How to Succeed at Anything You Want, Using the Principles of Deliberate Practice
Is there any skill you would like to improve?
Public speaking? Writing? Reading? Dancing? Singing? Cooking? Playing tennis? Meeting new people? Making better decisions?
Well, you can.
As our recent discussions on expert performance have shown, humans possess the capacity to improve their performance in any area of life if they train in the right way.
The most advanced type of training is called deliberate practice – defined by expert guru Anders Ericsson 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 used by all the greatest musicians, athletes, and intellectuals of our time, and it’s literally the #1 way to develop and improve skills quickly. By using the principles of deliberate practice, we can get better at anything we want – and we can do it quickly. In today’s article, we’ll discuss how to use the principles of deliberate practice in our own lives, so we can get better at anything we want.
8 Tips to Practice More Deliberately
Here are eight tips to practice more deliberately. These tips can be used for any skill of your choosing.
The more tips you can apply to your training regimen, the faster you’ll develop the desired skill.
1. Follow As Many Deliberate Practice Principles As Possible (Duh!)
In our beginner’s guide on deliberate practice we discuss the underlying principles that make the practice so effective. Here’s a quick recap and what you need to keep in mind:
- Deliberate practice has well-defined, specific goals. Your training needs to have clear and challenging goals, otherwise you won’t push yourself enough and you’ll settle for less than possible.
- Deliberate practice requires full engagement and high concentration. You need to fully engage during your practice and train with as much focus as you can muster. No daydreaming, phone-checking, or slacking, please.
- Deliberate practice involves feedback. You need to know how you’re doing, where your weaknesses are, what you need to improve, and so on. This is easier for some skills than others.
- Deliberate practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. You need to push yourself right to the edge of your current abilities and beyond. Try things you can’t do yet. Yes, this is hard work and not very enjoyable.
- Deliberate practice involves chunking. You need to break the core skill into sub-skills and train those separately. Just practicing the full skill over and over won’t cut it.
- Deliberate practice involves identifying and eliminating weaknesses. Figure out where your weak spots are and come up with methods to improve them. Again: just practicing the full skill over and over won’t cut it.
The more of these principles you can involve in your practice, the faster you’ll improve.
2. Get Private Coaching
Hands down the fastest way to improve at any skill is to hire a private coach. Reading books, watching YouTube tutorials, or even getting group coaching is not nearly as effective as receiving 1-on-1 coaching.
A coach knows the best order in which to learn things, knows the best training methods, understands and demonstrates the correct ways to perform various skills, and provides invaluable feedback.
A coach sees your weaknesses and knows how to overcome them. A coach makes sure you push yourself out of your comfort zone. A coach provides accountability, structure, motivation, and an external source willpower.
There is only one downside to private coaching: it’s expensive. If you’re not willing to spend money on a coach, make sure you pay close attention to all the other principles.
3. Be Deliberate in Picking Your Training Methods
Choosing the right training techniques is crucial if you don’t have a coach who picks them for you. Pick the wrong techniques and skill development will stall. Pick the right techniques and learning takes off.
A study by Anders Ericsson concluded: “Assessment of subjects’ methods shows that inadequate strategies often account for the lack of improvement. For example, in their study on the effects of practice on digit span, Chase and Ericsson found a subject who kept rehearsing the digits whose performance showed only minimal improvement. In contrast, all subjects who used preexisting knowledge to encode the presented digits improved dramatically.”
You don’t get much better at playing chess by just playing game after game. You get better by studying the grandmasters’ games and trying to replicate their moves. Similarly, you don’t get better at golf by playing round after round. You get better by detecting your weaknesses and systematically improving them.
If you don’t have a coach, your best bet is to copy the training techniques used by experts in your respective field.
4. Model the Best
For many skills, you’ll improve fastest by modeling the experts. In chess, for example, you improve most effectively by studying the games of grandmasters and trying to reproduce move after move. When you choose a move that is different from the grandmasters, you study the position again and figure out what you missed.
Similar strategies work well in other fields, such as writing, composing, or painting. Writers will often study and copy the work of great pieces of writing, composers the work of great composers, painters the work of great paintings.
They key to modeling the best is to analyze what they do, and then try to reproduce it, fail, figure out why you failed, try again, and repeat over and over. Merely analyzing, which is easy, is not enough. You need to go a step further and try to reproduce what the expert performers do. That’s the hard part, and that’s what will lead to the fastest improvements.
5. Remember the Three Fs
To effectively practice a skill without a coach, Anders Ericsson offers the following piece of advice: “…keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.”
6. Start Small
Maintaining high levels of engagement and focus is hard work. Even expert performers can’t engage in deliberate practice for more than four to five hours a day. In fact, they find it so exhausting they often take afternoon naps after training sessions, and sleep more than the average person.
Depending on the skill you’re working on, you might not have the focus or stamina for maintaining optimal practice for more than twenty to thirty minutes. It’s better to train at 100 percent for shorter periods of time than at 60 percent for longer periods.
Once you find your concentration levels sagging, end the training session. Get enough rest. Come back tomorrow. It takes time to build the capacities for high quality practice.
7. Move Past Plateaus
As you make improvements in a skill, it’s inevitable you’ll hit a plateau at one point or another. The key to moving past plateaus is to challenge your brain and body in a new way.
If you’re bodybuilding, switch up the exercises you’re doing, increase or decrease the weight you’re lifting or the number of repetitions, or perform the exercises at faster or slower speeds. If you’re trying to improve your typing, concentrate harder and increase your speed by 10-20 percent for fifteen to twenty minutes a day, or slow down by 10 percent and aim for perfect accuracy. If you’re playing tennis, go up against a player who’s much better than you.
As you stress yourself in new ways, you’ll find out in which components of the overall skill you’re lacking. Then, you can come up with training methods to improve the weaknesses that are holding you back.
8. Maintain Motivation
Lack of motivation is a constant issue for many of us. In Peak, Ericsson gives two excellent ideas on how to maintain motivation.
The first one is all about surrounding ourselves with the right people: “One of the best ways to create and sustain social motivation is to surround yourself with people who will encourage and support and challenge you in your endeavors. Not only did the Berlin violin students spend most of their time with other music students, but they also tended to date music students or at least others who would appreciate their passion for music and understand their need to prioritize and practice.”
Want to stay motivated to improve at tennis? Date your tennis coach.
The second piece of advice involves keeping track of your progress: “One of the best bits of advice is to set things up so that you are constantly seeing concrete signs of improvement, even if it is not always major improvement. … Piano teachers know, for example, that it is best to break down long-term targets for a young piano student into a series of levels. By doing this, the student gets a sense of achievement each time a new level is attained, and that sense of achievement will both add to his or her motivation and make it less likely that the student will become discouraged by a seeming lack of progress.”
“It doesn’t matter if the levels are arbitrary. What matters is that the teacher divides up what can look like an infinite amount of material to learn into a series of clear steps, making the student’s progress more concrete and more encouraging.”
A friend of mine who is a personal coach once told me his best students are the ones who celebrate even the tiniest of wins. They may still suck at whatever they’re working on, but they get excited by the progress they’re making. As a result, he says, those are the guys who stick with the program and ultimately see the biggest improvements.
Specific Ideas for Training Various Skills
Let’s get practical. Here are six skills and how you could use the principles of deliberate practice to get better at them quickly.
Keep in mind: for every skill mentioned here, there are countless ways to practice using the principles of deliberate practice. The following recommendations are just examples, and the list of strategies is by no means exhaustive.
Note that for every skill, the fastest and most effective strategy would be hiring a coach. Because that’s universally true for all skills, I won’t mention it in the examples below.
Step one could be to watch an expert chef prepare a meal. There are plenty of examples on YouTube. Watch the video once, and make sure you’re not distracted. Then, purchase the needed ingredients, and try to cook the meal yourself – without watching the video while doing it.
You won’t remember precisely how the expert chef cooked the meal, and you’ll make a few mistakes. That’s good! It’s where your biggest improvements will come from.
First, you’ll want to get information on the art and science of public speaking. Read an article or book, or watch a video on it. Then, summarize the most important points – those are the things you want to keep in mind as you’re giving a speech. Then, prepare a speech with those points in mind, and practice it in front of your mirror or plush toys.
Lastly, you’ll want to give the speech in front of people. You could give the speech to your kids, spouse, or roommates. Or you could give it at a Toastmasters meeting. This is the most important training aspect because it gives you feedback and it allows you to practice under pressure.
There are plenty of ways to improve your writing. For starters, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of what would be considered “good writing.” You could do this by reading books or articles on the topic, watching YouTube tutorials, or taking a course on Udemy. Once you know what you’re aiming for, you can go about improving your writing in various ways.
For example, you could take a piece of writing, from yourself or someone else, and edit it using an editing checklist. Or you could take a piece of your writing and put it through the Hemmingway App. Or you could deeply study a piece of expert writing. Or you could search online for writing examples that have already been edited. Then you could take the unedited version and try to edit it yourself, and then compare your edits to the expert writer’s edits.
Learning from a Book
There are many great techniques to not forget everything you’ve just read in a book. One of the easiest is to read 5-10 pages, close the book, and summarize the most important points you’ve just read. If you struggle, that’s a sign you’re doing it right. Another option is to read for 30 minutes and then write a summary for five minutes.
Whatever you do, make sure you’re not just reading and re-reading. In an eye-opening experiment, researchers divided students into two groups. The first group read the text for four sessions. The second group read it only once but was tested three times. A week later both groups were tested, and the second group scored 50 percent higher than the first group.
You learn from a book when you try to recall its content, not when you’re reading it. Recalling is a lot harder than just re-reading the text – but it’s also much more effective.
Learning a New Language
Entire books have been written on learning languages quickly and effectively. Let’s focus on one aspect here: remembering words. This follows the same principles as learning from a book. The key is to try to recall the words, not just read through the translations over and over.
One way you could do this is by creating flash cards. Write the word in your language on one side and in the foreign language on the other side. When you’re studying, give yourself 20-30 seconds to struggle with each word if you can’t recall it immediately. Really try to remember the word, and don’t just look it up. The more you struggle, the faster you’ll learn.
Improving at video games comes down to two things. First, play against people who are slightly better than you so you’re getting pushed out of your comfort zone. Second, watch replays of the best players, and study their games for items they buy, skills they build, moves they make, and so on.
Aside from that, make sure you’re playing with as much focus as possible. No multitasking, no email checking, no phone calls, no daydreaming.
You get the point.
If you have specific skills you’d like to improve, feel free to mention them in the comments below, and I’ll give you my thoughts on how to train them.
This was the sixth 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.)