Learn A Motor Skill 4x Faster Through Micro-Breaks

Published by Klint Ciriaco on

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Effective learning does not always equate to quick learning, but when a study suggests a way to develop a skill four times faster than the traditional route, it becomes a topic worth paying attention to. 

Now, the study I’m about to share should be taken with a grain of salt because the skill that was experimented on is an overly simplistic one. I personally wondered whether the protocol can be scaled to other longer-to-acquire skills. But, it is a lead worth exploring so we can add it to our rapid learning toolbox. 

The study

In the A Rapid Form of Offline Consolidation in Skill Learning, the participants were asked to type a sequence of numbers with their left non-dominant hand after seeing numbers on the screen. They would then take a 10-second break and repeat the process. Unsurprisingly, their accuracy and speed got better over time that day.  

Here’s the surprising part: they found that the participants’ skills developed primarily during the micro-breaks, not while typing. On top of that, their development was four times faster during the micro-breaks compared to resting overnight (they were asked to return the following day to do the same tasks). 

Learn Quickly Through Micro-breaks

Memory consolidation is traditionally known to happen in 6 hour intervals or more. However, this study suggests that the brain will opportunistically make it happen whenever it gets a chance to rest. If one could develop a skill in 1 hour instead of 3 hours by using this protocol, then we might have found one amazing learning strategy. 

One weakness to the study is that they didn’t have a control group. It would have been great if they had two groups where one group does the exercise with microbreaks and the other without it. The study also applies to just the beginning stage of learning a skill. 

But, rapidly learning at that stage shows a huge benefit – the thrill of quickly gaining proficiency early on. One of the reasons we quit is because we encounter difficulties and frustration. After all, if the task feels punishing, then why bother continuing. But if we feel ecstatic, we’re most likely going to keep practicing.

For example, I used a similar protocol years ago in learning a CrossFit movement called the butterfly pull up. I did two reps, rested for about 30 seconds, and repeated the cycle in the course of 10 minutes. About a week later, butterfly pull ups appeared in the workout. I wasn’t an expert yet but I was proficient enough to surprise my gym mates how fast I learned it. So, I kept practicing more.  

I also use this protocol when teaching some of our clients at the gym (I’m a CrossFit trainer if you didn’t already know). After letting them do 5-10 reps of a difficult movement, a snatch for example,  I would let them rest for about 10 seconds before doing another set. I can’t scientifically quantify their improvements, but I generally see quick changes in the way they move. 

Here are some ideas on how to apply it in other skills

Singing Sing a scale for about 2 minutes. Rest 10 seconds. Repeat. 

Playing the Guitar – Play a 3-chord  progression for a minute. Rest for 10 seconds. Play the chords again. 

Shooting – Do your shooting drill. Then, place your firearm in the holster and wait for about 10 seconds. Pull your firearm out to do your drill again. 

Keyboard typing – Press the series of keys shown on the screen. Take a microbreak. Proceed to do the exercise.  

You get the point. 

Conclusion

Try this out when you get a chance. Instead of mindlessly toiling through a practice session, insert a micro-break in between rep, set, or drill. You get to reflect on what you did well and not so well, and at the same time reap the benefits of learning at a rapid pace. 

You got this.