Learn Faster: The Value of Practice

Want to learn a new skill? Take a class from a master. Want to get really good at that skill you’ve just learned? Practice. Practice some more. But for best results, practice smart.

Perhaps you read Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book Outliers or heard about the “10,000 hour rule” he made famous. The idea Gladwell presented is that to be truly great at something requires something in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours of practice. Unfortunately, Gladwell was off target from what his source had actually said. In Peak, Anders Ericsson explains how Gladwell took some of Ericsson’s original research on practice and misconstrued it. In the original study, Ericsson had shown that some of the best players entering a music program had practiced about 10,000 hours (by age 20), but that was actually just enough “to be ready to be ready”. That is, the students still needed a significant amount more training and practice to become world-class.

To master a skill requires both training and practice. Here are a few ideas on how to learn faster.

Learn Faster by Training with Masters

If you had never picked up a guitar and wanted to learn how to play it, you’d fumble around for quite some time with little progress. If you took a single lesson, perhaps learning how to tune the guitar or play a few chords, your ability would move much faster. Similarly, when acquiring any skill, the fastest start comes from getting guidance from an expert. In his fascinating book The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman illustrated several unrelated skills, such as yoga and windsurfing, he attempted to learn quickly. His methodology benefited most by finding a guru to jump start his training. Tim Ferriss used a similar approach in The 4 Hour Chef, focusing on mastering a few core techniques from a wide variety of disciplines. For example, learning to cook 4 great meals gave him the ability to impress many dinner party guests over several months. He took cooking lessons from famous chefs like Jamie Oliver. In short, to learn faster, train with seasoned mentors.

Learn Faster with Distributed Practice

Once you learn the basics of a skill, you need to practice in order to develop it. Timing of practice matters too. In distributed practice, sessions are divided into a number of short sessions over a longer period of time. Research shows that distributed practice is better than massed practice for long-term learning and retention. The belief is that in distributed practice, gaps between occurrences of a performing a skill or retrieving information require effort, which benefits memory. In contrast, during massed practice, retrieval is from short term memory, so the ‘muscle’ isn’t as strong. As we’ve mentioned several times here before, if you’re a student, studying in small sessions over time trumps cramming for an exam. If you’re a public speaker, delivering several staggered presentations will add poise. And a karate enthusiast benefits more from practicing defensive maneuvers a few times a week, rather than just once at the weekly class. Plan your practice, and you’ll learn faster.

Learn Faster Using Deliberate Practice

Research also shows that the quality of your practice is just as important as the quantity. That is, expert-level practice is a key contributor to high-level performance. Deliberate practice is structured activity with the specific goal of improving performance. For example, when learning to play the guitar, you may focus on one verse of the song until you can play it perfectly. In order to get to that level, you may play one phrase slowly at first (to get the finger movements right), and gradually play it faster. Then you add more complexity a layer at a time until you reach the goal. Deliberate practice is chunked into smart building blocks, with progress measured by specific quality goals. To learn faster, use chunking and performance metrics.

Learn Faster!

Consider this a 1-2-3 recipe for improving your skills – virtually anything you wish to try. Studying? Works great. Playing guitar? Most definitely. Public speaking? Yes. Combine solid training, distributed practice and deliberate practice, and you will learn faster. Watch your results (deliberately!) improve!


Additional Reading

11 Steps Toward Deliberate Practice
The Role of Deliberate Practice in Becoming an Expert


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