Let’s say that you like to play the piano. Maybe you even want to be an expert one day–that way you could write songs for your crush, get in touch with your innerBeethoven, and lead barroom chorales.
These are your pianist dreams, yes, but as research shows, it’s the way that you practice–not the time spent practicing–that will allow you to become a piano man, or not.
Journalist Joshua Foer distinguishes between the experts’ and the amateurs’ path:
When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: It’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered.
Psychologists have a term for this habit of focusing on the parts that are hard: deliberate practice, as described by K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. Rather than chilling out in the comfort of skills you’ve already acquired, as an expert-to-be, you’re relentless about heading to the frontier of your abilities. The practice shouldn’t be so difficult that it overwhelms you–that would be depressingly demotivating, but not so easy that you’re unconsciously languishing. In other words, you’re arranging for flow, that space where you’re right at the boundary of your abilities.
You need an insane amount of deliberate practice in order to get great at something: 10,000 hours, as you may recall from Outliers. Indeed, the reason elite athletes become elite instead of other people, Ericsson’s research has shown, isn’t solely due to innate gifts, but due to having access to the training environments over extended lenghts of time.
However, since deliberate practice is categorically hard, it can’t be done for 12 hours a day. As he wrote in the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,experts tend to have the following routines surrounding deliberate practice:
- They can only engage in practice without rest for around an hour.
- They practice in the morning with a fresh mind.
- They practice the same amount every day, including on weekends.
- They only have four to five hours of deliberate practice a day.
- If they don’t get enough rest, they can get overtaining injuries or burnout.
It’s not only email that keeps us from doing deliberate practice, for many of our actions become the opposite of deliberate–they’re automatic. That’s why it’s hard to describe how to tie your shoelaces or how, exactly, you can get out of a chair–these actions are automatic and unconscious. And when you’re playing that super easy piece of music–like “Chopsticks” or the like–your behavior is automatic. But when performance is automatic, you won’t be able to improve it.
The expert practitioner is an expert at practicing. How so? As Foer notes, experts focus on improving their technique, orient themselves to their goals, and continually gather immediate feedback on performance–which is the essence of intelligence. The lesson, then, for expanding our skills is not to let ourselves lapse into easy, automatic action, but instead work at the edge of our mastery. Or maybe even ski along it.