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Practice 102 – What’s the best way to practice?

how do you become incredible at something?

In Practice 101 we discussed what practice is, how it works, and how it may even provide health benefits (especially as you age).

Surely everyone wants to be good at something. There are endless reasons why. Why not?

Now, the question everyone has:

How do people become absolutely amazing at things?

Athletes like Tiger Woods are obvious examples. But what about the CEO of a huge business, like Steve Jobs of Apple?

And more importantly, how can we get better at what we do?

Research has determined that there’s a specific kind of practice that really creates a world class expert. And, as we will discuss, it’s more important than that magical thing people call ‘talent’.


  • How do people become ‘world-class’?

A number of popular books over the last few years have discussed this. Two of my favorite are ‘Outliers‘ by Malcolm Gladwell, and ‘Talent Is Overrated‘ by Geoff Colvin.

The first discusses how people become exceptionally (off the charts) great at something. The latter discusses the similarities of becoming great at anything, whether it be the best musicians, athletes, or business people.

It seems to all come down to one thing:


  • “Deliberate Practice”

Anders Ericsson, a researcher at the University of Florida who is regarded as one of the worlds leading researchers on ‘expertise’, refers to it as “deliberate practice1, 2. He has written about it as early as 1993 3, and is still heavily involved in the research, writing another overview in 2008 4. Much of his research has been focused on expert musicians. Through all the studies, the factor that masters seemed to have in common over their less successful peers was the accumulation of more hours of deliberate practice. Not innate ‘talent’ or genetics.

‘Deliberate practice’ is not simply doing something repeatedly hoping to improve.

Let’s take golf for example: Taking 200 golf balls and just hitting them the same way 200 times isn’t going to help. Unless you purposefully try harder, monitor your progress, get advice and feedback, and attempt not only your best, but improvement, every time, you’re probably not going to get any better. You might even get worse!

Every attempt has to be better than your ‘best’. It’s like always trying to beat your high score instead of just playing the game.

It also has to be highly specific. The more similar your practice is to what you will actually be doing, the better. Hockey player? Practice shooting in your gear while on ice… not in your driveway. There’s that specificity principle again, and practicing skills is probably it’s most important application.

How much? The more the better. To become world class, it seems you have to punch about 10,000 hours of this type of practice. If you practice something 4 hours a day, it would take you 2500 days… almost 7 years.

Practicing that much every day is tough, and obviously we have to account for days off. Most ‘world class’ people have been doing what they do for about 10 years before they reach that top level. Of course, some people get there faster, or slower.


  • What about talent?

Some advantage when starting a sport is helpful, like a strong arm in baseball or being tall for basketball. You may be the best kid on the team, get a lot of attention from coaches and be encouraged to keep doing it. This certainly means people with ‘talent’ have an early advantage. But still, they aren’t experts yet.

You still have to practice insanely hard to become world class.

Just because you’re not tall enough or strong enough at the beginning doesn’t mean you can’t train hard to overcome these obstacles. No, you can’t make yourself taller, but do you need to be? Look at Basketball. Steve Nash (one of the best of all time) is 6’3″ 5 and the average NBA player in 2010-2011 is about 6’7″ 6. The shortest is 5’9″ 7.

Michael Jordan didn’t make the team when he tried out in his sophomore year because he was ‘too short’ 8. He then worked his ass off and made it the following year. We all know what happened afterwards. He became, well… the Michael Jordan.

Having genetic advantages and the ideal environment (people and places around you) is definitely helpful, no doubt. But practice is still the most important.


  • Why don’t everyone become experts?

If it’s about getting in 10,000 hours, then why don’t we all become experts?
Now that we know about ‘deliberate practice’, it makes more sense.

Think about it… does everyone working a 9-5 job spend every hour constantly trying to improve what they do? Probably not. And I’m not just talking about mindless jobs either.

If you work 40 hours a week at something, you’ll get 10,000 hours in about 4 years. BUT:

Unfortunately, jobs consist mostly of repetitive completion of tasks, even in careers requiring a lot of knowledge and thinking (like doctors 9). Once people learn their craft and acquire work, employers usually just ask them to do it repeatedly. They may be asked to do it faster, or do it more, but not to do it better (unless it’s their job to find better ways, which is – ironically- the job given to those with ‘experience’).

Then how do people keep getting better?

The problem is people often stop practicing deliberately once they get ‘good enough’. But you have to keep practicing deliberately if you want to keep advancing in your skill 10. If you stop, your skills may become more efficient and ‘automatic’ (which can certainly be viewed as an improvement). However, it’s only with the skills you have already learned. That’s fine with daily tasks, like washing dishes and putting on clothes and cooking simple meals. But not something you want to become good at.

Once a skill is learned, making it ‘automatic’ is definitely a good idea. But only if you are doing that skill right. Making something ‘automatic’ may also mean you are creating a habit that can be hard to break later. Don’t start drilling something until you have it right!

If you want to keep getting better, you must purposefully improve what you are doing, or move on to something more challenging.


Conclusion:

  • What world class performers all seem to have in common is that they have spent their careers engaging in something called ‘deliberate practice’.
  • Deliberate practice involves practicing with the goal of constant improvement, not just repetition.
  • You don’t stop at ‘good enough’. That’s why most people don’t become masters. But not everyone wants or needs to.
  • It may involve any number of techniques, like coach feedback, self monitoring, mental imagery, etc. all of which can work better or worse for different people. Typically, masters have done it all.
  • Practice has to be very specific: as similar to performance or competition as possible.
  • Researchers have found that typically, it takes about 10,000 hours over 10 years to achieve this level of expertise.
  • ‘Talent’ (advantages, genetics) may help at first, or at the highest level of competition, but everyone who becomes a master must practice.

If you want to really get better at something, this seems to be how to do it.
But don’t take things too seriously!

This type of practice certainly isn’t easy. It can cause mental fatigue and burn out.

Balancing this type of practice with rest and having fun is essential. Don’t stress!
After all, what are you practicing for if you can’t enjoy what you are doing?

FINAL THOUGHT: Now that you know what’s really important, all you need is the will-power, passion, and dedication to go do it. No excuses. You’re tall enough.

Peace!

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    4 Responses to Practice 102 – What’s the best way to practice?

    1. Pete Moore says:

      Just bumped into your site via someone mentioning it on Twitter. Its a great site, easy to get around and understand from a patients and makes you want to look around it more.

    2. ashley taylor says:

      Dear Tony,
      I am an NYU journalism student interested in writing a feature article about the science of practicing. Your site and all its references seem like a great starting point. What would you say is the newest research on practicing and how it works? What could I say that others have not said?

      Thank you, and best wishes,
      Ashley

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Hi Ashley,
        I’m glad you found this article helpful! That’s a good question. I’ve been meaning to update this article actually – there has been some new research. I’ve also changed my tone somewhat – genetics does seem a little more important (reference), and how things changes in your brain from learning something at first are different from consolidation of the skill (reference).

        I think there is tremendous value in practicing skills – and it may eventually end up being one of those important “categories” of exercise that everyone should include, along with “cardio” and strength training.
        Not sure what else you could say, but after reviewing all the research, you’ll probably have your own insights.
        Be sure to send your article to me once it’s done! I’d love to read it.
        Thanks!

        Tony

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