How to Use Deliberate Practice to Master ANY Skill
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We live in an age of abundant information.
No matter where your interests lie, it’s possible to get a world-class self-education experience with an internet connection and by meeting the right people.
In other words:
If you’d like to learn any skill, then finding information on how to do it is easy to do with a few clicks of the mouse (or taps on your smartphone.)
While it’s easy to find information, it’s a whole other thing to turn this knowledge into a tangible skill.
The secret is you need to use a concept called “deliberate practice” in order to master this skill.
In this article, I’ll define deliberate practice and then detail an eight-step process for using this concept to build powerful skills in your personal life.
Let’s get to it…
What Is Deliberate Practice?
K. Anders Ericsson first wrote about deliberate practice in his paper “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Here is what Ericsson himself had to say about this concept:
We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance, and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent.
Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.
So, to summarize, expert performance does exist. But while people might seem superhuman with their results, they really aren’t. Instead, their results are largely due to a lot of hard work in a very specific area.
The big lesson here is when you put in the time, effort, and dedication to become the best in a specific area, it’s possible to master it. But you will need to practice your craft for many hours, and, more importantly, you must practice the right way.
A lack of talent isn’t an excuse. What we often perceive as someone’s “natural ability” often comes from hours of daily deliberate practice that makes their performance look easy.
You can deliberately practice by following the following eight-step process.
Step #1: Understand the Fundamentals
The most important aspect of deliberate practice is to understand the fundamentals of the specific skill.
Every skill is comprised of a series of small actions that are built on one another. So instead of focusing on all of them at once, it’s better to laser-target a tiny component and spend a few sessions mastering it before moving on to the next one.
On his blog, James Clear provides a simple rule of thumb for this concept:
Deliberate practice is when you work on a skill that requires one to three practice sessions to master. If it takes longer than that, then you are working on something that is too complex.
Once you master this tiny behavior, you can move on to practicing the next small task that will take 1 to 3 sessions to master.
Aubrey Daniels provides another example of how to master the fundamentals when learning a skill:
There are a great many factors involved in skill acquisition. For a simple example, consider the activity of two basketball players practicing free throws for one hour. Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. The Player B retrieves his own shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt.
The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right, and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice. To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate.
Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?
As you can see, it’s not enough to just practice something. To achieve true mastery, you need to identify each key component, work at it until becomes second nature, and then keep repeating this process for every component. So, let’s talk about how to do that next.
Step #2: Practice (and Master) Each Microcomponent
Every day, you need to spend time in deliberate practice. This means repeating this process over and over until it’s mastered. To demonstrate this concept, let’s talk about how you could master the important elements of baseball.
If you tune in to any Major League Baseball game, you will see ballplayers who make their jobs look easy. They smack home runs, field grounders, catch fly balls on the run, and execute accurate throws across the field—all with perfect ease.
Now, I imagine if you talked to one of the players about his “natural talent,” he would probably describe the thousands of hours of drills he’s had to complete to achieve this level of skill. A ballplayer doesn’t reach the big leagues through natural talent alone. Instead, he must practice (and master) every microcomponent of baseball.
For instance, just to master fielding a ground ball, a ballplayer needs to practice his ball-handling skills in a variety of scenarios. This means he needs to complete drills like catching a:
- short hop infield hit;
- ball-in-hand ground ball;
- outside-the-glove hit; and
- ball on one knee.
These are just a few drills a baseball player needs to practice for a single aspect of the game. So instead of trying to do them all at once, a smart ballplayer knows it’s better to work on one component, spend a few sessions mastering it, and then move on to the next one.
When it comes to your skill, it’s best to break down the process into a series of microcomponents. Spend one to three days mastering it, and move on to the next only when you feel comfortable completing this action. Keep repeating this process until you’ve mastered each of these components.
Step #3: Get Immediate Feedback from an Expert
In addition to practicing the right things, it’s equally important to get feedback from others as often as possible. This advice is important because it helps you understand what you’re doing correctly and what you’re doing incorrectly. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect.
For instance, if you spend a whole day on a baseball-throwing drill, but you do it incorrectly, then you’ve only reinforced a bad habit. However, if you get immediate feedback on your technique, then you learn how to deliberately practice the correct technique.
The best way to get feedback is to work with a coach or mentor. This is someone who has achieved expert status, so it’s worth paying for their time because it will skyrocket your success and help you avoid the rookie mistakes that many people make.
Another thing to consider is you’re not bound by a geographical location to work with a coach or mentor. Nowadays, it’s easy to find help online and get feedback through a Skype video session. Following are just a few resources you can use to find a potential coach.
Coach.me not only allows you to track habits but it also has a marketplace where you can get online coaching at a low cost. While the coaching is not as in-depth as a live one-on-one call, it’s a good service if you have a limited budget. Often, a weekly check-in is all you’ll need to stick with a skill.
Coach.me also offers free community support via an online forum and Q&A section, so if you really don’t have the budget, you can get help without spending a dollar. But keep in mind that you often get what you pay for. It has been said that the most expensive advice is free advice, because you never know if the person is an actual expert on the topic.
Clarity.fm connects people with top industry experts who help with market research, give strategic advice, and teach people how to master specialized business skills. It’s a pay-per-call service. You let them know what your topic or question is, and they find you an expert and schedule the call so you can get the support and accountability you need.
The benefit of Clarity.fm is you’re billed on a per-minute basis, so you won’t need to pay for an hour-long call if you only need answers to a few questions.
Finally, Clarity.fm is an excellent place to test different coaches and hire the best one on a full-time basis. My advice is to pay for an introductory call with three or four potential coaches, talk with each for 30 minutes, and then hire the person who provides the most insight during your meeting. You can usually tell within the first five minutes whether a person can provide actionable advice.
Accomplishment Coaching lets you search for coaches by specific criteria: education, experience, and area of focus. This makes it easy to find the right coach to meet your needs. The Accomplishment Coaching website has a powerful quote: “Who exactly seeks out coaching? Winners who want even more out of life!”
Life Coach offers different levels of personal coaching and support based on your budget constraints. It features a user-friendly search option so you can find the type of coaching you need, like online coaching or phone coaching.
This may seem overly simple, but it’s easy to find a long list of qualified coaches by doing a Google search for terms such as “personal coaching” or “life coaching.” The coaches found online usually offer a wide range of services, from a short phone call to get you started all the way up to weekly coaching calls.
You can also search for a coach based on specific goals. Use terms like “writing coach,” “business coach,” or “relationship coach” to find the right person. See too many results? Add a modifier related to your geographic area, such as “writing coach New York” or “relationship coach San Francisco.” Coaching is a big industry, so if you’re willing to do your research, it’s not hard to find a qualified person who specializes in helping people achieve mastery of a skill.
Step #4: Embrace Your Mistakes
Your daily practice session is an important time. It’s your opportunity to work at a skill and focus on mastering it. It’s also an opportunity for you to make a lot of mistakes in a safe environment where nobody will know about it (besides your coach or mentor).
We have been taught that mistakes are bad things. But it’s been my experience that mistakes are the only way to truly learn a valuable lesson. They provide feedback on what doesn’t work for your skill development.
As Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”
Embracing your mistakes can be a powerful concept when it’s used with just-in-time learning. You can identify an important concept, try it on your own, make a bunch of mistakes, and eventually master it because you’re not afraid to keep working at it.
For instance, let’s say you’d like to learn a new programming language. The simplest way to master it is to identify one drill or challenge, play around with it for a few practice sessions, and make a lot of mistakes along the way. Repeat this process every day until you’ve mastered that component, then move on to the next one.
Step #5: Slow Down Your Deliberate Practice
It’s not enough to chunk down a skill and master each component. You also need to slow down your efforts and practice it at half-speed.
Many people feel frustrated after making a mistake, so they end up rushing the next repetition. A better method is to take a few seconds to gather your thoughts, figure out what you did incorrectly, and then go even slower on the next repetition.
Don’t rush your efforts here. Just keep your deliberate practice slow until you feel comfortable increasing the speed.
Step #6: Complete Numerous Repetitions
In addition to slowing things down, you need to repeat this component until it becomes second nature. What you’re trying to do here is create that long-term muscle memory where you don’t think about the process—your body automatically does it.
Odds are you’ve probably mastered many skills through muscle memory. If you can drive a car, touch-type, or play an instrument, then you probably do them without a lot of brainpower. Your body automatically acts because it has performed this process countless times.
Furthermore, this repetition provides an opportunity to challenge yourself by increasing the difficulty of the component. You can do this in a few ways:
Find someone who is slightly better than you and compete against them (e.g., if you’re trying to improve your basketball game, have a free throw shooting contest).
Combine two skills you’ve mastered (e.g., if you’re learning baseball, practice catching a short hop infield hit and then throwing it to first base).
Perform a skill in unexpected, adverse conditions (e.g., if you’re working on your public speaking skills, practice what you’ll do if your slides aren’t working).
Put yourself in a “high-stakes” environment (e.g., if you’re learning a language, book a trip to a country where most people don’t speak English and force yourself to converse only in the native language).
Remember, the value of these repetitions is that you can deliberately practice in an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes. This will give you the best education for what needs to be improved. Plus, it will prepare you for the times when you must perform the skill because it really counts.
Step #7: Take Breaks During Each Practice Session
A recent study found it’s important to take frequent breaks because they improve your productivity and creativity. This is especially true for deliberate practice because learning a new skill is mentally and physically exhausting. When you schedule breaks into your practice session, you’ll get better results because you’re giving 100% effort for each repetition.
Breaks are extremely important for skills that require memorization. There is a concept called the serial position effect that shows people tend to remember the first few items (the primacy) and the last few items (the recency) of a sequence. This means if you’re doing a marathon session of memorization, you’ll decrease the likelihood of remembering every item. On the other hand, if you chop up a session and take frequent breaks, you’ll remember more items because you’re increasing the number of starting and stopping points.
A strategy that I recommend is the Pomodoro Technique, in which you focus on a single task for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, and then begin another 25-minute block of time. This strategy can be grueling at times, but it also helps you stay laser-focused on a skill.
You should work diligently while the clock is ticking, and when the timer goes off, allow yourself a short break to stretch, walk outside, close your eyes, or do whatever it takes to rejuvenate yourself. Try not to use this time to check emails, make a long phone call, or do anything that will steal your productive time.
Step #8: Track Your Success
If you want to skyrocket your success, then you should diligently track each single practice session. Not only does this keep you motivated as you celebrate those small wins but it will also help you identify those small challenges that you’re experiencing. The simplest way to track your success is to use a goal-oriented journal, like The Freedom Journal.
The Freedom Journal was launched in 2016 by John Lee Dumas, a popular entrepreneur and podcaster. While it’s completely optional to the learning process, I recommend it because it can help you focus on a single major goal (like learning a new skill) and working on it for the next 100 days. If what you’re trying to learn is personally important, then The Freedom Journal can help you stay on track and make sure that you’re not losing momentum along the way.
Final Thoughts on Deliberate Practice
We’ve all the heard the popular expression that “practice makes perfect.”
But I think Vince Lombardi said it better: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
If you get into the habit using deliberate practice to master a repetition-based skill where you break down a process into small components then drill each on a continuous basis, then you will develop that unconscious competence (i.e., muscle memory) that will make your actions seem effortless.
Personally, I think deliberate practice is a fascinating concept, so I recommend you learn more about it. If you’re interested, I recommend three great resources to get started:
1. Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
2. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
3. Expert Enough (blog) by Corbett Barr