Deliberate Practice In Detail

I’ve been rambling a bit about deliberate practice and how I try to apply to my writing. So I think it’s time I go into a little more detail about what exactly deliberate practice is.

Unlike play, deliberate practice isn’t inherently enjoyable. There’s no instant gratification. So you got to have the discipline to sit down and forego more immediately enjoyable activities to get the long term reward, which is only possible if that reward is worth more to you than a million small moments of fun. You’ve got to have your heart in it.

Unlike work, deliberate practice doesn’t focus on doing “the whole thing” well. At work you have to perform; you have to write the best report possible, be your most efficient at the assembly line every time. We think we improve our skills this way, and maybe we do, to begin with. But relatively quickly that “best report” becomes similar to the last report you did and the one before that and so on. How often do you have the time to sit down, go through your own work, and identify weak areas you need to improve on, or, even better, have you boss/mentor go through it? Rarely, I bet, if ever. And even if this happens, how often do you then get to practice this one area without having to go through the whole process? Right.

Deliberate practice focuses on one small part of the overall skill you need to learn at a time.

Unlike the basic practice most of us apply in our jobs and hobbies, deliberate practice isn’t just mindless repetition. It requires constant focus on the one aspect you’re trying to improve and constant evaluation of how your practice is going.

Broken down, deliberate practice consists of the following steps:

1) Motivation: This form of practice is mentally demanding, sometimes physically too, and if you aren’t motivated to put in a lot of effort, then you’ll burn out. On the plus side, even fifteen minutes of deliberate practice a day will probably put you ahead in the game, since most people don’t even put in that much.

2) Sub-skills: The craft/skill you’re trying to learn is most likely a complex one, which can be broken down to smaller sub-skills which, maybe, can be broken down even further. You can’t focus on learning the entire craft simultaneously and trying to do so leads to the meandering basic practice mentioned above.

So you need to break the skill down to its smallest components and start practicing them one by one, focusing first at the ones you’re weakest in, turning you weaknesses into strengths and then moving on. For things like sports and music these sub-skills and the exercises aimed at training them have in many cases been apparent and available for decades. For things like writing fiction, deliberate practice is… well, to say the least, not so well established. So you need to do some research and be a bit creative when it comes to finding exercises (the skill breakdown shouldn’t be much of a problem, and you can always revise as you get smarter).

3) Feedback: Ideally, each practice session should involve readily and qualified feedback, which should be implemented right away. Again, sports and music have well established systems where trainers and instructors are available to most people with a little money to spare. Not so much in writing. However, trainers and instructors are part of the ideal structure for learning, facilitating the process, but there are ways of mitigating the gap created by their absence. There are self-taught professional musicians for example, who have applied these principles as best they could.

You don’t need to pay a professional writer/writing coach to go through everything you write (that would probably drain out your savings account in no time). You could join a writing group. That’s what I did recently, and the feedback I’ve gotten has helped immensely. Or you could ask some friends who you trust to be brutally honest to give some feedback. Me and my girlfriend sometimes end up spending a whole evening discussing my stories or writing exercises. Or you could use some self evaluation, which will often be the case in the beginning of what will hopefully turn into a career one day.

Ideally, you’ll have a coach who’s levels above you, but in writing that’s not always possible. So you should be open minded but not gullible about the feedback you get. Sometimes you will get bad advice or advice that’s simply wrong for you.

4) Repeat: Yes, deliberate practice requires repetition and lots of it. But repetition in itself isn’t enough. With each repetition you need to keep your focus, use the feedback you’ve been given, and build on the previous exercise. Deliberate practice is simple, but it isn’t easy.

That’s what deliberate practice is. Much of it is, as you can see, basically just common sense. Yet it isn’t how most people practice, which is part of the reason why so much of what professionals achieve in field like music, sports, writing, painting, etc. is contributed to talent (more on that in a later post), because hobbyist can put in hours upon hours of basic practice without improving much.

Deliberate practice is effective, and research shows us that this is how the greats in any field practice. However, research also shows us that the above mentioned formula might be too simply. Things like interweaving skills and spaced repetition also plays in, which I’ll discuss in my next post.

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