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.((NPR: Practice Makes Possible: What We Learn By Studying Amazing Kids))
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.
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 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.
It’s one step away from deliberate practice, but it’s vastly superior to naive practice.
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.
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.
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 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:
Identify an expert in your field of interest.
Learn what they do to make them good at that skill.
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.”((Lifehacker: Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret)) That strategy alone was how Seinfeld wrote jokes and made him famous.
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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