Get Better at Anything: The Beginner's Guide to Deliberate Practice

Blog post cover image.

In the current world of distractions, it becomes harder and harder to work focused. The world is changing but the principles and significance of Deep Work and Deliberate Practice remain the same. If you want to excel in a skill you should start using Deliberate Practice to improve your skills and your performance. Why spend the whole life doing the same thing if it can be meaningful, effective, and satisfying. If you want to stay motivated and feel the progress in your life, Deliberate Practice is the tool you need.

What is Deliberate Practice

Simple repetitions only reinforce your current level of skills. To improve them, you should practice consciously via deep and focused work.

Analyze your current level. Do you see what can you improve? What needs to be adjusted? Define your current state and the goal you want to achieve. Break down the skills you want to work on. Even a small change of each skill can accumulate into a massive improvement overall.

For instance, writing an article each week can be thought of as progress in building your blog's content. However, if the quality is mediocre, a few people will read it. Analyzing your writing skills and improving the components of it can help to engage more people. Improving the title, clarity of your writing, and overall structure by 1% each time you write an article can accumulate to a great quality of your blog. The next step is to focus your attention on these changes and work towards them.

Guide to Deliberate Practice

Deconstruction

The first step is to understand what are your strengths and weaknesses. Doing so will show where you have to focus and improve. However, if you start from scratch deconstruction could be dividing the learning process into steps that you have to practice to acquire the skill.

There are many guides on how to become proficient in a certain area. Take one and work on it. Add or remove things you think are important. Set the timeframe for the skills. Divide the timeline into the steps to perform. For instance, it can be divided into taking a course, building a project, and getting real-world experience. By the end of the time, you will have taken those steps and be at a certain level. Of course, the plan will change and the expectations might not be met.

I made this mistake long ago. I was excited about AI and wanted to learn Neural Networks. I took a course but never finished it. I didn't have a specific goal and a plan to follow. Be smarter, don't repeat my mistakes. A well-structured plan is a firm foundation for developing skills.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Challenge

The next important step is to plan your learning path so that you don't lose interest along the way and push your current abilities outside your boundaries. James Clear says in his famous book that increasing the difficulty of the task by only 4% each time will keep you engaged and will not let you become bored.

However, if it is too challenging it can make you easily give up on the goal. People often begin with too complex and big projects and never finish them. That's why it's important to control your learning curve and get the reward each time you complete a step.

For instance, when you learn to play piano you better practice first on simpler compositions rather than heading straight to Chopin's music. If it's hard you will not receive any pleasure (a reward), your brain will give up on it and the habit will not form. Make it easy and raise the plank gradually.

I often made this mistake of starting too ambitious projects and never finishing them. I didn't have the expertise to finish them and as a consequence lost all the interest due to the lack of progress and rewards. The key is to adjust a project or a task to your current skill level and make it 4-5% more challenging. In that case, you will learn something new, complete the task, and get the reward to keep you going.

Deep Work

Cal Newport revealed the importance of deep and focused work in his famous book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He defines it as:

“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

If you aren't intentional about your work and perform on autopilot then you spend your time doing "shallow work":

“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

It becomes harder and harder to focus on something in our world of notifications and constant accessibility. Red bubbles in the corner of each app are designed to always get your attention. Colleagues always expect to respond to their questions and open spaces are designed for constant communication.

As it turns out, shallow work and constant availability in open offices do not outweigh the valuable deep work. Advocates use communication reasons to justify an open plan. However, the real reason is that it is cheaper to pack as many people in one space as possible. And it looks nicer from the design perspective.

You can work on your distractions. Turn off the notifications and hide your phone. If you do not depend on others, make yourself unavailable, and do not respond to your emails while you are in deep work. One of the positive shifts due to the 2020 pandemic is remote work. If your company allows it - try to use an opportunity if you think that the office setting is distracting. If your home is not suitable for focused work try a library, a café, or a rural summer house. Carl Yung built a stone tower on the shores of a lake near Bollingen to retreat from the city and work on his studies without distractions.

Learning to practice deep work is challenging. It is a skill that you probably haven't used regularly. I wasn't taught it at school and perhaps neither were you. You can start reading the book or a guide like this one. Again, it's a big topic and you shouldn't overload yourself with all the details. Start small, get the reward, and increment the complexity. Just like the deliberate practice we discussed earlier.

Feedback & Adjust

So far we have deconstructed a skill, defined what we want to improve or build, set an optimized goal, and practiced it via deep work. The next step is to analyze the feedback. It is impossible to improve without knowing the state of your skills.

There are several ways to get feedback. Self-study where you analyze your results and compare them to a model project. Second, ask someone else with better expertise or fresher eyes to look at your results.

Depending on the feedback, adjust your steps in acquiring the skills to keep yourself in the right direction.
When I study Swift and build my first iOS app I follow tutorials and courses. Oftentimes I see a concept that I do not know. I have to outline it and explore it to have a better understanding of the language. When I cannot figure out how to implement a certain feature that means I lack knowledge in a certain area. I have to find where and study accordingly. Adjusting my learning path will make certain that I have a broader and deeper knowledge of the skills I want to acquire.

Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima Island - Tadao Ando
Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima Island - Tadao Ando

Examples of Deliberate Practice

Life. When I started to track my life statistics and the actions that I take each day, I have data to reflect on. You can track your sleep, habits, screen time and so much more. Analyze, break down into manageable steps, and work on it.

Writing. I have started to write on my blog recently. I am not yet good at it and it will take a lot of effort to improve my skill. As James Clear (yes, I am a big fan of him) said: "Your 1st blog post will be bad, but your 1000th will be great." if I put enough effort at deliberately improving each one of them.

Speaking. Most people think that eloquence is an innate feature. However, it can significantly be improved by practice. A deliberate practice would be to record yourself, analyze, and improve by actually speaking.

Sports. Athletes are one of the most obvious examples. There are thousands of stats tracked each game that sportsmen try to improve on. Pat Riley, the coach of Lakers, used it as a system to improve the performance of his team and win championships.

Music. Records are the best feedback for musicians. It tells them where exactly they need to improve. Simple repetitions will lead to the same flaws. Focusing on the challenging part will improve your performance.

The Promise of Deliberate Practice

Building a lifelong habit to improve yourself and your performance is hard but a core skill. It is necessary to fulfill your potential and growth.

There is no fast way to excel at anything. Even the most talented people achieve success due to their commitment over time. Look at the first videos of any famous YouTube bloggers. Notice the quality between now and then. It is not important to start with a perfect video or a blog post, it is crucial to be consistent and improve over time. Even by 1%.

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