Can You Really Master A Skill by Learning For One Hour a Day?

The traditional learning model we grew up with can be poisonous for real-life learning.

Hard tests, letter grades — those things translate terribly outside of school.

We have been conditioned to have an all-or-nothing mindset about becoming good at something.

However, self-directed learning — and really most learning in life — defies the A to F scale.

It doesn’t matter how hard you try… it just doesn’t fit into that round hole!

Trying to fit real-life learning into the A — F mindset. Image from

Being an academic made me accustomed to shorter timeframes, like a 12-week semester.

I always craved rapid progress and objective measures (specifically an A).

Learning Spanish in my room, with a big worn textbook and an assortment of random resources, doesn’t quite measure up.

Progress sometimes seems really, really slow.

Don’t I need 10,000 hours?

The 10,000 hour rule suggests that to become an expert in a skill, you’ll need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Let’s do some math.

Assuming you learned your subject of interest for one hour every single day, without any days off, for the whole year.

10,000 ÷ (365 × 1) = 27.4

That’s more than 25 years to become a true expert…

But is the 10,000 hour rule a myth or not? Some articles and subsequent research suggest otherwise.

I like the notion of consistent, focused practice suggested by the 10,000 h rule.

Otherwise, I’ve chosen to ignore it because it only gets me apprehensive.

So what if it’s true?

Am I trying to be a world-class violin sensation or as famous as the Beatles?

Wouldn’t I be satisfied if I got better at something everyday, even if it was just 0.001% better?

Maybe you’re learning new skills for a promotion or career change.

That’s amazing, and what you need to keep you motivated is a mindset that is soothing.

Make yourself look at the changes occurring on a nano scale every day.

In this article, I’m going to share valuable tips for convincing yourself to learn productively and consistently for short periods every day.

Tell yourself these things if you only have one hour for learning every day

1. You’re creating exciting connections, one hour at a time.

“Little progress is better than no progress at all. Success comes in taking many small steps.” — John Maxwell

The first time I learned about the tiny miracles occurring in my brain during learning, I was sold.

The most basic unit in the brain is the neuron.

You can think of this as a tree with a root and tiny branches

During learning, these neurons find each other and form networks.

In Barbara Oakley’s book Uncommon Sense Teaching [1], she calls the process ‘Learn it, Link it.’

When you start learning something new, different neurons begin to find each other.

Two neurons connected. Source:

With a consistent learning routine, one hour at a time every day, the connections between various neurons become stronger.

The more you retrieve the knowledge and practice recall, those links are strengthened even more.

What’s more — the effects are heightened when you’re able to apply the skills and knowledge in harder, real-world contexts.

In essence, you are rewiring your brain and taking advantage of the vast, vast information storage capacity of your brain (~2.5 million gigabytes). [2]

It’s astounding, isn’t it?

This is something most people don’t get to do, because they don’t try to learn everyday.

Whenever you learn new things, the changes occurring in your brain are similar to what you’d see with physical exercise or taking antidepressants.

I don’t know about you, but I’d choose learning over a Zoloft prescription any day.

We tend to fixate on the end goal of mastering a skill.

That’s important for sure.

But when we hyperfocus on just the outcomes, we lose sight of how miraculous the actual process is.

Begin to see your learning hour as transformational, and that’s going to accelerate your progress in unimaginable ways.

2. You become a teacher, starting from Day 2.

You don’t need to be an expert to start teaching others.

In my first year of grad school, I taught sophomore organic chemistry.

I’ll be honest; I sucked at teaching that first year.

I didn’t remember most things I’d learned years ago in my undergraduate classes.

But teaching that class was an amazing learning experience.

Whenever I got a question that I wasn’t able to answer, I’d go back to try and understand it more.

Doing that helped me retain more information than I did from just taking classes.

The truth is, you only need to be one step ahead to show someone else the way.

Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash

As you share knowledge with others, you strengthen your own understanding.

This is known as the Protégé Effect. [3]

After you’ve had one day of learning a subject/skill, you’re ready.

Start small, with people you talk to everyday.

Let’s say you’re learning guitar.

You begin a conversation with your friend about your finger calluses.

You then explain that reason why your index, middle, and ring fingers look redder than the others — you’ve been practicing the D chord.

To play that, you use the index and middle fingers on the second fret and the ring finger on the third fret.

You’ve created a mental picture right there, with that mini guitar lesson.

Your friend might forget it, but it’s right there to help you recall next time.

With language learning, you can offer to teach your roommate or family members how to say simple everyday phrases as you learn them.

I now say ‘Hasta luego’ to my roommate instead of ‘See you later’ when I leave for school in the mornings.

She knows what it means because I offered to teach her a few Spanish phrases and she obliged.

Teaching is passing along knowledge, and it 0can happen in any form.

Sometimes informal teaching even helps us recall better.

3. Time is essentially an elastic band.

We waste so much time wishing we had more time.

It’s quite ironic.

We always think we could fit learning into our schedules if life was just slightly less busy.

The not-so-fun fact is that this is unfortunately a lie.

Parkinson’s Law will challenge your concept of busyness dramatically.

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion — C. Northcote Parkinson” [4]

Have you ever woken up on a quiet Saturday morning, eager to check the one remaining item off your to-do list…

Screenshot by author

…only to end up working on that one thing all day?

How does that happen when it should’ve taken just an hour and a half?

Well, Parkinson’s law.

Scheduling your learning hour at a specific time everyday will considerably shrink the time required for other tasks.

Give yourself deadlines for other responsibilities.

Plan to leave the office at a specific time every day so you can sleep early and study in the morning the next day.

That helps you get things done much faster at work.

Set a time limit for grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning.

Somehow, as you approach the time limit, every atom of your being goes into overdrive to help you not cross it.

Treat time as an elastic band.

Tasks that need to be completed will adjust, depending on how coiled up (short) or stretched out (long) the time allocated is.

How else do you think a college student manages to finish a 10-page essay after having started just two hours before the deadline?

Learning a new skill on your own, especially when you have limited time, can be like a mind game.

You’ve got to make sure you bring the right tools to the playing board.

In this article, I have shared three ways you can coax yourself into cultivating a positive mindset about learning every day — even if all you have is one hour a day.

Here’s a TL;DR for your highlights:

Things to tell yourself —

  • By learning every day, you create and strengthen new networks between your brain’s neurons, much like you’d do with physical exercise.
  • All you need to teach someone else is a one-day learning experience.
  • Work is expandable, and so is the time you allocate for tasks. You can create that consistent one hour of learning in your day (and maybe more) with a few strict, self-imposed deadlines.

I write about purposeful and productive self-directed learning.

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[1] Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. J. (2021). Uncommon sense teaching: Practical insights in brain science to help students learn. Penguin.

[2] What’s the memory capacity of the brain?

[3] What is the Protégé Effect, and how does it work?

[4] Parkinson’s Law

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