Book Review: The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman


The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast is an interesting book with an intriguing title, a title this captures the imagination of anyone that like to learn but is time challenged in their modern life.

Looking at some of the other reviews, the book seems to have a ‘Marmite’ effect on people (Marmite is a UK product that is often spread on toast and has a distinctive flavour that you either love or you hate).


The book delivers exactly what it promises. Josh describes a set of actions that he has used to learn some very diverse skills within very limited time frame. While not everyone wants to learn to write code, play Go or learn Ukelele, the underlying principles of adopting a new skill are sound and have been demonstrated well in the second part of the book.


The approach Josh describes has 4 stages:

1. Deconstruct a skill into the smallest possible sub skills.

2. Learn enough about each sub skill to be able to practice intelligently and self correct.

3. Removing physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice.

4. Practicing the most important sub skills for at least twenty hours.

While this will not make you an expert, it will give you both competence and confidence with the skill and allow you to assess if it is something that you want to take further.

As a great believer of ‘Just in Time’ approach I must prefer this approach to ‘Just in Time Learning’ than to return to a formal course that limits the pace at which I learn. In doing so however, you as the learned have to instil discipline and accept that the skill you learn is a diluted level of competence from the mastery you would gain from the much discussed 10,000 hours of practise.


In choosing the skill you want to learn, you can stack the odds in your favour by considering the following:

1. Choose a lovable project -s something that you can be passionate about to encourage yourself when the learning gets difficult.

2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time – Don’t divide your efforts.

3. Define your target performance level – Be realistic and understand that what you expect is often too much for the time allocated.

4. Deconstruct the skill into sub skills – what is the minimum component that is learnable and repeatable.

5. Obtain critical tools – Use the knowledge of domain experts to identify what is the necessary equipment.

6. Eliminate barriers to practice – Allocate time and keep the tools close.

7. Make dedicated time for practice – Focus on the learning and practise.

8. Create fast feedback loops – Feedback and reflection is the true method by which we learn.

9. Practice by the clock in short bursts – Short frequent spaced repetition is better than long sessions.

10. Emphasize quantity and speed – More and often rather than less and infrequent is best.


Josh also identifies 10 major principles of effective learning:

1. Ensure you research the skill and related topics.

2. Over commit and jump in over your head as this forces you to commit.

3. Identify mental models and mental hooks as memory cues for the skill.

4. Imagine the opposite of what you want so that you can focus on delivering what you consider the critical skills.

5. Talk to practitioners to set expectations as they have spent time learning th skill before you and know where to spend effort.

6. Eliminate distractions in your environment – focus, focus, focus!!!

7. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorisation – Its the best way to learn.

8. Create scaffolds and checklists – these will assist in reinforcing the skill memory and application.

9. Make and test predictions – to measure progress and help you focus on the sub skills that are challenging you.

10. Honour your biology – don’t fight against how you learn or remember for example 25-25 minutes of practise f better than 2 hours in which the last 75 minutes are ineffective due to fatigue.

To demonstrate how he has applied these accelerated learning techniques Josh discusses the lessons he has identified while pursuing 6 new skills. While not everyone’s particular target skills each has a facility that transfers to other skills development:

Josh learned:

1. Yoga: developing a home asana practice – this approach could be used for acquiring any disciplined physical skill such as a martial art.

2. Programming: creating a functioning web application – this approach could be used for acquiring any technical skill such as writing or drawing.

3. Typing: relearning to touch-type with a nonstandard keyboard layout – this approach could be used for acquiring any repetitive skill such as wood or metal working.

4. Strategy: playing Go, the worldʼs oldest and most complex board game – this approach could be used for acquiring any intellectual discipline.

5. Music: playing the ukulele – this approach could be used for acquiring any fine motor skill.

6. Windsurfing: sailing and manoeuvering on flat water – this approach could be used for acquiring any sport or physical practise such as rock climbing.


Overall, this book has techniques that can be used to develop skills to a level of competence very quickly and if the individual sub skills are correct (such as Josh learned from a yoga teacher) then there is little negative impact on technique of you want to take the next step to mastering the skill.

For example, Josh learned a few critial chords on the ukelele and could play several contemporary pop tunes. In limiting himself to these chords in the early stage he has developed an approach that gives him early feedback and motivates him to learn more. Motivation that hours of scales may not have provided. To see the benefit of this approach I recommend you watch’s Josh’s TED talk here.

For more on the approach then you can also visit the book’s companion site here.

Dare to Aspire

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