To Really Lock in a Skill, Make Sure You ‘overlearn’ It

To Really Lock in a Skill, Make Sure You ‘overlearn’ It

Say you’ve finally decided to pick up that dusty Fender and learn “Hey Joe.” Or maybe you’ve plunked yourself into your old man’s Wrangler, insistent that this is the year you learn how to drive stick-shift.

In those scenarios, it can be easy to think you’ve got it all figured out in a matter of minutes, mainly to try and prove that you’re a smart dude (we’re sure you are) who doesn’t need any help. The only downside of trying to run before you can walk (aside from the horrible gear grinding)? It doesn’t really work—particularly if you’re trying to learn another skill right after supposedly “mastering” the first one, according to a new study from Brown University.

The research, which was published in Nature Neuroscience, built upon past studies that have shown that when you learn a new task, and then jump into acquiring another, the second episode may mess up what you previously learned, making it all for naught. But their new study showed that if you buckle down and keep trying to learn the skill even after you feel like you’ve mastered it—which they call “overlearning”—you can reinforce the learning completely and quickly. The flipside: Overlearning makes it harder to master a second skill immediately after the first one, as your brain tries to preserve that initial knowledge.

Though the study focused on visual tasks that involved patterned images, study author Takeo Watanabe, Ph.D. says he’s sure that the result can convert over to other kinds of learning that involve motor skills, like perfecting the clean-and-jerk or a three-point shot.

“If you want to learn something very important, maybe overlearning is a good way,” Watanabe said. “If you do overlearning, you may be able to increase the chance that what you learn will not be gone.”