The First 20 Hours — Josh Kaufman | Summary & notes

Amazon link to buy it

My thoughts 💭

The idea behind the title is enticing: when you want to acquire a skill, you don’t need to practice thousands of hours to go from 0 to good enough. You need just 20 hours of focused practice.

The book provides insights together with references to the scientific literature, which I always appreciate. I suggest it to those who want to acquire a new skill and want suggestions on doing it quickly and effectively.

Worth noting that less than 20% of the text is devoted to the method. In the rest, Kaufman tells stories about how he acquired 6 particular abilities: yoga, programming, touch typing, Go, ukulele, windsurfing.

On the one hand, this is positive because you don’t need to read the whole book to understand and start using the strategies. Personally, however, I’d have preferred if it was denser. I didn’t find the stories particularly useful, although you can find some insights there too.

My notes 📓

A lot of activities become enjoyable only after you grow to be good enough. E.g., it’s frustrating to play chess if you suck at it and you lose all games.

It’s possible to get to a decent level in 20 hours of intense practice. In this regard, you need to aim for the quality of the time you spend, not for quantity. They have to be 20 hours of deliberate practice.

Learning and skill acquisition are not the same thing. If you want to acquire a skill, you have to practice in context. Learning supports practice, but it’s not a substitute.

Training is different too. Training means perfecting something you already know. You’re not learning something new. E.g., knowing how to run vs. training for a marathon.

The three stages of skill acquisition:

  1. Cognitive stage
    Understanding what you’re trying to do, researching, reflecting on the process, breaking the skill into manageable chunks.
  2. Associative stage
    Practicing, noticing environmental feedback, adjusting the approach based on the feedback.
  3. Autonomous stage
    Using the skill effectively and efficiently without having to think about it or paying particular attention to the process.

Ten principles of rapid skill acquisition

1. Choose a lovable project

If you choose a skill that you don’t really care about, it’ll be hard to acquire it rapidly. It must be something you wish to do. Even better if it’s also relevant to you at that time. If you have more than one, choose the one attracting you the most.

For instance: you have to go to China in three months, and you want to learn Chinese well enough to be understood.

2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time

Don’t spread yourself too thin.

Doing too many things means not doing any well. Context switching is a bitch and will harm you. You’ll be much more efficient if you focus on a single skill at a time. Choose one and collect others in a list.

3. Define your target performance level

Define, with a sentence, what you want to become able to do. Be as specific as possible. It helps you understand both what you need to focus on and when you get there.

E.g., I want to learn pipe organ well enough to play Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills

Finding the subskills making up the skill you’re learning eases acquisition. It allows you to focus on a tiny part at a time.

As an example, golf has many subskills: choosing the correct club, hitting out of a bunker, putting, etc.

5. Obtain critical tools

Some skills require tools without which it’d be hard or impossible to practice. You can’t play the trumpet without a trumpet. You can’t play golf without clubs.

6. Eliminate barriers to practice

There should be no obstacles when you want to practice. Common issues:

  • Significant prepractice effort (e.g., if you store your trumpet on the other side of the universe)
  • Intermittent resource availability (e.g., if you need to borrow the golf club every time you want to practice)
  • Environmental distractions (e.g. smartphone, noise)
  • Emotional blocks (e.g., fear, embarrassment)

You can’t rely solely on your willpower. Make sure starting to practice is easy. It’s better to use your willpower to eliminate these obstacles.

I also talked about this idea while reflecting on learning to love your future self.

7. Make dedicated time for practice

You need to make time for practice. You can’t wait for it to magically appear. You won’t do anything otherwise. See: the excuse of time.

We often waste hours on time-expensive low-value activities, e.g., TV and social media. Cutting some of these activities may give you a ton of free time to devote to practice.

Before starting, it’s helpful to decide you won’t stop unless you achieve one of these goals:

  • you get to the desired performance level
  • you do at least 20 hours of practice

The early times are frustrating. The pre-commitment is a push for resisting.

8. Create fast feedback loops

Feedback is crucial and must be quick. Without feedback, you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, and if it’s slow, you can’t learn rapidly. You’ll never improve if you need 6 months to tell if the cheese you made is good.

Programming is a perfect example. Write some code -> try to run it -> nothing works. Fix and retry. Repeat.

9. Practice by the clock in short bursts

When your skill level is low, practice is frustrating and time seems to be passing ever so slowly. Thus it’s easy to overestimate how long you’ve practiced.

Time yourself to combat this problem. Set a 20-minute timer and focus on practice without stopping until it goes off.

10. Emphasize quantity and speed

Aiming for perfection from the start contributes to frustration. But at the beginning of the learning process, quantity is more important than quality. So, aim for “good enough” instead. You get there quickly -> you do more practice -> you improve rapidly.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about form at all. When you practice, your aim still has to be to go beyond your current level. It’s not deliberate practice otherwise.

Based on the scientific literature, it seems you don’t need that much practice to go from total noob to being decent. This phenomenon is called the “power law of practice” and applies both to physical and mental skills. Improvement is faster at the beginning and slower the more skilled you become.

Ten principles of effective learning

Like we were saying before, learning is no substitute for practice but enhances it.

Spend 20 minutes searching material about the skill. The goal is not to study hard but to understand how to decompose the skill. Skim through the material to check which points stick out and are repeated.

2. Jump in over your head

While researching, you will find parts that generate confusion. It’s an emotional obstacle because it makes you feel stupid, and that’s not fun. But don’t give up. Instead, you need to lean towards the confusion because it acts as a signal. It helps you understand what you have to learn.

3. Identify mental models and mental hooks

You will find that some ideas and techniques are repeated: these are mental models. A mental model is a unit of knowledge that you can use without thinking about the details. Suppose you know what "server" means. In that case, you can freely use it in your thoughts and discussions. You don’t have to think each time that it is a computer in charge of receiving requests from other computers and providing responses.

A mental hook is something you already know that you connect to what you’re learning. Metaphors are mental hooks. I could say that a server is like a librarian. You ask for a book; he looks for it and brings it back to you. Book = web page.

4. Imagine the opposite of what you want

Inversion technique. Instead of asking yourself what you should learn, imagine everything going wrong. By doing this, you find out things you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Let’s take kayak as an example. You could flip upside down and not be able to get back up, you could flood the kayak, you could lose your paddle. Now you know that you also need to learn how to solve these potential issues.

5. Talk to practitioners to set expectations

Talking to people that already possess the skill you want to acquire allows you to set reasonable expectations. Knowing what is possible helps to keep your interest alive. Too high expectations may discourage you when you don’t get quickly to that level of performance.

6. Eliminate distractions in your environment

If you get distracted, you can’t do the focused practice that is the core of rapid skill acquisition. So, eliminate distractions from your environment.

7. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization

Memory follows a decay curve such that:

  • concepts that you studied recently tend to disappear more quickly, so you have to review them sooner
  • but the more time passes, the less you need to review them because repetitions solidify them

This investment is worthwhile when the skill involves quick retrieval of information. If you’re learning a language, you need to remember words.

This is not true for all skills. When it doesn’t apply, you can skip this part.

8. Create scaffolds and checklists

Many skills require some level of setup/maintenance. By building checklists and scaffolds, you won’t have to remember what to do. You’ll just need to follow the framework you set up.

  • Checklist: list of things to do (I use them frequently)
  • Scaffold: a structure that helps you approach the skill the same way every time, e.g., a warm-up routine

9. Make and test predictions


  1. Based on what you know, try to predict the effects of a change or experiment
  2. Test it
  3. Compare prediction and result

10. Honor your biology

Your body is a biological system with its own needs: sleeping, eating, drinking, taking breaks, etc. For instance, it seems that you need to take a break every 90 minutes of focused attention.

It’s easy to neglect your body to practice, but it’s counterproductive. If you don’t honor your biology, your performances will suffer too.

Bits from the rest of the book

The Sun Salutation is a “minimum viable asana,” i.e., if you want, you can repeat it for the entirety of your yoga session, and that’d be enough because:

  • it hits all of the body’s major muscle groups
  • it trains strength and flexibility
  • it’s challenging without being complicated

But this could lead to Repetitive Stress Injury, so it’s better to do some repetitions and then move on to different poses.

We are affected by a phenomenon called cognitive interference.

If you practice similar skills one after the other, your brain may have issues consolidating the new information.

It seems that 4 hours is the critical period, so you’d need to wait at least this time between practice sessions of two similar skills.

I imagine an example could be studying two programming languages at the same time.

Procedural memory is what allows us to store a sequence of actions so that it becomes automatic. For example, after I type a word over and over, my brain memorizes the required movements, so typing it becomes automatic.

The biggest obstacle that we face when we want to acquire a skill is not physical nor intellectual. It’s emotional. Frustration and feeling stupid discourage us.