deliberate practice

Focus Hard. In reasonable bursts. One day at a time.

Cal Newport on deliberate practice.  He discusses the distinction between “hard work” and “hard to do work”, with the goal of deliberate practice being to do less work that is harder to do.

Some more reading about deliberate practice.  I heard about the study with the violinists a while ago, so it’s not exactly new news, but it’s definitely worth sharing.

Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, [Ericsson] has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”
—  Foer, J. 2011. Moonwalking with Einstein. The art and science of remembering everything. Pg. 171. The Penguin Press. NY.
Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice for a minimum of ten years.

K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer (1993)

“We view elite performance as the product of a decade or more of maximal efforts to improve performance in a domain through an optimal distribution of deliberate practice. This view provides us with unique insights into the potential for and limits to modifying the human body and mind. Many anatomical characteristics, traditionally believed to be fixed, can adapt and change in response to intense practice sustained for years. Substantial change and learning can occur even during childhood, when some changes, such as in certain perceptual-motor abilities, might be even easier to attain than during adulthood. Untrained adults can overcome limits on speed and processing capacity by acquiring new cognitive skills that circumvent these limits by qualitatively different processes.” (400)

A few things you can take away from this:

  1. It’s never too late to start.
  2. The people you view as talented are working hard to get better. They are developing, like you. Their place and their speed are immaterial; you are following your own trajectory, utterly unique to you.
  3. While genetics and environment do have their role to play, what you can achieve is shaped by what you believe you can achieve.
Deliberate Practice ISN’T What Most of Us Do When We’re “Practicing”

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post asking for someone to please enlighten me:

What specficially is “deliberate practice?”  Like, down-and-dirty, roll up your sleeves, step-by-step, What Is It?

This much I know:  "Deliberate Practice" feels much different from the trenches than it does when you’re just hearing about it as a concept.

I hit the “Publish” button on that post, and then I picked up Geoff Colvin’s book,Talent is Overratedin he describes in precise detail, What Deliberate Practice Is and Isn’t:

“For starters, it isn’t what most of us do when we’re practicing.”


It’s an excellent book that I highly recommend for anyone trying improve at almost anything (i.e. school, sports, music, and even corporate America).

For now, I’ll leave you with a few quotes from the book that describe “deliberate practice” in the kind of detail I was looking for:

“…deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.”

“High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task of performing and the task for real, when it counts.”

“Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.”

Feedback is essential: “…practicing without feedback is like bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level.”

“It’s highly demanding mentally.  Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration.”

“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 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.”

“It isn’t much fun…..Deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable.”

“…great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development state in their chosen field. …The essence of practice, which is constantly trying to do the things one can not do comfortably, makes automatic behavior impossible.”

There’s a lot more to say about this.  To be continued…..

For now, I’m off to write more SAT questions.  After reading the book, I’m further convinced that SAT question writing falls squarely in “deliberate practice” territory.

Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis

Many of our escapes are involuntary: addiction and dissociating from painful feelings are two examples. Anyone who has worked with a strong addiction—compulsive eating, compulsive sex, abuse of substances, explosive anger, or any other behavior that’s out of control—knows that when the urge comes on it’s irresistible. The seduction is too strong.

So we train again and again in less highly charged situations in which the urge is present but not so overwhelming. By training with everyday irritations, we develop the knack of refraining when the going gets rough. It takes patience and an understanding of how we’re hurting ourselves not to continue taking the same old escape route of speaking or acting out.

—  Pema Chödrön from Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change
What Is “Deliberate Practice” (and am I doing it)?

Everyone talks a good game about the essential ingredients for mastery (myself included) – there's "deliberate practice,“ and "10,000 hours,”  etc.  But I ask of you,* and with the utmost sincerity:

What exactly– specifically and punctiliously** is this "deliberate practice?“

Does this all count towards my 10,000 hours?

I just started reading Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, which seems like it could answer my questions.

I can tell you that I feel mentally fatigued at the end of each day.  I want the lights dimmed and no loud noises.  This is a particular challenge when you’re living with teenagers.  My son told me the other night that I’m acting like Cromwell (he wouldn’t allow “merrymaking” and made everyone wear black).

Oy.  Maybe I’m just not cut out for this.  Maybe the SAT really is for young people – like what they say about having babies.

I can tell you I did not fare well when I ran my one and only marathon. You know how some people just pick up and get on with their lives like it was nothing?  That was not me. It did me in; I never ran again.

Maybe it’s the adult pressures on top of the SATs.  I don’t want to cook and pay bills – and I don’t want to take another full, timed practice test – which PWN says I must do before the next real SAT (Oct. 1).

Here’s what I know:

All those theories about learning and mastery feel much different down here in the trenches. (just sayin’)

*The most valuable “you,” for me, is the “you” who’s been down here in the trenches.

**Yes, I keep repeating this word.  It’s my new favorite – replacing jejune – and topping my list of words to bring back in rotation.

Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis



Amy Henion’s TED Talk offers perspective from the recent graduates contributing to the growing momentum of the tiny house movement. Enjoy.

Amy Henion believes tiny houses could be the ticket to the freedom and security she and other young professionals need to succeed.
…like most college students and recent grads, isn’t sure what the next few years will hold. While fretting about how she will manage to pay the bills while still being flexible to new opportunities, Amy stumbled upon a potential solution to her concerns of high rent and poor mobility: tiny houses! In this talk Amy shares the benefits of tiny living, and the history of the ever growing tiny house movement in America.

The things we own have power over us. They have the power to keep us rooted in one place and they have the power to drown out our need for human interaction. If you detach yourself from the things you own you find that you’re free from the restrictions they place on you.
~ Amy Henion

Related: Should I live in a tiny house? [Infographic] Is Your McMansion Killing You? [Infographic]One Year Retrospective by Golden Tiny House [short read]  ↬ smalltopia

Matthew Syed: The myth of talent and the power of practice | 09.07.13  

Most of what you’ll read online about the Small House Movement has to do with the architecture of small homes.

Yet, what’s more important than the architecture are the choices we make that get us to a point of simple living. To do so, one really needs to assess their priorities, passions, and goals.

Living small is made possible by living a focused life. Choosing those things and activities you enjoy most, and discarding everything else.