Have you ever picked up a new hobby or skill, and realized that it’s not as hard as you thought? You do okay to start with and you can see that you’re making progress fairly quickly, but it doesn’t last long. Soon enough, you actually have to put in lots of time and hard work to get any better and you wonder why it seemed so easy when you started out.
Perhaps it’s learning a new language. You pick up some new sounds and a handful of words pretty quickly, but you just can’t get past that first tricky grammar rule you run into, and suddenly you’re stuck with no more than “hello,” “goodbye” and “my name is…” to show for your efforts.
I’ve done this a bunch of times. At first I think I’m going to be amazing at learning piano, or French, or tap dancing. The first few steps come easily and I get overly confident. Making any meaningful progress after this point, however, is nigh on impossible with the same limited focus and effort.
In a broader sense, this will happen over a longer period: say, when you start a new job or take up an interesting new subject in school and stick with it for a few years. You’ll notice that putting in the minimum requirements leads to slow-but-steady progress over time until eventually you hit this plateau where your skills are good enough to get by. You can do your job well, but you’re not really improving anymore. This is sometimes called the OK plateau
This process actually happens over three clear stages:
- the cognitive stage, when we make lots of mistakes and consciously focus on what we’re doing,
- the associative stage, when we make fewer mistakes and gradually improve,
- and the autonomous stage when we can perform the task on autopilot without thinking about it.
At the autonomous stage, we tend to hit the OK plateau and stop getting any better.
This is where the theory of the 10,000 hour rule comes in.
The 10,000 hour rule
This theory actually came up in science in the 1970s but it’s been a popular topic since Malcolm Gladwell talked about it in his book, Outliers. It’s based on research into the expert ability of top performers in various fields, including mathematics, chess, tennis, swimming and music.
The research says that for the overwhelming majority of experts who reach the top of their fields (for instance, chess grandmasters or composers of the most popular musical pieces), a minimum of around ten years is generally required. The few who are exceptions to this rule are found to hit their expert status in year eight or nine of their careers—not far short of the average. 10,000 hours works out to be around 20 hours per week for ten years.
The problem with the popularity of this 10,000 hours idea is that it’s often misunderstood as “any 10,000 hours” spent on your skill or craft. But not all practice is made the same: there’s a big difference between mindless repetition and what scientist _ calls deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice, according to psychology professor Anders Ericsson, consists of “activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.”
I first came across the concept of deliberate practice on Cal Newport’s blog. What I’ve found from reading Cal’s musings on deliberate practice and how he uses it to improve his work is that the theory is easy to understand, but putting it into practice is a lot harder.
Geoff Colvin, author of Talent Is Overrated, offers us a few requirements for counting something as deliberate practice. They include things like: it has to be hard work, repeated a lot and focused on improving something specific. You also need to have a short feedback loop, so you’re getting lots of feedback on a regular basis.
It’s the difference between, say, playing a song you know well on piano rather than putting in the effort to learn a new one. Or practicing your already-good tennis forehand, instead of focusing on your backhand which needs work.
Part of the reason deliberate practice is so important is that it helps us to encode information about what we’re learning more carefully. Research has found that one of the big differences between highly skilled experts and amateurs is how well information about their field is categorized in their brains. Top-level experts can access relevant information faster and more reliably, due to spending time in highly-engaged, deliberate practice of their craft.
A fascinating exception to the 10,000 hour rule is Magnus Carlsen, the youngest chess player ever to reach a number one world ranking. Carlsen used computer chess to amass a huge amount of deliberate practice in a short period of time—so, although it seems as if his talent is innate because he reached expert level at such a young age, what he really did was accelerate his learning process by focusing on the right type of practice all the time.
We’re all prone to going the easy route when it comes to practice—at least, I know I am—and doing the things we’re good at, since they’re more enjoyable. Deliberate practice can be frustrating and exhausting, and it’s really only valuable if you truly want to get better at something. If you’re happy at your current level, deliberate practice will be hard to keep up.
How to use deliberate practice to get really good at something
If there is something you really want to improve at, deliberate practice is a good place to start. Studies have shown that people generally work at a much lower performance quality than we’re able to, and that deliberate practice can help even highly-experienced people to improve.
Here are some suggestions that will hopefully help you think through some specific applications of deliberate practice that could work for you.
Create a plan
This sounds super boring, I know. Teachers don’t even like creating study plans, so why would we make them for ourselves? Well, study plans serve their purpose and in deliberate practice, it turns out they’re pretty important.
See, a lot of deliberate practice comes down to knowing what to do. If you go to your piano or your desk at work or the local tennis court without a plan, your first instinct will be to do what you know, right? And if there’s no natural progression from there into something that stretches you further, how will you ever implement that tough deliberate practice that you need to improve?
When you’re setting a plan, start with a goal in mind and plan out the things you can practice to help you get there. Here’s an example I love: Benjamin Franklin set out a plan to improve his writing when he was just a teenager. His father had shown him examples of how inferior his work was, and Franklin decided he could improve that with regular, deliberate practice.
To start with, Franklin grabbed some well-written articles and started studying them. He would break an article down, and write notes on the meaning of each sentence. In his next practice session, he’d use his own notes on the meanings of those sentences and write the article from scratch, trying to express those meanings as best he could.
Another method involved writing the same notes on separate slips of paper and storing them out of order. Weeks later, he would return to the notes, try to put them into the correct order and then rewrite the article. This helped him to improve his understanding of the structure of high-quality writing, and his final comparison helped him to see where he’d gone wrong and correct his mistakes.
After he worked through some articles this way, Franklin noticed one of his biggest problems was a small vocabulary. Using this feedback, he restructured his plan and started rewriting the articles in verse, to help him choose different words for the same meaning, depending on the rhyme and meter. After rewriting each article and comparing it to the original, Franklin took what he learned and put it back into his plan for improvement.
Get feedback and keep going
As I mentioned earlier, feedback is really important for deliberate practice. Rather than wandering off on your own for hours, deliberate practice requires that you know whether you’re going in the right direction and adjust your approach accordingly—and often.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King includes a story about his efforts to get published in magazines as a teenager. King was rejected over and over, and each time he would put his rejection slip on a nail in the wall. As the rejections mounted up, he replaced the nail with a spike, and continued writing.
Over time, the feedback King got improved with each rejection, but still he collected them on the wall. There’s not a much more immediate way to keep feedback in mind than having it right in front of you as you work.
Cal Newport makes a great point about this story: when you ask for money in exchange for your work, as King did, you’re going to get much more honest feedback than you would otherwise. And honest feedback is the best kind if you’re really trying to improve.
Make goals that require new skills
Scott H Young wrote on his blog about his experiments with deliberate practice where he focused on learning new skills as well as improving those he already has.
His advice is to set goals for yourself that require skills (or skill-levels) you don’t already have. Reaching those goals, then, will require deliberate practice to learn the skills you need to complete them.
I wrote and designed a free ebook, then created one for sale, then created one with an affiliate program, finally now I finished a hybrid between an information product and a monthly coaching service.
Successfully executing the latest project would have been a certain failure a few years ago, but I slowly advanced my edge of incompetence.
Escalate in stages
As a writer, I’m in a field (as many of you may also be) where it’s difficult to see clearly what—and how—I should be practicing if I want to improve my work. I really enjoyed this breakdown of a strategy for deliberate practice in the work of a writer. It looks at the process of John McPhee, a profile writer for The New Yorker in the 1960s, who was bored with OK plateau of his work (a profile is a long article about one particular person). For example, here’s one about Pope Francis, and another about Bryan Cranston).
McPhee started escalating his work in stages, making it a little more of a stretch each time. To begin with, he tried a profile of two people with a connection between them, since single-person profiles were too easy for him by then. When his two-person profile worked well, he escalated to a four-person profile: three people who all had a connection to the fourth person.
Each time McPhee chose a new structure for his next profile, he stretched beyond what he knew and did better work. This seems like a solid method for improving something you do every day for work, when it’s difficult to plan out a practice strategy. It also makes sure you get one of the most important things in deliberate practice: constant feedback about your progress.
If you’re working on a hobby or improving your skillset in an area that doesn’t have clear steps to reaching expert level like chess, sport or music, it can be difficult to apply deliberate practice. If you find a way that works for you, though, you should see huge improvements based on putting your time and effort into the right kind of practice.