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You remember when you first started in customer service. You had that wide–eyed, deer–caught–in–headlights look on your face as your boss glossed over the company’s policy handbook and instruction manuals. Then, fifteen minutes later, he waited for you to repeat that same information to a customer.

Or maybe your manager spends triple the time on the new recruits but shovels information into your more experienced brain. Then he asks you to brief a whole team of agents. How do you learn something that quickly? It’s actually not a mission impossible.

Figure out What You Don’t Know

Do you always play life by the book? Is your favorite character Emmett from The Lego Movie? Always following rigid instructions won’t help you learn a skill faster.

Psychologists Nate Kornell and Lisa Son say that attempting a problem without all the necessary information can actually help you. By attempting the problem or skill before you learn it, your brain starts making judgment calls. It notes the parts that you couldn’t get past or couldn’t do very well.

Try it. You’ll probably grit your teeth and grimace because you’re not quite sure of the right solution, but at least you will know where you need more information. According to Kornell and Son, you will learn your desired skill faster because you’ll target the spots where you had trouble.

Shake Up your Practice

We are creatures of habit. When we learn something new, we step outside of our comfort zone because we can’t perform the task mindlessly. Once you have learned the initial steps, though, your mind might flee to more important things like dinner and your weekend plans.

Pablo A. Celnik, professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, studied 86 people learning a new computer skill. They randomly separated participants into three groups. One group learned the skill in one training session (the control), and the other two groups practiced the skill in two sessions.

The difference between Groups 2 and 3 lay in the second training session. During this time, Group 2 practiced the exact same skill they had learned a few hours before. Group 3, on the other hand, practiced a slightly varied version of it. Then, all three groups were asked to perform the skill the next day.

The researchers found something interesting. The group that practiced the slightly altered skill actually doubled their speed and accuracy! By varying the skill a little, you’ll force yourself to concentrate on it more. No more numbing repetition.

The next time your boss expects you to learn a new skill fast, practice it for a while and then shake things up a little. You’ll find yourself performing better even after a short time.

Set Yourself Up for–Failure

Many service agents, especially the newbies, hesitate when they’re learning a new task because they want to succeed. They would relax a little if they let themselves fail first.

CEO of KIND snacks, Daniel Lebetsky, knows the meaning of failure. Having toiled for almost twenty years at his company, he is finally reaping success in the midst of his failures.

According to Levo, one of Lebetsky’s failures included an exciting teriyaki spread product line. The founder hasted the line along until he started losing the trust of his customers. He learned a great lesson with this failure: he should never compromise the quality of his products.

While failing is never fun (I usually turn beet red and sit in stunned silence for a minute), it is necessary in acquiring new skills. The faster you jump into something new and let yourself fail, the faster you will master it.

Set Specific Targets

John Kaufman, author of bestselling book How to Learn Anything . . . Fast, suggests setting a “target performance level,” as he calls it.

“The more detailed, the better,” he says.

You should whittle down your overall task to one specific thing. Focusing on one level of performance helps you break down the skill in your mind and learn it in pieces. You’re much more likely to play the piano each day if your goal is to learn “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” rather than just how to play the piano.

Kaufman also mentions further breaking your target performance level into sub-skills. In my piano example, maybe you would learn which notes the song uses or practice just the chorus first. Again, the idea is to be specific and learn in steps to help you tackle your desired skill. 

Ask Yourself Questions

Get more done by talking to yourself? You might look like a crazy person if you talk out loud at work, but you can at least ask yourself questions in your head or on paper. Make sure you ask the right questions for the most benefit.

Researchers Mark McDaniel and Julie Bugg conducted a study on the best questions to ask yourself when learning new information. They differentiated between detail questions and conceptual questions. McDaniel and Bugg defined detail questions as facts that you might see in one sentence. Conceptual questions were details that students pieced together from two or more sentences.

The researchers found that the students who asked themselves conceptual questions fared much better with a test’s concept section, but they also performed well on its detail section. Those who just read the information or asked themselves detail questions did not fare as well on the test’s concepts.

Basically, if you ask yourself conceptual (or application) questions, you will also learn the detailed facts. Plus, you’ll apply those facts to your customers’ situations better. So instead of just staring at the new software description your boss handed you, try asking yourself a few application questions to get your brain moving. 

Watch the Pros

Author and businessman Tony Robbins says, “Many great leaders have proven that the fastest way to master any skill, strategy or goal in life is to model those who have already forged the path ahead. If you can find someone who is already getting the results that you want and take the same actions they are taking, you can get the same results.”

What a great idea! Children often watch others to learn how they should walk and talk. Why shouldn’t we do the same?

When I first talked to customers on the phone, I was a nervous wreck. I refused to multitask with other work because I needed to concentrate on how I might answer questions coming in. While I was waiting for calls, though, I listened to the other agents around me.

I noticed the way they introduced themselves, the way they handled problems when they didn’t know the answer, and the way they researched the customer’s issue. I simply picked a couple of voices I liked amidst all the chattering and copied what they did.

You should practice a little subtlety, or you might be dubbed the Peeping Tom of the office. Or you could saunter right on over to a masterful coworker and ask if you can watch what they’re doing. Either way, you will learn heaps by watching those around you who are actually doing the skill.

Learn in the Afternoon

If you have a choice for your training time, you might think that learning at your favorite time of day will improve your performance. On the other hand, a recent study might prove otherwise. Researchers FF. Barbosa and F.S. Albuquerque studied 68 college undergrads, choosing a mixture of students who perceived themselves as morning, afternoon, or evening people.

Then, they had the students listen to a list of words and immediately take a recognition test. To improve their research accuracy, Barbosa and Albuquerque also presented a test a week later and varied the time of day it was taken. They found that neither the testing time nor a student’s favorite time influenced performance, but they did notice that those who studied in the afternoon always performed better on the test.

While you may not favor afternoons as much, try learning something new one afternoon. It’s definitely worth a shot. 

Space out Your Learning

Need to learn quickly because you have zero time in your workday to devote to a new skill? If you have a flexible deadline, try spacing out your training with small daily sessions. Cramming information into one long block session could slow you down.

B. Price Kerfoot, associate professor of surgery, advocates what he calls “spaced education.” Kerfoot has conducted several studies on this idea, and he has found that it can actually improve your performance as much as 50%! He even used it on 95 general practitioners to improve efficiency in cancer screenings. He saw a 26% decline in false alarms because doctors were able to more accurately determine which patients needed the screenings.

While you definitely still need solid effort if you expect to learn a new skill ASAP, don’t undermine your efforts. You have enough piled on your plate already to waste time, and you certainly shouldn’t waste it while you’re learning. Try a few of these ideas so that you can learn at your best, even in a time crunch.


Sarah GeorgeSarah George is a flower–sniffing, homemade–cooking  wordsmith who loves pounding out breathless stories until they fill with life. In her spare time, she loves designing her home with thrilling thrift finds and challenging herself with a good workout.

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