Deliberate Practice



“Great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved; then it’s on to the next aspect.” — Geoff Colvin

Deliberate Practice is a technique you can use to achieve expert performance.

You may have heard of Deliberate Practice from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers or Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent Is Overrated.

Aside from raw talent, Deliberate Practice helps explain how world-class experts achieve their excellence

According to Anders Ericsson, the early pioneer of Deliberate Practice, it it takes 10,000 hours of Deliberate Practice to become an expert in almost anything (20 hours for 50 weeks a year for ten years = 10,000 hours).

Don’t get hung up on the time aspect, though.

The real key is how you practice.

What is Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice really comes down to motivation, ability, and feedback.

It’s a form of training involving focused, repetitive practice, while monitoring your performance, correcting, experimenting, and reacting to continuous feedback.

The goal is steady and consistent improvement.

According to Ericsson:

“People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults…We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”

Keys to Achieving Expert Performance

If you want to achieve optimal learning, there are a few keys that should be in place.

Via The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:

  1. Distinguish from other types of everyday activities in which learning may be an indirect result.
  2. Motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve performance.
  3. The design of the task should take into account the pre-existing knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
  4. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. 
  5. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

“When these conditions are met, practice improves accuracy and speed of performance on cognitive, perceptual, and motor tasks.”

New Methods Lead to New Levels of Performance

In order to reach new levels of performance, you often need either specific instructions or a new technique.

Via The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:

“The inability of some subjects to discover new methods has sometimes been interpreted as evidence for basic cognitive or perceptual deficits, especially for performance of seemingly simple tasks.  However, specific instruction or the generation of new methods can eventually enhance improvement temporarily arrested at suboptimal levels.”

Three Types of Activities:  Work, Play, and Deliberate Practice

Work tends to be about “getting it done.”  Play tends to wander through enjoyable activities.  Deliberate Practice is focused on improvement.

Via The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:

“Consider three general types of activities, namely, work, play, and deliberate practice.  Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards.  Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable.  Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.  The goals, costs, and rewards of these three types of activities differ, as does the frequency with which individuals pursue them.”

Work Does Not Equal Deliberate Practice

You can spend hours a day, and weeks in a year, and not do any deliberate practice at work.

At work, you tend to play it safe.  You don’t explore new methods and techniques that could be far more effective and far more efficient.  You tend to fall into habits and practices that you learned from others on the job.

Via The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:

“The distinction between work and training (deliberate practice) is generally recognized.  Individuals given a new job are often given some period of apprenticeship or supervised activity during which they are supposed to acquire an acceptable level of reliable performance.  Thereafter individuals are expected to give their best performance in work activities and hence individuals rely on previously well-entrenched methods rather than exploring alternative methods with unknown reliability.  The costs of mistakes or failures to meet deadlines are generally great, which discourages learning and acquisition of new and possibly better methods during the time of work.”

“Although work activities offer some opportunities for learning, they are far from optimal.  In contrast, deliberate practice would allow for repeated experiences in which the individual can attend to the critical aspects of the situation and incrementally improve her or his performance in response to knowledge of results, feedback, or both from a teacher.  Let us briefly illustrate the differences between work and deliberate practice.  During a 3-hour baseball game, a batter may get only 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically explored.”

Play Does Not Equal Deliberate Practice

Play does not require focused feedback and attention.  Play is fun and it’s not about improvement.  Deliberate Practice may not be fun and it is specifically about improvement.

Via The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:
”The goal of play is the activity itself, and the inherent enjoyment of it is evident in children who spontaneously play for extended periods of time.  Recent analysis of inherent enjoyment in adults reveal an enjoyable state of ‘flow’ in which individuals are completely immersed in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).  Similarly, analysis of reported ‘peak experiences’ in sports reveal an enjoyable state of effortless mastery and execution of an activity (Ravizza, 1984).  This state of diffused attention is almost antithetical to focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action.”

Deliberate Practice is Not Fun

One reason why people don’t do Deliberate Practice is because it’s not an inherently enjoyable activity.  It takes effort, and it feels like work, when you’re doing it well.

Via The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:
”In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance.  Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.  We claim full deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.  Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.  In additiona, engaging in deliberate practice generates no immediate monetary rewards and generates costs associated with access to teachers and training environments.  Thus, an understanding of the long-term consequences of deliberate practice are important.”

The More You Practice, the Better You Get

Your level of performance is related to your amount of Deliberate Practice.

Via The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:

“Our basic assumption–the ‘monotonic benefits assumption’–is that the amount of time an individual is engaged in deliberate practice activities is monotonically related to that individual’s acquired performance.

The central claim of our framework is that the level of performance an individual attains is directly related to the amount of deliberate practice.  Hence, individuals seeking to maximize their performance within some time period should maximize the amount of deliberate practice they engage in during that period.

However, maximization of deliberate practice is neither short-lived nor simple.  It extends over a period of at least 10 years and involves optimization within several constraints.”

Deliberate Practice Requires Time, Motivation, and Effort

Deliberate Practice requires resources, motivation, and effort.

Via The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:

First, deliberate practice requires available time and energy for the individual as well as access to teachers, training material, and training facilities (the resource constraint).  If the individual is a child, or adolescent, someone in the individual’s environment must be willing to pay for training material and for the time of professional teachers, as well as transportation to and from training facilities and competitions.

Second, engagement in deliberate practice is not inherently motivating.  Performers consider it instrumental in achieving further improvement in performance (the motivational constraint.)  The lack of inherent reward or enjoyment in practice as distinct from the enjoyment of the results (improvement) is consistent with the fact that individuals in a domain rarely initiate practice spontaneously.

Finally, deliberate practice is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day during extended periods without leading to exhaustion (effort constraint).  To maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

The Deliberate Practice Framework:  An Approach for Attaining Expert Performance

Ericsson and team provide a framework for Deliberate Practice that evolves over time.

Via The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:

“The first phase begins with an individual’s introduction to activities in the domain and ends with the start of instruction and deliberate practice.  The second phase consists of an extended period of preparation and ends with the individual’s commitment to pursue activities in the domain on a full-time basis.  The third-phase consists of full-time comment to improving performance and ends when the individual either can make a living as a professional performer in the domain or terminates full-time engagement in the activity.  During all three phases the individual requires support from external sources, such as parents, teachers, and educational institutions.  This framework needs to be extended with a fourth phase to accommodate eminent performance.  During this fourth phase the individuals go beyond the knowledge of their teachers to make a unique innovative contribution to their domain.”

If you plan to practice Deliberate Practice, I think it’s helpful to keep a few things in mind.   While the 10,000 hours rule is interesting from a statistical standpoint, it really comes down to the domain and your aptitude and your feedback system.

You’ll also be making progress along the way, and even the little distinctions you learn add up over time.

The other thing to keep in mind is that while Deliberate Practice can help you learn something more deeply, you might not want or need to achieve world-class levels.  In any case, you can certainly use Deliberate Practice to improve your effectiveness.

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Image by Brad Hammonds.

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    • When it comes to Deliberate Practice, I’m a fan of focusing on high-value techniques that can be improved through focus and repetition.

      So in the case of project management, I would focus on rapid Work Breakdown Structures that are outcome-focused (versus activity focused.)

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