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Stop Thinking and Start Doing: The Power of Practicing More

Stop Thinking and Start Doing: The Power of Practicing More

We all have goals that we want to achieve in our lives. These goals may include learning a new language, eating healthier and losing weight, becoming a better parent, saving more money, and so on.

It can be easy to assume that the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in the future is caused by a lack of knowledge. This is why we buy courses on how to start a business or how to lose weight fast or how to learn a new language in three months. We assume that if we knew about a better strategy, then we would get better results. We believe that a new result requires new knowledge.

What I’m starting to realize, however, is that new knowledge does not necessarily drive new results. In fact, learning something new can actually be a waste of time if your goal is to make progress and not simply gain additional knowledge.

It all comes down to the difference between learning and practicing.

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The Difference Between Learning and Practicing

In Thomas Sterner’s book, The Practicing Mind (audiobook), he explains the key difference between practicing and learning.

“When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal. The words deliberate and intention are key here because they define the difference between actively practicing something and passively learning it.”
—Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind

Learning something new and practicing something new may seem very similar, but these two methods can have profoundly different results. Here are some additional ways to think about the difference.

  • Let’s say your goal is to get stronger and more fit. You can research the best instructions on bench press technique, but the only way to build strength is to practice lifting weights.
  • Let’s say your goal is to grow your startup. You can learn about the best way to make a sales pitch, but the only way to actually land customers is to practice making sales calls.
  • Let’s say your goal is to write a book. You can talk to a best-selling author about writing, but the only way become a better writer is to practice publishing consistently.

Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill.

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practice-vs-learning

    Let’s consider three more reasons to prioritize active practice over passive learning.

    1. Learning Can Be a Crutch That Supports Inaction

    In many cases, learning is actually a way to avoid taking action on the goals and interests that we say are important to us. For example, let’s say you want to learn a foreign language. Reading a book on how to learn a foreign language quickly allows you to feel like you are making progress (“Hey, I’m figuring out the best way to do this!”). Of course, you’re not actually practicing the action that would deliver your desired outcome (speaking the foreign language).

    In situations like this one, we often claim that we are preparing or researching the best method, but these rationalizations allow us to feel like we are moving forward when we are merely spinning our wheels. We make the mistake of being in motion rather than taking action. Learning is valuable until it becomes a form of procrastination.

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    2. Practice Is Learning, But Learning Is Not Practice

    Passive learning is not a form of practice because although you gain new knowledge, you are not discovering how to apply that knowledge. Active practice, meanwhile, is one of the greatest forms of learning because the mistakes you make while practicing reveal important insights.

    Even more important, practice is the only way to make a meaningful contribution with your knowledge. You can watch an online course about how to build a business or read an article about a terrible disaster in a developing nation, but that knowledge is unproductive unless you actually launch your business or donate to those in need. Learning by itself can be valuable for you, but if you want to be valuable to others, then you have to express your knowledge in some way.

    3. Practice Focuses Your Energy on the Process

    “Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing anything.”
    —Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind

    The state of your life right now is a result of the habits and beliefs that you have been practicing each day. When you realize this and begin to direct your focus toward practicing better habits day in and day out, continual progress will be the logical outcome. It is not the things we learn nor the dreams we envision that determines our results, but rather that habits that we practice each day. Fall in love with boredom and focus your energy on the process, not the product.

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    The Bottom Line

    Is passive learning useless? Of course not. In many cases, learning for the sake of learning can be a beautiful thing. Not to mention that soaking up new information can help you make more informed decisions when you do decide to take action.

    That said, the main point of this article is that learning by itself does not lead to progress. We often hide behind information and use learning as an excuse to delay the more difficult and more important choice of actually doing something. Spend less time passively learning and more time actively practicing. Stop thinking and start doing.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    Featured photo credit: Evan Long via flickr.com

    More by this author

    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on April 19, 2021

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

    The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

    Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

    In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

    When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

    Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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    1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

    When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

    As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

    That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

    The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

    What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

    Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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    There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

    So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

    2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

    When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

    No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

    3. Move Your Body

    A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

    It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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    So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

    4. Connect With Another Person

    Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

    One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

    Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

    5. Use Your Imagination

    When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

    That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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    And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

    Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

    Final Thoughts

    Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

    Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

    More on the Importance of Taking a Break

    Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

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