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How to Practice for Maximum Performance

The age-old saying suggests that practice makes perfect, when in fact researchers have found that practice alone doesn't necessarily lead to success. Instead, experts suggest that the right kind of practice is what really matters when trying to optimize learning and increase skills. In fact, studies have shown that practice alone can amount to 80% of the difference between elite performers and amateur performers.

Dr. Ericsson's research is the basis for the "10,000-hour rule" which suggests that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain. Those are some big numbers, which is why I missed the key part of the equation at first. Deliberate practice. Meaning there is a specific type of practice that facilitates the attainment of an elite level of performance. Then there’s the other kind of practice, that most of us are familiar with. Mindless practice. (If you'd prefer to watch a video on this topic instead of reading it, check out my youtube video here.)


Mindless Practice

This is something most of us have observed, whether in ourselves or others. It usually takes one of these 3 forms.


1. Broken Record Method.


This is where we simply repeat the same thing over and over. Same tennis serves, same piano melody, same presentation, etc. At first, it looks like practice, but up close you see much of it is simply mindless repetition.


2. Autopilot Method.

This is where we switch on our autopilot and coast. Recite your poem 3 times, play a round of golf, practice a music piece from beginning to end. Again, it looks like practice, but actually has some serious drawbacks, which we will cover later.


3. Hybrid Method.

This is the combined approach, and what I find myself doing most often. I play a piano piece until I find something I don’t like, back up and do that section over and over until I like how it sounds, then try to find another place and do the process all over again.

Now you may be asking, “Hey what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with practicing like that?” Well, let's take a look at the 3 main problems with this method.


3 Main Problems With Mindless Practice


1. It's a waste of time.

First of all, very little productive learning happens when we practice this way. This is why we can practice something for hours, days, or months on end, and hardly get anywhere. Worse yet, this kind of practice reinforces and strengthens undesirable habits and errors, which increases more inconsistency and ultimately leads to even more practice. As a famous violinist once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.”


2. It makes you less confident.

When you practice mindlessly, it builds a sense of uncertainty deep down. Like a part of you knows you don’t know how to produce the results you are looking for. Even with a high success rate in difficult skill sets, there’s an uncertainty that won’t go away. This is evident for me when people ask me to play a piano piece. Even though I know the piece and can play it, deep down I feel very unsteady and hesitant. That's because I don't actually KNOW the piece, I've just repeated it long enough that my fingers remember, but not my mind.


3. It is mind-numbingly dull.

Possibly worst of all, mindless practice turns into a chore. We’ve all had well-meaning teachers or parents tell us to practice something "X" number of times, or for a certain amount of time. But why are we measuring success in units of practice time? We need more specific results-oriented outcome goals. For example, "practice this guitar piece until it sounds like XYZ," or "practice this piece until you can figure out how to make it sound like ABC." This allows us a place of arrival and achievement.


The Alternative

Now If I did my job right, mindless practice sounds terrible and awful, leaving you asking "Ok, then what's the alternative?" The alternative is "deliberate," or "mindful practice." This is a systematic and highly structured activity, that, well for a lack of a better word, is more “scientific.” For this, we leave the mindless trial and error and adopt an active and thoughtful process, where we relentlessly seek solutions to clearly defined problems. Sounds all very fancy, doesn’t it?


First of all, let's define what deliberate practice means. Deliberate practice is often slow and involves small precise repetition of a specific skill. Say I want to become a more proficient portrait photographer. I may spend 30-60 min practicing only a specific part of that, such as lighting changes or the rule of thirds.



Deliberate practice also involves active monitoring of one’s performance. This could be looking over previous work you’ve done, and continuously looking for ways to improve. Asking questions that poke and prod your results is a great way for this. If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is, and probably why few people practice this way. Stop, analyze what went wrong, why it happened, and how to produce different results the next time.

Now if your at all like me your hoping there’s a way to streamline this process, and thankfully there is. Let’s look at 5 principles to accelerate skill development.


How to Accelerate Skill Development


1. Focus is Everything.

Resolve to keep your practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes, or as long as 45-60 minutes. Finding the time that is right for you will take trial and error, and may get longer or shorter over time.



2. Timing is Everything too.

Keep track of when you feel the most energy. For me, this is around 8 or 9 am, when I usually hardcore bingeing on my favorite productivity book. Try to practice during these natural clarity moments of the day.


3. Don't Trust Your Memory.

Use a notebook, planner, notion, whatever you need, and plan out your practice sessions. Use this to keep you on track with your goals and what you discover along the way. The secret to getting in the flow when practicing is to constantly strive for clarity of intention. Have a crystal clear view of where you want to go, and be relentless in your search to get there. You can't hit a target you can't see.



4. Smarter, Not Harder.

In some cases, when things aren’t working it means we need to practice more. However, be wary of stubbornly persisting with a strategy that clearly isn’t working. Stop, step back and brainstorm solutions for a day or two. As you think of them write them down, and then come back and start experimenting. This gives you a clear view of what was wrong, and how you solved it, and next time a problem like that shows its face, you have an extra resource to crush it.


5. Stay on Target With the Problem Solving Model.

When your practicing on something, It's extremely easy to drift into mindless practice mode, so here’s how to use the “problem-solving model” to keep you on track.

  1. Define the problem.

  2. Analyze the problem.

  3. Identify potential solutions.

  4. Test the potential solutions and select the most effective one.

  5. Implement the best solution.

  6. Monitor implementation.


6. Bonus! - Mental Practice.


While hands-on is often linked to learning a new skill, believe it or not, that actually leaves out a very important type of rehearsal, which is mental practice. A 2008 study found that medical students who combined mental practice with hands-on experience did better when performing real surgery than those who had only relied on physical practice and textbook reading.

There was another study where scientists hooked up monitors to the legs of skiers while they were mentally rehearsing their route. They found that the muscles flexed and responded almost exactly like when they were doing the actual run, although not to the same intensity. They found that it was training the brain on the route and creating muscle memory before the route was even run.


Conclusion.

It doesn't matter if your trying to improve your writing skills, golf swing, or marketing abilities, time is our most valuable commodity. If you're going to practice, you might as well do it right. I found the research for this topic quite enlightening, and I hope it has had the same effect on you. We are all here to learn from each other, so let me know how I can better give content.










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