On Deliberate Practice

I am currently reading (for the third time) Anders Erickson’s book on deliberate practice – Peak. Erickson is a Florida State University psychologist that spent his decorated career studying the behavioral traits of experts – those high-performing individuals in the top of their chosen fields. Erickson argues that what separates elite performers isn’t some natural, inborn talent, but rather the specific way and amount of time they practice. Essentially, experts practice deliberately and for a significant amount of time more than others in their field. I have mentioned deliberate practice in other posts, but I think a more formal explanation is now warranted. Before doing so, it is necessary to first explain two other forms of practice – naive and purposeful – that Erickson has observed and explains in Peak.

Naive and Purposeful Practice

Whenever learning some new skill or technique, most people engage in what Erickson has labeled ‘naive’ practice. Naive practice is best explained by way of example. Suppose you would like to learn how to ski. You spend the first few days in beginner lessons, fall all over the place, and eventually graduate from the bunny slope to beginner green runs. You continue to spend a few days a season on the snow, and over time you become more confident on intermediate blue runs and after a few years you slowly become comfortable at black and double-black advanced terrain. Essentially your ‘practice’ involves spending several hours enjoying the mountain, a few days a year. Every once in a while you take a lesson and even work on technique a bit here and a bit there. But eventually you plateau in your skiing ability. You continue to ski each year and after many years figure, “I have been skiing for years now, I must be an expert.” In reality, you may be competent skier, but you are far from expert status. This is naive practice. The important lesson here is that time spent developing a skill does not equate to advanced skill development. Erickson references studies that show that young medical doctors are actually better performing doctors than those doctors with 20 or 30 years experience.

At the next level of skill development, we have purposeful practice. Purposeful practice involves training with specific, targeted goals in mind, training drills that work towards those goals, and some type of feedback loop, ideally from a teacher or coach. To continue with the skiing example, suppose instead of causally enjoying the mountains, you set up a season long training plan. You decide to take ski lessons every weekend and design a training plan with your skiing instructor. You set skiing targets and completion dates to work towards. With each lesson, you receive direct feedback from your coach as well. After several snow seasons of purposeful practice, you have developed a smooth and graceful technique. Purposeful practice actually provides a solid learning framework to rapidly develop a skill. Yet, it is not the best method, as we shall see next.

Deliberate Practice

In many ways, deliberate practice is similar to purposeful practice. It involves specific targets, training drills, and a teacher of some kind. What differentiates deliberate practice from purposeful practice is that it leans on a discipline with formal training structures. For example, mathematics and gymnastics both have proven methods of training and instruction. However, something like good management and leadership, does not.  I should note here that merely implementing deliberate practice into your skill development won’t make you an expert.  Erickson points out that the truly elite have generally put in thousands and thousands and thousands of hours practicing deliberately.

If you are looking to apply deliberate practice to something in the organisational framework, like management or leadership skills, you can still apply the principles of purposeful practice and add in components of deliberate practice. You can set your self management drills, perhaps through role-playing scenarios, and use feedback from participants to hone in on your weak points. You can incorporate deliberate practice by identifying someone with proven management skills and a) asking her how she developed the management skill set and b) do what she did.

You may be asking yourself, how does deliberate practice relate to productivity? Two reasons. First, if you are going to spend time learning some new skill, you will want to accelerate the learning of the skill as much as possible. Deliberate practice enables that. Second, as I’ve argued recently, productivity is a skill that can can be learned. While productivity skills may not have a formal training routine like sports or academic subjects, there are many productivity junkies that give guidance and feedback. I personally look to people like Cal Newport (www.studyhacks.com), David Allen (www.gettingthingsdone.com) and Scott Young (www.scottyoung.com). There may be people in your office or professional network that you identify as highly productive or high performers. Go ask them their behavioral traits – how do they work – and repeat that same process in your own work life.

At the end of the day, personal productivity is all about observing how you are doing something and then asking if there is a better/smarter way to do it. You can use a variety of methods to accelerate a skill learning curve, but deliberate practice is that better/smarter way.

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