Just like there's a right and a wrong way to love somebody (shout out to Keith Sweat), there's a right and a wrong way to practice the sub-skills needed to reach the target performance level of an unfamiliar tech skill.
Unlike typical practice (be it sports or the arts), you don't with drills on the fundamentals then gradually build on those skills. The approach is radically different when you want to learn a new skill fast.
It's also completely attainable and you level of retention will be impressive because the amount of stuff you have to learn is very small (only the 20%).
The Secret to Effective Practice: Immersion
Years ago, I took cooking classes to improve my paltry abilities in the kitchen (my vegetable lasagna was amazing but couldn't be the only entree in my wheelhouse). I found a store that had a really cool cooking assistant program, which allowed me to assist the instructor in cooking classes in exchange for credit I could use to take future classes.
My 10th time assisting was one I will never forget.
Normally, as an assistant, I would get assigned very simple tasks: dice some onions, mince some garlic, help cleanup at the end of class. But not this class.
When I arrived, I heard from the other assistants that this particular instructor was great but pretty tough. I knew what they meant the moment I met her.
Instead of being asked to chop and dice (I was feeling confident in my abilities with those things at this point), I was told I was going to be making the main entree, chicken enchiladas. I'd never made enchiladas or cooked for a large group before. Plus, I was making the enchiladas by myself so there was no one to blame if they were a disaster.
At one point the instructor told me I was going too slow and then another time she stopped by to check on my progress only to be disgusted by my results. Apparently, I wan't putting enough chicken filling into each enchilada shell. She took one of my already-stuffed enchiladas, reopened it, added about 100% more filling, closed it, and then walked away without saying a word (I also want to recall some loud sighing and eye rolling too but I'm probably being dramatic here).
This experience turned out to be one of the scariest but proudest moments of my life! At the end of the class, the instructor thanked me in front of the entire class (she announced that my first time assisting at her location was a success). AND…the enchiladas were delicious!
In this situation, I was thrown into the “deep end of the pool” and I could have sank but I chose to swim. I fully immersed myself in this amazing learning experience and since this was a completely new experience with me (just like practicing an unfamiliar tech skill is for you), I just jumped in and started playing. Truthfully, I was afraid to ask questions (there was no one to answer them anyway) so I just had to read the recipes and hope that what I was doing was correct.
And frankly, I was trying to avoid a Gordon Ramsay moment with the instructor (warning: strong language).
How to Practice Immersion the Right Way
The right way to practice immersion, according to Josh Kaufman in his book The First 20 Hours, is to practice in short bursts by the clock. The emphasis should be on quantity and speed and not on perfection.
Before you begin practicing.
Make sure you have all the tools and equipment you need in order to practice (a checklist is helpful so you don't forget anything).
While you are practicing.
When you're learning something new, don't torture yourself by trying to practice for a long period of time. Practice for 90 minutes. When you are immersed in practicing something, you aren't looking up or researching for more information, you are literally inside the program or tool and playing around with learning the skills you identified as important.
For instance, if you wanted to learn how to create presentations and one of your sub-skills was to learn how to add images to slides, you would spend your time inserting images and manipulating how they looked (borders, blurring, color changes, etc), where they were positioned (center of the slide, bottom right, etc.) and sizing (cropped, made larger or smaller, etc.). After playing around with images for a 90 minutes, you'll definitely be well-versed in how to use images in presentations.
Look for associations to help you remember.
Find a memory to associate with the skill you're learning (it helps with retention). For instance, one of the shortcuts in my 80/20 Guide to Mastering Shortcuts on Your Computer & Smartphone, is how to paste text in your clipboard quickly. The shortcut is Command + V on a Mac (Ctrl + V on a Windows computer). If you look at the letter “v” on your keyboard, it looks like a pizza slice to me. And what's one of the main ingredients in pizza: tomato paste (technically it's tomato sauce but you get the point).
I've also found that making flash cards helps me remember things (and I actually make the flash cards using index cards and a pen as studies show that the physical act of writing things down helps us learn more).
Image: Runner athlete running on stairs by lzf