Deliberate Practice

I first realised how important repetition and consistency were from my days spent language hacking. I leveraged these principles to learn new words and verbs that I tested myself on repeatedly using a flashcard system called Anki.

I noticed that the more times I saw a word the higher the chance I would retain it. Spacing and time intervals were also factors that were important, thankfully once I had broken down how many words I needed to learn a day there were settings within Anki that took care of spacing.

This all may sound like common sense, however I notice a lot of people struggle with this, perhaps because it can feel quite monotonous and tedious. My way around this was to listen to music at the same time. 

Memorisation isn’t very cognitively demanding so I began to associate a boring task with something I looked forward to doing. I’m sure this is something that Pavlov himself would have been proud of.

It took me a couple more years to realise that there was an even more effective approach to accelerated learning in the form of deliberate practice.

What follows are 3 important components of deliberate practice:

1. Move Through Your Comfort Zone

I get it, nobody likes the uncomfortable feelings, but stagnation is the only thing that lies in the comfortable feeling state and over the long term your mind, body and spirit will not thank you for your aversion to discomfort.

The upside of facing the uncomfortable is that you begin to see that it is possible to become more comfortable with the uncomfortable, a bizarre paradox but an experience that seems to be built into the path to progress.

Consider this quote from K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist who researches the nature of expertise and human performance, which highlights the importance of deliberate practice to overcome limitations: 

a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.
 — K. Anders Ericsson

Perfecting a skill goes hand in hand with time spent in practice and time spent in deliberate practice never feels comfortable, at least if we are doing it right. The art lies in pushing yourself just a little further beyond your current limits day by day.

2. Be Specific

I must admit that I struggle with this aspect of deliberate practice a lot. There seems to be a part of me that is terrified of failure and believes that if things aren’t measured then there is no proof that I failed. This is all well and good but leads to little or no meaningful progress. 

Without specific and measurable goals then we are left with an open feedback loop. In order to harness the power of deliberate practice there must be a closed loop where we can use the feedback to up level our mindset and skillsets.

In the moments when I am tempted not to measure because I am feeling too lazy I ask myself a simple question:

Would I rather be happy or be right?

Inevitably happy wins out. My understanding of happiness is that happiness comes from progress and personal growth.

3. Recovery Time

In order to move the needle and get things done on time focus is very important. However, it is equally important to block out time to re energize. Deliberate practice is both time and energy consuming so it is important to block out time to relax and re calibrate. This time can be spent doing things that help your mind to relax and wander and to help keep you grounded in the here and now.

Contrary to popular belief, daydreaming isn’t all that unproductive. When we allow our brains to relax and wander we open up the possibility of creating new neural pathways in our brains which helps increase the odds of fresh innovative ideas.

Research by Dr Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, highlights that we’re constantly moving between the “focused” and “diffuse” modes of thinking. She coined these terms in her research centered around Learning how to Learn.

A great technique to combine both of these modes is the Pomodoro technique. Set 25 minutes where you enter into focused mode through problem solving and studying new material and space out these blocks with 5 minute intervals where you just simply relax, grab a coffee or speak to a friend.

Of course you can adjust the exact timings according to the type of task you are doing. For example you might find your best writing begins to emerge towards the end of a 25 minute session so in such a case you might want to adjust your time block to 40 minutes writing with 10 minute intervals. 

The great thing about setting relaxation breaks in between study sessions is that it can give you a more holistic approach to life and help you to see that both study and relaxation breaks, when combined, have the capacity to give you you a sense of meaning in the form of intellectual progress and grounding in appreciating the here and now.

Over to You

Did you know about deliberate practice before? What small learning habit will you change today?