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Intro to Deliberate Practice

life Mar 7, 2023

At Improving, we regularly reference the concepts in the book, Mastery, by George Leonard, to define what mindset we are looking to utilize in a specific effort. From that, we can develop deliberate practices towards that goal. But what is a deliberate practice?

"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." -- Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated

It's more than just 10K hours of practice (something typically referenced in other materials), it's about intentional growth and preparation. There's a difference between doing something and practicing it; they're not alway synonymous. Practice is about making us better at it. It's about the stretching so that we might grow to a new level. So let's put some definition around what a deliberate practice looks like.

  1. Structured and methodical
    If we don't know WHAT to change to make us better and how to get us there, we plateau.
  2. Challenging and uncomfortable
    It's far more effective to practice deliberately in sprints instead of in long sessions. Stretch yourself for short periods beyond your current capabilities and then allow for realignment.
  3. Requires rest and recovery
    Sustained deliberate practice should be 60-90 minutes max per session and no more than 3-4 hours a day. Even at that rate, it's hard to maintain. Sleep is a vital part of deliberate practice as you consolidate memories. When skipped we often lose what we've learned and we know sleep deprivation results in negative cognitive impacts that affect performance.
  4. Involves constant feedback and measurement
    What gets measured gets managed. Beware of vanity metrics; easy to calculate numbers that feel good to boost but don't actually move the needle on performance. Number of email subscribers (vanity) versus number of paid subscribers (useful).
  5. Most effective with the help of a coach or teacher of some kind
    They're there for feedback, pointing out errors or suggesting techniques. They can even help with motivation. "The best way to overcome a barrier is to go at it from a different direction."
    Metacognition is knowledge about your own knowledge. Thinking about your own thinking. The ability to step outside yourself and observe what you're doing and to coach yourself on it.
  6. Requires intrinsic motivation
    Extrinsic is unlikely to be enough to get you through the long period of struggle needed to master a skill. If you're failing repeatedly, you can become disillusioned with extrinsic motivations. You can/should reward yourself for achieving though - not all extrinsic things are bad. Just they can't be the sole reason for the effort.
  7. Takes time-investment and is a lifelong process
    A true prodigy may be a myth. Our successes come later in life and after we have invested an enormous amount of deliberate practice.
    "Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment." -- David Schenk, The Genius in All of Us
  8. Requires intense focus
    "I succeeded because I have a long attention span." -- Charlie Munger. Intense focus is a multiplier of everything else. Know what moves the needle and focus on it FIRST.
  9. Leverages the spacing effect
    The spacing effect refers to learning across multiple sessions with increasingly large intervals between them. It also helps to keep you on the edge of your ability.

Deliberate practice alone will only make you a good performer, to be world-class you will also need more luck and randomness; typical as you rise higher and higher in performance since everyone at that level is deliberately practicing. Given this, those who start earlier have an advantage because there's more opportunity to capture chance. Additionally, the challenges of holding to deliberate practice mean you will miss out on other parts of life. There is no cake-and-eat-it-too; it's a tradeoff.