“Through discipline, effort, and continual practice, [you] can also accomplish almost anything you focus your thoughts on.” – Dr. Wayne Dyer
“The left hand is useless at almost everything, for lack of practice. But it guides the reins better than the right. From practice.” – Marcus Aurelius
The best things in my life have been the result of lots of practice, mixed with a little luck. Growing up young for my grade the other kids were older, bigger, and stronger, so my success depended on working hard and working smart. Perhaps no skill has served me quite so well, or is so broadly applicable to any area of life.
“The single most important element in developing an expertise,” writes Gretchen Rubin “is your willingness to practice.” Want to learn a foreign language? Practice speaking. Want to have more energy and to feel more alive? Practice better breathing. Want to be in better relationships? Practice communicating, being genuine, and being vulnerable. Even happiness can (and should!) be practiced, something Thomas Jefferson understood when adding the “the pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence.
Done correctly, practice can be amazingly powerful. In 2006, Joshua Foer learned this firsthand when he became the US Memory Champion one year after covering the event as a journalist. He notes that “with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things. This was a tremendously empowering discovery. It made me ask myself: What else was I capable of doing, if only I used the right approach?”
The Optimal Approach to High-Powered Practice
There are two main components to effective practice: the amount of time spent and the quality of that time.
In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that greatness in any field isn’t about talent, but about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. As he explains “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” At the rate of 8 hours a day, Mon-Fri it would take around 5 years to get to 10,000 hours of practice. It’s a lot of time to invest in any one skill, and can be overwhelming to consider.
The 10,000 hour rule, as it has become known, is based on the work of Anders Ericcson, a psychologist at Florida State University.1 Ericsson is quick to point out that time alone isn’t the key. “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.” Rather than focusing solely on 10,000 hours let’s take an easier, more effective approach: getting the highest possible value for each unit of time invested.
With that in mind, here’s what experts recommend for maximizing the power of every practice session.
Consistency over intensity:
Break large practice sessions up into several smaller chunks and spread them throughout the week. Three 30 minute practice sessions are much better than one 90 minute practice session. As author Benedict Carey describes in How We Learn, “People learn at least as much, and retain it much longer, when they distribute— or “space”— their study time than when they concentrate it.”
We tend to overestimate how much we can accomplish in an hour or a week and underestimate how much we can accomplish in a month or a year, by just taking a small step each day. This is particularly important when it comes to learning. It takes the brain time and resources to build and strengthen the physical connections between neurons. It’s also easier to practice with full focus and intensity for 30 minutes than it is for 90 minutes, so the quality of the practice is often better.
In a similar manner to consistency over intensity, spaced repetition involves spacing practice sessions throughout time. Small chunks of intense, focused practice followed by periods of rest are better for learning and storing that knowledge in long term memory.
While running experiments that would help found the study of learning, pyschologist Hermann Ebbinghaus noted that “with any considerable number of repetitions, a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.” He went on to create the “forgetting curve” shown below.
The main idea is that every time you recall something you anchor that knowledge more firmly in place in your long term memory. It’s as if your brain is retracing the route to where that information is stored, and the more times you travel the route, the easier it becomes to remember where to go.
Note: A great tool for automating spaced repetition is the flash card app Anki.
Common knowledge asserts that we should focus on one skill intensively at a time, but research has actually shown it can be more effective to mix up various different skills. This is formally known as interleaving, and can be used both in single sessions and over time.
“Interleaving is, essentially, about preparing the brain for the unexpected,” writes Benedict Carey. “Every exam, every tournament, every match, every recital— there’s always some wrinkle, some misplaced calculator or sudden headache, a glaring sun or an unexpected essay question. At bottom, interleaving is a way of building into our daily practice not only a dose of review but also an element of surprise.”
For example, when studying math it’s better to practice solving several different types of problems concurrently, rather than working on only problems of the same type before moving onto a others.
One can also combine interleaving with the other tips from above, for example by practicing a musical instrument for 30 minutes, followed by a short rest, then language practice for 30 minutes, followed by exercise, etc. By varying the type of activity, the brain can attack each one with renewed focus and energy.
Researchers have shown that when the brain has to work to retrieve information, that knowledge is actually retained stronger and longer. Challenging yourself with new and difficult ways of practicing also helps you prepare for the unexpected. Don’t just replay the same information or skills that have already been made proficient, but continue to focus on challenging material or skills which still feel awkward and incomplete. Ericcson and Gladwell refer to this as “deliberate practice.”
A great example of this comes from one of my father’s friends who is an elite level sailor. They would often practice by intentionally leaving behind a piece of equipment and learning how to sail with an incomplete boat. which became invaluable when something went wrong during a race. Even if nothing went wrong, the act of practicing harder and faster than you need to perform means that performing becomes that much easier.
Use mistakes as feedback:
Mistakes are an inevitable occurrence when you are challenging yourself and trying to grow. When practicing don’t sweat mistakes made, but use them as fuel for learning how to do better next time. “You have to tweak the system by pushing,” says psychologist Daniel Goleman “allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”
Use every mistake as feedback for where to focus more time and attention. The quicker you are able to get feedback and recognize where an error is made, the easier it will be to address the necessary skill or knowledge required to do better next time.
Rest and Refuel:
Getting the most out of every practice session requires showing up with enough energy to focus and do all of the above. Try every day to get enough sleep, proper nutrition, and exercise.
Sleep is also believed to be extremely important for consolidating information and cleaning toxic was from the brain. Research done at the university of Rochester actually demonstrated that during certain parts of sleep, brain cells shrink to allow fluid to more easily flush waste products from the system.2
These six strategies can be used by anyone and applied to almost anything. So, what are you going to become capable of doing with powerful practice?
“No matter what activity or practice we are pursuing, there isn’t anything that isn’t made easier through constant familiarity and training.” – Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
- Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice http://psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson/ericsson.exp.perf.html [↩]
- University of Rochester Sleep Study http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96aZtk4hVJM [↩]