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Published on October 16, 2019

The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

Remember the saying that it takes exactly 10,000 hours of practice to be considered an expert at something? While the saying has been used by many people over the years, there’s an underside to that saying.

Specifically in what it represents: deliberate practice.

While we’d focus on other areas of that quote, deliberate practice is something that isn’t talked much. And it’s actually a pretty crucial aspect of learning. It demands so much from us that no other learning skill would ask of us. It’s also highly effective and in a sense can supercharge your learning. Here is how it’s done.

Who Coined the Term Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice hasn’t been around for a very long time. It was first uncovered in the late 1970s when Anders Ericsson created a highly unusual and tedious experiment for his assistant.[1]

The subject, Steve Faloon, was told he had to memorize random strings of numbers. The numbers weren’t the important thing but rather how many numbers Faloon could store in his head at any given time with consistent practice.

At the time, Faloon was only able to hold about 7-8 random bits of numbers at any time. During the experiment, Ericsson and Steve sat down, and Ericsson would recite a string of numbers of one per second. After four sessions, Faloon achieved that benchmark, but would struggle with 9 and couldn’t remember the 10th number.

The effort was proving Ericsson’s research. That is until there was a breakthrough.

By session five, Faloon suddenly remembered the first 10 digit string and followed by passing an 11 string. It may not seem like much, however between a mere session, Faloon’s memory grew by 57% on average.

And by session 200, Faloon’s 11 string memory grew to 82 random digits he could recite!

What was so interesting about this though is that Faloon wasn’t anyone extraordinary. He didn’t have any special training or a secret technique. He merely practiced week after week a special way. Like anyone would if they wanted to be world record holders, prolific writers, or chess prodigies.

As a result of this, Ericsson devoted his life to this work and was the one behind coining the term deliberate practice to best describe this phenomenon.

Deliberate Practice In Learning

Deliberate practice in learning is pretty big in the learning community. Thanks to books like Talent is Overrated, The Practicing Mind, The First 20 Hours, The Talent Code, and Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, deliberate practice is certainly coveted.

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The problem with these books is that the authors did not interpret this research very correctly. And I’m not the one saying that. Ericsson published his own book called Peak, which expressed those concerns.

Deliberate practice is a method to overcome learning plateaus with rapid and quick bursts of continued improvements. Ericsson explained this process by breaking practice into three stages of learning: naive, purposeful, and deliberate.

Naive Practice

Naive practice is the practice of what most people are doing. They’re going through the motions, repeating what they normally do in any given situation.

This might include:

  • Playing a physical or mental sport casually like you would with a friend.
  • Writing the same type of article you’d write on a given day.
  • Playing or singing the same songs that you have skill in.
  • Finding a recipe, making that dish, and continue making that dish in the future.

While in some cases, you could argue that this is practice, the issue here is that it’s not challenging. To that, Ericsson says:

“People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless… But no. Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.”

This all sounds familiar and is what so many other books push. It’s the mere practice that counts. But that’s not true.

So what should you be doing?

Well, if you recognize that you are plateauing, or you’re going through the motions, you’ll need to look at some other form of practice. The next stage that Ericsson describes is purposeful practice and can help with that.

Purposeful Practice

It’s one step away from deliberate practice, but it’s vastly superior to naive practice.

How?

Because purposeful practice is the idea that you are practicing something with a specific goal in mind. Going back to naive practice, you’re casually doing those activities. Even if you want to be getting better at something, that’s no way to improve yourself.

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Instead, have specific goals in mind. Goals like:

  • Play or sing a certain song at a specific speed with no mistakes three times in a row.
  • Remember 10 random digits in a row. Remembering the first 10 digits of pi could be another exercise.
  • Running 10 100m sprints under 12 seconds each.
  • Finishing writing an article in under 45-minutes when they typically take you an hour.

The idea with these goals is to create a deliberate challenge and each one calls on certain skills.

Want to run faster? Find a method that works for you that’ll help you run faster.

Want to write articles or papers faster? Find ways to enter a flow state faster and avoid distractions.

Want to have a better memory? Practice harder memory tests to train your mind.

There are other elements that form purposeful practice as well outside of setting a goal.

First, you’ll need a feedback system. This feedback system can be from your own self-assessment or from a coach. The differences between what’s needed will depend on what you are practicing.

Going back to Steve Faloon and his number memorization skills, self-assessment made sense with a little bit of coaching in terms of remembering more sequences.

If you’re looking to play a sport better or perform better musically, you’ll need more technical skills and will need a coach.

Second element is that the practice pushes you out of your comfort zone. If you can’t do that, you won’t improve. Ericsson said as much when he talked about Faloon:

“As he increased his memory capacity, I would challenge him with longer and longer strings of digits so that he was always close to his capacity. In particular, by increasing the number of digits each time he got a string right, and decreasing the number when he got it wrong, I kept the number of digits right around what he was capable of doing while always pushing him to remember just one more digit.”

That statement is important because it also addresses the degree in which one is stepping out of their comfort zone. Stepping out of your comfort zone doesn’t require you to go through a large mental battle. Rather, make it challenging, but not to the point that it’s impossible to achieve.

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This brings me to the final element of purposeful practice: prompting creative problem-solving.

Sometimes in order to overcome a problem, you need to try different techniques. Going back to Ericsson’s experiment, there were all kinds of methods used. Each time Faloon overcame them.

Sometimes, he had to memorize numbers in chunks. Other times, Ericsson slowed down the rate he was giving Faloon numbers.

Purposeful practice is the base of deliberate practice. In order to move to that stage, two things must happen…

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is exactly like purposeful practice but with two differences:

  • The person needs to practice in a well-defined field;
  • And they need a teacher who can tailor their practice activities.

On the note of the first essential, the person needs to be rigorous enough that there is a distinct difference between the experts and novices.

For example, you’d see deliberate practice in fields like chess, diving, musical performance, or any other competitive setting.

You wouldn’t see deliberate practice so much in other non-competitive tasks. Examples are gardening, most hobbies, teaching, consulting, or engineering. While people still say experts, intermediates, and novices in those fields – barring years of experience – there are no clear criteria distinguishing who is who.

This is further reinforced by the second difference – that you need a teacher to guide you. A good coach is someone who’ll provide practice strategies that will develop you and give you feedback.

Someone can give you tips on being a better chess player. That can’t be said exactly about gardening or cooking.

Ericsson makes this distinction clearer:

… we are drawing a clear distinction between purposeful practice— in which a person tries very hard to push himself or herself to improve— and practice that is both purposeful and informed. In particular, deliberate practice is informed and guided by the best performers’ accomplishments and by an understanding of what these expert performers do to excel. Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.”

But these two key differences aren’t the sole law. For example, you don’t always need a teacher to achieve deliberate practice. Take basketball legend, Kobe Bryant. Winning 5 NBA championships and 2 Olympic Gold Medals, Bryant’s practice regimen is outlined in this article. What’s significant is that the level of discipline he has doesn’t require a teacher at this point.

He has a strict regimen and he does it all by himself and occasionally asks someone to tag along.

You too can do the same. All you need to do is:

  1. Identify an expert in your field of interest.
  2. Learn what they do to make them good at that skill.
  3. Design purposeful practice around learning those techniques on your own.

The Importance of Deliberate Practice

When most people talk about working hard, we often turn to the amount of time spent. We’ve had entrepreneurs touting they spent 60 to 80 hours working a week. That or we go back to the 10,000 hours of practice.

But as Ericsson and many other researchers have uncovered, time is one part of the puzzle. So many people are hung up about the time factor that they forget the other aspects I’ve brought up.

What sort of feedback is each person getting?

Are they adding in layers of challenge to their practice?

Do they have any goals in mind?

These are all important factors to our improvement and are key considerations in whether you are doing naive practice or, deliberate practice.

Researchers have also made a point of looking at top performers and finding most indulge in deliberate practice. Top entrepreneurs, athletes, musicians, artists, CEOs and more all work on developing certain skills. One example is comedic genius Jerry Seinfeld who created a strategy called “don’t break the chain.”[2] That strategy alone was how Seinfeld wrote jokes and made him famous.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have a grasp of deliberate practice, you need to apply it in your life. Your goals may not be to be as famous as Jerry Seinfeld or as skilled as Kobe Bryant, but there are still steps you can take to step up your learning.

Spend one hour focusing on a task and indulging in deliberate practice. Have some goals, give yourself feedback, seek guidance if need be, and push your skills little by little every time.

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Featured photo credit: Tai’s Captures via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020

A Comprehensive Guide to a Smart Learning Process

A Comprehensive Guide to a Smart Learning Process

One of the most crucial aspects of our lives is the ability to learn. We often take this skill for granted since not many of us pause and think about our learning process. In fact, if we did, we would probably uncover that we engage in ineffective learning mechanisms.

Think about it. Has your learning helped you recall things you learned last month? Go back a year and ponder.

A lot of how we learn was tucked away in school. Our exposure to school learning is the basis of how we learn moving forward. However, over the past few decades, learning has evolved into different stages of learning, and that becomes the main issue.

No longer are we looking at examinations of people’s characteristics about understanding and learning. Instead, scholars have created learning processes that use materials that support our interactions with others and our goals.

As a result, we can learn new things more smartly and effectively – which will be covered as we proceed further in understanding the learning process.

The Essential Steps of the Learning Process

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell states that the key to success is for us to practice 10,000 hours on a specific skill. It’s also worth noting that the skill needs the correct learning direction. If you’re learning how to do something the wrong way, you’ll continue to use it the wrong way.

But before understanding the learning process, we must understand the stages of learning. Written in the 1970s, Noel Burch created a model called the Four Stages of Learning. [1]

From there, we can use the stages of learning as a basis for how to learn effectively.

1. Unconscious Incompetence

Think of a skill that you are good at and that you use every single day.

Now think back to when you first developed that skill. Were you good at it? Probably not.

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You never heard of the skill or had a desire to learn of it until that point. This is the first stage: You know nothing about it.

2. Conscious Incompetence

Once you have heard of the skill, you begin to delve into it.

Driving a car is a perfect example. Before this stage, you never felt the need to learn how to drive. Nevertheless, once you became of legal age, you had to study to get your license. You likely made several mistakes on the driving test as well as during the written test.

This is the stage where you feel learning is slow, and you’re also aware of your mistakes.

3. Conscious Competence

By this stage, you know pretty much everything you need to know. At the same time, though, you are also aware that you need to focus and concentrate on what you are doing.

This stage can be that you know the rules of the road and can drive well. However, you feel you can’t talk to anyone, play any music, or look away from the road. You feel like you need total silence to focus and concentrate on driving.

At this stage, learning can be even slower than the previous stages. The learning isn’t consistent, nor is it a habit yet.

4. Unconscious Competence

By this stage, you’ve made it. You know everything in and out about the skill. It’s become a habit, and you don’t need to concentrate. You can relax and let your unconscious mind take over.

Exceeding the 4 Stages: Flow/Mastery

While Burch only covered four stages, there is another stage that exceeds it. This is the flow or mastery stage.

You may have heard of something called a flow state. [2] It’s the mental state where someone is performing an activity and is fully immersed in it. They feel energized, focused, and get a sense of joy from doing this activity.

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Flow or mastery can stem from all kinds of activities like Writing, reading, jogging, biking, figure skating, and more. It’s also characterized as complete absorption in what you’re doing, making you unaware of space and time.

Different Types of Learning Process

Another aspect of the learning process is the types of learning. While every person goes through those stages of learning, how we learn is different.

Having covered four learning styles in 4 Learning Styles to Help You Learn Faster and Smarter, I’m recapping the different types of learning in psychology.

Psychiatrists have narrowed how we learn down to seven learning styles as below:

  • Visual (spatial): Learning through pictures, graphs, charts, etc.
  • Aural (auditory-musical): Learning through sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): Learning through spoken or written words.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): Learning through the body, hands, and a sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): Learning through logic, systems, and reasons.
  • Social (interpersonal): Learning through groups or talking to people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): Learning individually through self-study or individual assignments.

You may be asking why all of this matters and actually how we learn plays a significant role. How we internally represent experiences stems from how we learn. What we learn not only establishes how we recall information but also impacts our own word choice.

It also influences which part of our brain we use for learning. Researchers uncovered this through various experiments.[3]

For example, say you’re driving to a place you’ve never gone before. How you learn will determine which method of learning you’ll use. Some will ask people for directions, while others will pull up Google maps. Some will write the directions out, while some won’t and merely follow street signs.

Knowing how to learn to this depth is vital because once you know what style you use, you can then develop a learning process to be a more effective learner.

How To Become an Effective Learner?

The learning process varies from person to person. Generally speaking, though, consider the following steps and considerations:

1. Improve Your Memory

Learning doesn’t only require that we learn information, but to retain it. If we are to learn something, we will have to learn and relearn. This means recalling and having a sharp memory to keep that information.

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Improving our memory can range from a variety of things. From memory palaces to practicing other memory improvement tactics.

2. Keep Learning and Practicing New Things

Learning a new skill takes time, but there is nothing wrong with learning a few other things. International Journal of Science – Nature: Changes in grey matter induced by training[4] reported that those who juggled between learning different topics increase their gray matter which is associated with visual memory

3. Learn in Many Ways

While we have our own go-to style, delving into other types and stages of learning can be useful. If you learn by listening to podcasts, why not try rehearsing information verbally or visually?

It will not start great, but by improving your skill to describe what you learned orally, you are further cementing the knowledge in your mind.

Judy Willis MD, M.Ed in her publication on Review of Research: Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success[5] states how the more regions we keep data stored, the more interconnection there is in the collection information that we later process.

4. Teaching What You Learned to Others

It doesn’t have to be in a tutoring situation, but this method is still a reliable way for two people to grow.

Regardless of learning styles, we retain the information we tell others more effectively than if we keep it to ourselves. Was there a random fact you told someone a few months ago? You are more likely to remember that information because you brought it up to someone.

5. Use Relational Learning

Relational learning is relating new information to things you already know.

A typical example of this is remembering someone’s name. You can better recall that person’s name if you associate that name to something or someone familiar.

6. Gaining Practical Experience

Nothing beats learning than trying it for yourself. Sure, seeing information does have its strong points -and most learning styles benefit from exposed information – there is something to be said about getting your “hands dirty.”

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7. Refer Back to past Info If Need Be

The learning process is not perfect. We’ll forget at certain points. If you ever struggle to remember something, make a point of going back to your notes.

This is key because if we try recalling, we risk ourselves learning or relearning the wrong answer. And again, there is a difference between learning the right way and the wrong way.

8. Test Yourself

While this step may seem odd, there are benefits to testing yourself. Even if you think you know everything about the topic, going back and testing yourself can always help.

Not only does testing improve our recall, but we may realize that we learned a concept or task incorrectly. That knowledge can enhance our effectiveness in the future.

9. Stop Multitasking

While we should be learning new things all the time, we shouldn’t be trying to do several tasks at once. We ought to focus on one activity at a time before moving onto other tasks.

By trying to multitask, we are learning less effectively and are only hindering ourselves. Check out how multitasking is merely another way of distracting ourselves.

Bottom Line

Psychologists define learning as the process of a permanent change in a person’s behavior resulting from experience. The understanding of the learning process is up to us, but do consider the bigger picture. Be aware of what style works best for you, and work to improve it while enhancing other learning styles. The only way we can advance a skill is to learn continuously. Even in the skills you have mastered, there are always new developments.

You can learn more about how you can cultivate lifelong learning and attain an edge in every niche that you get associated with today!

Featured photo credit: Aliis Sinisalu via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Gordon Training International: The Four Stages of Competence
[2] Habits for Wellbeing: Flow: the Secret to Happiness: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
[3] Training Industry: How the Brain Learns
[4] International Journal of Science – Nature: Changes in grey matter induced by training
[5] Judy Willis MD, M.Ed: Review of Research: Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success

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