When you’re trying to learn a new thing — a skill, talent, instrument, sport, language, anything — there are a million things that can derail you.
It’s hard not to become fatigued, discouraged, frustrated, lose sight of your goal, or become distracted by a brighter light in your life.
Even assuming you get everything else right, and none of those detours push you off path, it’s still common to plateau early and stop making progress.
This rule is to prevent that from happening: say hello to the 9:3:1 Rule, a guide for how to allocate your time while learning a new thing.
Three ways to learn: Spectating, Studying, and Practicing
The premise that I based this rule on is that there are three distinct ways to learn a new thing, and that you need to be intentional about how much time you spend doing each.
First, here’s how we’re going to think about these three different learning methods:
- Spectating is the time you spend watching the pros, the savants, the experts.
- Studying is the time you spend reading how-tos, theory, technical guides, and watching walk-throughs.
- Practicing is the time you spend actually doing the thing, going through the motions, regardless of how clumsy.
It’s easy to blur the lines between these ideas. And doing so easily fuels procrastination (or allows you to give into Resistance). So we’re not going to. We’re going to create a hard, indelible line between these in our minds.
You are not practicing while you’re studying. You’re not studying while you’re spectating. And you’re not spectating while you’re practicing.
Why is this important? Because of how we’re going to be structuring our learning time.
Optimal learning requires three times as much studying as spectating. And three times as much practicing as studying.
This is the gist of the 9:3:1 rule, where…
- 9 is the proportion of time spent practicing
- 3 is the proportion of time spent studying
- 1 is the proportion of time spent spectating
So if you spectate a pro for 10 minutes, you should spend 30 studying the theory/concepts behind what you watched, and another 90 practicing the the techniques.
Tripling the time spectating with your studying will help you better understand what you’re seeing. You’ll notice experts doing things you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to notice. Things that were invisible to the untrained eye.
Tripling the time studying with your practicing will make sure that you don’t get bogged down with lots of theory and conceptual knowledge that you can’t put into, well, practice. You need to develop the muscle memory, dexterity, strength, and endurance to act on what you see an expert doing.
Is it possible to learn guitar solos from watching a 60 minute Jimi Hendrix live concert video? If you spend another three hours studying (e.g., techniques used, musical scales) and nine hours practicing what you spectated. Minimum. Sure! You can absolutely learn from spectating Jimi Hendrix.
You still have to do all three well.
Maintaining the right proportions of time isn’t enough to get you to excel at a new skill, and to continue improving through plateaus. We might say it’s necessary, but not sufficient. You still have to use that time well.
Practicing well, studying well, and spectating well are three skills in their own right.
I’m not going to get into the specifics on that in this post, because I want to keep this focused on the 9:3:1 rule. And it’s hard to make generalities on how to do these things well that would apply to all skills or domains of learning.
But here are some ways to do each one poorly:
- Poor spectating would be time spent watching people who (1) aren’t amazing at the thing you’re trying to learn, or (2) people who are able to do it in ways that would never be attainable by you (e.g., spectating Michael Phelps swimming if you don’t also have the wingspan of a pterodactyl and webbed feat);
- Poor studying would be (1) learning about concepts that are at a higher level than you’re ready to practice, for which you don’t already have the foundational learning, or (2) learning from sources that aren’t directed toward practice, that are too theoretical or foundational to be applied (e.g., reading a book about quantum physics because you know that gravity plays a big role in bocce);
- Poor practicing would be (1) jumping right to the end, and trying to do the completed skill instead of breaking it into smaller skills, or (2) spending all of your time repeating something easy and simple instead of challenging yourself (e.g., repeating the cyrilic alphabet over and over won’t get you to speaking Russian, no matter how beautiful your Ж sounds).
Tweak the Ratio to Overcome your Particular Plateau
Is the 9:3:1 ratio perfect? Handed down the by gods? Golden? It is not. It’s a ratio that I made up and enforce for myself as I’m learning new things because it’s helped me break through countless plateaus.
And while I’ve tried other ratios (e.g., 4:2:1), the 9:3:1 has applied nicely to 90% of the things I’ve tried to learn intentionally over the years, so its what I default to. (Is that 90% made up? I’ll give you two guesses.)
So I would suggest that you go with it until you are sure that it’s the ratio that is slowing you down, not quality of your learning from each method. Because enforcing this ratio helps automatically prevent a bunch of common stalls to learning that result in plateaus.
The 9:3:1 ratio helps you prevent spending too much time spectating pros (because it’s fun), or studying (because it requires zero vulnerability).
It also prevents you from spending too much time only practicing and beating a dead horse, making no headway (because you’re missing some crucial knowledge, or don’t have a clear role model for what the next level looks like).
That all said, there are certainly times when I have to mix things up.
There might be a point, for example, where you no longer need any spectating or studying to break through a plateau because it’s purely a physical constraint (no amount of book readin’ is gonna get you to bend like that — you just gotta bend).
Ask yourself the following questions and use the answers to guide your adjustment to the ratio to break through any particular plateau:
- Am I stuck because I don’t have a clear enough idea in my head of what the next level of proficiency would look like? (If so, you need more time spectating)
- Am I stuck because I don’t have necessary conceptual knowledge, or a working understanding of a skill or technique I need? (If so, you need more time studying)
- Am I stuck because I don’t have the muscle memory, dexterity, strength, endurance, or flexibility (physical or mental) that I need? (If so, you need more time practicing)
The most important thing about this ratio isn’t the relative proportions, but the truth it imparts and reinforces: you need to do all three of these things — spectating, studying, and practicing — to increasing degrees in order to continue improving at a skill.
And remember that learning also requires recovery and celebration.
Learning isn’t — and cannot be — a constant, unceasing pursuit. You need to take breaks to do at least two other things: recover (when you’re fatigued) and celebrate (when you reach milestones).
I like to think of these like summer breaks and graduations. Take time to rest, do other things, drink water, allow your brain and your body to bounce back. And also make sure you’re noting how far you’ve come. Show off to friends, keep a journal, record videos, or set up fun milestone challenges (like enrolling in competitions) — whatever works for you and the thing you’re learning.
Just make sure you’re structuring both recovery and celebration into your learning, as well as being intentional about the time you spend spectating, studying, and practicing — and oh, the places you’ll go!