The Way You're Practicing Is Wrong!
September 1, 2015
To develop new skills you need to practice, practice, practice! That's an idea that was drilled into us from an early age. Think about when you learned to ride a bike. None of us got to leap into the saddle, begin peddling and shoot off down the road with the wind blowing in our faces. It takes a lot of time, perseverance and a fair few scrapes before you can turn that awkward wobbly ride into an action that you no longer consciously think about.
In the 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talked about the 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell explained that the key to becoming world-class in any field was to practice a specific task for at least 10,000 hours. Sadly it feels like something got lost in translation because now most people think if you just put in the time you'll excel at whatever you chose. That's simply not true. If you turn up to your soccer training religiously and log your 10,000 hours you aren't guaranteed to be playing for Manchester United.
Gladwell was actually referencing the research of K. Anders Ericson which found that practicing a specific task for at least 10,000 hours was evident in those who delivered a world class performance. But note the phrase he used; "Practicing a specific task". The 10,000 hour rule is about practicing deliberately on a specific skill until you have mastered it.
I was reminded of this as I observed a coaching session recently. The coach and their coachee had been reviewing performance of that morning's radio show. They finished their meeting by agreeing on a list of things they wanted to improve on during the next show. The DJ left the meeting with the best intentions to tick off everything on the list. The next morning he failed, mainly because there were too many actions to focus on at once. Then something even stranger occurred. In their next session they both acknowledged that the DJ still needed to work on the actions that hadn't been delivered but, they also added new actions to the list of improvements. Do you spot the problems with this? There was simply no way the coachee could make any real progress. There's was too much to think about to improve substantially in any area.
They were inadvertently creating a coaching merry-go-round where their actions got a little better so they switched to improving something else. The focus on a new action results in that also getting a little better but as they shift their focus they slip back on the previous actions. This keeps happening. It becomes a never ending circle of mediocre performance.
Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and K. Anders Ericson in his research were actually highlighting Deliberate Practice as the secret to successful performance.
Deliberate practice is a highly structured approach to improving performance. It requires you to set a specific goal that you will work towards over time (often a very long period of time hence the 10,000 hours). Then it requires you to break the goal down into digestible pieces -- the smaller the better -- and set about working on each specific piece one at a time.
Understanding what deliberate practice is doesn't suffice. There are four essential components that need to be consistently present in order for it to be effective:
- Motivation. You must be motivated to want to improve your skill and be willing to put in the effort required to improve your performance.
- Knowledge. You must be willing to take the time to thoroughly understand not only the mechanics behind the new skill but also the importance of mastering the skill.
- Feedback. You must receive immediate informative feedback about the performance.
- Repetition. You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.
Deliberate Practice sounds simplistic. It is. The structure it provides feels obvious because it makes sense to us when we stop and think about it. Find areas that would benefit from improvement. Break it down into small chunks. Focus intensely on one small chunk until you have mastered it. You'll know when that has happened because the action will become second nature and will be delivered sub consciously. Now, you're at the point to move on. Despite its simplicity we seem to dismiss its importance.
So, forget lists of corrective actions and start focusing on deliberate practice. The results will be much more profound. The goal of any coaching -- or practice - session should be to help the coachee come closer to mastering a tiny skill that makes them slightly better at their craft. Do this over and over and they will deliver a higher level of performance -- maybe even a world class performance!