One thing at a time.

I love learning new things, and I’m always looking for ways to get better at learning new things. Whereas a lot of people stop deliberately learning new things once they graduate from whatever formal level of schooling they’ve made it to, I’ve had the good fortune to have the time, energy, and inclination to be able to continue to invest in learning new things, and recently I’ve been spending more time on meta-learning — thinking and reading about how humans learn in general and examining how I in particular learn best.

One thing that I’ve been paying attention to a lot as I’ve been learning the guitar is how to sequence learning a new thing. Sometimes my guitar teacher gets ahead of himself and tries to teach me a new song that’s way above my level, and it’s a total disaster and I feel bad. Only after the lesson when I have time to work through the components one at a time am I able to actually make forward progress — the key for me has only been focusing on one new thing at a time.

This is harder than it sounds! It actually requires paying quite a bit of attention to what I’m struggling with, and the areas where I need to put my focus change over time as my skills develop — all of this sounds obvious as I’m typing it, but I think for me it’s been a big unlock to think about it consciously and remind myself to focus on practicing exactly one new thing at a time. For example, if I’m learning part of a new song, I might stage the learning the following way:

  1. Learn the strumming pattern playing on muted strings
  2. Learn any new chords in the song
  3. Practice any new chord transitions that I don’t have down perfectly
  4. Practice the strumming pattern with each chord transition one at a time
  5. Bring the whole thing together playing the strumming pattern while changing chords throughout the song
  6. Do all of the above at half-speed, and then slowly increase the tempo over time

This whole process, at this stage of my playing, takes weeks! During the first few weeks, I’ll break up each practice session into parts spending ~5 minutes on 1, 2, and 3 separately. Only once I’ve got each of those parts down to the point where I can perform them without thinking about it do I start to think about combining them in steps 4 and 5.

It’s the “without thinking about them” parts that crucial — since I know that I can only learn one new thing at a time, I also know that in order to learn anything that involves combining two new skills, I have to have both of the component skills learned well enough that I don’t need to use my brain to perform them. If I still have to think about the strumming pattern, I won’t be able to do the strumming pattern and the chord changes — both have to be very fluid on their own before I can start working on integrating them together.

This process actually requires a lot of meta-analysis of my own skill — as I’m practicing, I’m thinking about whether or not I have a skill sufficiently well-practiced such that I can start to combine it with something else — or maybe I’ll try the composite skill once, flounder, and then return to practicing the component skills more.

I think this is what a good coach or teacher does — good teachers are able to think critically about the component skills that make up a larger skill and then break them down into components that can be practiced and mastered separately. Good coaches will work with students as individuals by analyzing which component skills a given student needs to work on — student A might have the strumming down, but need to work on chord changes, and it could be the opposite with student B.

Bringing this “coaching” meta-skill to my own practice has been really important, both for learning guitar as well as learning Spanish — if you’re working on learning something new, I’d encourage you to think about what you’re struggling with, how to break it down into constituent parts which you can gain mastery or fluency over, and then combine those.

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By michael