Getting Good at Nearly Anything

A 4-step plan for tackling tasks.

Posted Jan 10, 2019

Nick Youngson, CC 3.0
Source: Nick Youngson, CC 3.0

Have you ever met someone who seems good at nearly everything? Sure, they probably have a high IQ, which means they quickly learn, retain, and apply knowledge to solve a wide array of problems. But IQ is relatively immutable, and pop-psych concepts such as "Grit" and "Growth Mindset" have been found to have less utility than their conceptualizers had claimed. See, for example, this regarding "Grit" and this regarding "Growth Mindset."

Here is a more likely approach to getting good at most things. I’ve developed this 4-step plan for tackling tasks from my many highly successful clients and friends, plus, okay, from my own life. I present the plan via an example. Because this is Psychology Today, the example I use is a person who's trying to figure out how to deal with their anxiety.

1. A time-effective Google search. Start by Google-searching “anxiety” or if anxious in specific contexts, for example, “social anxiety” or “test anxiety.” Scan the top few results for both articles and videos. Google usually does a fine job of curation because it top-ranks the web pages for a given search term that are most read, forwarded, and back-linked. Click on any search results that feel worth a look.

Start by skimming. If it’s feeling valuable, keep going, perhaps reading more slowly. But if it’s not very helpful, cut your losses. Many people fail to get the most from their Google-searching time by spending too much time with sub-optimal articles and videos. Remember that Google searches millions of sources. Usually, you needn’t settle for just-okay. Learn what you can from glancing at your first search's results and perhaps one or three of its top-ranked articles or videos. If you need more or better information, that glancing will often yield a more on-target search term, article author, etc. 

Ducks-in-a-row types may resist relying on just a few articles. Of course, sometimes deeper knowledge is required, but I've been struck by how often, even regarding complicated topics, we reach a point of diminishing returns after just a bit of reading.

2. Do a low-risk experiment. Let’s say your googling identifies a variety of approaches to dealing with anxiety. Unless you’re confident those approaches won’t work and so need to jump to, for example, a pharmacological approach, try one or more of the low-risk actions you unearthed, for example, exercise, thought-stopping/distraction, journaling, talking with a trusted friend and good listener. Then continue with the one(s) that are helpful and toss out the others.

3. Break it down to baby steps. Let’s say you want to try practicing thought-stopping/distraction.  The baby steps might be:

1. Write one or more situations that tend to make you anxious.

2. Come up with what will be calming in those situations. For example, let’s say you get anxious when you get a pain of ambiguous origin. You might write, “My doctor says that as long it’s not scary-painful, most pains go away within a day or three. There’s little risk in waiting, so I need to make myself redirect to something productive.”

3. Reduce that spiel to a mantra, for example, “Not dangerous. Distract.”

4. Know when it’s time- and cost-effective to outsource. If low-risk experiments fail and you sense they’ll continue to be inadequate, it’s time to give up or to consult someone. Yes, it could be a friend or family member but perhaps a professional. Of course, that’s true whether it’s a mental health, physical health, or, for that matter, home repair issue. Consider your track record. For example, I have a bad record of trying to fix things beyond the very basic, so I'll, faster than most people, often decide that it’s worth calling in an electrician, plumber, whatever.

The takeaway

Of course, no goal as broad as “getting good at nearly anything” can be reduced to a 4-step paradigm. But there’s little risk in trying it. After all, it’s an example of one of the aforementioned tips: It's a low-risk experiment, one that has been helpful to many people.

I read this aloud on YouTube.