Deliberate Practice: What it is and how to use it to find flow and improve any skill

What separates a good athlete from an Olympic winner? Or an average wordsmith from a New York Times best-selling author? Raw talent, sure. But more and more, researchers are finding it comes down to a single technique: Deliberate practice.

Coined by Anders Ericsson, Florida State psychology professor and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, deliberate practice is the process of working in a specific, purposeful, and strategic way to improve any skill.

It’s a concept that applies to pretty much anything you can imagine and that has been used by everyone from world-famous musicians to Guinness World Record holders to become the best at their skill.

So what is deliberate practice? And how can you use it to get better at your work skills, hobbies, and interests?

Where most of us go wrong when trying to improve our skills

To start, let’s think about how most people treat practicing skills.

Most of us follow a similar pattern whenever we go out to learn a new skill or improve ourselves—whether it’s driving a car or playing an instrument or mastering some new piece of software.

We start as beginners. Everything is new and scary and our brain is naturally attentive to every detail as we work hard to understand the basics.

However, as we progress—either from getting lessons from a friend or coach or maybe watching a tutorial video—we get past that first scary part. Now, we’re good enough to go through the motions, doing the basic moves over and over until they become automatic.

Eventually, we hit a point where our skills are “good enough.” We can do the thing we set out to do. And that’s where our improvement plateaus.

At this point, no more practice of going through the motions will make us improve. And for most people, that’s fine. But if you want to become a master or an expert, you need to break out of this phase.

As Ericsson describes in Peak:

“[We] assume that someone who has been driving for 20 years must be a better driver than someone who has been driving for five… But no.”

Instead, research has consistently found that once we reach a level of “acceptable” and automatic performance, additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.

In fact, the person who has done the same thing over and over for 20 years is more likely to be worse due to a gradual deterioration.

But breaking out of this mindset is harder than it sounds. The human brain is wired to turn repeated behaviors into habits. The more you do a task, the more likely it is to become automated.

Deliberate practice: What it is and why feedback is the secret to its success

So what do you do once you’ve hit an “ok” level and want to keep improving? Here’s where deliberate practice becomes so important.

The difference between “automatic” repetitive practice and the more purposeful “deliberate” practice comes down to knowing where you need improvement and focusing intensely on getting better in that area.

Deliberate practice is taking a systematic and specific approach to improvement that builds over time, rather than simply doing the same thing over and over and over.

The key is in knowing what areas need your attention. And that requires feedback. As Ericsson describes it:

“Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.”

Feedback tells you what steps to take. Much like the process of getting into a state of flow at work, deliberate practice requires constant feedback and being able to adjust what you’re doing.

Think of the pro boxer who works with a coach, throwing punch after punch, while they tweak the position of their arm. Compare that to the modern work environment where most of us are lucky if we get feedback on our skills once a year during a performance review.

6 steps to start using deliberate practice in your own life

deliberate practice in post

Few of us have the opportunity to work directly with someone coaching us on our work skills. (And, personally, I don’t think I’d want someone reading over my shoulder as I type telling me what I’m doing wrong).

But what if we could still apply some of the same meticulous deliberate practice techniques to our work skills?

Deliberate practice isn’t some magical technique that will instantly make you better. In fact, it’s just a nice way of saying “working very hard in a deliberate, purposeful manner.” But this is easier said than done.

Deliberate practice takes focus and motivation. Learn how RescueTime can help you take back control of your time and be more focused. (Plus, it’s free!)

1. Find your motivation

It’s pretty much impossible to improve a skill if you’re not interested in it.

And, as you’d probably imagine, motivation plays a huge role in all aspects of deliberate practice. When facing a plateau in your skills, you need to know why it’s important for you to continue to put in work—why you want to be better than average.

Motivation is different for everyone. But there are a few specific things you can do to help motivate yourself when you’re feeling down.

For one, frame your practice session around an authentic pride for the progress you’re making and the work you’re putting in. According to Jessica Tracy, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and author of Take Pride, when we feel “authentic pride” (i.e. pride in our actions vs. pride brought on from outside praise) it can help keep us motivated to work hard.

If that doesn’t work, try reminiscing about a past performance. One study found participants who recalled a memory of doing something difficult in the past were more motivated to do it in the future—even if the memory was a negative one.

2. Define specific, measurable goals

Whenever you set goals, it’s important to break them down into small, actionable steps. And nowhere is this more true than if you want to use deliberate practice. As Ericsson writes in Peak:

“The key thing is to take that general goal — get better — and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.”

There’s a few things at play here. For one, setting smaller goals means you know exactly what to work on (like the boxer throwing jabs). But beyond that, having small goals helps increase what’s called our self-efficacy—our belief in our own abilities—which means the more you practice, the more confident you become.

One technique that works well is to do this in phases. Start by breaking your vague goals into concrete milestones. Maybe you want to “get better at coding” but what does that mean? Are there specific, concrete milestones you can define that will tell you if you’ve accomplished this?

Once you have those milestones, set a deadline for them that’s 3, 6, or 12-months out.

Now, take it a step further. What needs to be done on each of those to accomplish them? With time and effort, you can break your goals down to the point where you know exactly what needs your attention and can put them on your daily schedule.

3. Commit 1 hour a day for intense practice

deliberate practice intense

Now, let’s get into the practical aspects of deliberate practice. First, when should you do it?

You might think that you need to set aside big chunks of time to see results, but that’s not the case. In fact, most studies agree that the success of deliberate practice comes down to intensity rather than duration.

When author Michael Simmons looked at the daily schedules of people ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Bill Gates, he found one striking similarity: They all set aside an hour a day (or five hours a week) for some form of deliberate practice.

You don’t need more than that (and can even use smaller blocks of time if necessary).

Try to find a block of time in your day when your energy levels are high to engage in deliberate practice. Our suggestion? First thing in the morning.

4. Set up systems for feedback

As we said before, feedback is the key to making deliberate practice work. You simply won’t know how you’re progressing, be motivated to work hard, and be able to fine-tune your practice without it.

There are a number of systems you can use to track your progress (which we cover in detail here)—from writing metrics down on a calendar to using a tool like RescueTime to automatically track your behavior and give you key insights into your progress.

Whichever you choose, make sure that it’s accurate and is something you’ll be able to keep up with.

5. Follow the elements of flow

While feedback is an integral part of deliberate practice, it’s not the only one. Deliberate practice follows many of the same criteria as getting into a state of flow.

That means whenever you get into a practice session you should aim to:

  • Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Each deliberate practice session should force you to do something you’re uncomfortable with. As soon as something becomes automatic, it’s time to step it up.
  • Have some form of real-time feedback. Tracking progress is key. If you can get real-time feedback during your deliberate practice session and work on those specific things, even better.
  • Find an optimal level of stress. Flow and deliberate practice live in an optimal state of stress. Too little and we’re bored and don’t grow. Too much and we get anxious and discouraged.

Or, as Ericsson writes:

“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”

6. Get adequate rest between sessions

Lastly, because you’re practicing in “intense” sessions, you can’t expect to maintain that level for sustained periods. Instead, deliberate practice requires deliberate rest—downtime for resting, relaxing, and recharging between sessions.

Just like exercising or learning a new language, you can’t do it all in one sitting. And the results are actually worse when you try to. Instead, take more breaks, disconnect from the work, and find hobbies that recharge you.

What this all comes down to is the Golden Rule of Growth: Stress, rest, repeat.

Deliberate practice alone won’t make you a master. But it will help.

Deliberate practices isn’t the promise that anyone can simply start at 0 and become the next world champion chess player, athlete, or writer just by following these steps.

As researchers from Grand Valley State University found when studying the world’s fastest sprinters, they all started in the top 95-99% of their peers before receiving formal training.

But just because you didn’t start on 3rd base doesn’t mean you can’t still make it all the way home. We all have an incredible ability to improve our skills, and deliberate practice will allow you to maximize your potential. As long as you put in the work.

Need some help tracking your progress and focusing on deliberate practice? Find out how RescueTime can help you take back control over your time and your attention

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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