The First 20 Hours summary
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The First 20 Hours Summary | Book by Josh Kaufman

How to Learn Anything… Fast!

The First 20 Hours summary

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“Lots of books promise to change your life. This one actually will.”

– Seth Godin, bestselling author of Linchpin

Have you ever wanted to learn a foreign language, play a musical instrument, or gain another skill but found it too daunting? It can feel like too much hard work. It can feel like you don’t have time to learn something new. But if you break the process down into manageable goals and make your learning more efficient, things begin to feel more achievable. You’ll be amazed at the skills you can learn through short, focused practice sessions. The First 20 Hours gives you the tools to do exactly that. 

The First 20 Hours is about rapid skill acquisition: picking up new skills as quickly as possible. You can go from knowing nothing to performing well in a very short period. It could take 20 hours or less.

“A blockbuster in the making, The First 20 Hours breaks down the learning process into simple and effective steps with real-life examples that inspire. After reading this book, you’ll be ready to take on any number of skills and make progress on that big project you’ve been putting off for years.”

– Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup

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About Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is an independent business teacher, education activist, and author. His TEDx talk on The First 20 Hours is one of the top 25 most-viewed TED talks published to date. Kaufman’s website,, was named one of the “Top 100 Websites for Entrepreneurs” by Forbes in 2013. He is the bestselling author of The Personal MBA, which shares the secrets to business success.

Kaufman’s books cover topics including business, entrepreneurship, productivity, creativity, and applied psychology. Collectively, they have sold over a million copies. Kaufman says his aim is “to help you make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your day-to-day life”. His research has been featured by The New York Times, The BBC, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Fortune, Forbes, Time, Wired, Fast Company, Financial Times,, and The World Economic Forum.

StoryShot #1: Use Rapid Skill Acquisition to Learn Within 20 Hours

You probably have a skill you have always wanted to learn. Maybe it’s playing the piano, doing well on the tennis court, or becoming conversational in French. It is never too late to learn your chosen skill. One of the most common regrets is not pursuing a skill earlier. People often quickly give up before even learning the basics, because they believe it’s too late. 

However, you can use rapid skill acquisition to kickstart your experience. By using this technique, you can become competent in the skills you want to learn by putting in 20 hours of work. These 20 hours will allow you to learn the basics, but skill mastery will take longer.

The first few hours of learning something new are always the hardest; this is where most people give up. That said, if you break your initial 20 hours down into an hour of practice per day, you will rapidly improve.

You will find it much easier to continue building your skills after you’ve completed the first 20 hours. Once you get through the first 20 hours, you’ll have significant practice under your belt. Further practice will then be easier. To make the most of these initial 20 hours, adopt the ten principles of rapid skill acquisition.

StoryShot #2: Apply the Ten Principles of Skill Acquisition

Kaufman offers ten clear principles to improve the efficiency of your skill acquisition:

  1. Choose a lovable project.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time.
  3. Define your target performance level.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills.
  5. Obtain critical tools.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice.
  8. Create fast feedback loops.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed.

StoryShot #3: Learn Your Chosen Skill by Focusing Your Energy

There are probably many skills you’d like to acquire. But the first step of rapid skill acquisition is choosing to focus on one. Start by making a list of all the skills you’re interested in, and pick the one most exciting to you right now. This excitement will help you stay motivated through your practice. 

Kaufman followed this exact prescription when choosing a new skill to pursue. Though windsurfing was on his list, it had been years since he was in the sea. He had previously been a water-sports instructor at a Boy Scouts camp. He had an innate passion for aquatic activities since he was a child. He quickly got excited about the prospect of being back at sea to windsurf, bringing him back to something he missed. 

It’s tempting to try and dive into several skills simultaneously. But the second principle of rapid skill acquisition is to focus all your energy on a single skill at a time. Don’t be tempted to combine learning to windsurf with learning Spanish and playing the ukulele. Use your time wisely when trying to learn something new, since you may only have about an hour a day to dedicate to it. Trying to learn multiple new concepts at once would mean slow progress, which is not motivating at all. Did you know you can achieve a magical “flow” state by spending more time focusing?

Practice in 20-minute bursts so that you can focus all your energy on your chosen learning task. These bursts should involve deliberate and consistent practices. Quantity and speed are more important than the quality of your learning. The faster and more often you practice, the quicker you’ll acquire the skill. To help with this process, Kaufman offers 10 major principles to adopt for effective learning.

StoryShot #4: Apply the 10 Major Principles of Effective Learning

As well as his 10 principles for skill acquisition, Kaufman also shares 10 principles for effective learning:

  1. Research the skill and related topics.
  2. Jump in over your head.
  3. Identify mental models and mental hooks.
  4. Imagine the opposite of what you want.
  5. Talk to practitioners to set expectations.
  6. Eliminate distractions in your environment.
  7. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization.
  8. Create scaffolds and checklists.
  9. Make and test predictions.
  10. Honor your biology.

StoryShot #5: Choose Your Skill Level

Deciding how proficient you want to become at your chosen skill is the third principle in rapid skill acquisition. This is called your “target performance level”. It’s important because if you can envision the end goal, it’ll be easier to get there. Decide what level of skill is “good enough” for you. For example, if you’re learning to play an instrument, consider whether you want to play a few songs by heart or jump into a jam session. 

Kaufman offers an example from his own life to explain the importance of choosing your skill level within a specific skill domain. He was attempting to learn to play the ukulele and identified a specific goal of playing at a conference that his friend was organizing. He was asked to lead a talk about rapid skill acquisition. Kaufman thought this would be an impressive demonstration of the concept. He would show how much progress he had made through rapid skill acquisition in just 10 days. Kaufman had identified his specific skill level and a clear goal. So, he effectively focused his energy and advanced his ukulele skills. 

StoryShot #6: Use Smaller Steps

As well as choosing your skill level, you also have to use smaller steps. Break your chosen skills down into bite-sized pieces that you can tackle one by one. You don’t attempt to down an entire meal in one bite, and you shouldn’t try to learn a skill in one swing. 

By dividing up the work ahead of you, progress will be easier, and the steps you need to take to succeed will be clearer. For example, when the author started to learn the ukulele, he first learned the instrument’s anatomy. He then learned how to tune it. Finally, he began to learn the chords for the song he intended to play at the conference. When the conference rolled around, he could flawlessly play the songs he had learned. 

StoryShot #7: Acquire the Tools You Need

As well as defining the specific skill level you want to pursue, you need to identify the tools you need to succeed at your skill level. These tools are the fundamental building blocks of your skills. For example, for Kaufman’s ukulele pursuit, the first tool he required was a working ukulele. Find the materials and environments you’ll need to succeed in learning a new skill. 

For example, when Kaufman was learning to windsurf, he knew he needed a board, a helmet, and a wetsuit. Once he looked into his learning process, he discovered he needed to feel more comfortable standing on the board before using the sail. So, this meant he had to acquire a paddleboard and a paddle. 

Identify the required tools before starting your learning process first. Then ensure you acquire any newly relevant tools for your learning advancement as you progress. 

StoryShot #8: Limit Distractions

When learning a skill, there will always be barriers that interfere with your learning process. So, consider any emotional roadblocks that may stand in your path, like fear or self-doubt. Remove any distractions, like a phone that might ring. Create a distraction-less learning environment. 

When Kaufman began learning to windsurf, he feared the potential danger associated with this skill. The fear of drowning and hypothermia created a mental barrier in his learning process. To surpass this hurdle, he familiarized himself with those dangers. This allowed him to learn to respond appropriately in case of an emergency. He decided to never windsurf alone and bought a wetsuit suitable for low water temperatures. That way, he could overcome his fears while learning a new skill. He removed the roadblocks in his way, so he could rapidly learn this skill.

StoryShot #9: Give Yourself Time to Practice

In today’s world, people are busier than ever. So, if you want to learn a new skill, you need to make time to practice. Identify other activities in your life that you aren’t fond of, and work to cut those out. Fill that time with practicing your new skill. Your goal is to free up at least ninety minutes for practice each day by cutting low-value activities as much as possible. You could divide this time into three to five practice sessions.

StoryShot #10: Give Yourself Feedback

Find a way to get fast feedback on your progress, so you’ll know if you’ve put a step wrong. For example, if you are learning a new language, ask a native speaker to have a short conversation with you. After receiving this feedback, you can choose to approach your skill acquisition differently. 

If you can, hire a coach to help guide you and give you feedback through the process. If you’re learning a new language, you can use a voice recorder to listen to yourself speaking. This will make it easier to hear mistakes in your pronunciation or grammar. 

Kaufman received feedback when he was learning how to play the game “Go”. To do this, he downloaded a software called “SmartGo”, which gives the player feedback after every move. This software helped him identify his weak spots and made it easier to progress. 

StoryShot #11: Prioritize Quantity and Speed By Practicing in Short Bursts

Practice in brief bursts. Shorten your working periods so you can avoid working on difficult or tedious activities for extended periods. Such activities can be draining and often lead to inefficiency. When you first start learning, the hours of practice seem to drag on longer and longer. Because the task is difficult, it feels like you’ve spent longer practicing than you have.

Avoid this feeling by using a 20-minute timer. The timer will let you know how long you’ve been practicing. Since you’ll know how long you’ve been working, you’ll be more motivated during that period. Your goal should be to do three to five of these 20-minute blocks of practice per day. If you do this, you’ll be shocked at how quickly you progress. 

Practice quickly and often. Don’t focus on perfection. You shouldn’t expect yourself to be an expert from the start. 

By prioritizing quantity and speed, you’re less likely to get frustrated and demotivated during the early stages of practice. When Kaufman was learning to windsurf, he was far from perfect at the start. He fell into the water many times. He encountered setbacks: he lost his glasses, swallowed water, and nearly sustained a concussion. If he had expected himself to be perfect from the start, Kaufman might have quit when these setbacks got in his way. Instead, he focused on putting in as much practice as quickly as possible before the windsurfing season ended. As a result, he rapidly picked up a new skill that seemed so daunting before starting. 

You can learn a new skill quickly and efficiently when you remember the ten principles of rapid skill acquisition. 

Final Summary and Review

The First 20 Hours focuses on the idea that you can become relatively good at anything within 20 hours. That said, you have to use these 20 hours wisely. This is where the book is useful. The First 20 Hours highlights how you can make the most of your opening 20 hours of learning a skill.

In summary, to acquire a skill quickly: 

  1. Decide exactly what you want to be able to do, and to what level. 
  2. Deconstruct a skill into the smallest possible subskills. 
  3. Learn enough about each subskill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice.
  4. Remove physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice. 
  5. Practice the most important subskills for at least 20 hours.

Let’s run through some top tips to help you with your learning process:

  • Focus on one skill at a time.
  • Get the right tools for the job.
  • Remove distractions from your environment and address any fears.
  • Prioritize quantity and speed over quality in the first 20 hours.
  • Cut low-value activities from your day. Use the free time to practice your skill for at least 90 minutes. This can be broken into shorter bursts. 
  • Track your progress and give yourself feedback, or else find a coach. 

Which of these tips did you find helpful? Tag us on social media and let us know!


We rate The First 20 Hours 4.5/5.

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Editor’s Note

This article was first published in early 2021. It was revised on 19/01/2023.


This is an unofficial summary and analysis.

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