Deliberate Practice: A Mindful & Methodical Way to Master Any Skill

Each and every day we eat, we sleep, we read, we brush our teeth. So why haven’t we all become world-class masters of eating, sleeping, reading, and teeth-brushing? Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, plateaued on those particular skills decades ago, despite never having missed our daily practice sessions. This should tell us something important about the difference between practicing an action and simply doing it a lot, a distinction at the heart of the concept of “deliberate practice.” As the Sprouts video above explains it, deliberate practice “is a mindful and highly structured form of learning by doing,” a “process of continued experimentation to first achieve mastery and eventually full automaticity of a specific skill.”

Psychologist Anders Ericsson, the single figure most closely associated with deliberate practice, draws a distinction with what he calls naive practice: “Naive practice is people who just play games,” and in so doing “just accumulate more experience.” But in deliberate practice, “you actually pinpoint something you want to change. And once you have that specific goal of changing it, you will now engage in a practice activity that has a purpose of changing that.”

As a post on deliberate practice at Farnam Street puts it, “great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next,” often under the guidance of a teacher who can more clearly see their strengths and weaknesses in action.

“Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone,” says the Farnam Street post. “This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily” — just as easily, perhaps, as we eat, sleep, read, and brush our teeth. But we also fail to improve when we operate at the other end of the spectrum, in the “panic zone” that “leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.” As in every other area of life, what challenges us too much frustrates us and what challenges us too little bores us; only at just the right balance do we benefit.

But striking that balance presents challenges of its own, challenges that have ensured a readership for writings on the subject of how best to engage in deliberate practice by Ericsson as well as many others (such as writer-entrepreneur James Clear, whose beginner’s guide to deliberate practice you can read online here). The video above on Ericsson’s book Peak: How to Master Almost Anything explains his view of the goal of deliberate practice as to develop the kind of library of “mental representations” that masters of every discipline — golfers, doctors, guitarists, comedians, novelists — use to approach every situation that might arise. Developing those mental representations requires specific goals, intense periods of practice, immediate feedback during that practice, and above all, frequent discomfort. Everyone enjoys mastery once they attain it, but if you find yourself having too much fun on the way, consider the possibility that you’re not practicing deliberately enough.

Related Content:

Richard Feynman’s “Notebook Technique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

The Cornell Note-Taking System: Learn the Method Students Have Used to Enhance Their Learning Since the 1940s

Wynton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Practice: For Musicians, Athletes, or Anyone Who Wants to Learn Something New

How to Practice Effectively: Lessons from Neuroscience Can Help Us Master Skills in Music, Sports & Beyond

What’s a Scientifically-Proven Way to Improve Your Ability to Learn? Get Out and Exercise

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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