You needn’t achieve major feats to feel accomplished – mastering small, simple skills can increase your confi dence, happiness and cognitive ability.
It’s often said that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master something. But while you might not have the time, or the inclination, to become a grade 8 pianist or a fluent Italian speaker, the new concept of micromastery makes learning new things easier and a lot more fun by encouraging you to aim for smaller, more manageable achievements. What’s more, it has just as many benefits for your brain as undertaking a bigger challenge.
The term was coined by Robert Twigger, author of Micromastery: Learn Small, Learn Fast and Find the Hidden Path to Happiness (£12.99, Penguin Life). He was infl uenced by spending time in Japan, observing the widespread practice of ‘kata’, which breaks things down into small, perfectible exercises. ‘Aikido exercises influenced me,’ he says, referring to the Japanese martial art. ‘Each one is a mini-skill in itself, rather than just a move.’ So, thinking about how this might apply to everyday life, you could say that rather than setting a goal of ‘learning to cook,’ micromastery would mean simply excelling in one aspect, such as making a flawless omelette, before moving on to the next thing.
Keep expanding your mind
Embracing this season’s back-to-school feeling with micromastery can help keep your brain in good shape for the rest of your life. ‘I believe that as you get older you really need to keep learning,’ says Robert. This fact is backed up by numerous studies, such as one from the University of Texas that showed that the memory skills of people who learn a relatively challenging and unfamiliar new skill, improve because of it. This is all thanks to something called neuroplasticity.
Scientists used to think that, aside from during the key growth years, your brain development remained static. However, they now know you can change your brain over the course of your life. Essentially, if you keep challenging that grey matter in inspiring and creative ways, it’ll stay young. ‘Use it or lose it is the mantra here!’ says Robert. ‘Micromastery is an all-round workout for your brain and body, as particular neurons that process all your senses work together. Scientists say this “superstimulus” effect, when more than one sense is involved in learning, is a perfect synergy to boost memory and ability.’
Learning to juggle, for example, boosts the connections between different parts of your brain, according to a study by the University of Oxford. The study showed that the same benefits were found in the brain of all participants, regardless of how well they could juggle. So in this case, it truly is the having a go that counts, rather than out-and-out mastery – your brain just loves the challenge!
Happy hobbies, happy brain
‘You have networks in your brain that are involved in reward and pleasure,’ says Dr Priyanka Pradhan, a clinical neuropsychologist. ‘By having more rewarding experiences, you strengthen these networks. So, mastering what may seem like a small skill will boost positive neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine and adrenaline, as well as reinforcing the connections of the neural reward system. This can result in a higher chance of you seeking similar experiences in the future, which will reinforce the connections even further.
Micromastery taps into that little voice that tells you that you can do anything you set your mind to. ‘It extends your confidence and abilities to know you can try new things and succeed with small victories,’ says life coach Carole Ann Rice. ‘That satisfying can-do attitude then subconsciously influences you to try other things outside your comfort zone.’
Being more present
The pure, creative focus involved in learning a new skill, whether it’s tending to a mini herb garden or knitting a scarf, helps keep you mindful and centred on the present, which has further benefi ts for your mind. ‘Most of us focus on lots of jobs, half-concentrating a lot of the time, which can make us distracted and stressed,’ says Carole Ann. ‘But taking time to focus on one little project at a time gives your mind a chance to relax into a calm, alpha brainwave state, which is a condition that allows you to feel more relaxed, actually get more done and do it really well.’
And you never know when your new skills are going to come in useful. Perhaps you’ll be a biscuit-baking wizard, presenting all your friends with festive ginger cookies come Christmas time? Or you’ll master that yoga move that’s always been tricky? It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as your brain keeps on learning, tiny step by tiny step
(This piece originally appeared in Top Sante October 2017.)