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Research Shows That There’s a Better Way to Learn New Skills at Work — and It’s Not What You Expect

Identify and let go of the one thing that's holding you back from learning.

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When we think about acquiring new skills — to improve work performance, boost desirability during a job search, or simply to keep our brain fresh and expand our abilities — the time and effort needed to acquire those skills can feel overwhelming. Learning a tool, software, or foreign language can be profoundly beneficial, but it doesn’t happen overnight, and the thought of pouring additional energy into yet another effort has the potential to create even more anxiety.

As it turns out, the key to making the process fun might lie in removing one little thing that’s dragging you down: stress.

A study published in Scientific Reports followed medical students as they were taught to perform surgery in a radical way: without stress. And the results were astonishing.

The first-year students were able to master introductory surgical skills in just five hour-long sessions, and what’s more, their accuracy and proficiency at the skill was better than a comparative group who learned under traditional methods.

But when the students tried to learn new skills in a hectic or stressful environment — as per tradition — the pressure triggered fight-or-flight responses in the body, leading to more errors and higher stress levels.

“The results of this and our previous research taken together suggest that dexterous skill acquisition is negatively affected by stressful conditions in a big way,” Ioannis Pavlidis, Ph.D., a lead researcher on the study, tells Thrive. “As [an application] to our everyday lives, I would say: ‘Do not thread the needle if you are upset.'”

Pavlidis’ observations inspired him to look more closely at whether shifting the learning conditions would result in less stress, and therefore better performance, among students.

The resulting study approached learning through a different lens. By framing the new skill as a “hobby” or fun activity, the stress element was taken out of the picture, which allowed the students to more deeply internalize their new skills, while giving them the freedom to make fewer mistakes. As a result, the students not only experienced less stress while practicing, they actually improved faster as well.

While the study focuses mainly on “dexterous” tasks (skilled tasks involving fine motor skills), these findings show us how we can apply stress-reducing practices to our own learning in order to acquire skills faster and better, and actually enjoy ourselves in the process.

What does this mean for learning skills in the workplace?

The study sparks an important conversation about how we should be approaching the acquisition of new skill sets, especially for application in the workplace. How can you turn a potentially stress-inducing task, like switching over to a new software system or learning enough phrases in a foreign language for a forthcoming business trip, into a worry-free — and enjoyable — experience?

Here are some things we can learn from the medical students’ process:

First, try shifting your perspective.

Reframing and treating the new skill as a positive challenge or an exciting new hobby, as in the study, tells your brain that the learning process will be relaxed and fun, and prevents the fight-or-flight response from switching on. Without that internal trigger, you are likely to feel calmer and more focused on whatever you are learning.

Move to a new environment.

Just as the medical students in the study were placed in a more relaxed environment while learning surgical techniques, getting to work on your new skill in a soothing location (wherever that is for you) could help put you in a calmer mindset for learning a new skill.

Think of it this way — if you tried to start a new hobby at the desk where you complete your regular work, it could easily start to feel like more of that same work. On the other hand, dedicating a happy and peaceful environment specifically for the new hobby can help reinforce the mindset that learning is fun, not tedious.

Take it step by step.

We know that cramming information is an ineffective way of studying and learning. It didn’t work in college, and it doesn’t work at your job (or beyond) either.

Instead, set aside some time each day, or several times a week, to focus on learning your new skill. This method of “spacing” your learning time, as opposed to cramming all at once, improves long-term retention — likely due to a reinforcement process of forgetting the information and retrieving it again, according to the American Psychological Association. Just like the old saying, “practice makes perfect,” the more you work on learning your skill — even if you can only spare a small chunk of time each day — the better you will internalize it.

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