Seven Ways to Make Your Practice More Meaningful
In the last post, I mentioned that my trainer has this quote written on the chalkboard in the warm up room:
“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Aristotle
Every morning that I’m at her gym, I face this as I warm up on the treadmill. So I’ve spent some time thinking about it: a simple yet profound statement.
The message is timeless and clear: in order to get good at something, it’s necessary to practice. And yet in our busy lives, it’s often difficult to dedicate time to improving ourselves in some area. If we’re going to work on it, we need to do it in a way that is effective.
How Much Practice Does It Take?
Most of us understand that musical performers and athletes must practice. But we don’t necessarily know just how much they practice. And we don’t tend to extend the idea of practice to our own adult, professional lives. After all, who has time for that?
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points to a 10,000 hour rule to become a master – extraordinarily proficient – in a subject. But it turns out that the research this is based on actually shows that there is no magic number for greatness.
Anders Ericsson, a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, led this research. In studies on what he terms Deliberate Practice, he demonstrated that 10,000 hours was not actually a number of hours reached, but an average of the time elites spent practicing. Some practiced for much less than 10,000 hours. Others for over 25,000 hours.
Tim Ferriss argues, on the other hand, that you can become world class in a skill in six months by understanding how your brain and body learn and then creating a learning regimen focused on quality as well as quantity of practice.
And yet most of us do not need to become world-class or elite performers of a new skill, we may simply want to take our game to the next level in a certain area. Perhaps you want to set better priorities or boundaries so that you leave work at a reasonable hour most nights. Perhaps you’d like to be a more effective communicator with your team, colleagues or clients.
The thing that is clear is that to become more effective at new skills or behaviors, it’s necessary to practice those that we wish to embody. Repetitions create memory and learning – in our bodies and our minds. This translates to an ability to enact the desired movement, conversation or technique by memory.
It’s also been shown that sufficient repetitions creates embodiment — meaning we don’t have to think about the activity or technique any longer, it’s simply a part of who we are.
How To Practice
Most of us are already busy leading full lives. This means we have limited time to acquire new skills or behaviors so we need to be smart about the way in which we practice.
So how do you go about fitting practice into your schedule?
I like Ericsson’s model of Deliberate Practice. Among other things, he’s spent years studying how people improve at anything. And how to do it in a deliberate, focused way so that you make the most of your time and energy.
According to Ericsson, deliberate practice involves trying activities beyond your current skills and abilities. He points out that although you may find satisfaction in repeating a skill you’ve already mastered, it’s not enough to help you improve or grow. In addition, simply wanting to improve isn’t enough — most of us also need clear goals and the help of a teacher who can guide us in the skill or behavior itself as well as our plan for achieving it.
Here are seven strategies to help you make the most of your time and energy as you learn a new skill or behavior:
- Start with a Clear Goal: Let’s say you want to become a compelling public speaker. Get clear about what your goal is: do you want to occasionally speak to groups and ensure the audience leaves feeling it’s been worth their time? Train teams on a regular basis? Perhaps you want to be more comfortable presenting information to your boss or colleagues.
- Split that Goal into Sub-Goals or Skills: Once your goal is clear, what are the most important skills to master in order to get there? If you want to become a great public speaker, clarity of your message may be one. Varying your vocal pace, tone and volume to engage your audience may be another. Organizing and communicating your ideas in a logical fashion may be a third. Connecting and interacting with your audience is another sub-skill. List your sub-skills and goals.
- Track Your Progress: Now you can set targets for practicing your sub-skills and track your progress. If you’re wanting to improve your speaking, you might record yourself speaking every week – even if it’s to the “audience” of your pet dog in your own living room.
- Get Feedback: Consider how you’ll get feedback so that you can improve. Will you work with a mentor or coach? If you’re wanting to improve your speaking skills, record yourself and watch it back over and over. What did you do well? What can you improve on? Ask for honest, critical feedback from someone you respect. Repeat and improve.
- Focus & Avoid Distractions During Practice: Deliberate Practice can be intense mentally. You’ll want to give yourself a couple of hours free of distractions to work on what you need to practice. Schedule it in your calendar and respect that time as if it were an appointment with anyone else.
- Be Accountable: Decide how you’ll be accountable. Will you track your practice on your calendar? Will you track your results? Would an accountability partner, mentor or coach be the most help to keep you accountable? For many of us, it’s a combination of us making the time and working with someone to help us stay on track.
- Allow Time for Recovery: As with anything that takes a lot of energy and focus, be sure to make time for self-care after you practice. Reward yourself by doing something fun that doesn’t take too much mental focus. Go for a walk, watch the sunset, watch a light-hearted movie.
Remember that becoming an expert in any one thing – or placing 100% of your focus on becoming the top of your field – may not be the best or even the right thing for most of us. But there is value in improving your skills. And there is much meaning to be found in challenging yourself to grow in those areas where your passion and interest currently exceeds your skills and abilities.
You open yourself to being a better team member, contributor and to serving your clients at a higher level. Perhaps even more importantly, you open the door to finding more meaning and fulfillment.
One other interesting finding from Ericsson’s research? Once you acquire basic skills in an area, intelligence level doesn’t seem to matter as much. But deliberate practice does make a difference.
What new skills have you embodied in recent years?
What type of practice worked best for you as you learned them?
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