Aah, what a buzzword. Everyone who is even remotely into improving him- or herself has heard of deliberate practice.
Probably most famously was deliberate practice mentioned in Malcom Gladwell’s bestselling book “Outliers”, in which he mentions that it takes about 10.000 hours of deliberate practice to reach true mastery in any kind of field or profession.
He based that claim on a research paper written by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson et al. called “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance”, in which Ericsson writes that essentially the only thing that separates the mediocre or good performer from the world-class performer is how much time he or she invested in deliberate practice.
Which begs the question: what the hell is deliberate practice in the first place? What does it contain? And what makes it so different from the kind of practice the everyday normal guy does, who never becomes any better?
The book “Talent is overrated” by Geoff Colvin helps answering that question. He describes in more detail the crucial elements of deliberate practice:
It is designed specifically to improve performance
This means that you are not doing deliberate practice if you do something you already mastered. If you do what you know you can do, what is inside your comfort zone, then you are not improving your performance and will therefore stagnate (note how this is the case in most jobs). Most people reach a plateau and then fail to try to take it to the next level.
That is why teachers or mentors are so important. They can point out what you are doing wrong and can help you focus your practice on your weak spots rather than on something you mastered a long time ago already.
It can be repeated a lot
Anything that can be repeated over and over again is perfect for deliberate practice. It can even be a very small part of a complex process, but it has to be possible that you repeat it hundreds and thousands of times, until you get right blindly. To be able to repeat something a lot also allows you to learn from your mistakes a lot more easily.
Feedback on results is constantly available
It is not enough to merely go through the process over and over again. You also have to be able to see the immediate results of your actions, so that you can evaluate what works and what not. Only then is it possible to fine-tune your actions. It is even better when the feedback comes from an expert who is qualified to evaluate your performance and can give you pointers right away.
It is highly demanding mentally
Deliberate practice doesn’t come easy. But the most demanding part is usually not physically, even when practicing a sport. It is rather the mental process! For practice to be deliberate, it is mentally challenging, it demands complete focus, and it pushes you to always pay attention to your blind spots, instead of just “going through the motions”.
That is why even world class performers can usually not train for more than 5 hours each day, in several sets of 60-90 minutes each. The mental aspect of the deliberate practice is just so demanding that they cannot keep their focus for longer than that.
It isn’t much fun
The fun part of any kind of activity is usually the part that we already mastered. This however is exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice should be about! Deliberate practice is all about pushing your limits. It is about going beyond what you can do. Therefore deliberate practice is not easy to do and usually not much fun. But this is exactly the point why so many people make such slow progress, or no progress at all, even though they “practice”: they fail because they only do what’s fun for them!
So there you have it: deliberate practice, broken down into five rules to live by. In the end it is up to you how closely you follow them. Of course it is important to have fun too and just enjoy the skills you have. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t follow these rules for deliberate practice and don’t end up making progress, even though you put in your hours.