Have you heard of the concept of “deliberate practice”? It’s a method for rapid skill aquisition through practicing in a certain way. The concept is discussed in detail in a highly recommened book: Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (2016). So here it is. At last. The long promised book review and summary of the most important takeaways from Peak.
Ever wonder why you’re not improving at skills despite using them every day? You’re not using deliberate practice is why.
So what is deliberate practice anyway?
[…] deliberate practice [is a] a term coined by Ericsson to refer to the specific learning method used by experts to achieve superior performance in their fields, and mental representations. (Wikipedia entry on Peak)
The book resulted from one of the top reserachers in the science of expertise, K. Anders Ericsson, cooperating with science communicator Robert Pool to make his research understandable to the masses. Malcom Gladwell had (incorrectly) popularized the Ericsson’s results as “the 10.000 hour rule”. The reaction to Gladwell’s journalistic writings, however, showed that there was significant public interest in Ericsson’s research but so far, the public had gotten a wrong impression. Since I’m very interested in learning, I loved this book.
How to use deliberate practice for your own learning
In this post, I wanted to quickly sum up the most important information given in Chapter 7 “Principles of Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life”, i.e. how you can use the method for your own life.
- Deliberate practice is targeted practice: You need to a have a clear goal, an overall idea of how you could get there, a way of measuring your progress and a way of getting feedback on how well you’re performing or whether you’re moving in the right direction at all. Ideally, a good teacher with a track record of getting people to achieve the goal quickly and effectively will cover most of these points. But you can also implement them yourself if you make an effort. That’s probably also why test-taking is the best way to learn: There’s a clear goal, you have limited time to put in maximum focused effort and you get feedback on how well you did afterwards. Furthermore, for deliberate practice to work, you must believe that you can improve and maybe have someone to motivate you when you’re down (social pressure often helps).
- “Just doing XY” isn’t practice. Most people wrongly assume that years of playing a sport will make them better or years of experience practicing will make any professional better but likely, skills actually slowly deteriorate from the moment you stop making an active effort to improve. Playing around isn’t practice either. If you’re having lots of fun “practicing”, it likely isn’t actual practice. Practice takes a lot of focus and (mental) effort. You’re allowed to enjoy it in a weird way but if you’re not somewhat exhausted afterwards, i.e. mentally or physically drained, you likely haven’t been sending strong enough signals to your brain that you need to improve in this skill.
- Practice with a teacher. They can speed up your progress. However, you need a teacher who actually has past successes getting their students to where you want to go (having achieved the goal themselves doesn’t count) and you will likely have to change teachers as you progress. Get a teacher who demonstrably has a clear methodological approach and who has succeeded in reliably getting their students to the desired results (to make sure the method will actuall transfer well to you and wasn’t just a one-off accidental success).
- Shorter training sessions with more focus and clearer goals rather than just staying “at it” for ages without actually focusing. Focus, feedback, fix it.
- How to break through a plateau: Push yourself harder than you usually would. You will likely fail and make mistakes. These are your weaknesses holding yourself back from progressing, only that you usually can’t see them. By upping the stress level, they come out much more clearly: What goes wrong and when?
- Break a skill down into the smallest learnable subskills and work specifcally on those, measuring your progress. Identify your weaknesses and work tirelessly on them. Those are often easier to identify when you break down complex skills into minimal learnable units. Additionally, a teacher will likely be able to locate the problem much more quickly than yourself.
- Think about using a teacher sparingly as an (online) consultant. Even when you don’t usually want to invest in a teacher (or don’t have the means to do so), seek them out for a targeted session to pinpoint weaknesses to work on. Once they give you exercises to work on and instructions for measuring your progress with them, the work is on you anyway – you don’t constantly need a teacher. Profit from the fact that you can get the best (or at least great) teachers from all over the world, even in really niche skills, as online consultants nowadays. With the internet, deliberate practice becomes easier to implement even outside the former “bastions” of deliberate practice (extremely standardized skill sets like becoming a concert pianist, ballerina, tennis player, chess master and whatnot).
- Ask the Tim Ferriss questions: What are the minimal learnable units? The Lego blocks I should be starting with? Which 20 percent of the blocks should I focus on for 80 percent or more of the outcomes I want? In what order should I learn the blocks? What are the biggest mistakes, myths and wastes of time in the field? Who is good at this despite seeming disadvantaged in some way? What is the single most effective tip an expert has come across to speed up progress?
- How to keep up motivation? Practice for 1 hour and make time during peak times of your day, best first thing in the morning. You likely can’t focus intensely for longer than one hour. Pros often don’t do more than around 4,5 hours of deliberate practice (broken up into smaller sessions with breaks in between) but make sure to recharge with naps and taking good care of their bodies and brains.
- In short: Define a clear goal, identify sub-skills to learn, get feedback to identify your weaknesses and work on them in a targeted way as well as refine your training, measure progress and keep up motivation. It’s simple but it isn’t easy. However, it’s proven to actually work.
So that’s it for today.
Have you tried deliberate practice before and if yes, for what?
So long.. and thanks for all the fish!
- Wikipedia entry on Peak
- K. Anders Ericsson and Kyle W. Harwell, Deliberate Practice and Proposed Limits on the Effects of Practice on the Acquisition of Expert Performance: Why the Original Definition Matters and Recommendations for Future Research, in: Front. Psychol., 25 October 2019, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02396
- James Clear’s Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice
- Medium: Get Better At Anything
- James Clear: Deliberate Practice. What is it and how to use it?
- Tim Ferriss, The Art and Science of Learning Anything Faster
- Tim Ferriss, The 4 Hour Chef (a book about learning how to learn – he has a few cool hacks; Mariner Books 2012).
- Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated (Portfolio 2010).
- Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success (Rodale Books 2017).
- Somehow related: Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning; Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein and Barbara Oakley, A Mind for Numbers.
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