Deliberate Practice

This is probably not new news to most of you, but I found this article called “The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect‘” interesting. Author Annie Murphy Paul discusses the research on how improvement requires not a lot of practice, but deliberate and focused practice.

“Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing,” he points out, giving lie to the notion that learning an instrument is easiest when you’re a kid. The important thing is not just practice but deliberate practice, “a constant sense of self-evaluation, of focusing on one’s weaknesses, rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths. Studies show that practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours; playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. Most of the practice that most people do, most of the time, be it in the pursuit of learning the guitar or improving their golf game, yields almost no effect.”

The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ – Annie Murphy Paul

While this is really not new information, most of us still don’t practice deliberately most of the time. It’s not fun poking at your flaws and forcing yourself to address them. If you’re into an activity it’s probably because you find it fun and constantly finding things that you don’t do already well make it less so. It takes discipline to spend your practice time not sounding good, but it’s absolutely the best way to spend your time if you want to maximize your results.

There’s a lot of scholarly evidence to support this approach. Paul cites a couple of papers that are also interesting reads. I couldn’t find the original paper online, but here is a 2008 paper by Anders Ericsson, “Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A General Overview.”

Traditionally, professional expertise has been judged by length of experience, reputation, and perceived mastery of knowledge and skill. Unfortunately, recent research demonstrates only a weak relationship between these indicators of expertise and actual, observed performance. In fact, observed performance does not necessarily correlate with greater professional experience. Expert performance can, however, be traced to active engagement in deliberate practice (DP), where training (often designed and arranged by their teachers and coaches) is focused on improving particular tasks. DP also involves the provision of immediate feedback, time for problem‐solving and evaluation, and opportunities for repeated performance to refine behavior. In this article, we draw upon the principles of DP established in other domains, such as chess, music, typing, and sports to provide insight into developing expert performance in medicine.

Anders Ericsson

Paul also references research done specifically with musicians, “It’s Not How Much; It’s How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills.” The researchers looked at how different pianists practiced a challenging passage and then rated their performances the next day to see what strategies worked best. You won’t be surprised to learn that the musicians weren’t the pianists who practiced the longest, but those who focused their practice in a way that they practiced the passage correctly, rather than reinforcing mistakes.

The lesson to learn here is to always practice with an ear towards what your mistakes are and make sure to fix them. It takes great effort and isn’t the most enjoyable way to practice, but it’s absolutely the best way to improve.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to go practice.