Five skills to learn in your spare time, and how to master them

Flex that gray matter.
a man with a wrench in his mouth, working on a motorcycle

You don't have to become a motorcycle mechanic, but if you ride one, it's good to know how to fix it. Andriyko Podilnyk/Unsplash

A decade or two ago, if you wanted to learn something new, you’d have to pick up a book or find a way to get some hands-on experience. Now though, educational tools are at our fingertips: there are incredible online resources for everything you could want to learn. It’s literally never been easier to gain new skills—which is why it’s a great use of your spare time.

Especially if you have a little more time on your hands for some reason.

How to maintain the things you use

It should come as no surprise that the DIY section of a science and technology magazine advocates being able to take care of the things you use every day. Being able to keep stuff running (and revive anything that breaks) generally keeps you connected to the world around you and can save you money and time.

What you decide to learn how to maintain, and how much you develop those skills, is up to you, but we have some suggestions:

  • How to change the oil in your car.
  • How to maintain your bike’s chain.
  • How to deep-clean your coffee machine.
  • How to upgrade your computer.
  • How to mend your clothing.
Where to learn it

You’ll need to tap into different resources for each item, but your best friend will probably be YouTube. There are channels and videos dedicated to maintaining even the most obscure products. Not only will you find videos on how to change the oil in a car, but you can probably find one that’ll walk you through the process for your exact model.

How to cook

Food, along with water and shelter, is kind of essential for survival. It’s also really tasty.

Having a few good dishes you can cook for yourself and others is a key adult skill. You can’t just rely on takeout forever—it’s expensive. Plus, when you’re the chef, you control what goes into the food and always know how to make it exactly the way you like it.

Even more useful than cooking one meal at a time, though, is being able to make enough food to feed yourself for a few days. It’s a lot easier to eat healthily on a budget if you can prepare at least half a week’s worth of meals on a Sunday.

Where to learn it

While the internet has revolutionized cooking education, it’s impossible to beat the joy of flipping through a cookbook and deciding what to eat next. If you’re still learning the basics, I’d suggest grabbing Gordon Ramsay’s Home Cooking or The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. These have worked well for me and members of PopSci’s staff. But if neither of those speak to you, there’s bound to be a book out there that does.

And, of course, there are some incredible YouTube channels you can use as resources. My favorites have to be Binging with Babish (including the spin-off, Basics with Babish) and Bon Appétit. Look around and find someone making the kind of food you want to eat—and start learning.

The basics of photography

a man taking a photo of some buildings in Singapore
Simply learning basic photography skills will ensure that your vacation photos aren’t just a bunch of random, boring images. Sonnie Hiles/Unsplash

Look, I started my career as a photographer, so I’m a little biased. It paid too little, so I transitioned to the high-paying world of… online writing. Even still, I think learning the basics of photography is something everyone should do.

The world is visual, and only getting more so. Smartphone cameras and screens are so good that everyone not only has the equipment to snap great shots, but the ability to share them immediately when they do.

Being able to take good photos is just one of those useful life skills that you’ll find you need time and time again. Want to sell your old tech gear online? Good photos will make it stand out from everyone else’s otherwise identical stuff. Need an attractive profile pic for a dating site? Take your own. The basics transfer over to videography, too, so if you’ve ever wanted to shoot a movie or build a YouTube channel, learning photography will help you hone your technique.

Where to learn it

Photography isn’t as intimidating as it seems—all you need to get started is a smartphone. Sure, you can buy a camera later on if you’d like, but you can learn the basics of exposure and composition with a decade-old iPhone.

YouTube, as always, is a good place to start because it’s free. I’d suggest checking out Peter McKinnon and Jared Polin’s channels for some comprehensive and easy-to-follow videos on getting started.

If you’re looking for a slightly more structured approach, both and Udemy have plenty of courses. And if you’re interested in the super-creative side of things like making people look like they’re levitating, check out Phlearn.

How to knit

Knitting has had a serious resurgence in the last few years, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s productive, relaxing, and can be done almost anywhere. Plus, your hands will be too busy for you to mindlessly scroll through Twitter.

And, while knitting and sewing have traditionally been associated with women and domestic work, there have always been men who are interested in the art. Case in point: former Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Rosey Grier’s 1973 masterpiece, Needlepoint for Men.

If you’re looking for a way to relax and never have to buy gifts again, give it a look.

Where to learn it

Having someone guide you through your first project is a great way to start—they’ll be able to answer questions and fix any mistakes you make along the way. If you don’t have a knitter in your life who can help you, find a group through a local yarn shop. Most of the time, the only requirement to join is that you buy materials there, so check when they convene and clear your schedule for some knitting fun.

If you want to take on a bigger challenge and learn by yourself, YouTube is, again, a great resource. There are channels, like KnittingHelp, dedicated exclusively to teaching people how to knit, so it’s just a matter of finding one that works for you. You can also pick up a book or magazine and check online whenever you have questions. Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitting Book is a classic starting point. In it, you’ll find instructions, basic stitches, and projects specifically designed for beginners.

How to meditate

Yeah, yeah, we hear you shouting, “That’s so cliche!” and “Everyone’s doing it!” But as much as I hate to prop up a bandwagon, it’s seriously worth it. I’ve been meditating almost every day for the past two years (and every day since the start of this year) and it’s always a highlight. It helps me focus, relax, and generally just go about life without breaking down more often than necessary.

Where to learn it

There are many meditation apps out there, but the two big ones are Headspace and Calm. I’ve extensively tried both, and Calm was the one that worked best for me, but neither is objectively superior. What matters most is that you connect with the meditation teacher. They both have a free beginners’ course (10 days for Headspace, seven for Calm) and a week-long trial of their full subscriptions ($96 and $70 per year, respectively).

Don’t stop there

There is an endless variety of skills (both useful and wonderfully useless) you can spend your time mastering. A friend of mine keeps threatening to get into blacksmithing and, should he follow through, there’s a YouTube channel to help him. It’s your spare time. Enjoy it.