtime at work can break the habit without you realizing it.

For metastable habits like these, it’s important to monitor it, and if you see yourself slipping, reinforce it with another small commitment. A good rule of thumb is that the commitment should be at least equal in time to the loss of habit. So if you’ve stopped exercising for a week, you should commit to follow your habit for at least a week to get back to an equilibrium. If you’ve stopped for more than two months on a daily habit, you should probably treat it like conditioning a new habit.

How to Get Better at Skills

The best strategy for getting better at skills is deliberate practice. A good way to work on this is to divide it into three parts: practice, feedback and focus.

Step One: Practice

The first step to get better at something is to use the skill. If you want to get better at writing, you need to write. If you want to get better at speaking a language, you need to speak. If you want to get better at talking to women, you need to talk to women.

There’s two styles you can approach this with. The first is to improve the skill via a selected project. This works well for skills that need a lot of time to focus on, or that you can’t easily inject into your daily life. You might work on the skill on your own, or follow a particular course or self-improvement program to guide you.

The second style is to treat your practice just like any other habit. Define it clearly, condition it and maintain it. This is most useful when you’re trying to master something over a longer period of time.

Step Two: Feedback

Improving skills is a loop: first you attempt something, then you notice how your attempt differed from the ideal, then you adjust what you did and attempt again. Tighter feedback makes the loop work faster, causing you to learn more rapidly. An absence of feedback can break the loop, causing you to learn slowly or not at all.

You can get feedback directly from the environment, or by soliciting feedback from other people. Asking for feedback often has problems. If the feedback giver isn’t good at the skill themselves, asking how you can improve is often a bad idea. Instead, you might use subtler metrics (Writing:Do people finish reading your entire essay? Languages: Do people understand what you’re saying?).

Step Three: Focus

Complex skills are made up of simpler components. Writing is about research, storytelling, description and organization of ideas. Languages are vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and prosody. Drawing is about seeing relationships, pencil techniques, shading and shapes.

You can accelerate your improvement by focusing on the component skills separately. This has two effects. First, it allows you to devote more of your cognitive resources to getting good at them, allowing you to master the component skills more quickly. Second, it lets you spend more time on your weak points, so you can selectively improve whatever is holding you back.

To do this, break down the skill your working on into parts. Then make drills which will focus you on improving the aspect that you’re missing. Remember to always do some general practice alongside your drills or it is easy to get really good at a component but not be able to use it in real situations.

Getting Better at Things

First decide whether what you want to improve is mostly habit or skill.

If it’s a habit:

  1. Define the habit you want to form clearly and consistently.
  2. Condition it until it is relatively easy to maintain. Thirty or sixty days are good conditioning periods.
  3. Maintain the habit by monitoring it. If you slip, push to reassert the habit quickly.

If it’s a skill:

  1. Practice the skill. This can either be in a project or as a habit.
  2. Get timely feedback on how well you’re performing. If you can’t get this naturally, ask for other people to help evaluate. Focus on their reactions, not their advice if they themselves aren’t skilled.
  3. Focus on your weak points with selective drills and constrained practice.

Although the things you might want to get better at are incredibly varied in life, I’ve been surprised how many break down into these two categories and can be resolved by some version of these three steps.

What would you like to get better at? Write down your habit or skill, along with what you plan to do in the comments!

  • Scott – I think what you are describing as a “habit” is more appropriately called a “routine.” Perhaps this article may be helpful regarding the difference: http://www.nirandfar.com/2016/01/habits-overhyped-heres-really-works.html
    Also, you may like this categorization of behaviors with the best change method to use, see: http://www.nirandfar.com/2012/03/how-to-design-behavior.html

  • Nir Eyal

    Scott – I think what you are describing as a “habit” may be more appropriately called a “routine.” Perhaps this article may be helpful regarding the difference: http://www.nirandfar.com/2016/
    Also, you may enjoy this categorization of behaviors with the best change method to use, see: http://www.nirandfar.com/2012/

  • Hey Scott, you’re making some good points!

    I completely agree with the deliberate practice part: practice, feedback, focus (instead of practice, practice, practice 😉 ).

    For the habit/routine forming part I recommend checking out Gabriele Oettingen’s book Rethinking Positive Thinking (if you haven’t already). She’s got an amazing tool called WOOP. It also includes Implementation Intentions (if/then plans, similar to what you’ve pointed out in Picking the Habit. That would be for example: “IF I finish work, THEN I’ll go to the gym and work out for 30 minutes”). My brother wrote an article on WOOP if you’re interested (I’m sure you find it useful): http://www.njlifehacks.com/woop-goal-setting-method/

    Anyway, thanks for the article, it’s a great reminder of getting better every day 🙂

  • Jonas Salzgeber

    Hey Scott, you’re making some good points!

    I completely agree with the deliberate practice part: practice, feedback, focus (instead of practice, practice, practice 😉 ).

    For the habit/routine forming part I recommend checking out Gabriele Oettingen’s book Rethinking Positive Thinking (if you haven’t already). She’s got an amazing tool called WOOP. It also includes Implementation Intentions (if/then plans, similar to what you’ve pointed out in Picking the Habit. That would be for example: “IF I finish work, THEN I’ll go to the gym and work out for 30 minutes”). My brother wrote an article on WOOP if you’re interested (I’m sure you find it useful): http://www.njlifehacks.com/woo

    Anyway, thanks for the article, it’s a great reminder of getting better every day 🙂

  • Andrew Vanilla

    Focus and deliberate practice… I guess those subject were stressed enough already. C’mon, 2016. Something new.

  • Andrew Vanilla

    Focus and deliberate practice… I guess those subject were stressed enough already. C’mon, 2016. Something new.

  • Very interesting post. I’ve been doing a large amount of thought + work on my own habits recently and it really got me thinking: what precisely is the dividing line between skills and habits? It’s easy to think of habits that don’t involve skills, but are there any skills that wouldn’t benefit from associated habits?
    My initial thought progressing down this path was that habits must therefore be a more basic building block within our psyches; developing a habit is all about taking a conscious action and making it instinctive, whereas developing skills requires a much larger degree of conscious thought. But isn’t that often just in the formation? One of the clearest indicators that a skill has properly progressed is that all of its little components that once required conscious thought are now done automatically. Could one therefore reframe skills as just a web of interlinked habits?
    In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the case of a man who could no longer store memories but still was able to develop new habits. This was one of the first cases of clear evidence of a habit using a completely different part of the brain than normal cognition. I now need to go and do the research, but I wonder if a properly done fMRI study would show a similar brain activation for well-trained skills and well-developed habits (of a related nature)?

  • Avisha

    Very interesting post. I’ve been doing a large amount of thought + work on my own habits recently and it really got me thinking: what precisely is the dividing line between skills and habits? It’s easy to think of habits that don’t involve skills, but are there any skills that wouldn’t benefit from associated habits?
    My initial thought progressing down this path was that habits must therefore be a more basic building block within our psyches; developing a habit is all about taking a conscious action and making it instinctive, whereas developing skills requires a much larger degree of conscious thought. But isn’t that often just in the formation? One of the clearest indicators that a skill has properly progressed is that all of its little components that once required conscious thought are now done automatically. Could one therefore reframe skills as just a web of interlinked habits?
    In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the case of a man who could no longer store memories but still was able to develop new habits. This was one of the first cases of clear evidence of a habit using a completely different part of the brain than normal cognition. I now need to go and do the research, but I wonder if a properly done fMRI study would show a similar brain activation for well-trained skills and well-developed habits (of a related nature)?

  • Scott Young

    Interesting distinction, although the term “habit” often includes routines as well.

  • Scott Young

    Interesting distinction, although the term “habit” often includes routines as well.

  • Scott Young

    Yeah, there’s some evidence that procedural learning and classical conditioning don’t rely on the same memory architecture as episodic or semantic memories, although the neuroscience is still relatively uncertain.

  • Scott Young

    Yeah, there’s some evidence that procedural learning and classical conditioning don’t rely on the same memory architecture as episodic or semantic memories, although the neuroscience is still relatively uncertain.

  • Scott Young

    Fair enough. But new != better. Old ideas are often the good ideas.

  • Scott Young

    Fair enough. But new != better. Old ideas are often the good ideas.

  • Aaron Tamaddon

    Even in “The Power of Habits” (one of my favorite books), “metastable habits” were not mentioned, introduced, or addressed–a very useful piece of information that complements the quality of the article as a whole. Thank you!

  • Aaron Tamaddon

    Even in “The Power of Habits” (one of my favorite books), “metastable habits” were not mentioned, introduced, or addressed–a very useful piece of information that complements the quality of the article as a whole. Thank you!

  • A highly informative post, thanks!

  • Hussein Horack

    A highly informative post, thanks!

  • Dharmesh Dev

    very useful post, never thought of differentiating things and then targeting them

  • Dharmesh Dev

    very useful post, never thought of differentiating things and then targeting them

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