Deliberate Practice: The Key to Mastering Any Skill

a month ago   •   3 min read

By Zero Machina

Have you ever wondered what separates a good figure skater from an Olympic gold medalist? A worthy chess player from a Grandmaster?

Some would say it's natural talent or intelligence—which may be true, to some extent.  However, performance psychologist K. Anders Ericsson found it's more likely a result of "deliberate practice." This is a concept that can be used to master any skill you can imagine. And it's being used by experts all over the world.

Let's take a look at how it works.

What Is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is a method of improving skills in a specific, intentional, and strategic way.

The term was coined by K. Anders Ericsson in the early 1990s. By studying several experts from different fields, he debunked the myth that high performers are born with inherent talents or strengths. Instead, experts achieve high performance based on how they practice. They break down a skill into smaller parts and deliberately practice each one. And between practice repetitions, experts utilize feedback to make necessary adjustments.

Deliberate practice leads to rapid improvement, and it's more than just rote practice.

It's based on several core principles:

  • It has specific, well-defined goals: First, you'll want to identify the ultimate goal. Then, practice is broken down into smaller, specific, and challenging targets.
  • It uses chunking: Chunking means breaking a skill down into smaller parts and practicing each sub-skill to mastery. This is more effective than trying to practice the entire skill at once.
  • It requires focus and engagement: Mindlessly going through the motions won't cut it. Deliberate practice requires full focus and engagement in order to be effective.
  • It isn’t always fun: Deliberate practice is difficult. It requires working beyond your comfort zone and pushing yourself to your limits.
  • It requires feedback: Experts often have coaches or mentors who provide constant feedback about how they're doing, and what needs improvement.
  • It targets our weaknesses: You'll spend time working on areas you're not currently skilled at. This is frustrating at first, but necessary for growth.

Six Tips for Getting Started With Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice isn’t just for athletes or performers.

Anyone can learn to utilize this process to learn new skills or improve existing ones. For busy professionals, this is valuable for making the most of your time and maximizing productivity.

Here are six tips for getting started with deliberate practice.

#1: Find Your Motivation

Developing skills takes a huge amount of motivation.

You'll be tempted to throw in the towel and give up—frustrating challenges, times of slow progress, and multiple failures. This is why you'll need to be clear about why you're doing it, and what you hope to achieve. For instance, you may be driven by becoming the best in your field, or to improve your lifestyle.

Find what drives you and use that as fuel.

#2: Set Realistic and Specific Goals

The goals you set while using deliberate practice have to be specific and well-defined.

Vague or generic goals—like just “getting better” at something—won't motivate you or allow you to accurately measure progress. Deliberate practice requires that you set realistic and well-defined goals for making meaningful improvements.

Consider your current skill level, and set specific goals that'll force you to grow.

#3: Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

It's important to push yourself to your limits.

It's unproductive to focus on skills you're already good at. It won't improve your abilities or performance. Set goals just outside of your comfort zone: This is where the real growth occurs.

You should feel a little bit uncomfortable—but not so far out of your comfort zone that you quit or burn out.

#4: Be Persistent and Consistent

Deliberate practice will be challenging and frustrating at times.

But this is a good thing. Pushing through difficulties leads to momentum, growth, and progress. So commit to consistency and persistence by setting a regular practice schedule and getting accountability.

Building momentum is essential for building expertise.

#5: Seek Honest Feedback

Honest feedback is essential to identify weaknesses and measure progress.

Find feedback loops for pinpointing areas that need improvement—a teacher, coach, mentor, or some kind of self-assessment. This will empower you to quickly overcome obstacles. You may also want to regularly review your progress and revise goals as needed.

Feedback gives you much-needed information for your deliberate practice sessions.

#6: Take a Break to Recover

Deliberate practice requires your full concentration.

Whether your effort is physical or cognitive, eventually you'll need to take breaks and recover. Build recovery rituals into your schedule—breaks, naps, and a good night's sleep. This will help you stay fresh and maintain focus during practice sessions.

You can't pour from an empty cup.


Next Steps

Deliberate practice is essential for anyone who wants to improve their skills or performance.

It's a process that requires focus, consistency, and commitment. It can feel uncomfortable, as is often the case when working on areas of weakness. But this is necessary for growth and progress.

Want to learn more about how to perform at an elite level? Check out our article: 4 Signs You Are a High Performer at Work.

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