The Ultimate Deliberate Practice Guide: How to Be the Best
Blog: FS - Smart decisions
Everything You Need to Know to Improve Your Performance at Anything—For Beginners and Experts
Deliberate practice is the best technique for achieving expert performance in every field—including writing, teaching, sports, programming, music, medicine, therapy, chess, and business. But there’s much more to deliberate practice than 10,000 hours. Read this to learn how to accelerate your learning, overcome the “OK” plateau, turn experience into expertise, and enhance your focus.
What is deliberate practice?
“Engaged in the creative process we feel more alive than ever, because we are making something and not merely consuming, masters of the small reality we create. In doing this work, we are in fact creating ourselves.” —Robert Greene, Mastery
Deliberate practice is what turns amateurs into professionals. Across every field, deliberate practice is what creates top performers and what they use to stay at the top of their game. It’s absolutely essential for expert performance.
As a general concept, “practice” means preparing. It’s the act of repeatedly performing certain activities with the intention of improving a specific associated skill. We rehearse what to do in low-pressure situations so we’ll be better when we use a skill in situations where something is actually at stake, such as in a competition or in the workplace. Although this definition may seem obvious, it’s crucial to distinguish between doing something and practicing it, because they’re not always synonymous.
The key distinction between doing and practicing is that we’re only practicing something when we do it in a way that makes us better at it—or at least with that intention.
Deliberate practice means practicing with a clear awareness of the specific components of a skill we’re aiming to improve and exactly how to improve them. Unlike regular practice, in which we work on a skill by repeating it again and again until it becomes almost mindless, deliberate practice is a laser-focused activity. It requires us to pay unwavering attention to what we’re doing at any given moment and whether it’s an improvement or not.
Geoff Colvin summarizes deliberate practice as such in Talent Is Overrated:
Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.
The extraordinary power of deliberate practice is that it aims at constant progress. Practitioners are not content with repeating a skill at the same level. They have metrics for measuring their performance. And they aspire to see those metrics get continuously better.
While engaging in deliberate practice, we are always looking for errors or areas of weakness. Once we identify one, we establish a plan for improving it. If one approach doesn’t work, we keep trying new ones until something does.
Using deliberate practice, we can overcome many limitations that we might view as fixed. We can go further than we might even think possible when we begin. Deliberate practice creates new physical and mental capabilities—it doesn’t just leverage existing ones.
The more we engage in deliberate practice, the greater our capabilities become. Our minds and bodies are far more malleable than we usually realize.
Deliberate practice is a universal technique, and you can employ it for whatever you’re trying to be the best (or just get a little bit better) at. It’s easiest to apply to competitive fields with clear measurements and standards, including music, dance, football/soccer, cricket, hockey, basketball, golf, horse riding, swimming, and chess.
But deliberate practice is also invaluable for improving performance in fields such as teaching, nursing, surgery, therapy, programming, trading, and investing. It can even accelerate your progress in widely applicable skills such as writing, decision-making, leadership, studying, and spoken communication.
The key in any area is to identify objective standards for performance, study top performers, and then design practice activities reflecting what they do. Recent decades have seen dramatic leaps in what people are capable of doing in many fields. The explanation for this is that we’re getting better at understanding and applying the principles of deliberate practice. As a field advances, people can learn from the best of what those who came before them figured out. The result is that now average high-schoolers achieve athletic feats and children advance to levels of musical prowess that would have seemed unthinkable a century earlier. And there’s little evidence to suggest we’ve reached the limits of our physical or mental abilities in any area whatsoever.
Many of us spend a lot of time each week practicing different skills in our lives and work. But we don’t automatically get better just because we repeat the same actions and behaviors, even if we spend hours per day doing it. Research suggests that in areas such as medicine, people with many years of experience are often no better than novices—and may even be worse.
If we want to improve a skill, we need to know what exactly has to change and what might get us there. Otherwise, we plateau.
Some people will tell you it’s only possible for anyone to improve at anything through deliberate practice, and any other sort of practice is a waste of time. This is an exaggeration. In reality, regular practice works for reinforcing and maintaining skills. It can also help us improve skills, particularly in the early stages of learning something. However, deliberate practice is the only way to:
- Reach expert-level performance and enjoy competitive success
- Overcome plateaus in our skill level
- Improve at a skill much faster than through regular practice
If you’re just doing something for fun and don’t care about constantly improving at it, you don’t need deliberate practice. For example, maybe you like to go for a walk around a local park in the afternoons to clear your head. Although you’re practicing that walk each time you go, you probably don’t care about increasing your walking speed day by day. It’s enough that the repetitions further ingrain the habit and help maintain a certain level of physical fitness. Not everything in life is a competition! But if you want to keep getting better at something as fast as possible or reach an expert level, deliberate practice is vital.
Another important point to note is that deliberate practice isn’t just a catchy name we came up with out of thin air. The term is largely attributed to Karl Anders Ericsson, one of the most influential figures of all time in the field of performance psychology. It’s something many scientists have studied for decades. Everything we say here is supported by substantial academic research, particularly Ericsson’s work.
We’ll also debunk the numerous myths swirling around deliberate practice as a concept and reveal some of its significant limitations. So if you’re looking for quick hacks for overnight success, you might want to look elsewhere. If you want a realistic roadmap for improving your performance, read on.
The elements of deliberate practice
“Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” —Jack London
In this section, we’ll break down the fundamental elements of deliberate practice and exactly how to incorporate them into your practice sessions. As Ericsson wrote in Peak, “No matter what the field, the most effective approach to improving performance is to follow a single set of principles.” We’ll explain why each component is crucial and how they apply to different fields, and we’ll cover multiple ways to implement them depending on your goals.
Deliberate practice is structured and methodical
“Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.” —Erica Jong
As humans, we’re wired to want to do the easiest thing at all times in order to conserve energy. Put more simply, it’s in our nature to be lazy. When we practice something a lot, we develop habits that become almost effortless to enact. While that’s beneficial in many areas of our lives (and helps us survive), it’s something we have to overcome in order to engage in deliberate practice. We can’t expect constant improvement if we keep repeating the elements of a skill we already know how to do with ease. That’s only enough if we’re just having fun or want to reinforce our habits.
Deliberate practice is structured to improve specific elements of a skill through defined techniques. Practitioners focus above all on what they can’t do. They seek out areas of weaknesses impacting their overall performance, then target those. At every stage, they set tailored, measurable goals in order to gauge whether their practice is effective at moving them forwards. Numbers are a deliberate practitioner’s best friend.
If you want to reach an expert level of performance, you need to begin practice sessions with a plan in mind. You need to know what you’re working on, why, and how you intend to improve it. You also need a way to tell if your improvement efforts aren’t working and if you need to try a new tactic. Once you reach your goal for that particular component of the skill, it’s time to identify a new area of weakness to work on next.
Having lots of little, realistic goals with a game plan for achieving them makes deliberate practice motivating. There’s a sense of ongoing movement, yet the next step is always a realistic stretch. Day by day, the gains from deliberate practice may feel modest. But when we look back over a longer period of time, small bits of progress compound into gigantic leaps.
How to implement this: Take the skill you’re aiming to improve and break it down into the smallest possible component parts. Make a plan for working through them in a logical order, beginning with the fundamentals, then building upon them. Decide which parts you’d like to master over the next month. Put your practice sessions in your calendar, then plan precisely which parts of the skill you’re going to work on during each session.
Don’t expect your plan to be perfect. You’ll likely need to keep modifying it as you discover new elements or unexpected weaknesses. The most important thing is to always go into practice with a plan for what you’re working on and how. Knowing what you’re doing next is the best way to stay on track and avoid aimless time-wasting. That means seeking to keep figuring out what separates you from the next level of performance so you can concentrate on that.
Deliberate practice is challenging and uncomfortable
“One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” —Albert Einstein (attributed)
Imagine the world from the perspective of a baby learning to walk for the first time. It’s not usually an easy process. They need to develop a lot of new skills and capabilities. They need to build enough muscular strength to stand upright without support. And they need to learn how to coordinate their limbs well enough to move around. Along the way, a baby needs to develop numerous sub-skills, such as how to grip supports to pull themselves up. It likely takes thousands of attempts to master walking—as well as numerous, falls, collisions, and other mishaps. We might not remember the process as adults, but a baby learning to walk needs to spend many hours challenging themselves and moving incrementally out of their comfort zone.
If we want to use deliberate practice, we could do with learning a thing or two from babies. Deliberate practice isn’t necessarily fun while we’re doing it. In fact, most of the time it’s a process of repeated frustration and failure. We have to fall down a dozen times for every step we take. That’s the whole point.
Seeing as deliberate practice requires us to keep targeting our weakest areas, it means spending time doing stuff we’re not good at. In the moment, that can feel pretty miserable. But the quickest route to improvement involves stepping outside of our comfort zones.
The reason why people who have spent decades doing something are not necessarily better than newbies is that they’re liable to get complacent and stop pushing themselves. We need to keep attempting to do things that feel out of reach at the moment.
In his studies of elite violinists, Ericsson asked them to rate different practice activities by how enjoyable they were and how much they contributed to improving performance. Invariably, there was an inverse correlation between the usefulness of an activity and its enjoyability. As Ericsson puts it in Peak:
The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.” The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in.
Elsewhere in the book, he writes “This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” The interesting part is the more time you spend deliberately practicing, the more comfortable you’ll become with being uncomfortable.
Daniel Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent:
There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot.…The underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”
The key word is ‘barely.’
A quick way to assess if you’re doing deliberate practice or just regular rote practice is to ask yourself if you ever feel bored or zone out during practice sessions. If the answer is yes, you’re probably not practicing deliberately.
Deliberate practice isn’t boring. Frustrating, yes. Maddening, yes. Annoying, even. But never boring. As soon as practicing a skill gets comfortable, it’s time to up the stakes. Challenging yourself is about more than trying to work harder—it means doing new things.
Pushing ourselves just beyond the limits of our abilities is uncomfortable, yet it’s how we do our best—and indeed, it can be the source of some of our greatest moments of satisfaction. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we often experience happiness as a result of entering a “flow” state, which occurs when we intensely focus on an activity that is challenging yet achievable. During moments of flow, we become so immersed in the activity that we lose any sense of time or of ourselves.
Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.
Most of the time when we’re practicing, we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed, as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of our reach.
Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal deliberate practice. Deliberate practice requires that you operate in the learning zone and you repeat the activity a lot with feedback.
How to implement this: Each time you practice a component of a skill, aim to make it 10% harder than the level you find comfortable.
Once per month, have a practice session where you set yourself an incredibly ambitious stretch goal—not impossible, just well above your current level. Challenge yourself to see how close you can get to it. You might surprise yourself and find you perform far better than expected.
A common deliberate practice mistake is to plan a long practice session, then adjust the intensity of your practice to allow you to engage in a skill for the whole time. It’s far more effective to engage in “sprints.” Practice with the most intense focus you can manage for short periods of time, then take breaks. Seeing as you learn most when you stretch yourself beyond your current capabilities, shorter, more challenging practice periods are the way to go.
Deliberate practice requires rest and recovery time
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” —Homer, The Odyssey
Seeing as deliberate practice is so challenging, it’s impossible to do it all day long. Across fields, top practitioners rarely spend more than around three to five hours per day on deliberate practice, at the high end. They may work for more hours than that per day, but few can sustain the mental energy to engage in deliberate practice for eight hours a day. Additional hours often result in diminishing negative returns, meaning more practice makes performance worse because it results in burnout. Geoff Colvin writes:
The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.
Ericsson’s studies of elite violinists found they often took afternoon naps and slept an average of eight hours per night, considerably more than the average person. They were highly aware of the importance of sleep.
Even fitting in a single hour per day of deliberate practice is ample time to make substantial improvements, especially when we’re consistent with committing to it over the long haul. Continuous investments in success compound. In the long run, commitment pays off.
Not only do most deliberate practitioners not spend all day at it, they also devote a lot of time to recuperation and recovery. They sleep as much as their bodies need. They nap if necessary. They take frequent, refreshing breaks. Most of us understand that rest is necessary after physical activity. But we can underestimate its importance after mental activity, too. Deliberate practice needs to be sustainable for the long term. How long a person keeps at a skill is often far more important than how many hours a day they spend on it.
When you’re practicing deliberately, truly practice. When you’re recuperating, truly relax. No one can spend every waking hour on deliberate practice.
Sleep is a vital part of deliberate practice. Being asleep doesn’t mean you’re not still improving your skill. We consolidate memories at night, moving them from short-term to long-term memory. And we can’t exactly benefit from deliberate practice sessions if we don’t remember what we learn each time. Not only that, but sleep deprivation also results in a plethora of negative cognitive effects that impact performance. If we skimp on sleep, we’re likely to forget far more of what we learn during deliberate practice sessions, rendering them less useful.
When you’re not engaging in deliberate practice, your brain is still at work. During deliberate practice, we’re in focused mode. When we let our minds wander freely while at rest, we’re in diffuse mode. Although that time feels less productive, it’s when we form connections and mull over problems. Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, but it’s the harmony between them that matters. We can’t maintain the effort of the focused mode for long. At some point, we need to relax and slip into the diffuse mode. Learning a complex skill—a language, a musical instrument, chess, a mental model—requires both modes to work together. We master the details in focused mode, then comprehend how everything fits together in diffuse mode. It’s about combining creativity with execution.
How to implement this: Make a list of activities you can engage in without too much conscious thought, letting yourself daydream while you do them. Common examples include going for a walk, washing the dishes, taking a shower, free-writing in a journal, playing with a toy like Lego, driving a familiar route, gardening, cooking, listening to music, or just gazing out the window. When you feel yourself getting tired or hitting a roadblock during deliberate practice, don’t keep pushing for too long. You want to be stretching yourself, not exhausting yourself. Instead, switch to one of those more relaxing activities for at least five minutes. You’ll likely come back to practice with new connections or at last feeling refreshed.
Deliberate practice involves constant feedback and measurement
“Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.” —Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated
Practicing something without knowing whether you are getting better is pointless. Yet that is what most of us do every day without thinking.
As we saw before, deliberate practice involves continuously stretching yourself to improve on weak areas of a skill. For that to work, practitioners require constant feedback about their current level of performance so they can identify what works for making it better.
What gets measured gets managed. To engage in deliberate practice, you need a way of measuring the most instructive metrics related to your performance. Seeing how those metrics change is the sole way to know if practice is working or not. Top performers across fields tend to spend time examining their past performance with care to identify areas for improvement. For example, a tennis player might film themselves playing a match so they can go through the footage frame by frame afterward. This provides valuable feedback, because they can figure out what might have held them back during weaker moments.
In fields such as sports and chess, measuring performance tends to be straightforward. In other areas such as business, measurements are harder to take, and there may be no established markers of success. The influence of random factors may also be stronger, making it less clear whether technique changes are actually having an influence or not. When you engage in deliberate practice, it’s always important to be aware of how strongly correlated your practice and your performance are likely to be.
When measuring your performance, beware of vanity metrics. These are numbers that are easy to calculate and feel good to boost. But they don’t actually move the needle towards the real improvements in performance that help you reach your goals. For example, let’s say you’re using deliberate practice to improve the skill of email marketing, as part of the wider goal of getting more customers for your business. The number of email subscribers is a vanity metric; the number of paying customers is a useful metric. It’s completely possible to increase the former without a corresponding increase in the latter.
How to implement this: Identify the most significant metrics related to performance in your chosen skill and keep a record of them each time you practice. It’s easy to fool yourself without a clear record of how you’re doing. You might want to break the skill down into a few different parts to measure it, but make sure you’re not fixating on vanity metrics.
Deliberate practice is most effective with the help of a coach or some kind of teacher
“The best teacher is not the one who knows most but the one who is most capable of reducing knowledge to that simple compound of the obvious and wonderful.” —H.L. Mencken (attributed)
Deliberate practice is most effective when conducted with some kind of coach who can give feedback, point out errors, suggest techniques for improvement, and provide vital motivation. Although mastering any skill requires a lot of time engaging in solitary practice, working with a coach at least some of the time is incredibly valuable. In some fields such as sports and music, it’s common for a coach to be present all of the time. But most top performers benefit from a combination of coaching and solitary practice.
When we look at the lives of people who achieved great things, we often find that those who did so at a young age or in a shorter time than expected benefited from having fantastic teachers. For example, physicist Werner Heisenberg had the epiphany that led to the formulation of matrix mechanics a mere five years after commencing serious study of physics. But he no doubt benefited from the mentorship of Niels Bohr and Max Born, two of the foremost physicists at the time.
Even people at the most elite levels of performance across fields can benefit from specialist coaching. Engaging in something and teaching that thing are separate skills in themselves. The best practitioners are not always the best teachers because teaching is a skill in itself.
Ericsson explained that “the best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach.” We often make the same mistakes again and again because we simply don’t realize what we’re doing. Our performance falls into ruts and we can’t figure out why we’re running into the same problem yet again.
A coach can see your performance from the outside, without the influence of overconfidence and other biases. They can identify your blind spots. They can help you interpret key metrics and feedback.
Ericsson went on to say that “even the most motivated and intelligent student will advance more quickly under the tutelage of someone who knows the best order in which to learn things, who understands and can demonstrate the proper way to perform various skills, who can provide useful feedback, and who can devise practice activities designed to overcome particular weaknesses.” An experienced coach will have worked with many people on the same skill so they’ll be able to advise on the best ways to structure practice. They’ll know when you’re just repeating what you find easy, and they’ll be able to push you to the next level.
Teachers or coaches see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short. Geoff Colvin writes:
In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.
But what if you don’t have access to a coach? What if you don’t have the means to hire one or one isn’t available for your particular skill? In that case, it’s still possible to apply the same principles that make a coach useful by yourself. Top performers across fields build the skill of metacognition, essentially making it possible for them to coach themselves. Colvin explains:
The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition—knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.
…A critical part of self-evaluation is deciding what caused those errors. Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: my opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.
How to implement this: Don’t expect the same teacher to suit you forever. We usually need different teachers as our skill level progresses because we outgrow them. One attribute of a good teacher is that they know when to tell a student to move on. As we reach expert levels of performance, we need teachers who are themselves experts. If they’re always a step ahead, we can learn from their mistakes instead of making our own.
You get the best results from working with a coach if you show yourself to be receptive to constructive criticism, even if it’s uncomfortable to hear. If you respond badly, you disincentivize them from telling you what’s most useful to know. Top performers know the goal is to get better, not just to hear you’re already great.
Deliberate practice requires intrinsic motivation
Persisting with deliberate practice despite its innate difficulty and discomfort requires a lot of motivation. But that motivation needs to be intrinsic, meaning that it comes from inside us because we find an activity enjoyable for its own sake. This is in contrast to extrinsic motivation, where we participate in an activity to gain an external reward or avoid a negative consequence. Yet another reason why rest is important for deliberate practice is because it helps sustain motivation.
Although deliberate practice can lead to external rewards for using a skill (such as winning a competition or getting a promotion), this should not be the sole reason for practicing it. Extrinsic motivation is unlikely to be enough to get us through the long period of struggle necessary to master a skill. Becoming proficient at anything means spending time failing repeatedly at it, during which there are few external rewards. But if we enjoy getting better for its own sake, we have more of a chance of persevering until our practice starts paying off. We can navigate obstacles because we want to see where the road might take us—the obstacles aren’t roadblocks.
If you want to use deliberate practice to master a skill, you need to be willing to keep practicing it no matter what. Although brute force and rewarding yourself can be effective in the short run, it won’t work forever. If you’re planning to engage in deliberate practice to reach expert-level performance, make sure it’s a prospect you feel excited about even if it won’t always be fun.
Extrinsic motivation isn’t always ineffective, however. People who engage in consistent, sustainable deliberate practice tend to be adept at knowing when and how they need to employ external incentives. It’s important to reward yourself when you make progress in your practice and reflect on how far you’ve come, not just how far is left to go.
The need for intrinsic motivation is one reason why children who are pushed to develop a skill from a young age by their parents don’t always end up reaching a high level of performance and often quit as soon as they can.
How to implement this: Make a list of the reasons you want to work on a skill and the benefits getting better at it might bring. Before you begin a deep practice session, reread the list to remind you of why you’re bringing your full focus to something difficult. You could also list some of the benefits you’ve experienced from it in the past or include quotes from top performers in your field you find inspiring. It might feel cheesy, but it can provide a powerful boost during particularly difficult practice moments. Try to focus on intrinsic reasons and benefits, such as feeling fulfilled.
Keep a “motivation diary” for one week (or longer if possible.) Try setting an alarm to go off every fifteen minutes during each practice session. When the alarm sounds, score your motivation level out of ten (or whichever scale you prefer.) At the end of the week, review your notes to look for any patterns. For example, you might find that you begin to feel demotivated once you’ve been practicing for more than an hour, or that you feel more motivated in the morning, or some other pattern. This information could be enlightening for planning future deliberate practice sessions, even if it may disrupt your focus at the time. Another method is to simply take notes each day, documenting your current level of motivation to work on your chosen skill. Pay attention to any recurring influences. For example, you might feel more motivated to improve your skill after speaking with a more proficient friend, but less motivated after a bad night’s sleep.
One potent option for sustaining motivation is to find someone who can be a reliable cheerleader for you. In an Ask Me Anything session for Farnam Street members, Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning explained that having a cofounder is vital for entrepreneurs because partnering with someone else helps sustain motivation. It’s rare that both founders feel demotivated on the same day. So if one is struggling, the other can provide the encouragement needed to stay resilient. Having someone to provide extrinsic motivation when you need it can help you persevere at deliberate practice. Your cheerleader doesn’t necessarily need to be working on the same skill themselves. They just need to understand your reasons and be willing to remind you of them when you start to doubt whether the hard work is worthwhile.
Deliberate practice takes time and can be a lifelong process
Although deliberate practice tends to result in much faster progress than normal practice, truly mastering a skill is a lifelong process. Reaching the top of a field can take years or even decades, depending on its competitiveness. As the bar for success in many areas keeps rising, more deliberate practice is required to stand out.
When we applaud the top people in any field, we often fail to appreciate that their success almost always came after many years of deliberate practice, which Robert Greene refers to in Mastery as “a largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years [and] receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.” They may have ultimately benefited from a lucky break, but their extensive preparation meant they were ready for it. Great achievements tend to come later in life or even near the ends of careers. Those who succeeded young started very young.
Throughout Ericsson’s decades of research, he searched high and low for an example of a true prodigy: someone born with an innate, remarkable talent. He never found a single proven example. Instead, he discovered that people labeled as prodigies invariably put in enormous amounts of deliberate practice—they just often obscured it on purpose or started at a young age.
Although innate differences count when beginning to learn something (and people who begin with advantages may be more likely to persist), in the long run, deliberate practice always wins out.
David Shenk writes in The Genius in All of Us: “Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.”
According to psychologist John Hayes, creative genius tends to come after ten years of studying relevant knowledge and developing skills. Hayes referred to this as the “ten years of silence.” In a study of seventy-six composers with sufficient biographical data available listed in The Lives of the Great Composers, Hayes found they almost always created their first notable works (defined as being those for which at least five different recordings were available at the time) at least ten years after commencing a serious study of music. Just three of the five hundred works Hayes included in his sample were composed after less than a decade of preparation—and those were produced in years eight or nine. In additional studies, Hayes found similar patterns for painters and poets.
Later research reinforces Hayes’ findings, and any casual survey of the lives of people widely considered to be geniuses tends to show a similar pattern. Making a breakthrough takes time. When it seems like someone was an overnight success, there’s almost always a long period of silent deliberate practice preceding it. Innate talents are just a starting point. If we want to master a skill, we need to commit to working on it for a lengthy period of time, likely with few rewards. While there are no assurances that with struggle comes reward, without it the odds are lower.
Not only do world-class performers spend a long time getting good at their core skill, those in creative fields tend to produce an enormous quantity of work before gaining recognition. For every piece of work we’re familiar with, there are likely dozens or even hundreds of others few people remember or ever saw.
For example, British prime minister Winston Churchill was known for his masterful public speaking. One of his best-known speeches “We Shall Fight on the Beaches,” given in June 1940, displayed the extent of his command of oration and helped build morale at the time. But it’s hard to overstate how prolific Churchill was as a speaker, giving an estimated 3,000 speeches during his political career. For every speech—an average of one per week between 1900 and 1955—he used deliberate practice to prepare. He engaged in focused rehearsals in front of a mirror, taking notes as he went to inform modifications. Churchill also left nothing to chance, planning his pauses and movements in advance. As well as devising his own techniques for added impact, he memorized the works of some of history’s most inspiring orators.
Although he doubtless began with a degree of innate talent (his father, Randolph Churchill, was also an admired orator), Churchill clearly usd extensive deliberate practice to build upon it. While this impressive resume and history solidified his place on the throne of oratorical excellence, it’s important to note that he wasn’t a “born speaker”—in fact, he made many mistakes. And he learned from them. If you want to produce a masterpiece, you need to accept that you’ll make a lot of less remarkable work first.
Deliberate practice requires intense focus
“You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.” —Karl Anders Ericsson
The deeper we focus during deliberate practice sessions, the more we get out of them. Intense focus allows us to increase skills and break through plateaus. Developing your attention span can have a huge impact on your life. When asked about his success, Charlie Munger once said, “I succeeded because I have a long attention span.”
The authors of The Game Before the Game write, “If you can pay attention for only five minutes in practice, then take a break every five minutes. If you can pay attention for only twenty balls, don’t hit fifty. To be able to practice longer and maintain the quality of the practice, train yourself to pay attention for longer periods of time….Productive practice is about how present you can stay with your intention and is measured in the quality of the experience as opposed to the quantity of time used.”
A benefit of getting constant feedback is that it shows you what moves the needle towards improved performance and what is just running in place. Certain practice activities can feel good without having any impact. Top performers prioritize knowing what to prioritize. They always start with the most important thing because anything else is a distraction.
Intense focus is a multiplier of everything else. Keeping an eye on key metrics enables top performers to identify and systematically remove distractions from their lives. To be the best, you need to focus on both the micro and macro level. You need to pay full attention to what you’re doing in the current practice sessions, and you need to know how it fits into the bigger picture of your desired trajectory. Deliberate practice is part of the exploit phase of selecting opportunities.
As the authors of the International Handbook of Research in Professional and Practice-Based Learning write, “Practicing the right things is at the core of the theory of deliberate practice.”
How to implement this: Put the big rocks in first. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Figure out which practice activities have the biggest influence on your performance and plan to engage in those first before you even consider activities that offer marginal gains.
Deliberate practice leverages the spacing effect
One reason why consistent deliberate practice sessions over the course of years are more effective than longer sessions for a shorter period of time relates to the spacing effect. We can’t approach learning a skill through deliberate practice in the same way we quite likely approached studying for tests in school. If we better understand how our minds work, we can use them in the optimal way for learning. By leveraging the spacing effect, we can encode valuable knowledge related to our particular skill for life during practice sessions.
Memory mastery comes from repeated exposure to the same material. The spacing effect refers to how we are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple sessions with increasingly large intervals between them. The most effective way to learn new information is through spaced repetition. It works for learning almost anything, and research has provided robust evidence of its efficacy for people of all ages—and even for animals.
Spaced repetition is also satisfying because it keeps us on the edge of our abilities (which, as we saw earlier, is a core element of deliberate practice.) Spaced sessions allow us to invest less total time to memorize than one single session, whereas we might get bored while going over the same material again and again in a single session. Of course, when we’re bored we pay less and less attention. The authors of Focused Determination put it this way:
There is also minimal variation in the way the material is presented to the brain when it is repeatedly visited over a short time. This tends to decrease our learning. In contrast, when repetition learning takes place over a longer period, it is more likely that the materials are presented differently. We have to retrieve the previously learned information from memory and hence reinforce it. All of this leads us to become more interested in the content and therefore more receptive to learning it.
We simply cannot practice something once and expect it to stick.
By engaging in deliberate practice on a regular basis, even if each practice session is short, we leverage the power of the spacing effect. Once we learn something through spaced repetition, it actually sticks with us. After a certain point, we may only need to revisit it every few years to keep our knowledge fresh. Even if we seem to forget something between repetitions, it later proves easier to relearn.
How to implement this: Forget about cramming. Each time you’re learning a new component of a skill, make a schedule for when you’ll review it. Typical systems involve going over information after an hour, then a day, then every other day, then weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, then every six months, then yearly. Guess correctly and the information moves to the next level and is reviewed less often. Guess incorrectly and it moves down a level and is reviewed more often.
The history of deliberate practice
Karl Anders Ericsson: The expert on expertise
“Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it.” —Karl Anders Ericsson, Peak
The concept of deliberate practice is attributed to Florida State University psychologist Karl Anders Ericsson, who along with his collaborators performed pioneering research in the field of expert performance. Ericsson spent decades seeking to answer the question of what it takes to become really good at something difficult. His research often focused on medicine, music, and sports.
Ericsson’s interest in expert performance kicked off in the late 1970s, when he began working with psychologist Bill Chase at Carnegie Mellon University to study short-term memory. Together, they began a series of experiments to see how many random digits it’s possible to memorize after hearing them once. Ericsson and Chase used an undergrad named Steve Faloon as their guinea pig. For a few hours each week, they read out numbers and Faloon repeated as many as he could recall.
Although the experiment might sound dull, they uncovered something intriguing. In a 1982 paper entitled “Exceptional Memory,” Ericsson and Chase summarized their findings. Previously, researchers believed the average person could hold just seven random digits in their short-term memory. Yet with careful practice, Faloon began to remember more and more numbers. At his peak and after 200 hours of practice, he could recall 82 digits. To assess if this was a fluke, Ericsson tried the same with a friend, Dario Donatelli. Five years later, Donatelli could recall 113 digits. Both he and Faloon went far beyond what seemed to be an immovable ceiling on human performance and blew past existing world records.
The experience of seeing two people who started off with ordinary memories enhance their capabilities in such a drastic way inspired Ericsson to further study the effects of practice on skills. Could it be that extraordinary abilities came from extraordinary practice, not just innate ability?
Through his studies of expert performers in a range of fields, Ericsson concluded they practiced their skills in a fundamentally different way than amateur practitioners. Ericsson described this kind of practice as “deliberate” due to its methodicial, hyper-conscious nature. He argued that experts become experts largely as a result of the way they practice. They may benefit from innate advantages, but their talents themselves are not innate.
Ericsson also believed that the standards in many additional fields could be improved far beyond their current level if practitioners employed the principles of deliberate practice. Indeed, many fields have seen remarkable increases in their standards for high performance over time. Today, high-schoolers manage athletic feats that were once Olympic level and children play music once considered world-class. This is possible because of better training and knowledge of what it takes to be the best. The more we improve how we train, the more we expand our range of possible performance.
In 2016, Ericsson published Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, a popular science book condensing his learnings from thirty years of research. He also co-edited the 2006 Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.
Malcolm Gladwell: The 10,000 hour rule
The widespread awareness of Ericsson’s work outside the scientific community is in part a result of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success. In the book, Gladwell attributed unusual success in different fields to a mixture of lucky factors (such as when or where a person was born) and around 10,000 hours of practice. He based this figure on research, including Ericsson’s, that suggested top performers tended to have put in about that amount of time before reaching peak performance.
Gladwell showed how the success of Bill Gates, the Beatles, and other outstanding performers is not so much to do with what they are like but rather where they come from. “The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves,” Gladwell writes. “But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”
The so-called “10,000 hours rule” caught on. It’s a catchy idea, and many people took it to mean that anyone can master anything if they just put the time in. Ericsson himself disputed Gladwell’s representations of his research, which led to the widespread belief that the time someone spends practicing predicts their success, without emphasizing the quality of their practice.
Although the backlash against Gladwell’s calculation has arguably been exaggerated, it’s important to stress that research into deliberate practice emphasizes quality of practice, not quantity. It’s all too possible to spend 10,000 hours engaging in a skill without serious improvements. For example, most of us spend hours per day typing, yet we don’t see continuous improvements in speed and quality because we’re not using deliberate practice.
The useful takeaway from the “10,000 hours rule” is simply that it takes a lot of work to become the best. There’s no magic number of practice sessions, and everyone’s path will look different. Just because successful people in a given field have spent around 10,000 hours practicing their key skill, that doesn’t mean every person who practices that skill for 10,000 hours will become successful.
The limitations and downsides of deliberate practice
Part of us wants to believe expert performance is something innate and magical so we can recuse ourselves from hard work. The other part of us wants to believe that it’s something earned through blood, sweat, and tears—that we too could achieve amazing performance, if only we could devote ourselves to something.
Deliberate practice, in reality, is far more complex and nuanced than many people would have you believe. It’s not a panacea, and it won’t solve all of your work- and art-related problems. Let’s take a look at some of the limitations of deliberate practice.
First of all, deliberate practice is a necessary but insufficient part of becoming a world-class performer. You can’t rise to the top without it. But it’s not enough on its own to be the absolute best in any field. Once you reach higher echelons for any skill, everyone is engaging in a lot of deliberate practice.
If you’re aiming at expertise or just really good performance, deliberate practice will most likely get you there. But the higher you rise, the more luck and randomness end up mattering. However much you engage in deliberate practice, you can’t control the chance events (good or bad) that dictate a great deal of life.
When we look at the lives of top performers, they often benefited from specific backgrounds or opportunities, in addition to engaging in deliberate practice. For example, if you’re trying to become a champion chess player, it’s a big boost if your mother was a champion chess player. Not only will you have potential genetic advantages, you’ll have also likely grown up hearing about chess, been encouraged to practice it from a young age, and have someone to turn to for advice.
Seeing as it takes years of consistent deliberate practice to master a skill, people who begin early in life have an advantage over those who start later on. That doesn’t mean you can’t become exceptional at something you discover well into adulthood (just look at Julia Child or check out the book Guitar Zero). But it does mean that people who begin deliberate practice as kids are more likely to enjoy the success that makes it possible to keep committing to it. If you’re trying to master a skill while also having to work an unrelated job, care for your family, and deal with the other myriad responsibilities of adult life, you likely will have less room for it than a ten-year-old.
People who discover they want to master a skill or are encouraged to do so by others early in life have an advantage. Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take off. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.
In addition to lucky circumstances, high performers benefit from a combination of deliberate practice and innate talents or physical advantages. However much you practice, certain physical limitations are insurmountable. For example, if you’re 165 centimeters tall, you’re unlikely to become a professional basketball player. There are some physical abilities, such as particular kinds of flexibility, that can only be developed at a young age when a person’s skeletal structure is still forming. It’s important to be realistic about your starting point and be aware of any limitations. But that doesn’t mean you can’t develop workarounds or even use them to your advantage.
Another downside of deliberate practice is that the level of focus it requires can mean practitioners miss out on other parts of life. Top performers often devote almost every waking hour to practice, recuperation from practice, and support activities. For example, a professional dancer might spend several hours a day on deliberate practice with all of the remaining hours going toward sleep, low-impact exercise, stretching, preparing nutritious food, icing his feet, and so on. There is enormous satisfaction in the flow states produced by deliberate practice, but practitioners can absolutely miss out on other sources of happiness, such as spending time with friends.
Deliberate practice is part of the exploit phase of new opportunities. Yet sometimes we can end up having too much grit. We can keep persevering with the skill we’re practicing right now, remaining overly passionate, past the point where it serves us. We can wear ourselves out or get hurt or fail to realize when it’s no longer worth practicing a skill. For example, a new technology might mean our skill is no longer valuable. If we keep on deliberate practicing due to sunk costs, we’ll be unlikely to see many long-term benefits from it. A crucial skill in life is knowing when to pivot. Focusing too much on our goals can blind us to risks.
In some fields, expertise is hard to quantify or measure, which makes it less clear how to structure practice. There may be no single target to hit or universal rule for what improves performance.
A final limitation to keep in mind is that, as Ericsson explained, “the cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Stop training and they go away.” If someone can’t practice for a period of time, such as due to an injury or having a child, they’re likely to see the skills they developed through deliberate practice deteriorate.
Deliberate practice isn’t everything, but if you want to keep improving at a skill or overcome a plateau, you’ll benefit from incorporating the principles mentioned in this article. To recap:
- Deliberate practice means practicing with a clear awareness of the specific components of a skill we’re aiming to improve and exactly how to improve them.
- The more we engage in deliberate practice, the greater our capabilities become.
- Our minds and bodies are far more malleable than we usually realize.
- Deliberate practice is structured and methodical.
- Deliberate practice is challenging because it involves constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
- Deliberate practice requires constant feedback and measurement of informative metrics—not vanity metrics.
- Deliberate practice works best with the help of a teacher or coach.
- Continuing deliberate practice requires a great deal of intrinsic motivation.
- Deliberate practice requires constant, intense focus.
- Deliberate practice leverages the spacing effect—meaning a consistent commitment over time is crucial.
- If you’re content with your current level of skill or just doing something for fun, you don’t necessarily need to engage in deliberate practice
- Deliberate practice is best suited to pursuits where you’re actively aiming for a high level of performance or to break beyond some kind of supposed limit.
Books about deliberate practice (further reading)
“A world in which deliberate practice is a normal part of life would be one in which people had more volition and satisfaction.” —Karl Anders Ericsson, Peak
If you’d like to learn more about the art and science of deliberate practice, check out any of these books:
- Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin
- The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
- The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle
- Mastery, Robert Greene
- Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell
- Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, Matthew Syed
- The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck
- Teaching Genius: Dorothy Delay and the Making of a Musician, Barbara Lourie Sand
- Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth
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