Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Getting Things Done

How to Apply New Skills

Dear Justin,

I have attended many courses that make use of skill models, including the VitalSmarts courses. Crucial Conversations, for example, provides a model that outlines what to do before, during, and after a crucial conversation. In Getting Things Done, I learned multiple steps for how to take control of my workflow, from capturing ideas to completing projects. But do I need to follow these models from A to Z? How much of a model does one need to follow in order to see results?

Curious GTD-er

Dear Curious,

This is an excellent question. Everyone reading this struggles to acquire and apply new skills and learn new behaviors. When you’re done reading this article, ironically enough, you’ll struggle to apply what I share. I won’t go into the detailed nature of becoming an expert (10,000 hours of deliberate practice), rather I will share a few ideas for improving your ability to retain and apply what you learn—whether from a two-day class, an online course, a book, a TED talk, or a cooking show. And in the spirit of my message, I encourage you to pick just one suggestion and try it.

The Easy Answer

You know the saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” But what if you are full after a few bites? Ask yourself, “Do I need to use this whole model to benefit?” You might want to later on, but first focus on applying the skill or skills that will help you handle the challenges you’re dealing with today, this week. In my experience, you probably don’t need the whole model and you probably wouldn’t use it even if you could. Look at your current situation. Which of the skills you have learned would have the greatest impact if you used it consistently for the next month? Work on that one skill and nothing else. Go all in. Some experts estimate you really only need about twenty hours of deliberate practice to become proficient at something (see The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast).

Break It Down Even Smaller

You don’t DO the crucial conversations model; you do small actions. You don’t do at the model level and you don’t do at the principle level; you do at the skill and behavior level. So when you learn a new skill, whether from a course, book, or article, stop and ask yourself, “What is the next micro-action I must take to apply this new skill?” Maybe you learned the ins and outs of apologies and you decide the smallest next action you could take is to call your spouse at the next break and apologize for being short this morning on your way out the door.

Create Disfluency

A few months back, I was working with author Charles Duhigg. He said that in order to learn in today’s world of abundant information we need to create disfluency. Disfluency is the idea of making a task more difficult in order to absorb it. In order to learn (change behavior, thinking, or perspective), you have to assimilate information slowly. Disfluency is the process of intentionally assimilating information slowly and tediously. That could mean taking handwritten notes about something you read or sharing a sixty-second summary to someone else or preparing a short presentation on it for your next team meeting. When you struggle or work to understand or apply new concepts or skills, you tend to absorb them. How can you apply disfluency in your life? Let’s try it now. Go to a coworker or call your spouse right now and tell them in thirty seconds what you’ve learned from this article. Seriously, try it.

Practice > Learning

I once worked with Ethna Reid, one of the world’s experts on teacher behaviors that drive measurable improvements in student learning. She used to tell me that when you’re designing any learning experience, there should be a 2:1 ratio of practice/application to learning. This should be the same for you and I. It’s fun to say we read a whole book on how to influence others. It’s far more interesting to actually be able to influence. Dr. Stephen Krashen at USC says that learning is valuable only if it enables you to plan, edit, and correct yourself while practicing. If it doesn’t do that, then you should only practice.

Let me know in the comment section what you do to retain new skills.

Best of luck,

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1 thought

  1. Gaurav Suman

    This is great. I have a folder on Google Drive called “What I learned”. I try my best to create a new google doc there everytime I read something useful and write in 5 or so bullets what I took away. I leave the link there or copy paste any good drawings

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