Master New Skills by Harnessing
Your Brain's Automatic Processing
“It’s muscle memory.”
“I know it by heart.”
“I could do it in my sleep.”
All of these phrases describe the same mental function—one that is necessary for mastery of any skill: automatic processing.
When we ingrain good habits in ourselves by reinforcing connections between thinking patterns or behavior through practice, our skills start becoming automatic. Eventually, we can perform a skill we’ve mastered without even thinking about it. This is critical for anything requiring a quick reaction time, like tennis or driving a car. If we’re not reacting automatically, we’ll miss the ball or get in a crash.
To understand the role that automatic processing (also known as automaticity) plays in mastery, let’s take a look at the learning process and see how you can use practice to reach a level of automatic action, no matter what skill you’re trying to master.
Learn the Basics of a Skill First
Learning a new skill is a process that starts with baby steps and ends with a complex sequence of events that your brain handles automatically.
This process takes time as you learn each step, practice them until they become automatic reactions, and combine them into one cohesive skill.
For example, when learning to drive, making a turn seems like a long list of tasks that need to happen in close succession: use the flasher to signal the turn, reduce your speed, check your mirrors, verify the road is clear, rotate the steering wheel, adjust speed as you turn.
At first, each step stands on its own—one, two, three—and you create separate connections between each step and how your body should move. But with practice, you combine the steps together until turning becomes one fluid sequence. This is a process called “chunking.” Your brain groups and processes several pieces of information as a unit instead of individually. In other words, you no longer process all the steps of the turn individually but see them as part of a larger action.
The same principle applies to all other learning. You start by making individual associations between concepts and behavior and then group them to form more complex, larger chunks. As you get better at processing these associations, they move from your conscious awareness into your subconscious (you pay little attention to your body movements as you drive). You begin to perform the skills automatically.
Automatic Processing Allows for Improvement
After you’ve learned the individual steps involved in a skill, eventually, with enough repetition, those actions will start to become automatic.
Consider walking, a skill you learned early in life. At the time, it was difficult for you, but you don’t pay attention to it now. Walking became a seemingly automatic process. You no longer think of how or in what order to move your legs and balance your body. Your brain becomes more efficient at controlling your movements.
With enough practice, you can automate tasks, or parts of them, and reduce the conscious awareness you give to their execution. This automation is valuable in learning because it frees up conscious energy to work on other things and build on top of what you already know. You might move from walking to skipping, and then from skipping to jumping hurdles, adding complexity as you go.
A toddler wouldn’t be able to go straight from crawling to jumping hurdles, but by building on each skill and adding complexity, by the time that child has grown to master running, they can naturally progress to the next level of their skill.
Practice Leads to Mastery
Being able to consciously improve your skills through practice and refinement is another necessary step on the path to mastery.
It’s a process that takes time and hard work, and there are no shortcuts. As Michelangelo is supposed to have said in response to people’s admiration of his Pietà, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”
Masters take automatic processing to the extreme. They practice their craft to a point where they can execute outstanding technique without thinking much about it. Their conscious mind is not occupied with the mechanics of the task and can instead focus on higher-order thinking, such as expression, creativity, or strategy.
Consider the speed of professional violinists. They move four fingers from one hand through the fingerboard, landing on the right position at the right time, while the other hand moves the bow at the correct angle with the right speed to get the desired sounds. That’s too complex for the conscious mind to process.
Professional violinists can play fast because they have reinforced the neural connections associated with the mental and physical tasks of playing the instrument to the point of automation. With the subconscious handling the movements, the violinists’ conscious energy can be directed to their interpretation and other areas of their performance.
Make Good Habits Automatic
Practice, whether you’re playing the violin, jumping hurdles, or performing any other skill, is essential for mastery. Your brain rewires itself through practice, creating clusters of neural connections composed of associations between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that specialize in what you repeatedly do.
When reinforced, these connections move from your conscious awareness to your subconscious, becoming almost automatic. Then, your conscious mind is free again to process new tasks and add complexity to your growing abilities.
As you move through the learning process, it’s important to keep in mind that automatic processing does not discriminate between desired behaviors and undesired ones. Picture an aspiring bodybuilder who practices squats without keeping his back straight—that poor form will be harder to fix once the habit becomes ingrained than it would be from the start.
As you can imagine, practicing bad habits slows your progress, while practicing good habits makes skill progression as efficient as possible. If you repeat bad habits or keep making the same mistakes, that’s what you’ll reinforce and automate, so you must be sure that you’re practicing good technique.
To become a true master of your craft, you must form connections in the brain by learning the basics and building complexity from there. Devote enough time to practicing good technique, and you’ll be performing your skills automatically without even needing to think about it.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn how to set yourself effective personal goals and find the motivation you need to achieve them. This is the essence of personal development, a set of skills designed to help you reach your full potential, at work, in study and in your personal life.
The second edition of or bestselling eBook is ideal for anyone who wants to improve their skills and learning potential, and it is full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
About the Author
Nick Velasquez is a passionate learner and devoted student of mastery. He’s the author of the popular blog UnlimitedMastery.com, where he writes about learning science, peak performance, creativity, and mastering skills. His writing has been featured in outlets such as TIME and Thought Catalogue. Nick speaks multiple languages and spends his time between Tokyo and Montréal.