SMART PRACTICE: Moving from Mundane to Mastery

November 17th, 2010

Are you wasting your practice time? Everyone knows practice is a critical component of skill-building and behavioral change, and author Malcome Gladwell has popularized the fact that we need at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery in any area. But there’s a catch: it has to be smart practice. Skating around an ice rink for thousands of hours won’t make you a champion figure skater. Since, it’s hard to make time for practice, how can you be sure you’re using that precious time most effectively?

Pay attention. Mindless repetition doesn’t deliver results. In his wonderful book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge asserts that paying close attention is essential to long-term change. Learning with divided attention doesn’t lead to lasting change in your brain maps. It’s not just repetition that leads to improvement; your ability to notice what’s happening while you’re performing the task enables you to recognize obstacles and reinforce gains. Stop daydreaming, get focused, and notice what’s happening.

Be curious. Expecting immediate results puts you in the wrong frame of mind for effective practice. It’s tempting to treat an exercise like a vending machine: you do the exercise and you get a result. It’s common to hear someone say, “That exercise didn’t do much for me.” As if it’s the fault of the exercise… In reality, an exercise is more like an experiment: it’s a chance to observe and learn something, and there’s no way to predict what that might be. Get curious. Give yourself permission to explore. The discoveries you make will open doors for real change.

Be patient with yourself. Focusing on “doing it right” is a distraction and a recipe for frustration. When your attention shifts from “what am I observing” to “am I doing it right” you are no longer learning. Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “You become discouraged with your practice when your practice has been idealistic. Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this, we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.” Give yourself permission to fail, because failure reveals what you need to learn. It’s a guide, not proof that you can’t succeed.

Focus. Trying to practice everything will prevent you from perfecting anything. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 1,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 1,000 times.” Focus on one thing at a time. Don’t worry about the other mistakes that may be happening. Good practice requires that you allow one thing to fall apart while you focus on another. Trust the process. Know what specific skill you’re practicing. Give it your full attention. Spend time absorbing one thing, and it will most likely be waiting for you when you revisit it.

Top performance does not stem from innate talent or genetic advantages. It comes from diligent practice of clearly, carefully defined skills. Making your practice hours count requires focus, patience, curiosity, and attentiveness. The ability to practice effectively will impact every aspect of your life, personally and professionally. It will ultimately distinguish you from your peers and put you at the top of your game.