The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice
Benjamin Franklin is widely regarded as the most accomplished man of his time. He was a diplomat, inventor, scientist, and writer whose words are still read to this day. One could assume Franklin was naturally gifted at the intellectual skills that made him as successful as he was. However, that would be far from the truth.
When Franklin was a teenager, his father criticized him for his poor writing abilities. Franklin himself admitted in his autobiography that the education he had received as a child had left him as an average writer.
In an attempt to improve his writing, he came up with a variety of training methods, one of which involved reading through and deeply studying a passage in a good book and then try to reproduce its structure and content. He would then compare his reproduction with the original to identify the differences.
Franklin later argued it was by repeating this cycle of study, reproduction, and comparison with a well-written original, that he acquired his superior skills in organizing thoughts for speaking and writing.
Franklin’s approach to improving his writing isn’t too different from how many of today’s elite athletes, musicians, or intellectuals go about improving their respective skills. The approach goes by the name of deliberate practice – known as the most effective method for developing and improving skills rapidly.
What is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice is a term coined by psychologist Anders Ericsson to describe a type of practice used by elite performers across various fields to maximize skill development.
Ericsson’s job involves seeking out the best in the world – people who can reliably do what others can’t – and figuring out why they’re a cut above the rest. He’s been conducting that research for over three decades and the core finding he comes across over and over again is this: The best in the world practice more and better than everyone else.
When he studied elite violinists, for example, he found he could perfectly explain the differences in skill by the amount of “alone practice” – a practice style high in effort and low in enjoyment, but known as the best way to build violin skills quickly – they had accumulated over the years. The best violinists had practiced alone for an average of 7,410 hours by age 18. The second-best violinists for 5,301 hours, and the lowest skilled group for 3,420 hours.
The combination of more AND better (!) practice is crucial. When Ericsson studied expert performers across various fields he quickly found they all followed similar practice principles that were different and far superior to what others were doing. It was methodical, effortful, involved high levels of focus, and wasn’t particularly fun. But it lead to incredible advancements in skill.
Ericsson came to term this kind of practice as deliberate practice. He defines it as, “Engagement with full concentration in a training activity designed to improve a particular aspect of performance with immediate feedback, and opportunities for gradual refinement by repetition and problem solving.”
Deliberate practice is the fastest, most reliable way to develop skills. It’s the secret sauce of expert performance – he or she who accumulates the highest amount of deliberate practice rises to the top of their field. The good news is we can all use its principles to become better at anything we want.
Not All Practice Makes Perfect: Naïve, Purposeful, and Deliberate Practice
In his book, Peak, Anders Ericsson describes three types of practice.
We assume that someone who’s been driving for twenty years is a better driver than someone who’s been driving for five, or that a physician who’s been working for ten years is better than one who’s been doing it for two. Practice makes perfect, right?
Not exactly. The truth is, once we have reached an “acceptable” level of performance, we rarely get better anymore, despite continuing “practice” for years and years.
This is what Ericsson refers to as naïve practice – going through the motions, mindlessly repeating what one always does, without being challenged. It’s what we do when driving to work every day, or when playing a casual game of tennis, chess, or bowling with friends.
Naïve practice lacks the necessary growth stimuli, and is not associated with greater performance levels. You could rack up ten-thousand hours of naïve practice and easily get beaten by someone who’s done a couple hundred hours of deliberate practice.
Naïve practice can’t reliably improve skills. What’s necessary is a more focused and methodical approach, what Ericsson calls purposeful practice. There are several characteristics to this type of practice.
1) Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. Without well-defined and specific goals, there’s no way to judge improvement. It’s too easy to let oneself off the hook. When the going gets tough, one tends to start slacking. Performance drops. Herein lies the power of specific goals: they don’t let you settle for less.
For purposeful practice, it’s important that the goal be difficult to reach – unless you’re being pushed out of your comfort zone, no learning effect will happen. Difficult goals also cause an increase in effort, focus, and commitment to the goal. People automatically persist longer, and make better use of their time.
It’s a feature of human nature: people do what’s asked of them, and rarely more. Ask for a great performance from yourself and you are likely to get it – as long as you’re specific about what “great” means.
2) Purposeful practice requires full engagement and high concentration. Just going through the motions, mindlessly repeating exercises, and thinking about what’s for dinner won’t cut it.
Researchers studying long-distance runners have found that amateurs tend to daydream or think about more pleasant subjects to take their minds off the pain of running, while elite runners remain deeply attuned to their bodies, allowing them to find the optimal pace and make adjustments to maintain the best pace throughout the race.
As Anders Ericsson writes in Peak, “…if your mind is wandering or you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve.”
3) Purposeful practice involves feedback. The Oxford Dictionary defines feedback as “information about a person’s performance of a task, which is used as a basis for improvement.”
Without information about how you’re doing, there’s no way to know what you need to improve on or how close you are to reaching your goals. Anders Ericsson writes in a study: “In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects.”
In learning tennis, you need to know if you’re hitting the balls correctly, standing correctly, moving around the court correctly. That’s why coaches almost always speed up skill development: they are a source of objective, external feedback.
In the absence of a coach, a universal form of feedback is measurement, for the things we measure are the things we improve. You can track the number of words you type, the number of pages you read, the number of sales calls you make, the number of pushups you make, and so on.
4) Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. Unless someone trains at the edge of their comfort zone, nothing much is bound to happen. It’s by going to your limits that your limits expand. This isn’t fun. It’s hard work. It’s struggle. It’s, by definition, uncomfortable. But it’s also why learning takes off, and it’s why naïve practice doesn’t work.
Sam Snead, one of the greatest golfers of all time, once said, “It is only human nature to want to practice what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of a lot less work and a hell of a lot more fun.” It’s also a hell of a lot less effective.
Purposeful practice is all about trying something you can’t do yet, and practice it over and over until you can do it. You reach, fall short, analyze your mistakes, and reach again.
5) Purposeful practice involves chunking. Expert violinists don’t just play the full length of a song over and over. They break it down into parts and tend to focus on the most challenging sections until they master them. It’s by integrating the different parts that they can play a song flawlessly.
Similarly, expert tennis players don’t just play one match of tennis after another. They practice each sub-skill individually, focusing on their forehand for some time, then their backhand, volley, serve, conditioning, and so on.
6) Purposeful practice involves identifying and eliminating weaknesses. Josh Waitzkin is a martial art world champion and author of The Art of Learning. In the book, he recounts flying into rage when an opponent illegally head-butted him. He lost control, forgot his strategy, and fought well below his capabilities. After the incident, he sought out training partners who fought dirty so he could practice remaining calm in the face of unfairness. He writes, “Dirty players were my best teachers.”
As we’ve said before, purposeful practice is all about training at the edge of one’s comfort zone. Trying things you can’t do yet will inevitably lead to mistakes, which have to be identified and then isolated so they can be trained separately and hopefully eliminated.
Someone trying to improve at tennis might recognize his or her backhand volley as a weakness. A naïve practitioner, just playing game after game for fun, might encounter a relevant situation once or twice per game. A purposeful practitioner, on the other hand, would have a coach who could give her hundreds of opportunities to improve and refine that specific shot during a training session.
Anders Ericsson sums up purposeful practice as follows, “Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress.”
Purposeful practice is a powerful way to improve your skills. But there’s an even better option…
Deliberate practice is different from purposeful practice in two ways: First, it requires a well-developed field – that is, a field in which the best performers have achieved levels of performance that clearly distinguish them from people just entering the field. Second, it requires a coach who can provide advanced training activities used by other top performers in the field.
Put simply, deliberate practice is both purposeful and informed. It follows the guidelines of purposeful practice and it’s informed by the best performers’ achievements and by an understanding of what these elite performers do to excel.
Three Facts About Deliberate Practice
Deliberate Practice is Not Fun
A study once compared professional singers and amateurs during and after a singing lesson. All of them felt more energized and relaxed after the lesson than before, but only the amateurs reported having fun and feeling elated. For the amateurs, the singing lesson was a time to enjoy themselves, sing their worries away, and express themselves. For the professionals, it was more about work than play, a time to concentrate on such things as breath control or vocal technique in an effort to improve their singing.
This is a common finding in self-reports of elite performers across various fields. They describe deliberate practice as difficult, uncomfortable, and tiring. It’s not fun. It’s hard work.
Deliberate Practice is Rare
Deliberate practice is an advanced activity that most “normal” people rarely if ever engage in. Anders Ericsson writes in a 1994 paper: “From surveys of the kinds of activities individuals engage in for the popular domains, such as tennis and golf, it is clear that the vast majority of active individuals spend very little if any time on deliberate practice.”
He adds: “Once amateurs have attained an acceptable level of performance, their primary goal becomes inherent enjoyment of the activity, and most of their time is spent on playful interaction.”
There’s a trade-off between having fun and getting better, and most of us prefer the former over the latter.
Deliberate Practice is Limited to 4-5 Hours Per Day
Deliberate practice requires high levels of effort and concentration, which make the activity incredibly demanding and tiring. Across various domains, the daily limit of deliberate practice tends to be four to five hours per day. Once all available concentration for the day is used up, it’s best to end the session and recover for the next day. Expert performers tend to nap and sleep more than others.
It’s also worth noting that the amount of daily practice must be ratcheted up slowly. Someone just beginning with deliberate practice will not have the energy or concentration to practice for more than 20-30 minutes per session. Expert performers reach the peak of four to five hours per day only after training hard for months and years.
Examples of Deliberate Practice
Here are some specific examples of deliberate practice in action.
Playing the Clarinet
In his book, The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle gives a wonderful example of 7-year old Clarissa deliberately practicing playing the clarinet: “Clarissa draws a breath and plays two notes. Then she stop. She pulls the clarinet from her lips and stares at the paper. Her eyes narrow. She plays seven notes, the song’s opening phrase. She misses the last note and immediately stops, fairly jerking the clarinet from her lips. She squints again at the music and sings the phrase softly. ‘Dah dah dum dah,’ she says.”
“She starts over and plays the riff from the beginning, making it a few notes farther into the song this time, missing the last note, backtracking, patching in the fix. The opening is beginning to snap together – the notes have verve and feeling. When she’s finished with this phrase, she stops again for six long seconds, seeming to replay it in her mind, fingering the clarinet as she thinks. She leans forward, takes a breath, and starts again.”
That’s the kind of deliberate practice musicians do. High focus. High effort. Chunking parts of the song. Reaching, falling short, identifying mistakes, eliminating them, reaching again.
Aubrey Daniels, an expert on optimizing human performance, makes the following example in one of his blog posts: “...consider the activity of two basketball players practicing free throws for one hour. Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. The Player B retrieves his own shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice.”
He concludes: “To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate. Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?”
Deliberate practice in chess involves reviewing past games of elite players and trying to predict each move in advance. When you make the same move the elite player did, you continue on and try to predict the next move. When the elite player made a different move from yours, you go back and re-evaluate the chess board, trying to figure out what you missed.
It’s not about playing game after game. It’s about deeply studying the moves of elite players and trying to reproduce them. This kind of methodical and arduous practice has been found in a 2005 study to be the strongest predictor of chess skill.
The researchers concluded: “…chess players at the highest skill level (i.e. grandmasters) expended about 5000 hours on serious study alone during their first decade of serious chess play — nearly five times the average amount reported by intermediate-level players.”
Intrigued by these examples? You’ll find plenty more in this article.
The Promise of Deliberate Practice
My north star goal in life is to become the greatest version of myself – to become as charismatic, kind, loving, patient, hard-working, compassionate, fulfilled, and impactful as I can be.
If you’re anything like most of our readers, you share a similar goal. For us, on our pursuit of self-actualization, deliberate practice is an exciting concept because it tells us a lot about the principles it takes to become better. Heck, it’s literally the most effective way to improve a specific skill. Therefore, by using the principles of deliberate practice, we can get better at the skill of life – and we can do it faster.
Even if you’ve never put much thought into the idea of becoming the greatest version of yourself, deliberate practice should still excite you. After all, there are surely skills you’d like to improve in your life. Maybe it’s public speaking, dancing, cooking, listening, singing, typing, snowboarding, writing, or playing golf.
Whatever skill you want to improve, deliberate practice is your ticket to make it happen.
This was the fourth article in a series on expert performance and deliberate practice. Here’s a full overview of all articles in the series.
- Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule & What Really Separates the Best From the Rest – A deep-dive into Anders Ericsson science of expertise, which shows that practice, not talent is the difference between elite performers and everyone else.
- The Road to Greatness: 3 Steps from Child to Best in the World – Explores what the road to greatness really looks like. Turns out it’s more about luck, interest, motivation, and passion, rather than talent.
- The Myth of Natural Talent: Prodigies, Savants, and the Real Role Inborn Qualities Play in Elite Performance – Goes into the details behind why “natural talent” has very little to do with expert performance and explains the role inborn qualities play in the acquisition of elite-level skills.
- The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice – A complete guide on the science of deliberate practice, which is the #1 predictor of elite performance and the most effective practice method for developing skills rapidly.
- 14 Real World Examples of Deliberate Practice in Action – Gives fourteen examples of how people are using deliberate practice right now to improve their skills and get an unfair advantage over their peers.
- How to Use the Principles of Deliberate Practice to Succeed at Anything You Want – A complete roadmap to using the principles of deliberate practice in your life, so you can improve any skill you want.
- 10 Things Elite Athletes, Musicians, and Intellectuals Do Differently – A compilation of ten things research has found elite performers do differently than the rest of us. (Hint: deliberate practice is one of the things.)