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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