Have you made a list of New Year’s resolutions? Many of us set goals at the start of each year, and make ourselves lots of grand ‘New Year, new you’ promises. Often they fall by the wayside before long, leaving us feeling frustrated and guilty. If you really want to boost your mood, self-esteem and confidence this year, consider mastering a new skill – and doing it in small, achievable steps. If you can build mastery this year, you’ll give your mental health a valuable boost. Something we could all do with at the moment!

What is mastery?

Mastery is when we achieve or accomplish something that makes us feel good about ourselves. It makes us feel competent, confident and in control. Choose something stretching but realistic – and where you can see your progress over time in small, achievable steps.

Mastery has great mental health benefits. Think about how you feel when you achieve something. When you tick something off your to-do list, master a new skill or face something you’re afraid of. What happens to your mood?

Mastery is so beneficial it’s used in therapy. It’s a skill used in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) to improve self-esteem and confidence. Both of which are incredibly important for good mental health. It can even be used to treat depression. You can find out more about DBT in our Self-care courses ‘Manage Anxiety’ and ‘Deal with Depression’ – both of which include modules on DBT.

8 mental health benefits of building mastery

As well as improving self-esteem and confidence, building mastery helps you become more resilient and resistant to negative emotions. Some of the reasons mastery makes you feel good include:

  1. Boosted mood. Building mastery in a skill you want to develop is a great mood-booster. It’s incredibly rewarding to see your progress. You’re doing something you enjoy – and you’re getting better at it! It’s a win-win, and provides positive reinforcement to keep you going.
  2. Lower stress. Feeling stressed or overwhelmed? Carving out some time to do something you enjoy, that’s just for you, is a great stress-buster. However busy you are, it’s important to set aside some ‘me time’. Working on mastering a skill is a great option.
  3. Higher self-esteem. If you’re constantly telling yourself “I can’t do that” or “I’m no good”, it reinforces a lack of self-esteem. When you feel competent at something, you have a more positive view of yourself – and higher self-esteem.
  4. Greater confidence. As you see yourself make progress and improve in a skill, you develop self-confidence and self-reliance. Even small, slow, incremental progress counts. If you lack confidence you may not even bother trying – which means you’ll never reach your goal. The key is to start small, and work towards achievable steps.
  5. Increased concentration. Losing yourself in a task – paying deep and full attention to it – is great for developing your attention span, focus and mental health. It will help you focus on the present and distract you from your troubles and anxieties. You may also enter a ‘flow state’ – a rewarding sense of total involvement in a task.
  6. Reduced anxiety. People who struggle with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) often have low self-esteem, low confidence and poor concentration. Because mastery helps increase all of these, it may also reduce your anxiety levels.
  7. Greater resilience. Because mastery helps you build self-esteem and confidence, you’ll also be more resilient. When bad things happen, or things don’t go the way you’d hoped, you’ll be better able to cope.
  8. Community and social support. You may choose a solitary activity, but there are also many group activities you might want to take up, from sports to evening classes to hobby groups. These may be face-to-face or online. Either way, they can provide social support, motivation and accountability – all of which will help you towards achieving mastery.

Overall, building mastery helps you develop a positive mindset. Because you feel competent, capable and in control, you think “I can do this!” instead of “I’m no good.”

Master a new skill – 6 ideas to help you build mastery

So, where do you begin? If you need some inspiration for a new skill to tackle in the New Year, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Develop your lockdown hobby. Many people took up new hobbies during the early stages of the pandemic – from baking to gardening to yoga (no, binge-watching Netflix doesn’t count). While this may have warded off boredom and given you something to do on furlough, hobbies are great for giving a sense of mastery too. Especially if it’s something you can get really good at.
  2. Take up a creative challenge. Take inspiration from your favourite TV challenge show! Are you a fan of The Great British Bake Off, The Great British Sewing Bee, The Big Painting Challenge or The Great Pottery Throwdown? Any of these activities are great for developing mastery.
  3. Take up a sport. Exercise has lots of mental health benefits – and building mastery is one of them. Whether it’s improving at a technical skill such as tennis or archery, seeing your body shape change or watching your stamina, flexibility or distance improve, most sports allow you to monitor your progress – and see results.
  4. Write a poem, short story or novel. Writing is one of many activities that you only get better at by actually doing it. What accomplishment means is up to you. It might be expressing yourself in a daily poem, getting a short story published or completing a first draft of your novel.
  5. Practice a musical instrument. Is there an instrument you used to play, but have allowed to lapse? Or something you’ve always wanted to play? It’s never too late to start learning to play the piano or pick up a ukulele!
  6. Learn a new language. Learning a language wards off cognitive decline and gives you a sense of mastery. It can be a social experience too, if you join a language class – in person or online. And it enables you to connect with new people and cultures. Language learning opens doors. A Czech proverb says: “You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.”

These are just ideas. What you choose will depend on your interests, what activities make you feel good about yourself – and where you’re at. So, for one person it might be getting dressed in the morning. For another, it might be completing a creative project. For another, it might be running 10km. The most important thing is that completing this task feels like an accomplishment for you.

There’s a fine balance between building mastery and setting your standards too high – or too low. When we build mastery, we want to feel pleased with ourselves. We don’t want to try and do the impossible because we’re only setting ourselves up for failure. Equally, we don’t want to set our bar so low that we don’t feel any sense of accomplishment. So, we want to aim for a middle ground. Something difficult – but possible.

How long does it take to master a skill?

Malcolm Gladwell’s often-quoted thesis from his book Outliers says it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Which sounds rather dispiriting, doesn’t it? It would take years! This has, however, been challenged by others – including Josh Kaufman, who says it takes just 20 hours.

However, as with many things in life, the important thing is the journey rather than the destination. And, as the Chinese proverb says: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The key is to start small. So don’t get overwhelmed by the scale of your task, or set yourself unachievable goals. It’s more about the feeling you get from it than any external validation. You’ll get there in your own time, at your own pace – and see your progress along the way.

How to build mastery step by step

Set yourself a challenge that’s based on your capabilities right now. You can gradually make it more difficult over time. Build mastery in the following steps:

  1. Plan for success. Choose something challenging but possible. This will help you succeed rather than set yourself up for failure.
  2. Start small. If you want to take up running, for example, don’t start with a marathon! Start small (maybe a light jog around the block) and focus on achievable steps rather than your final goal.
  3. Increase gradually. Gradual, steady progress is key. For example, the NHS Couch to 5K app is a running plan for beginners that helps you to gradually build up your stamina and see your progress. Once you’ve mastered a smaller sub-skill, or reached a mini-goal, you can tackle something harder. Start with the doable and move on to the more difficult.
  4. Do something every day. Building mastery is about doing small, challenging things on a regular basis. Do one thing each day that makes you feel good about yourself – even if it’s for just 10 minutes. Think about how you can work mastery into your daily routine.
  5. Reward yourself along the way. Seeing your progress will be motivating. But find a way to reward yourself for those milestones along the way too. Taking the time to acknowledge your achievements is just as important as the achievement itself.

And don’t forget, good mental health is all about balance. While building mastery is important, make sure you’re balancing the things you have to do with things you do simply for fun.