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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

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

The Faster You Learn, the Easier You’ll Fall Behind

The Faster You Learn, the Easier You’ll Fall Behind

Garry Kasparov is a chess grandmaster – and also a former world chess champion. Over the last few decades, he’s beaten hundreds of first-class chess players. It’s no surprise then, that many people consider Kasparov to be one of the greatest chess players of all time.

However, in 1997, Kasparov lost a game of chess to a computer. A year earlier, he had played against IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer and defeated it. But the computer was to have its revenge, as just one year later, when the rematch took place, Deep Blue defeated Kasparov.

    Over the next few years, humans and computers traded chess moves and blows. Fast-forward to 2017, and the picture is crystal clear: today’s best chess programs can easily beat the world’s best human chess players.[1]

    As the Kasparov story demonstrates, even the world’s top players – who practiced a lot – can end up losing.

    Now consider your friends, family and colleagues. How many of these people think they’re doing well in what they do? And how many think they are doing better than the average and have stopped looking for ways to improve themselves? The answer is, a lot.

    Why Learning Can Lead to Stagnation

    When people learn well – they pick up knowledge and quickly become skillful. And the smarter the people, the easier they pick up knowledge, and the easier and faster they become very good at something.

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    These types of individuals find learning effortless, and therefore, they pick up knowledge and skills much better than the average person.

    Take a look at the picture below. The tool in their hand represents the skill they have learned, and the cloud is the level they are currently on – in this case ground level.

      When these learners become knowers, they believe that they know what they’ve learned extremely well. This may be the case, but in reality, they’re already better than average. Because of this, they are unlikely to find anyone who can surpass them. It’s at this point that they may think to themselves, “I’m good enough” and “there’s no need for me learn anything more.”

        As I’ll show in the next few paragraphs, people’s egos can stop them from learning and improving themselves.

        For example, let’s take a look at an expert pianist. They can perform proficiently because of their hard work and practice that they’ve put in over the course of many years. To help them, they may have had a tutor who developed their skills and brought out their talent.

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        The consistent tutoring and practicing led them to become an accomplished pianist – one who regularly performs paid concerts in front of decent-sized audiences. However, their success has led them to believe that they don’t need to make any further changes or improvements to their musical skills.

          When experts stop learning – they start to fall behind. This is because others will keep improving, and eventually get ahead of them.

          The world is constantly changing, so sticking to the same way to practice (and failing to improve) will lead to people dropping the ball. A recent study predicted that one in five U.K. employees are under threat of losing their jobs to automation. A person who’s comfortable in their job today, may find themselves replaced by a computer or robot tomorrow. If this prediction comes true, millions of people will soon find themselves out of work.[2] This is a real life example of how people can fall behind when they stop learning and improving themselves.

          Clearly, any experts who stop learning and improving, will be replaced by those who keep learning – whether these are humans or machines.

            When You Think You’ve Learned Enough, You Fall Behind

            The cloud depicted in the visuals isn’t concrete, and it’s prone to fall and disappear any time when you stop paying attention to your own learning and development.

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            Everyone, no matter how good they believe themselves to be at something, should never stop learning. Reaching an ‘acceptable’ performance only means that you’re doing okay. It doesn’t mean that you’re doing it to the best of your ability or potential.

            As I stated earlier (but well worth repeating again)… When you stop learning, you’re falling behind.

              Push Yourself to Reach New Heights

              To keep ahead of your competitors, you need to keep learning and practicing. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean doing things in the same way. You may need to step outside of your comfort zone in order to improve.

                Do what you can’t

                When you think you’re doing something well enough, find what you can’t do – and then do it! Here are four key things to remember about pushing your boundaries:

                1. If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.
                2. Getting out of your comfort zone means trying to do something that you couldn’t do before.
                3. Sometimes you’ll run into something that stops you in your tracks. Find ways around these hurdles by focusing on improving your skills and knowledge, and then practicing them until you become proficient.
                4. Don’t be afraid to experiment. You may need to try different ways to make things happen.

                Set yourself specific goals as you practice

                People who achieve great things set themselves definite goals. And I highly recommend that you do the same.

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                One great way to do this is to follow the SMART and Stretch goal methods, which will help you set a big goal, while at the same time giving you baby steps on how to reach it. When SMART and Stretch goals are combined, your goal setting will have genuine purpose and power. You’ll be motivated by the giant goal, while having confidence in the small, incremental steps that will lead you there.

                Find out more about goals setting in my other article: How to Get Bigger Things Done in the Coming Year

                Along the way, you need to get feedback to help you improve

                It goes without saying that to make progress, you’ll need feedback to identify exactly where and how you are falling short. This feedback can be from yourself or from outside observers (e.g., your audience, your mentor, your peers).

                Do you know why computers can beat humans at chess after those times they’ve lost against them? The answer is, that people who program the computers have learned through all the steps humans have performed. They also gathered valuable feedback through their computers losing against some competitors. The programmers pick up the clues and change the way the computers perform in their next matches.

                Learning Should Never Come to an End

                When we’re young we naturally crave learning. We constantly seek out new knowledge, skills and experiences. However, as we mature, there’s a tendency for us to stop learning new things.

                If this happens, you can be sure that stagnation is just around the corner. And as nature shows, nothing (even stagnation) stays the same for long. Things are either building up – or breaking down.

                To avoid the latter, you must maintain a positive outlook that embraces big goals and constant learning. By doing these things, you’ll stay fresh, lively and ahead of the pack of hyenas snapping at your heels!

                Reference

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