How Long Does It Take To Learn?

  • Dan White
  • March 11th, 2021

How much time do you need to spend learning something new for it to really stick? Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses the theories and approaches of time spent in learning activity, viewed through the lens of coaching.

How Long Does It Take To Learn?

How much time do you need to spend to learn something new? Be warned – opinions vary quite a bit on this question.

In his 2008 book Outliers, author and journalist Malcom Gladwell popularized something he called the “10,000-hour rule,” which he described as the cumulative total of hours needed to master a new skill. He theorized that The Beatles probably spent about 10,000 hours to become pop music sensations, and that Microsoft founder Bill Gates spent about 10,000 hours writing code before he created the foundation for his operating system.

However, some of the academics who did the original research on which Gladwell based his reference have actually disputed his reference, noting that their decision to use 10,000 hours as a guide was “totally arbitrary.”

Today, the whole concept of microlearning is all the rage. Musician Tony Polecastro runs a very successful online guitar tutoring program which preaches the benefits of 10 minutes of daily practice that is focused on very specific technical skills. That 10-minute span is embraced by many micro-learning advocates.

Okay, so the sweet spot for learning – the optimal amount of time we need to spend to learn something new, even master it – is somewhere between 10,000 hours and 10 minutes. If you’re a bit confused and maybe a little bit frustrated, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

The exact duration and cadence of optimal learning is something that we learning professionals debate and discuss all the time. And what I can tell you is that after years of studying, measuring and analyzing data related to different approaches to learning, we’re still trying to figure it out.

That is not to say we haven’t had some moments of enlightenment.

At Ezra, we spend quite a bit of time analyzing coachee survey data and progress reports to determine if more is more, or less is more, when it comes to business coaching. It has certainly helped us view the value of coaching in a whole new light.

Traditional executive coaching would involve longer sessions (say, 1-1.5 hours) once or twice a month. With new approaches to coaching that rely on apps that allow coachees to access sessions on their mobile devices, such as our through our coaching app, we have the ability to increase the frequency and cut back on the duration and then study the impact.

What we’ve found in our data analysis is that one coaching session every two weeks is good, once a week is generally better, but multiple sessions per week can, in some instances, produce a diminished return.

That’s not really a radical finding. A lot of academics who have studied learning at the post-secondary level have found that there is a limit to how much time someone can spend studying and still absorb the material being studied. As such, our data should not be considered a template for building a coaching program for everyone. The perfect learning cadence will be different for everyone based on a range of other variables that come into play.

Although increased cadence might not be good for some, it may be necessary for others. Perhaps the coachee is trying to acquire new leadership skills on a tight schedule to prepare for a promotion.

Or, the coachee could be trying to work through a behavioural problem, a crisis of confidence, a conflict with a co-worker or a situation where they may be responsible for creating a toxic work environment.

There are two overarching conclusions that we can draw from all this study, measurement and analysis.

First, to be effective, learning must be tailored to fit the individual. Sheep-dip approaches to learning – where dozens or hundreds of people are put through the same curriculum, all at the same time – simply won’t help everyone acquire new skills and behaviors. We all tend to learn at our own pace and in our own ways.

And second, if we can accept that more coaching is better up to a point where there is a diminished return, then it might be better for organizations to ease back on cadence and instead, provide coaching opportunities to a larger group of leaders.

This is a big change from traditional approaches to coaching, where intensive, face-to-face coaching was provided to a small and select cohort. A more modern approach to learning is to provide customized opportunities to as many people as possible to allow everyone to learn at their own pace and in their own way.

All this explains why there is such a profound difference in the estimates of how much time it takes to learn something new. For some people, it may actually take 10,000 hours while others may only need a few minutes a day over a shorter period of time to acquire a new skill.

The real trick is finding the learning cadence and duration that works for you.

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