Have you ever wondered why some people are really good at what they do?
The science behind why some people have extraordinary abilities — an area of research known as expert performance — seeks to answer that question. And psychologist K. Anders Ericsson is one of its leading scholars.
Ericsson and his fellow researchers have studied top performers across many fields, from music to medical surgery, sports to software design. Data from decades of studies and their own laboratory experiments revealed a striking discovery: the best of the best tend to follow similar techniques for improving their abilities.
In an excerpt from his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson writes,
Imagine what might be possible if we applied the techniques that have proved to be so effective in sports and music and chess to all the different types of learning that people do, from the education of schoolchildren to the training of doctors, engineers, pilots, business people, and workers of every sort. I believe that the dramatic improvements we have seen in those few fields over the past hundred years are achievable in pretty much every field if we apply the lessons that can be learned from studying the principles of effective practice.
What are these principles? A learning model Ericsson calls the “gold standard”: deliberate practice.
Get an in-depth introduction to deliberate practice, dig into Ericsson’s research, and hear from people who have put this technique to the test in Part 1 of this series, Deliberate Practice: Learn Like an Expert.
The problem with traditional practice
We’ve all had to practice a skill at some point — piano lessons, school sports teams, on-the-job training. You might associate the word “practice” with rote, never-ending repetition — piano scales, sports drills — and the frustration of not making much progress. There’s a reason so many people give up on learning a new skill or only reach a middling level of competence: inevitably, improvement stalls.
You see, just repeating a skill or task, even over a period of many years, doesn’t build expertise. That’s because once you reach a reasonable level of competence and are able to do what you need to do, the skill becomes automatic. At best, you’re maintaining your abilities, but not improving them.
For many day-to-day tasks — driving, typing, cooking — this baseline, “good enough to get by” level of skill is fine. But if there’s something you really want to excel at, you have to push past that comfortable stage and challenge yourself.
Here, we’ll look at six components of deliberate practice that you can use to get better at anything. These steps are based on Ericsson’s research about how people who are the best of the best in their fields learn and approach skills development. They’re principles that you can tap into to learn more quickly and meet more goals.
Deliberate practice in 6 steps
1. Get motivated
Like most worthwhile pursuits, developing proficiency in any skill — whether sewing, software design, or surfing — isn’t easy. If you want to push past the hard parts of skills growth — the frustration, the failures, the periods of slow progress — you’re going to need to be motivated.
We saw in the introduction to this series how one of Ericsson’s first experiments in deliberate practice hinged on motivation. Ericsson was working with an undergraduate student to test the effect of practice on short-term memory. The student, Steve, began to improve with practice until he hit a wall — he had reached the natural ceiling of his abilities and was convinced he couldn’t go any farther. It was Steve’s competitive nature and determination to improve that motivated him to keep trying, helping him break through to reach record-breaking performance in short-term memory exercises.
Without the motivation to push past obstacles, when improvement stalls, the natural inclination will be to give up. So if you’re picking a skill to improve with deliberate practice, make sure it’s something you care about and are willing to devote considerable time and effort to.
2. Set specific, realistic goals
Motivation also requires keeping your eyes on the prize. And vague aspirations like “getting better” at a certain skill aren’t going to cut it. Generic goals for improvement don’t give you any motivation to excel past your current abilities or help you measure your progress.
Deliberate practice relies on small, achievable, well-defined steps that help you work your way towards meaningful improvement. These steps should take into account your current knowledge and skill level and push those boundaries little by little, consistently expanding your abilities.
In Peak, Ericsson demonstrates the kind of specificity required with the example of someone who wants to improve their golf game:
If you’re a weekend golfer and you want to decrease your handicap by five strokes, that’s fine for an overall purpose, but it is not a well-defined, specific goal that can be used effectively for your practice. Break it down and make a plan: What exactly do you need to do to slice five strokes off your handicap? One goal might be to increase the number of drives landing in the fairway. That’s a reasonably specific goal, but you need to break it down even more: What exactly will you do to increase the number of successful drives? You will need to figure out why so many of your drives are not landing in the fairway and address that by, for instance, working to reduce your tendency to hook the ball. How do you do that? An instructor can give you advice on how to change your swing motion in specific ways. And so on. 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.
With deliberate practice, goal-setting isn’t like making a New Year’s resolution and hoping you’ll stick with it. It involves thoughtful planning, identifying areas for improvement and creating a specific game plan for building on top of your current abilities.
3. Break out of your comfort zone
“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”― Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
For goals to spur improvement, they need to constantly challenge your current abilities. Simply repeating skills you already know how to do — an unproductive cycle that’s easy to get stuck in with traditional approaches to practice — won’t actually enhance your skill level or improve performance.
Stretching yourself is the key to growth. But Ericsson emphasizes that when it comes to skills development, breaking out of your comfort zone isn’t about “trying harder,” but about “trying differently.” Your goals should teeter on the edge of what you are and aren’t capable of doing. If you can’t move forward with one technique or approach, try another and keep experimenting until you break through the barrier that’s blocking your path to improvement.
4. Be consistent and persistent
This kind of prolonged effort will be frustrating and uncomfortable at times. But pushing through those tough spots often leads to significant improvement. One of the foundational aspects of deliberate practice — what makes it so effective — is its regularity.
In the research paper “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Ericsson and his colleagues share their discovery that top performers, no matter their area of expertise, kept a similar practice regimen: brief (but intense), daily or semi-weekly solo practice sessions.
One of Ericsson’s studies tracked adult violinists studying at elite music academies and found that the musicians averaged one to one-and-a-half hours a day of high-intensity solo practice. The study found that the accumulated amount of this regular, focused practice had a direct impact on the musicians’ level of performance.
These consistent, intense bursts of effort are key to maintaining momentum in building expertise.
5. Seek feedback
“Without feedback,” Ericsson says, “either from yourself or from outside observers — you cannot figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goals.”
Feedback is essential for identifying areas for improvement and gaining a realistic view of your progress. Whether one-on-one coaching with a teacher, mentor, or peer or some form of self-assessment, you need a means of pinpointing your strengths and weaknesses. This is the only way to identify and work through trouble spots and advance from “just ok” to true mastery of a skill.
6. Take time to recover
Because deliberate practice requires your full attention, with maximal mental and/or physical effort, it can only be sustained for a short period of time. Laboratory studies of extended practice have capped the optimal time at one hour per day, three to five days a week, and real-life studies have seen reduced benefits when practice sessions exceed two hours.
This level of intensity and concentration makes recovery time important. Ericsson has observed that many of the top performers he studied benefited from napping. Whatever type of leisure activity or relaxation you choose, it’s important to offset the intense effort of deliberate practice to avoid mental or physical fatigue.
Deliberate practice is a long-term investment in improving yourself and your capabilities. While we may not all have the makings of a professional athlete, elite musician, or business mogul, we can follow in the experts’ footsteps to learn more effectively, work smarter, and build or improve our skills.
As Ericsson told The New York Times, “a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.”
So no matter your pre-existing skill level, if you put in the time and effort to tap into the proven principles of deliberate practice, you’re sure to see some progress. Like Susanne Bargmann and Bob Fisher — who put deliberate practice to the test and achieved some extraordinary results — you may even surprise yourself with what you’re capable of.