Skills! Recently, I needed to brush up on some software for a writing gig that I’d been hired for. The problem was that I hadn’t used that particular application for quite a few years. As you can guess, I was more than a bit rusty.

The other problem was that I didn’t have a lot of time to relearn what I needed to relearn. And I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn on the job — it was either hit the ground running or fail miserably.

Then, I remembered a blog post by Tim Ferriss on this very subject. In that post, Ferriss explains how to reactivate a language that you haven’t used for a while. It’s a very intensive, but manageable, process.

Then I got thinking. Could what Ferriss described be applied to other areas? My conclusion is yes.

Writers of all stripes acquire a number of skills over the courses of their careers. Because we don’t continually use them, some of those skills get rusty or seemingly forgotten. With a bit of work, you can bring those skills back to life. Or, at the very least, to the front of your brain.

The skills connection

Take a quick read of the quote below from this post on Ferriss’ blog:

Somewhat like riding a bike, though unfortunately not as permanent, language fluency is more dependent on practicing the right things than learning the right things. The rules (grammar) can be learned through materials and classes, but the necessary tools (vocabulary and idiomatic usage) will come from independent study and practice in a native environment.

The same goes for reactivating your writing skills. You might, for example:

  • Get a gig where you’ll be writing reports and whitepapers but you haven’t done that in a while.
  • Need to write short radio scripts, but your chops in that area may not be what they once were.
  • After years of using OpenOffice.org Writer need to get back into the swing of using Microsoft Word.

Skills are like muscles

It’s become cliche to say that memory is a muscle that needs to be exercised. There’s some truth to that, though. It’s not just memory itself, but what you’ve memorized and learned. That includes your skills.

Obviously, you’re not going to be able to recall everything you’ve learned over the years. That said, the information is still inside your brain. It’s sort of like that file sitting in a dark corner of your computer’s hard drive. You know it’s there. You just have to access it somehow.

Reactivating those skills

Here’s what I suggest:

  • Make a list of simple goals that you want to achieve during the reactivation process. Don’t set your sights too high (for example, defining a company’s content strategy), but aim to learn something manageable (say, the basics of doing a content audit).
  • Find a good book or online reference. Skim that book to reacquaint yourself with the terminology and concepts of the skill you’re reactivating.
  • If the book or online reference includes tutorials, work through those tutorials. Also, think about coming up with some variations of the tutorial material.
  • Work through each of your goals.
  • If possible, have a colleague or a friend critique your work and give you some advice or pointers.

That’s what works for me. Those steps might not work for you, or you might not use all of them. Be creative and don’t be afraid to try something different.

Some caveats

Don’t try to try to reactivate too many skills at once. Chances are that you’ll only partially reactive all (or more likely some), and not the level that you want or need.

Give yourself a reasonable amount of time. You won’t be able to reactivate a skill in a day or two. You’ll need a few weeks — especially if you can only devote an hour or so to reactivation each day.

Expect some frustration. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking I used to be able to do this so easily … Just remember that you’ll be able to again. Remember that patience is a virtue and a necessity.

Don’t expect perfection. Or even getting back to your former level of proficiency. You might be able to, but you’ll probably need a little more live practice.

Thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome.

Photo credit: jzlomek

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