How can we improve our skills and be better at everything? Here are 15 tips to get better. Many of these are common sense but can offer motivation and encouragement to keep going forward. Sometimes we forget basic principals and reviewing them can help to get us back on track.
Before we get started, this article is extensive and contains a lot of information and ideas. You may want to try out one or more of these tips and bookmark this page to refer to next time you need some motivation.
1. Planning and Research
Do you even know where you are going? “I want to get better” is not a goal. You need to know exactly where you want to be and how you are going to get there.
If you set out in the general direction of a friend’s house without knowing the address the odds of arriving at your friend’s house are low. You might get there eventually, but it would be luck.
However, you could contact your friend for their address, write it down, figure out your route and mode of transport, bring a map, or use google to direct you as a guide. If you do these things you are guaranteed to reach your destination. Unless there is a hurricane, but hey, that is out of your control! Don’t waste effort worrying about things that are out of your control! Concentrate on what you can control and not on what you can’t.
A good plan and research can mean the difference between success and failure, but stay flexible. Make a plan and as you do research and learn more, experience more, change the plan to reflect that.
If you start to feel discouraged or lost, pause and return to your plan, adjust, and do research if necessary and continue on with renewed enthusiasm.
When you are stuck and can’t seem to go forward, working hard but making no progress, looking back can provide a way forward. Maybe you have been working in one style for a long time, using the same techniques or routine, and expecting a different result.
Often we reach a plateau in our progress forward. We were making steady progress and all of a sudden that stops and we continue along at the same level, or maybe even experience a small set-back. Taking the time to reflect can help you to determine what you need to change if you want to rise to the next level.
Maybe you aren’t sure where you are going wrong. Taking the time to journal over a few weeks can help you to recognize patterns that you may not have even realized existed. Journalling is a great and simple way to reflect and get yourself on the right track, so much so that I’ve written a whole separate article on it: Journaling – The Best way to find Clarity.
Practice makes perfect. Yup. It is simple, you can try as many productivity tips as you want but if you don’t actually sit down and do the work you aren’t going to get very far.
Reading books and blogs like this about goal setting and methods to achieve is good. It is motivating and can get you excited to work, but nothing can replace setting a time everyday to sit down or get out of the house and do the work.
In her classic book about writing, “Bird by Bird”, Ann Lamott says it really well. “You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.” Ann is talking about writing, but the same concept applies to anything. Without putting in the work, you aren’t going to get very far.
4. Deliberate learning
Building upon practice, if you just practice a skill without any guidelines you may get a little bit better but you will soon hit a plateau.
To work through a plateau or to improve quickly you need to learn or practice in a deliberate way.
How do you do this? Let’s use a little story to illustrate.
Karl was excited to go on the school ski trip where a bus would take him and his classmates up a local mountain every week for four weeks to learn to ski. Karl had been skiing a couple of times with his family but that had been years ago.
Arriving at the resort the kids were all given rental equipment, skis, and poles. Karl was still super excited. When the head instructor asked the kids who knew how to ski Karl put his hand high into the air. After all, he had done this before!
The first hurdle came right away. There was a special technique to walking with skis on and Karl was unpracticed. He fell to the back of the group. The rope tow leading up the mountain required upper body strength to hold onto, and the rope jolted you forward when you grabbed on, making you feel like your arms would be pulled out of their sockets. Karl’s dad had helped pull him up when he was young. Karl wasn’t expecting the sudden jolt of the rope pull. He dropped the rental poles almost immediately in an effort to stay on the tow rope. “Oh no. how am I going to find them again!” he thought, but he was too busy trying to keep his legs straight and hanging onto the rope for his life to worry too much about it.
So far this story isn’t going well for Karl and it just gets worse. As the evening wears on he falls over getting off the chairlift in front of his friends, who laugh at him. He is consistently last in his group, he is cold from so many falls in the snow. He is in way over his head.
Karl goes home and tells his parents he NEVER wants to ski again. I think you may be able to guess what comes next. Karl’s mom said “We paid a lot of money for those lessons and there are no refunds. You will be getting on that bus next week or else.”
Karl was a good kid that listened to his mom so the next week he reluctantly got on the bus with his classmates. He was still in the same group of skiers. However, this week, even though he was still at the back of group, he didn’t have any major disasters. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t terrible either. Karl figured he could handle coming back again next week.
Fast forward to the last week of the ski trips. Karl is flying down the slopes with his group having the time of his life. Anyone who is a good skier will tell you that skiing (or snowboarding) at its best is like flying on the ground. Your body feels free as you soar down the mountain. Karl was elated. How could he have almost given up before he found out why skiing is so great.
What does this have to do with deliberate practice? So far in the story, Karl hasn’t done much deliberately other than show up…. but we will get to the point so keep reading.
At the start of the ski lessons, Karl was placed into a group that was above his current abilities. But, there was also a beginner group that Karl should have been placed into that better matched his experience level. At the end of their time at the ski resort, most of the kids in the beginner level group were still out of control or spending half the time stuck into a snowbank. What is the difference between those kids and Karl?
Because Karl was placed with more experienced skiers, there was constant pressure to keep up. This pressure helped him to improve and get to the next level quickly. If he had stuck with the beginner group, he may have improved, but not to the same level in the same amount of time.
The real trick to deliberate practice is to achieve the same type of results that Karl did with his skiing, but to do it deliberately, not accidentally. By setting yourself up to practice in such a way that you are pushed just beyond your limit.
To do this, you first need to assess the level you are at and figure out what the next level is. Then, you set SMART goals (and a plan) to reach that level. You then practice based on your plan, reflect, and tweak.
If you are interested in learning more about deliberate practice, here is a link to an article by Nat Eliason which I thought explained the principal very well. How to Use Deliberate Practice to Reach the Top 1% of Your Field
Repetition is a little bit different than practicing. By doing the same thing over and over we build mental or muscle memory.
When learning a language, for example, you may need to repeat words over and over before you can remember them. As we age, this becomes even truer. But, you can learn it or perfect the skill. You must keep at it.
It is also true that people learn at their own pace, some people may learn things after trying them once, and some people may have to try a thousand times before they get it, but eventually you will get there.
6. Change the method of learning
We all learn in different ways.
The four main learning styles are:
- Kinesthetic; and
- Reading/Writing Learners.
Sometimes if we are not progressing it can be because we are going about trying to learn in a way that is more difficult for us. If you hit a wall, trying a different way of going over the material you are trying to learn can help you to breakthrough.
Not completely fitting into one of the above categories is also possible. Experiment with different styles until you you find the best way to learn. This can apply not just to learning, but to craft and athletics as well. Some people can learn techniques from practicing, while others need to read a book or have someone else explain the technique to fully understand it.
7. Change the environment
A quiet place is a requirement for some people to be able to think and grow but for others, a social environment is the best way to become more motivated.
Try changing up where you are working to see if it can have an effect.
Training on a field is different than training on a track. Likewise, a bigger pool or facility can have an effect. Not to say that bigger is better, but a change can be as good as a fresh start. Changing the location of where you are working can help to give you a new perspective.
8. Find your best time of day
When your projects or training are difficult to complete, one of the things you can change easily is the time of day you are working. For example, some people can’t find the energy to do much in the afternoon, so, isn’t it more efficient to rest then and pick work up again in the evening?
9. Step Away
You are working hard. You are not just working hard, but you are working your ass off and getting exactly where? Nowhere? It is time to take a break.
I’ll give you an example. In a previous job, Shelly drafted complex legal documents as a part of her job. Every single tiny detail needed to be correct. No matter how many times Shelly read the drafts over, her boss would pick out little typos here and there, incorrect dates or misspelled names, things that spellcheck wouldn’t catch. She started to get really frustrated – beyond frustrated. She was doubting her ability to do the job. Trying hard, checking and double-checking her work, the problem refused to go away. She poured over everything with a ruler line by line. Shelly knew how to write correctly but her mind kept reading what she thought was there instead of the reality of what was on the page. Minor errors kept getting past her.
It wasn’t until She started leaving her drafts for proofing the next morning that she could clearly see what was wrong. Working harder had made things worse, but establishing a routine for drafting and taking her time led to a better work product. Finally, her last assignment for her pickiest boss at that workplace was perfect. He even said to Shelly, “I could not find one mistake here, and I tried”.
I’ll give you another example of when it is time to take a break. How many of you have had the experience of not being able to figure out a problem after spending hours at it, only to solve it easily the next morning? Everyone – this happens to everyone!
The same thing can be true of an athlete or an artist. Sometimes, your body needs a break. Sometimes your mind needs some time off to find inspiration.
10. Teach it to someone else
They say the best way to learn is to have to teach someone else. Teaching forces you to think about the subject in a different way. You have to think about how you are doing what you are doing. You have to think about the process of how the end result is achieved.
By teaching you are also reinforcing the concepts that you learned yourself, strengthening your foundation.
11. Ask for Feedback
Ask someone you trust for some honest feedback, or if you are in the public sphere, run a survey or ask for input on how you can improve. Humans are creatures of habit and we can get a rut of doing things a certain way, repeating patterns.
An outside perspective can give us clarity on why we are not improving or succeeding.
You need to be careful when considering the feedback or advice you receive. A unique vision is sometimes hard to relay to others. You may need to adjust your approach and you may have several failures before you achieve your goal. The quote “Those who follow the crowd usually get lost in it” comes to mind. Take advice from others into account, but don’t follow it blindly.
You may also receive feedback that hurts your pride. This kind of feedback can be used as motivation to push yourself, or it can send you into a tailspin. The choice is up to you.
12. Talk it through
When small children are trying things out that are difficult, you will often see them talk themselves through it. As we age, we lose this coping mechanism.
It seems ridiculous, but next time you are struggling, try talking yourself through it out loud. This is one way you can work through problems, especially complex ones.
13. Develop a Framework
A framework is similar to a routine in that it establishes the method that you will work from. This foundation removes the load of the mental energy that it requires to start from scratch each time.
In simple terms, a framework is a particular set of rules, ideas, or beliefs which you use in order to deal with problems or to decide what to do. To develop your own framework, use the same steps each time. To do this, you need to set out the steps as they apply you in the following areas:
- Initiation: research, planning, brainstorming ideas, and interviewing any appropriate people for input.
- Planning: Once you have an idea of your goals, to successfully make the project happen, you must plan. What is the ultimate goal? Where does each milestone go? Who will be involved? What could go wrong and how will you manage obstacles?
- Execution: Execute your plan.
- Management: monitor and review your progress. Make sure to take notes of everything, whether good or bad, and keep all notes to refer back to at a later date.
- Review: The project is complete. At this stage, you’ll review all notes, key successes and points that could be improved upon.
A framework is often used in the programming world, or in large construction project management, but there is no reason why you can’t scale down the same principals to use in your personal growth.
14. Find a Mentor or Role-model
Everything has been done before and nothing is truly original. Have you heard this before? There has been someone who has tried to do what you are doing before. Find that person you want to emulate. How did they get to where they are? What method did they use?
For example, one of my friends loves to watch the show “Inside Actors Studio” because it delves into the professional background of actors, the hardships they faced in achieving fame, and how they got to where they are now. Unlike most shows, it isn’t about the sensational, but rather the practical aspects of the acting profession.
Reading biographies of the greats in your field is another way to learn what worked for them.
If you feel comfortable doing so, ask your mentor some questions. What was their practice schedule when they started out. How many hours a week did they practice. Do they have any advice?
15. Patience and Perserverance
Be patient and keep going. This is probably the most important tip of all.
Getting better at anything or trying to achieve a goal worth achieving is never easy and most people give up at some point along the way.
When you look at the masters of your field you don’t see the invisible road behind them, their hours of frustration, and hard work.
Be patient and realistic with yourself. This is going to take time, but you can and you will improve if you keep at it.
Remember to keep a record of where you are now, so you can look back at it and see how far you have come.