How To Guide to Deliberate Practice

How-To Guide to Deliberate Practice

June 18, 2021    •   minute read

This comprehensive How-to Guide to Deliberate Practice is my fourth article about expert performance. Here are my three other articles:

  1. Deliberate Practice by Anders Ericsson: What It Is and How Can You Deliberately Practice Something
  2. Six Best Books on Deliberate Practice (to Read in 2021)
  3. Deliberate Practice Examples

I wrote this guide to share my learning of deliberate practice and its how-tos in an easy-to-understand language and format.

My goal?

It’s part of my own learning journey about expert performance, and I believe that the more people understand and apply it, the more advanced humanity could be in what we do (and can do).

But… for the how to work, it is essential to understand the why and what. So that is where we begin in this article.

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

The Why of Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is for those who want to improve their performance. It could help ordinary people attain expert performance if they have the motivation, time, and discipline to pursue it.

Peak book by Anders Ericcsson

Ericsson and his team wrote in his paper (1993, p.400):

We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

If improvement in your performance is not your goal, you do not need to understand what deliberate practice is. However, if you want to attain an expert level of performance, deliberate practice is necessary.[1]Campitelli, Guillermo & Gobet, Fernand. (2011). Deliberate Practice: Necessary But Not Sufficient. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 20. 280-285. 10.1177/0963721411421922.

What Is Deliberate Practice?

Deep Work quote

Professor K. Anders Ericsson, who coined the term, defines deliberate practice as a highly structured activity to improve performance.[2]Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363. … Continue reading During deliberate practice, you work on high specific tasks assigned to overcome weaknesses, and you would have your performance monitored carefully for further improvement. It is effortful and not enjoyable.

In his various articles, Ericsson emphasizes the importance of practicing with a professional coach,[3]Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363. … Continue reading[4]Ericsson, K. A., and Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: its structure and acquisition. Am. Psychol. 49, 725–747. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.49.8.725[5]Ericsson, K. A. (1998). The scientific study of expert levels of performance: general implications for optimal learning and creativity. High Ability Stud. 9, 75–100. doi: 10.1080/1359813980090106 and this is an interesting quote from his 2020 article, referring to the example of how the Beatles attained their expert performance playing for thousands of hours in Germany:

Most importantly, they clearly argued that practice alone was not just any type of experience, such as the famous pop group, Beatles, playing for thousands of hours at music clubs in Hamburg, but rather a very particular type of practice activity, which reflected mostly deliberate practice, namely practice dedicated to improvement under the guidance of a teacher.[6]Ericsson, K. A. (2020). Towards a science of the acquisition of expert performance in sports: Clarifying the differences between deliberate practice and other types of practice. Journal of sports … Continue reading (emphasis added)

Read more about what deliberate practice means here.

What is the difference between practice and deliberate practice?

Deliberate Practice Quote

Ericsson and his research team contrasted deliberate practice with work and play.[7]Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 368-369. … Continue reading Here are the differences they suggest:

  1. Goals, costs, and rewards of deliberate practice are different from other types of practice. The goal of work activities is to receive payment or other types of external rewards such as social recognition and fame. You might get paid every month at work, but in your journey to expert performance, this might not be the case. Most artists and writers practice without any rewards for several years before we know them. The intrinsic motivation behind deliberate practice, on the other hand, is to improve performance and attain expertise.
  2. Practice time is another difference. You might move from a job to another or even change your career totally. When you play, it could be as short as a few minutes. Deliberate practice requires an extended period of time. For example, an average time to master writing could take as long as 10.6 years.[8]Kaufman, S., & Kaufman, J. C. (2007). Ten years to expertise, many more to greatness: An investigation of modern writers. Journal of Creative Behavior, 41, 114–124. Similarly, the frequency and practice intervals are different, too. You can deliberately practice something for only a limited amount of time each day because of the effort involved.
  3. The structure is also different. Deliberate practice is highly structured. Tasks are specific. The structure of performance monitoring and evaluation is rather rigid, too.

Deliberate practice requires great effort and is not inherently enjoyable.[9]Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 369. … Continue reading You cannot rely on external rewards such as money and social recognition to sustain the pain of deliberate practice and enjoy the long-term benefits.

The 5 Principles of Deliberate Practice

Ericsson and his research team identified 5 principles of deliberate practice.[10]Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363. … Continue reading

1. Effortful practice to improve performance

There are two components here: effortful practice and performance improvement. So, deliberate practice requires great effort to improve the current level of performance. For this reason, it comes with clear goals and specific key performance indicators. In writing expertise, these could be writing a book. Depending on the level you are at, the KPIs could be writing for 30 minutes every day, comprehensive knowledge of the topic such as productivity and behavioral psychology, and skills in writing for the general audience.

2. Intrinsic motivation to practice without expecting external rewards

In deliberate practice, external rewards are a byproduct, not an object. Because it takes a lot of time to master a skill (e.g., an average of 10.6 years to master writing[11]Kaufman, S., & Kaufman, J. C. (2007). Ten years to expertise, many more to greatness: An investigation of modern writers. Journal of Creative Behavior, 41, 114–124.), relying on extrinsic motivation cannot likely sustain the deliberate practice in the long run.

3. Practice tasks assigned by a coach and designed to be within reach of your current level of ability

This principle highlights the importance of a coach in deliberate practice. In fact, one of the main differences between deliberate practice and other types of practice is that the former requires a coach.

Without a coach’s presence, an effortful practice could be better classified as purposeful practice, Ericsson writes in his 2020 study. “In this study, the athletes’ practice activities were not guided by a coach and thus would be described as purposeful practice.”

4. Immediate and constant feedback system that provides knowledge of results and recommendations for further improvement

Expert performers need to have a system to receive continual and immediate feedback on their performance. However, not all feedback is created equal. The kind of feedback you need in deliberate practice helps you understand where you are towards your KPIs and goals.

5. Gradual refinement from many repetitions and feedback

Gradual refinement is the fifth principle of deliberate practice, according to Ericsson. Mindless repetitions might be useful, especially when you start a new habit or develop a new skill. However, only those that allow you to refine your performance gradually over an extended period of time (e.g., an average of 10.6 years to master writing[12]Kaufman, S., & Kaufman, J. C. (2007). Ten years to expertise, many more to greatness: An investigation of modern writers. Journal of Creative Behavior, 41, 114–124.) can help you attain expert performance.

Therefore, effortful repetitions are necessary for gradual refinement and expertise building.

Example of Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice example social media image

I wrote quite a lengthy article about deliberate practice examples. Here are four I’d share in this article:

Deliberate Practice Example of Computer Scientist Donal Knuth

An example of the monastic approach to deep work is the famous computer scientist Donald Knuth. He quit email in 1990 after having used it for 15 years. His reason? “To learn certain areas of computer science to exhaustively; then… digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.” As a result, he produced one of the best physical-science monographs of the century by American Scientist, The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP). His comprehensive monograph started in 1962 and covers many kinds of programming algorithms their analysis.

Deliberate Practice Example of Neal Stephenson

Another example of the monastic approach you can find in Deep Work is Neal Stephenson, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Seveneves, Anathem, Reamde, and Cryptonomicon. Stephenson does not use an email and rarely accepts speaking engagements. He writes deliberately, and that’s how he wrote all his bestselling novels that so many people enjoy reading.

Deliberate Practice Example of Carl Jung

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist who developed analytical psychology, is an example of the bimodal philosophy of deep work. He worked full-time in his clinic in the city of Zurich, Switzerland. But he would also retreat regularly to his lakeside tower for deep work. There, Jung would rise at 7 a.m., and after breakfast, he would spend two hours of undistracted writing time in his private office. In the afternoons, he would meditate and go on long walks. According to Deep Work, this bimodal approach to deliberate practice was how he became one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

Deliberate Practice Example of Adam Grant

Another example of the bimodal philosophy found in Deep Work is Adam Grant. He is an organized psychologist and professor at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, recognized as the school’s top-rated professor for seven straight years. Think Again and Originals are his #1 New York Times bestselling books. Other books he has written by the age of 40 include Give and Take, Option B, Life and the Fall, the Gift inside the Box, and Power Moves. How could he achieve so much? According to Deep Work, Grant would finish his annual course teaching requirement in one semester and spend the other researching and writing.

Read other deliberate practice examples here.

How-to Guide to Deliberate Practice

Now, here is your how-to guide to deliberate practice!

How To Guide to Deliberate Practice
How To Guide to Deliberate Practice

(Again, I want to make sure that why and what are clear before sharing the how’s.)

But before we get started, bear in mind that deliberate practice is dependent on domains. There is no one-size-fits-all guide. However, four common mechanisms could be a guidepost for deliberate practice:

  1. Automaticity. It is the ability to do things effortlessly and a necessary first step to expert performance.
  2. Superior anticipation. Experts can skillfully anticipate the actions of their opponents in competition. Simply put, they know well in advance what would happen.
  3. Superior working memory. Expert performers can memorize and recall information more easily than novices, especially when related to their domain of expertise.
  4. Situation awareness. This refers to the superior ability of experts to understand and predict what would happen. SA allows experts to have effective solutions ready.

Learn more about generalizable mechanisms mediating expert performance by reading The Cambridge Handbook on Expertise and Expert Performance.

With these generalizable mechanisms in mind, here is a how-to guide to deliberate practice.

Prepare your time and energy

The deliberate practice could extend for at least ten years and involves optimization within several constraints. For example, an average time to master writing could take as long as 10.6 years. So, it would be best if you prepared your time and energy for sustaining the pain of deliberate practice long enough to enjoy the long-term benefits.

Set long-term goals to become an expert

Practice means doing something repeatedly; deliberate practice requires repetition, often intending to improve performance. In the 1993 paper, Ericsson and his research team wrote that “deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance” (p. 368).

Keep yourself intrinsically motivated.

Intrinsic motivation is vitally important to sustain the pain of extended, effortful, and boring practice. Ericsson stresses the importance of motivation as part of the practice. He wrote in his article (1993), “Engagement in deliberate practice is not inherently motivating. Performers consider it instrumental in achieving further performance improvements.” So, it would be best if you prepared what you can do to keep yourself motivated for the practice, especially when you do not feel like doing it.

Relying on external rewards for deliberate practice could only set you up for failure.

Build a habit

Automaticity is the necessary first step to expert performance. So, you must develop a habit to practice your domain of expertise deliberately. For example, if you want to attain writing expertise, make it a habit to write for a few minutes every day until you become comfortable with sitting down, being alone with yourself and your thought, and letting your ideas flow through your fingers to the keyboards.

Make an effort to repeat and improve performance

The main goal of deliberate practice is to improve performance, so it requires that you keep your effortful practice and do not fall for automaticity as you get good at it. Expert performers should not settle for a certain level of performance until achieving their goals.

Develop a system for immediate and continual feedback

To keep your performance effortful, it is essential to develop a system for immediate and continual feedback on your performance. Deliberate practice trainees should also develop a system that helps them continually receive feedback from their performance.

That’s why Ericsson and his research team recommend having a coach.

Practice under the guidance of a coach

One of the main differences between deliberate practice and other types of practice is that the former requires a coach. Ericsson writes in his 2020 study, “In this study, the athletes’ practice activities, however, were not guided by a coach and thus would be described as purposeful practice.”[13]Ericsson, K. A. (2020). Towards a science of the acquisition of expert performance in sports: Clarifying the differences between deliberate practice and other types of practice. Journal of sports … Continue reading

Why is having a coach so important? It is the feedback that makes deliberate practice different from other types of practice. Expert performers need to have a system to receive continual and immediate feedback on their performance.

Feedback from a coach can help identify areas of improvement and focus your practice on them. It could also encourage them when the training gets challenging and deliberate practice is supposed to be tough. After all, we cannot obtain mastery so quickly. Another benefit of a coach in deliberate practice could be creating the right conditions for learning to happen, and therefore, mastery.

However, the coach must understand the “appropriate sequences of learning and physiological adaptions” to help their trainees attain exceptional performance.

Only by better understanding the mechanisms mediating the appropriate sequences of learning and physiological adaptations will coaches and teachers be able to guide athletes to acquire expert performance in a safe and effective manner.[14]Ericsson, K. A. (2007). Deliberate practice and the modifiability of body and mind: toward a science of the structure and acquisition of expert and elite performance. International journal of sport … Continue reading

Practice in solitude

In various articles he published on the topic, Ericsson emphasizes the importance of solitary practice as a characteristic that differentiates deliberate practice from other types of practice.

The study found that the amount of solitary practice affected the level of performance.

A similar pattern from an analysis of SCRABBLE players, where the amount of solitary study (purposeful practice) was associated with higher levels of performance (Moxley, Ericsson, & Tuffiash, 2019), whereas the amount of playing SCRABBLE games was not a significant predictor.

There was a similar effect in solitary music study.

A greater amount of solitary music practice accumulated during development is associated with higher levels of attained music performance (Ericsson, 2002; Ericsson, et al., 1993).

And his chess study found the same impact of solitary practice.

Similarly in chess, Charness and colleagues (Charness, Tuffiash, Krampe, Reingold, & Vasyukova, 2005) found that the amount of solitary chess study was the best predictor of chess skill, and when this factor was statistically controlled, there was only a very small benefit from other types of chess-playing experience, such as the number of games played in chess tournaments.

The importance of rest and recovery

Engaging in deliberate practice requires full concentration. For example, Ericsson found that musicians only engaged in it for around an hour without taking a break and limited the total time in deliberate practice to 4-5 hours each day. His study and reviews have further found that age and skill level affect the maximal daily concentration time.[15]Ericsson, K. A. (2020). Towards a science of the acquisition of expert performance in sports: Clarifying the differences between deliberate practice and other types of practice. Journal of sports … Continue reading “Beginners seemed to be limited to around 15-20 minutes of full concentration, whereas individuals with many years of daily training only gradually reached the 5-hour limit.”

As human beings, our energy is limited. You must “avoid exhaustion and limit your practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.” For this reason, it is essential to use the Pomodoro technique to strike the right balance between performance and breaks for work performance.

The Art of Learning and deliberate practice by Josh Waitzkin

Recommended reading: Deliberate Practice by Anders Ericsson: What It Is and How Can You Deliberately Practice Something

Key Takeaways

So, here are a few key takeaways from this how-to guide to deliberate practice:

  • Deliberate practice is a highly structured practice directed towards improving performance and attaining expertise.
  • Deliberate practice is necessary for expert performance, but it takes as long as 10 years (or even more in some domains) to achieve mastery. Therefore, only intrinsic motivation will enable you to sustain the pain and boredom and enjoy the intrinsic benefits of deliberate practice.
  • Five principles of deliberate practice are (1) effortful practice, (2) necessity of intrinsic motivation, (3) importance of a coach, (4) immediate and constant feedback system that provides knowledge of results, and (5) focus on gradual refinement from many repetitions and feedback.
  • Four mechanisms for deliberately practicing something are (1) automaticity, (2) superior anticipation, (3) superior working memory, and (4) situation awareness.
  • And the how-to guide to deliberate practice? Begin by giving yourself as long as 10 years of deliberate practice if you want to become an expert. Second, your goal is to be an expert, not to receive external rewards such as social recognition or money. Third, build a habit to practice. Next, focus on gradual improvements, never settling for the good enough. Then, practice under a coach and with continual feedback to evaluate the results and recommendations for future improvement. And finally, take rest and recovery seriously. You can only practice so much when it requires so much energy and effort.

That’s it.

Also, check out Six Deliberate Practice Books if you want to dig deeper.

References[+]

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