How The Brain Changes When Learning a Skill (and How to Take Advantage of It)

Published by Klint Ciriaco on

How the brain changes when learning a skill
Photo credit: pixabay@skylarvision

Learning what happens to the brain when developing a skill has it’s advantages: it speeds up the learning process because you know the parts and mechanisms to hack your skills. 

It’s like being a good mechanic. He knows almost everything under the hood of a car. So, he’s able to fix it. He can even tweak it into a high-performing machine. He can do so because he has intimate knowledge of cars. 

So if you’d like to learn how to optimize your learning abilities, knowing how the brain works will help you become a speedy learner. 

It starts with…

Brain Cell Connections

Imagine living in a town where you have to deliver a message for the first time to  people in the mountains. 

There are no roads and the only way to get there is to make one. 

It’s going to take forever to reach  them at first, but once the road is done, the next trip is going to be quicker. 

The brain cell connections are the same. Not having strong links between them is the reason we struggle at the beginning stages of learning a skill. 

But practice fixes that. The connections between those cells will get stronger to send signals through practice. 

Implied you: Cool. But I already know that. You said there are hacks? 

Yup. Here’s the first one.

Use Time and Rest

There was a study where participants had to perform a repetitive task. They got a little better as the minutes went by. 

They went back the following day to do the same activity. What did they discover? Their improvements were way better compared to the marginal development they gained the previous day.

In short, skill development happens when you’re “offline.” 

Even if you’re feeling frustrated during practice, go through the motions. Finish the session because it will set up your brain to do the connection-building process overnight. 

Take Microbreaks

The same study above asked participants to perform a task. At first, they did the activities consecutively with little change in performance.

Then, they were asked to do the same activity again, but this time, they had to take 10-second breaks in between.

The result? Their improvements came quicker than before.

I don’t think a 10-second break applies to all practice sessions, but the spirit of the study works in all disciplines: take microbreaks. 

For example, when I was learning how to throw a football, I’d pause for 20-25 seconds and ask myself what, “What did I do wrong?”

On the other hand, if I’m practicing my writing skills, I’d write for twenty minutes and take a break for five minutes. 

The consequence of not using this hack:

There was a time when I would write for three hours straight. And yet, I would only have written about  500 words.  Also, I’d read my piece the following day to find too many mistakes. 

Why is that?

I learned that most brains can only pay full attention for about 20 minutes. It’s like running a marathon for the first 20 minutes and then having to carry a grown  man on your back for the rest of the race. 

So, I started resting every 20 minutes to keep my brain fresh. This process helped me make fewer mistakes, come up with ideas quicker, and save time on editing.


Don’t look at Screens During Breaks Because… 

Not all rest periods are created equal. For example, looking at your phone could backfire and could keep you from being productive. You can read more about it in this article, 5 Ways To Take a Work Break.

It’s uncomfortable to avoid screens, which is why you have to do something to else to distract you. 

Go for a five minute walk, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, do anything other than scroll on Instagram so you can get back to work with a fresh brain.

Get in Shape To Fuel the Brain

The brain hoards 30% of the body’s energy. After all, it’s the command center that makes sure the systems in our bodies are functioning the way they’re supposed to. 

So, learning a new skill forces it to use more energy because it needs resources to build brain cell connections. 

The solution? Increase your energy reserves by eating healthy and getting in shape. 

This doesn’t have to be complicated. As long as you regular put yourself through a high intensity workout and eat real food (fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds), you’re set. 

The result of not doing so will make learning a skill slow and exhausting. 

Get Enough Sleep For the Same Reason Above

I once placed a frying pan in the oven instead of in the cabinet when I was in college. I was barely getting enough sleep at that time because of my workload. If I didn’t have the energy to be aware of where a pan should go, how much focus did you think I had at school? 

Running on fumes is counterproductive not to mention dangerous so do the best you can to get enough sleep.

There are a bunch of resources online to help you get good quality sleep, but here are some quick tips:

  • Don’t look at screens an hour before bed because the blue light will delay the production of melatonin (the hormone that promotes sleep).
  • Maintain a fixed schedule even on the weekends. This will help you adapt a rhythm for your body to get consistent sleep.
  • Keep the room cool.
  • Make the room completely dark.

If you need more tips in getting better sleep, this article, What Is Sleep Hygiene, is an excellent resource.


  • The stronger connections in your brains are proof that your skills are improving. 
  • Take short breaks to speed up the learning process.
  • Don’t look at screens during breaks.
  • Get in shape.
  • Get enough sleep. 

Learn Fast By Questioning The Way Things Are Done