Want to learn a new skill faster? Take short breaks, early and often

According to recent research, taking short breaks, early and often, can help you learn things better and even improve your retention rate.

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Learning new skills is one of the best ways to upgrade your life and career.

Top performers prioritise skill acquisition to get more done.

Lifelong learning is mandatory if you want to achieve anything worthwhile.

It’s rewarding but for many people, indecision, intimidation, and frustration are the key barriers to their growth.


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It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re trying to learn a new skill.

But learning something new doesn’t have to suck. Almost anyone can learn anything — with the right technique. Better learning approaches can make the process enjoyable.

The key to rapid skill acquisition isn’t complicated.

But it takes time.

The good news is, you don’t need to be an expert — you just need to practice enough to get the results you want.

The benefits of learning something new are enormous, especially for your working memory.

“..skill mastery is associated with increased activity in areas not engaged in skill performance, and this shift can be detected in the large-scale networks of the brain,” explains Cornell University.

“In addition to making existing synapses more robust, learning causes the brain to grow larger, says Scientific American. Just like other muscles, your brain strengthens itself over time as you learn new things.

Learning new things also makes you happier. Research has found dopamine is closely linked to the learning process.

Whether you aim to learn new technology, another language, or improve a skill you already know, using the best approaches can help you learn better, and faster.

Applying the best learning style changes everything.

Think about things you have learned recently and how you originally learned them. How did you learn and how long did it take you?

And most importantly, do you still remember?

Taking breaks early and often is critical to learning as practice

Downtime is crucial to retaining anything you choose to learn.

Break-time is an important component of any serious learning session.

According to recent research, taking short breaks, early and often, can help you learn things better and even improve your retention rate.

“Everyone thinks you need to ‘practice, practice, practice’ when learning something new. Instead, we found that resting, early and often, maybe just as critical to learning as practice,” said Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., a senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Better breaks help the brain solidify, memories during the rest periods.

“I noticed that participants’ brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions,” said Marlene Bönstrup, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cohen’s lab.

Whatever you choose to learn over time, it’s important to optimise the timing of rest intervals for better results.

In general, the longer you want to retain the knowledge, the longer your study break should be, says a study by Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted, and Rohrer.

“..students who took a one-day break did the best when tested after ten days, whereas those who took a whole month did best after six months. Thus, it appears that cramming all our studying into one session actually diminishes long-term learning.”

You can significantly improve your skill acquisition by taking intentional long breaks in between sessions.

To take breaks on purpose, learn in short bursts

When you begin to pick up a new skill or learn anything new, it’s easy to binge-learn and obsessively work on it over time.

But spreading out learning, also known as distributed practice, with better breaks between sessions is known to be a better approach to learning.

“Breaks are important to minimise interference. When your hippocampus is forced to store many new (and often similar) patterns in a short space of time, it can get them jumbled up,” writes David Cox of The Guardian.

Distributed practice works really well if you lead a busy life.

So, instead of trying to learn that new language quickly, give yourself a lot of time overall, and break the process into small chunks throughout the day.

Experts at the Louisiana State University’s Center for Academic Success recommends 30–50 minutes sessions.

“Anything less than 30 is just not enough, but anything more than 50 is too much information for your brain to take in at one time,” says learning strategies graduate assistant Ellen Dunn.

Slow and steady learning has proven to work better for the brain as it changes and consolidates the new information.

“..changes in the brain allow for faster, stronger signaling between neurons as the brain gains new skills. But the best way to speed up those signals is to introduce new information to our noggins — slowly,” explains Hadley Bergstrom, a neuroscientist.

Learning in short burst allows links between neurons to steadily strengthen.

Closing thoughts

The next time you choose to learn how to play an instrument, code, paint, learn new technology, draw, or learn a new language, give yourself enough time to make real progress that lasts.

Decide what you want, choose to learn in short bursts, make it easy to practice, and plan your breaks on purpose. To improve your retention rate, share what you learn with others.

This article originally appeared on Medium.


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