Deliberate Practice: Effectively Learn New Skills in 6 Easy Steps

Illustration of people watering a tree that is actually a globe

Deliberate practice makes perfect.

Sound familiar?

Like everybody, you’ve heard this sentiment echoed your entire life—from parents, teachers, coaches, and everybody in between.

It seems simple: The more you do something, the better you’ll get at it.

Repetition leads to great results.

Do enough piano scales, and you’ll eventually nail down that concert piece. Take enough golf swings, and soon enough you’ll refine your drive. Run through that presentation enough times, and you’ll feel poised and polished rather than anxious.

However, some experts assert that practice in and of itself isn’t enough to inspire a noticeable improvement in your skill level.

Swedish psychologist, Anders Ericsson, argues that it requires going above and beyond and implementing a concept that he coined deliberate practice.

What is Deliberate Practice?

According to Anders Ericsson, deliberate practice is a smarter way to improve on your skills.

Rather than assuming that sheer repetition of tasks will improve performance, Ericsson asserts that you need to practice in a way that’s actually targeted and beneficial.

It’s the classic quality over quantity scenario.

I would argue that the key thing that people have misinterpreted is that it’s not just a matter of accumulating hours,

-Ericsson explains in an interview with Wharton Business Radio,-

If you’re doing your job, and you’re just doing more and more of the same, you’re not actually going to get better. There’s a lot of research to really prove that.

With that in mind, you could argue that practice is something that requires, well, practice. And, that’s somewhat true.

Ericsson’s research into what constitutes effective practice has outlined some different checkboxes that need to be fulfilled in order to truly maximize your time spent refining your skills or craft.

What Does Deliberate Practice Involve?

So, what exactly are these keys to deliberate practice?

Much of the research out there is—as you’d suspect—quite academic and difficult to wade through.

However, Jeff Cobb read the entire article about expert performance in the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, and then provided an excellent breakdown of the key features of deliberate practice in his article for Mission to Learn.

Cobb explains that deliberate practice involves the following things:

  1. Deliberate practice is mentally demanding and requires a high degree of concentration and focus.
  2. Deliberate practice is designed around improving performance, rather than sheer repetition.
  3. Deliberate practice requires consistency. You must be willing to practice over an extended period of time.
  4. Deliberate practice must be repeated. It’s not something you can do once and then witness astounding results.
  5. Deliberate practice requires continuous feedback to keep you on the right track.
  6. Deliberate practice requires planning and preparation in the form of setting specific goals.
  7. Deliberate practice involves self-awareness to be in tune with your own performance as you’re practicing and then adapt and change when necessary. Cobb describes this as in-the-moment self-assessment.
  8. Deliberate practice requires time spent reflecting after you’ve completed a practice session to analyze how you might change next time.

Sound overwhelming?

There’s no denying that there’s a lot involved to go beyond the basics and make sure you aren’t just practicing hard, but practicing smart.

Fortunately, implementing deliberate practice for yourself doesn’t need to be an overly complex undertaking.

Below, we’re breaking down some tips you can use to leverage deliberate practice for your own improvement.

Deliberate Practice: How to Leverage It For Improvement

1. Find your concentration zone.

Take a look back at the very first key concept of deliberate practice—it requires intense focus and concentration.

This means it’s something that you’re not going to be able to do half-heartedly while you also binge your way through your Netflix queue.

To make deliberate practice effective, you need to find a space where you can be totally immersed in the task at hand.

First and foremost, this applies to physical space.

Find a room or quiet area where you’ll be free from any potential distractions. That’s a crucial first step in giving yourself the environment you’ll need to really zone in on what’s in front of you.

However, finding your concentration zone also applies to where you’re at mentally. It’s a smart idea to pay attention to those times of day when you feel highly focused and motivated.

For example, if you always feel sluggish in the morning, that’s probably a better time for cleaning out your inbox than sinking your teeth into some deliberate practice.

Identify those times when you feel at your peak of productivity and attention, and then block out some time for deliberate practice for those hours.

It’s a surefire way to leverage your mental state for even more effective practice.

2. Set real goals.

When it comes to practicing something, what goal are you working toward?

If your answer was something vague like, “Get better,” then your goal-setting needs a little work before diving into deliberate practice.


Well, that goal isn’t necessarily tangible or actionable, which will make it that much tougher to actually measure your success.

Deliberate practice relies on small, achievable, well-defined steps that help you work your way towards meaningful improvement,

-explains Janie Kliever in an article for Crossover,-

These steps should take into account your current knowledge and skill level and push those boundaries little by little, consistently expanding your abilities.

Kliever goes on to cite a golf-related example of deliberate practice that Ericsson outlines in his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. We’ve included that same example here for added clarity:

“If you’re a weekend golfer and you want to decrease your handicap by five strokes, that’s fine for an overall purpose, but it is not a well-defined, specific goal that can be used effectively for your practice. Break it down and make a plan: What exactly do you need to do to slice five strokes off your handicap? One goal might be to increase the number of drives landing in the fairway. That’s a reasonably specific goal, but you need to break it down even more: What exactly will you do to increase the number of successful drives? You will need to figure out why so many of your drives are not landing in the fairway and address that by, for instance, working to reduce your tendency to hook the ball. How do you do that? An instructor can give you advice on how to change your swing motion in specific ways. And so on. The key thing is to take that general goal — get better — and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.”

To boil it down, the point is this: Setting a generic goal isn’t enough for deliberate practice. You need to take one goal and then continue breaking it down into various milestones and action steps to give yourself a well-defined roadmap you can follow for improvement.

3. While you’re at it, set a schedule.

Consistency is another core element of deliberate practice.

While repetition itself won’t directly lead to improvement, you do need to be willing to implement deliberate practice on a regular schedule in order to witness any results.

That means that it’s also smart to map out a schedule for yourself of when you’ll make the time to practice those skills.

Whether you want to set out a rigid calendar that involves specific dates and times or would rather give yourself more flexibility by simply setting a number of hours you need to practice each week, make sure that you take the time to plan a timeline for yourself.

Having that outlined will help you make the time for that oh-so-important practice, while also holding you accountable for missing any sessions.

4. Log your progress.

Do you know those movies where the protagonist is really working hard at something and then you witness this inspirational video montage where you see them quickly accelerate from bad to great?

Well, unfortunately, real life isn’t like that.

When you’re toiling away to get better at a specific thing, it’s easy to lose sight of those small steps you’ve taken to improve.

This is why it’s so important to log your own progress (no heartwarming video montages required), so that you can reflect on how far you’ve come—which is especially important in those moments when you’re feeling disheartened and discouraged.

Tracking your progress can be as simple or complex as you’d like it to be. Rob Nightingale provides a few examples in his article for Make Use Of:

If you’re learning to program WordPress themes, save each theme you try out so you can visually see the progress you’re making,

-he writes,-

If you’re a musician, record yourself playing each week. If you’re an author, keep what you’ve written in a folder on your desktop. Go over your work frequently, compare what you’ve done in the past to what you’re doing now.

When you’re so immersed in something, it’s easy to lose sight of the progress you’ve already made. Keeping a watchful eye on your own progress will empower you to see the awesome strides you’ve managed to make thus far—which serves to motivate you even further.

5. Actively seek feedback.

Practice doesn’t mean you need to work in a vacuum. In fact, constantly absorbing feedback—whether it’s from others or in the form reviewing your own progress—is a key factor of deliberate practice.

When getting started with deliberate practice, Ericsson recommends working with a teacher or a mentor who can help guide you as you improve.

At first, the teacher gives feedback on your efforts; eventually, you can spot problems in your own performance and tweak it accordingly,

-writes Shana Lebowitz in an article for Business Insider.

If you don’t have a mentor or expert at your disposal?

You can still create your own feedback loop to garner intel on how you could continue to improve.

For example, if you’re learning to improve your public speaking skills, record videos of yourself speaking to a fictional room of people, and watch it back over and over. Compare it to how a public speaker you admire delivers his/her message,

-writes Nightingale in his same post for Make Use Of.

6. Rest, recharge, and recover.

Deliberate practice is undeniably effective when done consistently.

But, be forewarned: You can’t confuse consistently with constantly. Your brain deserves (and needs!) a break from those mental challenges every now and then.

While repetition is important, implementing far too much deliberate practice will only lead to exhaustion and burnout.

So, make sure you pencil in some time when you can do something mindless and recharge your batteries.

After all, taking a break never hurt anyone!

Over to You

When it comes to getting better at something, sheer repetition won’t lead to great results.

Instead, it’s far better to leverage deliberate practice to improve your performance.

The concept itself might seem academic, but it’s actually not too complex to implement. Put these tips and research to use, and you’re sure to make strides in those skills you’re so eager to improve.

January 18, 2018