“The most effective (improvement) method of all: deliberate practice. It is the gold standard, the ideal to which anyone learning a skill should aspire.” – Anders Ericsson
Turn your practice sessions into deliberate practice sessions by adding S.P.I.C.E.:
Specific performance target
If you have vague performance targets like ‘get better’ or ‘succeed,’ you’re simply wasting your time. To improve performance, you need specific performance goals.
Steve Faloon was able to recite 82 digits by having clear goals the entire way. If he could successfully recite 39 digits, his sole focus was getting to 40 digits.
“Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement.” – Anders Ericsson
Periods of intense undistracted focus
Before Steve attempted 39 digits, he gave himself an exciting pep talk (“You got this Steve!”) before concentrating intently on the numbers Anders gave him. For those 1 hour sessions all that mattered was hitting his targets.
“Deliberate practice is deliberate, that is, it requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions. You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention. It isn’t enough to simply follow a teacher’s or coach’s directions.” – Anders Ericsson
To discover a mental representation that works, you’ll need to test various mental representations during each practice. In order to verify if a representation is effective or not, you’ll need to receive accurate and immediate feedback. The quicker the feedback, the faster you’ll improve your mental representation.
Steve knew if his approach was working after each attempt. Imagine if he had to wait 10 minutes before knowing whether the last six attempts were correct…
“Without feedback— either from yourself or from outside observers— you cannot figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goals.” – Anders Ericsson
Cycling between comfort and discomfort
Approach skill development the same way you’d approach bodybuilding: a period of discomfort (lift weights slightly heavier than what you can currently lift) followed by a period of ease and comfort (recovery phase) to grow new muscles and lift larger weights next week. Improvement only comes from a willingness to push yourself beyond your comfort zone followed by a willingness to fully rest and recover (expert performers sleep on average 8.5 hr / night).
“Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.” – Anders Ericsson
Expert coaching from proven performers
Expert coaches provide effective mental representations to jump start your progress.
Expert coaching also heightens each aspect of the deliberate practice method by:
- Ensuring you know the path to excellence and providing intermediate goals along the way.
- Using social pressure to hold you accountable and raise the intensity of practice.
- Providing accurate and immediate feedback because they know exactly what to look for.
- Pushing you harder than you want, but not pushing you too far.
“Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the abilities of expert performers and with how those abilities can best be developed.” – Anders Ericsson
The Ultimate Goal
“Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more.” – Anders Ericsson
K. ANDERS ERICSSON, PhD, is Conradi Eminent Scholar and professor of psychology at Florida State University. He studies expert performance in domains such as music, chess, medicine, and sports. His groundbreaking work has been cited in bestsellers from Moonwalking with Einstein to Outliers to How Children Succeed. He lives in Florida.
ROBERT POOL, PhD, is a science writer living and working in Tallahassee, Florida. He has worked at some of the world’s most prestigious science publications, including Science and Nature, and his work has appeared in many others, including Discover and Technology Review. He has written three books, including Eve’s Rib: Searching for the Biological Roots of Sex Differences and Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology.