How to master a skill without breaking a sweat

Things like grammar, speaking articulately, and coding quickly come “naturally” to some people; other people have to work harder at building these assets. You can work hard or smart to build these skills.

And I’ll demonstrate this anecdotally.

When I was in high school, most Ivy League schools did not take students that had lower than a 2000/2400 SAT score.

There was a girl in my school that scored 2300 on her first try. And she did not go to any of the expensive tutoring programs that some of the more privileged students had access to. She also did not purchase any test prep books or other resources.

When I asked her how she did it, she told me that because she knew that taking standardized tests was a skill in itself, she decided not to cram via any program.

Instead, she signed up for a daily SAT question email. Every day, for 18 months, she did one question. Some days, they were math questions. Other times, they were English. She’d choose the multiple-choice response that she felt was the most correct and get immediate feedback.

Over time, not only did she develop better grammar and math skills, she learned how these tests worked. She learned how to study the language of the questions that were being asked and how to guess more accurately.

The month before the annual SAT exam, everyone was super stressed out and cramming, pulling all-nighters. She did not study at all. She just continued taking daily SAT questions as usual.

Yet she got the highest score in our entire city.

If we look at how many questions she did, assuming each question took her five minutes to work on, she spent 45 hours on prep, which is about the same amount of study everyone else did. But by spreading the prep out over 18 months, she was able to form good test-taking habits and do much, much better than everyone else.

The same phenomenon applies to people who are trying to lose weight or become more fit. Running for five minutes every day for a year (~30 hours) results in better health overall than running a really intensive marathon once a year.

The reason for this is that your muscles continue to be engaged well after you stop the exercise.

I’m sure my friend felt the same way when she was taking tests. Instead of thinking about 20 different questions that she did not score well on, every day, she thought about the one question that she worked on. Her focus on her weaknesses was much stronger than the rest of us who crammed. That’s because even after we’re done practicing or engaging in an activity, the “muscles” associated with that activity still are active for a while. When you take a course, you still think about your lessons, at least subconsciously, for a few minutes every day. The “load” associated with 20 questions is much higher and more overwhelming to deal with.

If you’re struggling with something, don’t cram to improve. Do something small about it every day. Because we check our emails every day, I recommend signing up for some email subscription that will help you master what it is you’re struggling with.

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