How to be Good at Just About Anything – Leveraging Deliberate Practice to Accelerate Your Progress

Deliberate practice feature

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So you decided on the skill or discipline of creation that you want to take part in. But how do you actually get better? We’ve already told you that it’s not about the equipment, but today we’ll tell you exactly how to ensure you progress.

The key is called deliberate practice.

What is Deliberate Practice?

We all know what practice is, and have all likely experienced ineffective practice as well. The problem of efficacy is what we are looking to combat with deliberate practice. At its core, deliberate practice is a means of ensuring that the time spent practising is actually helping you to improve in your chosen skill or discipline. The idea was popularised by the Malcolm Gladwell book “Outliers” which itself was based on the work of researcher Anders Ericsson.

There are several principles that encompass deliberate practice (which we’ll get into), but I think an example will be most helpful at this stage.

What does Deliberate Practice Look Like?

In this example we’ll take a look at two people that want to self-teach guitar (we’ve all been there at some point). We’ll talk you through the routines of each person then ask you; who is practicing deliberately, and how quickly each person will likely improve. 

man playing guitar
Photo by Jacek Dylag

Person A

  • Picks up the guitar once a week and practices for 1-2 hours.
  • Is often multitasking during his practice sessions, i.e. has the TV on or looking at social media.
  • Really like the way the first song they learnt sounds, so spends most of their time thereafter playing that, as well as other stuff they already know how to play.
  • When they try to learn something new, they like to stick to the easy stuff.

Person B

  • Makes sure to practice for 15-20 minutes, on at least 5 days in a week.
  • Avoids all other distractions while practicing.
  • Starts each session with one thing that they want to focus on, i.e. picking, scales, tone, or a certain song. 
  • When they play songs in practice it is only the ones they are in the process of learning.
  • Picks songs that get incrementally harder when choosing a new song to learn.

Principles of Deliberate Practice

These are the simple principals that can be applied to learning almost any skill or craft. If you are interested in this, you may also like the book Peak by Anders Ericsson the researcher whose work these ideas originate from. 

Setting Specific and Realistic Goals

While the overall journey to learning a new thing can be a long and winding path, it’s best for your practice if you have a clear goal. This is true for both goals at a long timescale, but also single practice sessions. 

Personally, I favour more systematic goals for the longer term. In line with learnings from So Good They Can’t Ignore You. These are goals that say “I want to go to the gym twice a week for the next 3 months” rather than “I want to lose 10 pounds in the next 3 months”. The former is a goal that is both putting in place a system, but is also something that is entirely under your control. It’s all about developing a system that will help you in the long run. The latter is something that draws a line in the sand, a binary point before which you have failed. Lose 6 pounds, failure. Lose 9 ½ pounds, failure. We want to succeed, so set your goals to help you do so.

In the short term, you want to go into every deliberate practice session with a goal in mind. A single thing that you want to do. This will add a much needed structure to your time, and keep you moving forward and progressing.

Lastly, make sure the goals are achievable. Why would you set yourself up for failure? It’s all well and good being ambitious, but make sure your goals are a stretch that is within reach. You can always go above and beyond!

Move out of Your Comfort Zone

Good practice is always uncomfortable. You’re going to have to get used to it. The only way that you can improve is to do things that you don’t already know how to do. Broadening your horizons can be exhilarating, scary and, as we said, an uncomfortable experience. But to progress you must leave your comfort zone. 

These steps away from comfort should be small and constant. Always be working on things that are a little new, a little beyond you, but ultimately doable. Doing things way beyond your current skill level is not only unhelpful, but is also hugely disheartening. 

Consistency is the key

Not going to dwell too long on this one. But consistency is a cliché for a reason. It works! People often dismiss this for more creative things, but it still holds true. To improve in your chosen area, you have to work little and often. Consistent effort over the weeks, months and years ahead will lead you to develop in ways you couldn’t ever imagine.

Also notice the little in “little and often”. Daily 15-30 minute deliberate sessions are almost always more beneficial than trying to do it all in a single day. We’re looking for sustainable habits that will last over time. 

The Power of Feedback

This bit is something that even I forget from time to time. If you’re doing as we suggested, then you’ll be working just beyond your competency (your comfort zone). If that’s the case how will you know if you are doing things well, or even correctly? You need feedback!

It doesn’t really matter where this feedback comes from, but it needs to be unbiased (we’re looking for honesty here), regular, and coming from a person who knows what they are on about (an expert). Traditionally, this sort of feedback would come from a teacher. But as we live in the 21st century there is almost certainly an online community for the exact thing you are looking for help with. For example, there’s a subreddit for almost everything.

Note: the internet can be a little thorny at times. So try not to take any feedback personally. Make sure to only pay attention to the comments that seem constructive and coming from a place of authority. As long as you find a good community, these should be the bulk of the messages you’ll see. As well as some encouragement. 

Take a break

This bit is simple really. Take a break. Time spent away from practicing can be surprisingly beinficial. Bringing with it new ideas, solidifying things you have already learnt, as well as cementing muscle memory. 

It’s good to take a break every now and then. 

Extra: Teachers

I wanted to add a section on teachers as I think they are often overlooked. In the age of the internet they have been somewhat replaced by the online courses, mostly for cost and accessibility reasons. But a good teacher can be really valuable, especially as you are just starting out.

A teacher will automatically incorporate most of these principles into their lessons and the work they ask you to do at home. Will have the expertise to stretch you and give you feedback. As well as a multitude of intangibles that I can’t even list.

If you are a little stuck at where to start, then I would suggest finding a teacher. Book 6-10 lessons in bulk to get started. By the end of it you will probably know how best to proceed and develop on your own. And if you enjoy having a human to guide you you can always carry on. 

The 10,000 Hour Rule Explained

As is often the case, when interesting ideas enter the public conscience they come as headlines worthy of clicks, often losing their nuance. That is the case with the “10,000 hour rule”. Once again from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the idea is actually one rooted in deliberate practice.

The headlines you probably went along the lines of  “Scientists find that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach mastery in any skill”. Makes for a good headline right. But that’s not the whole story.

hourglass
Photo by NeONBRAND

Neither Gladwell or his primary source Anders Ericsson are saying that 10,000 is some magic number that one must reach to be great. What both try to convey is that what we often attribute as “talent” is often simply the someone who has put in the time. Well structured, focussed, challenging and deliberate practice is the only route to mastery. Not simply racking up 10,000 hours.  


Go Practice Deliberately!

So there you have it. Now you have been armed with the main tool you will use as you progress your skill. Deliberate practice. It’s always important to note that these things take time. Make sure to enjoy the process. Make sure you have some way of measuring your progress as you go – and soon enough you’ll find that you’ve improved more than you could have imagined. 

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