A practical guide to using deliberate practice for learning, work, teaching
Have you ever spent hours practicing a skill and still felt like you weren’t advancing at all? For example, spending two hours quizzing flashcards of verbs conjugated in Spanish and the next day not being able to recall a single one. If you’ve been in this situation, it was probably followed by frustration, discouragement, or even giving up.
Well, there are likely reasons that the flashcard drill did not commit the verbs to memory. This may include distractions, like the repeated pings of Twitter alerts, or having been exhausted during the study session.
When learning a new skill, launching or managing an online business, or earning a degree, it can be difficult to maintain focus and momentum. A very helpful method to help sustain progress and achieve success is ‘deliberate practice.’
Deliberate practice is used to not only continue with progress but to achieve mastery. This guide will explain what deliberate practice is and how you can incorporate the technique into your routine to start building progress with your goals.
What is Deliberate Practice? – Definition. Overview.
Oftentimes, practice and repetition can drift into a space of distraction, unintentionally and even carelessness. For example, if you’re a basketball player, shooting free throws might come easily and be done without much thought. With this, tossing free throw after free throw does not equal improvement. Instead, try practice and repetition with purpose.
For example, set the goal of 50 free throws with a specific form, with conscious attention to foot placement, pre-shooting, how your fingers hold the ball and how your body follows through the shot.
Thus, engaging deliberate practice means that practice is conscious, focused, and uses consistent feedback to work towards defined goals.
But you don’t have to be Kobe Bryant1 to benefit from deliberate practice. Whether you are a teacher, student, entrepreneur, athlete, or someone who wants to learn and master a skill, deliberate practice can help you overcome plateaus and reach expertise.
Deliberate Practice – Core Strategies
Deliberate practice requires strategy and intention. The following five tips can be used to build the core skills for successful deliberate practice.
1. Define your Starting and End Points
What is your starting point? Assess your current capabilities in a measurable way. For example, what is your current grade in physics class? Determine the percentage point. What is your monthly profit for your business? Calculate this to the dollar. What is your current level of mastery of the French language? Place this on an accepted scale.
From there, define exactly where you want to go. What will your end physics grade be? What percentage point or letter grade? How much will your monthly profits increase? Name the dollar. What level of the French language will be achieved? State the level.
Centering purpose can help you launch and maintain a flow of motivation. Use this to propel deliberate practice by returning to again and again to your ‘why’.
2. Set Specific Goals Along the Way
Having your eyes on the end goal is great, but alone, it is not enough. Deliberate practice necessitates consistency, and this can be better grounded by setting small, achievable and very specific goals. As you set stepping-stone goals, consider your starting point and build upon your abilities in small stages.
Consider using the SMART technique2 – in which goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound – which was designed to help increase the likelihood that individuals accomplish their goal. Browse tips to set smart goals here.
Design a roadmap of deliberate practice with each goal in mind. For example, if your broad goal is to grow your online business and profits, then a smaller goal might be to gain ten new customers each month. Build a series of small goals in organized increments, such as one per month, week, or day.
For example, every day sending five emails to prospective clients, every week posting on social media, and every month securing ten new customers. These will help you stay the course as you move towards your end goal.
Combine these goals with deliberate practice that pushes you to focus and improve, such as spending time to craft each email and strategizing how to make the best message. Set aside sessions to take careful photos for social media. This is what deliberate practice is all about. Doing each step of a task consciously and with focus and care.
3. Intentional and Repetitive Focus
Maintaining focus for long periods of time is not easy. But luckily, with deliberate practice it’s not about how long you practice, but how you practice. Set aside time for shorter intervals of intensely focused practice and repeat these intervals routinely. This will help commit the action to memory.
In addition to duration and focus, deliberate practice involves carrying out actions that are in between easy and extremely difficult.
As conceptualized by Professor Noel Tichy3, when practicing a skill, you can be in three different zones: comfort, learning, and panic. Improvement happens in the learning zone, where activities are outside the comfort zone but not so difficult that they become overwhelming.
So, if you are using deliberate practice to improve your math skills, choose to give full attention to solving problems that are difficult and need improvement but build upon what you have already mastered. Solve problems for set intervals of time until you’ve mastered them, then move on to the next level of mathematics.
4. Guidance and Feedback
Part of deliberate practicing beyond your comfort zones means your practice will almost not certainly be perfect. This is okay and part of the process. Monitoring mistakes and areas of weakness is an important piece to inform adjustments and ultimately get better.
Sometimes we aren’t in the best physical and mental position to see our own errors. This poses the risk for practice to hold up an incorrect technique and practice. This is where a mentor or expert can play a really important role4.
Identify someone that is an expert or master in a specific skill or field. It might be worthwhile to hire the coach professionally and keep in mind that the Internet opens up more options for you to connect with a mentor.
Prioritize feedback that is specific with areas of improvement, rather than general comments such as “good job” or “needs improvement.” Ask for feedback that hones in on a particular strength or weakness and identifies exactly how to get better.
5. Deliberate Practice – Maintain Momentum
Keep at it. One of the most critical aspects of deliberate practice is repetition. However, let’s remember that mindless repetition is not helpful. Rather, deliberate practice requires purpose and attention5 with repetition to acquire new skills or knowledge which can then be expanded upon.
Keeping the practice sessions briefs allows you the focus to power past obstacles or difficulties and also helps conserve your energy. After each practice and feedback session, acknowledge your progress. If you encounter a setback, instead of getting discouraged, use this to orient your next goal.
Celebrate your progress. Examples of how to celebrate your success6 include sharing the good news with friends or family, writing it down the achievement and placing it in a visible place, allowing yourself a nice meal or relaxing exercise, and even cheering out loud for yourself. Take pride in knowing that your hard work pays off.
Deliberate Practice – Overcoming Challenges
There can be some problems with deliberate practice7. The following are some potential challenges that you should be aware of to help you avoid any hiccups.
Weak Foundation – Deliberate practice involves mastering, step by step. For this to be successful, you must only build upon the next step once you have mastered the previous. Be careful not to move too quickly without mastering each level and building a strong foundation. If this requires you to adjust your schedule, then do so.
Not Setting Good Goals – Ineffective goals will yield ineffective practice. So, be sure that each milestone you use to orient deliberate practice is well-defined and achievable while still challenging. ‘Eat healthier’ is not a strong or specific goal. But replacing ice cream with yogurt every day after dinner is a good stepping-stone. Develop and write down longer-term aspirations and short-term milestones to achieve your goals.
Lack of Feedback – Goals used alongside feedback are more successful8 than goals without feedback, and high-quality feedback that is specific is particularly helpful. Even if asking for and receiving feedback is outside your comfort zone, that’s okay; remember, advancing and learning happens when you leave your state of ease.
Drafting from the Deliberate – Focusing isn’t easy9. Between the constant news, social media, round-the-clock communication, it is difficult to quiet our minds and give uninterrupted attention to the task at hand. Stress, fatigue and emotions can also get in the way. But the good news is that it is proven that you can improve your concentration.
Tips include meditation, training your brain through memory and problem-solving games, exercise, and getting outdoors for some fresh air. If you’re deliberate practice drifts into mindless or distractedness, try these actions to recenter.
Additional Tips for Deliberate Practice
As you begin or advance with deliberate practice, return to these techniques to help you grow with confidence.
Get the Right Mindset – To become a master at any skill, you must first genuinely believe that you will become a master. Shift into a growth mindset, which views errors and challenges as opportunities, embraces feedback and chooses confidence over limiting beliefs. Tips for changing your mindset10 include shifting the language you use to others and with self-talk and surrounding yourself with positive influences.
Control your Environment – For each deliberate practice session, you want to try to position yourself in an environment that is calm, comfortable and allows you to focus. As you push beyond your mental or physical comfort with your deliberate practice, you will need to stay in control. Creating an environment that has limited distractions stress will help you manage as much about the practice as possible.
Structure – Plan your sessions with careful coordination and use this to help structure all other areas of your life. There are health benefits to having a routine11, including sleeping better, reducing stress, and improved physical and mental health. Consider deep work practices to set effective work structures that will allow you to intensely focus on the task.
Pomodoro Technique – Have you ever tried the Pomodoro Technique? This time-management technique can be applied to deliberate practice. It involves setting a timer, usually about 25-minutes, and providing your full attention to your practice until the timer sounds and breaks your focus.
You can either take a timed break as a reward and start again or conclude with a single session. The short stints of timed focus followed by a reward help avoid distraction and make sessions more manageable.
Pareto Principle – Deliberate Practice touches many topics to improve productivity or decision-making processes. If you struggle to prioritize the right tasks, you might be interested in the 80/20 rule or Pareto Principle. This rule allows focusing on the 20% that will bring in 80% of your results, income, benefits, etc.
Habits – Deliberate Practice is all about doing things with intense focus and without distractions. Developing good habits will help you to become better at deliberate practice.
Deliberate Practice – Summary and Conclusion
Wrapping up our guide on what is deliberate practice. How to best do it? Deliberate practice makes achieving expertise doable. The method requires dedication, but if you are willing to follow the steps and put in the work, you will improve your capabilities.
David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, explains that “the key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.”
While natural talent should not be dismissed, it is dedication, focus and pushing your personal boundaries for deliberate practice that can really set someone apart.
Through defining your starting and endpoints, set specific goals, engage intentional and repeated practice, receive and incorporate feedback and maintain momentum, you can begin using deliberate practice to become who and what you want to be.
What Is Deliberate Practice? 5 Tips
- Define your starting and end points
- Set specific goals along the way (SMART Goals)
- Keep an intentional and repetitive focus
- Setup guidance and feedback rounds
- Maintain momentum during deliberate practice
Now it's your turn. What is deliberate practice for you? What techniques do you use? What are the challenges? Let us know in the comments below. We will happily add the best tips, your deliberate practice examples, techniques, and suggestions to this guide.
For further reading and deeper insights on theory and definitions as well as examples, and exercises, we recommend researching “Deliberate Practice Anders Ericsson”. James Clear is another author and expert for this topic and worth researching. There are also many books about Deliberate Practice to help you get started. See GoodReads here.