The Three Month Rule
So there’s this heuristic that I’ve been sticking to for a while now. It’s something like: if you start learning a new skill — one that has a clear, predicable learning path — stick with it for at least three months. Now, it’s not like you’ll become good at it in those months, but there is something significant that happens.
Maybe the best way to describe it is that it starts to feel “fun” again.
You know that picture in your head right before you start learning something — that excitement that comes with starting something new? Maybe you’re imagining how good it’ll sound when you can finally play piano well enough to play that one song you’ve always liked. Or when you’re about to learn a language and you can’t wait until you can talk to the locals. But, as with all things, that excitement begins to fade. The thing becomes “boring”, or “hard” or whatever people usually say. You realize that you actually have to put in effort and learn things to make progress. But then, weirdly, that fun and playful feeling does come back, just after roughly three months.
I don’t know why this happens.
Maybe it’s because you start developing habits that reinforce the skill you’re learning, so getting back into it every day doesn’t feel like work because you’ve hit a rhythm.
Maybe it’s because three months is the time needed to get familiar enough with what you’re learning about to figure out where you are in the process and what you still need to learn — no more unknown unknowns.
Or maybe it’s as simple as getting good enough to where that skill becomes useful. It’s not just a time sink anymore — you can actually play a few chords, or do a few karate moves, etc. Three months is the point when the dream starts to become a reality.
Seth Godin wrote a book called “The Dip” where he talks about this valley of despair everyone goes through when starting something new — what he calls the dip. After the initial excitement, things become hard and most people quit. It isn’t after some time that things start looking up again.
In the context of what we’re talking about — learning skills with predictable learning paths — it takes three months to get out of the dip. In other words, don’t quit in the first three months. When you make it out, you’ll be in a much better place to assess whether you want to keep improving or quit.
It’s worth noting though, this only applies to skills that you consistently practice, and ones where your progress is predictable. It doesn’t apply to situations that require some element of randomness. Yes to Tennis, playing instruments, learning Chinese or linear algebra. No to finding your dream job, girlfriend or thesis topic. In other words, this only works for thin-tailed events, where the average day matters much more than the outlier does.
A different but related idea is this notion of trying things at least once. The core message is the same — your return on investment is heavily frontloaded. 80/20 rule in action.
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