How to Harness the Power of Deliberate Practice

How to Harness the Power of Deliberate Practice

In his bestselling book OutliersMalcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that you need to invest 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. But this only scratches the surface of the pioneering work done by Anders Ericsson. In this post, we'll share how to put Ericsson’s potent deliberate practice theory into action to get more out of your work and hobbies. 

First, let’s define what deliberate practice (aka deep practice) is. In a Frontiers in Psychology paper, Ericsson wrote that he defined the term as “the individualized solitary practice in classical instrumental music as directed by a qualified teacher” in 1993. In the ensuing years, he discovered that experts in other fields also shared a commitment to deep, highly-focused practice, and started chronicling the commonalities among their methods. Here are a few tips to put deliberate practice into play with your own work, hobbies, and other activities:

1) Keep it Short

The brevity of certain athletes’ training sessions might surprise you. For example, one of Usain Bolt’s workouts involved him running just four 100-meter sprints (which he once did in 10 seconds or less per rep). Then he was done for the day. This is a useful counterpoint to the old trope that “more is better.” No, it’s just more, and often when it comes to deliberate practice, less is actually preferable.

To get the most from each bout of deep practice, don’t merely focus on skill execution. In the paper mentioned earlier, Ericsson noted that the effectiveness of musicians’ training increased when they “established practice activities that offered immediate feedback and opportunities for repetition after reflection.” In other words, do the thing in question, then consider what went well and where there’s room for improvement. Then do it again and repeat the process.

2) Maintain Absolute Concentration

Obtaining and preserving laser-like focus is a prerequisite for immersing yourself in deliberate practice sessions. You can’t hope to access a flow state in which time stands still and everything else around you fades to black if you’re messing with your cell phone, reminding yourself to mow the lawn when you get home, or composing a grocery list in your head.

Instead, you need to lock in on the task like you mean it (and if you don’t, then you might want to try something else). Keep electronic devices out of reach (and preferably in another room), let your family know that you need to be allowed to concentrate, and eliminate anything else that often distracts you. Then get to work.

3) Target Specific Skills

One of the things that Ericsson noticed as he searched across the world to study the habits of high performers was that they often used the part-to-whole method. Rather than just devoting practice time to doing their full activity, they zeroed in on specific elements to both bolster their weaknesses and develop their strengths in short bursts. This could mean working on interviewing and editing if you’re a writer or honing the drive and recovery phases of your running stride.

Once you’ve finished working on the particular skill subset, then try putting it together with elements to perform the whole skill fluidly. For example, Ericsson noted that musicians practice a scale over and over and then play a piece that includes it. In doing so, you’ll ensure that your deliberate practice always has context and that you’re not zooming in too far in isolation and ignoring the big picture.

4) Get a Good Coach

In this digital age, it’s easier than ever to teach yourself things with the help of YouTube videos and other online material. Yet while this is handy for fixing a pipe under your kitchen sink or helping your kid with a tricky school project, it often doesn’t scale up to anything that requires true mastery. This is where a master-level coach comes in. Whether you’re looking to run your first marathon, start a podcast, or become a culinary whiz, finding someone to guide you will expedite and expand the process.

If you don’t have access to in-person instruction, try to find the very best virtual alternatives. For example, the CreativeLive and Udemy platforms can equip you with a wide range of skills. And Masterclass can allow you to learn action photography from Jimmy Chin, writing from Margaret Atwood, or songwriting and performance from Alicia Keys. If you can get a good coach, whether in a one-on-one or group capacity, you’ll go farther sooner than if you tried to fly solo.

5) Repeat Often

There are two ways to work on anything. The first is massed practice, whereby you do a lot in a single session. This can be necessary if a deadline has crept up on you or you’re pushed for time. But it’s usually not sustainable because the physical and/or cognitive load is so high that it will take you a long time to recover. Distributed practice is often far more effective. This can be characterized by what legendary strength coach Dan John's mentor told him about the secret to long-term success: “Little and often over the long haul.”

In other words, it’d be easier to learn the guitar if you spent 20 to 30 minutes on it every night, versus two hours once a week. Or in your workouts, you’ll probably achieve better results if you go to the gym or for a run four or five nights each week, instead of just doing one longer session.

6) Stop When Quality Declines

The great Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis used to end his athletes’ practices the moment they started slowing down or exerting less power. He realized that going beyond this point or tacking so-called “finisher” exercises onto the end of a workout was counterproductive and would groove bad habits. So he demanded that his runners give 100 percent or nothing at all.

You can apply the same philosophy to your own deep practice. Try to get better at noticing the warning signs when your pace declines, your form goes to crap, or whatever other indicators pop up and suggest that your quality level is dipping. Then wrap up for the day and resolve to come back refreshed and motivated tomorrow.

For more on deliberate practice, read Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s brilliant book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. If you want to discover examples of how deliberate practice works in several different fields, also check out Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code.