Purposeful Practice

How Practice Can Make Perfect

Purposeful Practice - How Practice Can Make Perfect

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Make sure your practicing hits the mark.

"Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect." – Vince Lombardi.

Everyone has goals. Yours might be to become a world-class pitcher, to be the best copywriter in your company, or to become good at performing laparoscopic surgery. We all want to achieve something, but we all have different ideas about how to do it.

Some think that it's all down to talent – those inherent skills that the gifted few are supposedly born with. There are others who believe that it's more about hard graft – practicing relentlessly until you achieve your goals.

But it's probably actually down to a mixture of the two, and practice is a more reliable way of improving your abilities than relying on talent alone. However naturally talented Michael Jordan might be with a basketball, or Warren Buffett as an investor, or Barack Obama as a public speaker, each has practiced hard at their art.

However, poor practice methods are surprisingly common, with some even being harmful. To improve any skill, it's important to practice it in a productive, structured way. This article shows you how to do just that.

What Is Practice?

Practice is "the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal," as defined by author Thomas Sterner. It enables you to progress from learning to doing, turning knowledge into ability.

In his 2016 book, "Peak", psychologist K. Anders Ericsson identified three types of practice. The first is naive practice. This is when you have a general idea of what you want to accomplish, and you repeat an action again and again, trusting that repetition is enough to achieve your goal. Think of a guitarist practicing the pentatonic scale 50 times in succession, for example.

Although researchers have found that simple repetition may have little effect on personal development, it can help you to learn the essentials and to reach a basic level of performance. And sometimes, that's all you need. However, what naive practice can't do is help you to develop beyond that point. Without a deliberate effort to improve further, your abilities can stall and even deteriorate.

The second type of practice is purposeful practice, targeted squarely at improving your ability, by pushing you beyond your comfort zone. Working at something that is just beyond your current ability level can be challenging and is rarely enjoyable, but it drives you to improve rather than stagnate.

Purposeful practice incorporates three additional elements – focus, feedback and exact, defined goals. For example, setting a goal to "convert or downgrade all leads within 14 days, talk to 20 prospects per day, and achieve five sales per week by December" is more specific and helpful than just saying, "I want to be a better salesperson."

The third type of practice is deliberate practice. This takes the elements of purposeful practice and adds a coach or mentor with experience of helping elite performers to excel. However, deliberate practice is only suitable for fields such as sport and music that have a culture of performance optimization and competition, clear rules, and objective criteria for assessing top performance.

How to Apply Purposeful Practice

It's not always obvious how you can practice your skills in some working environments, for example in offices or anywhere where there's no real culture of assessing people's performance. Also, people are often so busy that they overlook opportunities to practice.

The following seven steps show you how to apply purposeful practice to your work.

1. Start Positive and Stay Motivated

Purposeful practice is hard so, for it to be effective, you need a genuine desire to succeed. It's also crucial to acknowledge your potential, and to adopt what Carol Dweck calls a "growth mindset" – the belief that you have it in you to grow and develop.

A determination to succeed will help you to stay motivated throughout. Building a support network of people who understand the effort that you'll be making can also help, as can taking stock of your achievements as you progress.

2. Set Precise, Clearly Defined Goals

Make sure that your practice goals are SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. For example, "increase clients' satisfaction score with my reports to 90 percent this financial year" is SMART, whereas "I want to provide good service" is not.

Always remember that your over-arching goal should be to become better at doing something, not simply to learn more.

3. Stretch Yourself

To improve, you must challenge yourself to practice things that are just beyond your current level of ability. So, as well as being SMART, your goals should stretch you. Avoid easy choices, and push yourself to do work that makes real demands on you.

4. Allocate Practice Time

K. Anders Ericsson said that, to become truly great at something, even the most gifted people have to practice for 10,000 hours. That's the same as practicing for 20 hours every week for 10 years. Few people can spare so much time but, to become an expert in anything, you do need to commit to regular, consistent practice.

Be disciplined, and clear away your distractions. Aim to limit your practice sessions to an hour at first, or for however long you can maintain intense concentration, so that they don't become too stressful or hard. In fact, Ericsson found that many experts practice their skills for just an hour or two each day.

5. Start Practicing

How you practice is at least as important as how much you practice, and there are many techniques to choose from. Many are specific to particular areas of expertise – the "separate hands" technique used by pianists, for example, and the "summarizing" technique used by writers. Others are more general, and are widely applicable. Below are six of the most commonly used techniques:

  • One of the most effective and widely used methods is practice testing, also known as retrieval practice. This is where you actively and frequently test your knowledge – or get someone to test you – by practicing your recall with flashcards and working through practice problems and quizzes.

    It's important to think of these tests, which require mental effort, as a way to learn a new idea or concept, rather than as assessments. There is good research-based evidence that doing short bouts of this type of challenging testing can dramatically improve people's learning, and help them to develop long-term memory.​
  • Distributed practice, or spacing, is also highly effective. Here, you spread your practice sessions out over time and intersperse them with periods of rest, rather than condensing them into concentrated periods. Leaving gaps between practice sessions might sound counterproductive, but it helps you to improve by giving you time to absorb the information. You just need to start sooner and to ensure that you revisit material regularly.

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  • Interleaved practice – where you alternate between different skills within a single practice session – can be productive because it encourages mental alertness. It forces your brain to move between several skills in quick succession as it deals with each new practice problem. This method tends to work best when you already have a good level of expertise in a topic, and you want to develop your existing skills or engage in a more fully integrated practice.

    However, this technique isn't for everyone, and blocking – where you practice a specific skill within a single session, and then repeat the process with a different skill – may be more effective, especially when you're new to a task or you want to develop a basic level of skill.
  • Whole-method practice is where you practice a skill from beginning to end, without interruption. When you're new to something, when you have a good attention span, and when the skill you're practicing isn't complex, it can be a useful technique. It allows you to see clearly how all the elements of a skill fit together, and the role that they play in the overall process.
  • With complicated skills, such as negotiation, presenting and report writing, part-method practice – where you divide the skill into subsections – can work well. For example, you could divide "chairing meetings" into the ability to organize (creating and distributing agendas), manage people (getting all attendees to contribute), and use IT equipment (projectors and teleconference equipment).

    Each is a distinct, improvable skill. Practicing each part in turn helps you to stay focused and motivated, but the challenge comes in reassembling them when you attempt to master the whole. Part-method practice can be time consuming, but it makes it easy to identify areas of weakness and improve on them.
  • Whole-part-whole practice allows you to practice a skill from start to finish, to get a feel for the whole process, before breaking it down and working on each individual subsection in turn. Finally, you practice the whole skill again.

Certain skills are difficult to practice formally – interacting with colleagues and making decisions, for example. The way to work on these more intangible skills is to create practice in the work itself, by developing a practice-driven mindset. This allows you to view everyday tasks not just as another job to do but as an opportunity to practice and improve your skills.

There are many other practice techniques that you can also use, including role-play, simulation and visualization.

6. Seek Feedback

Feedback helps you to fine-tune your practice strategy. Someone who can spot mistakes, monitor your progress, and give you constructive feedback can be an invaluable ally. Think about the feedback that you receive, and assess where you can improve what you're doing.

7. Stay Focused

Hone right in on what you're doing and how you're doing it. Concentrate on improving specific aspects of your performance, always keep in mind the goals that you want to achieve, and give the task your full attention.

Key Points

Practice is the process of repeating a task again and again, to achieve a goal and improve a skill. One of the most effective methods to use is purposeful practice.

Purposeful practice is designed to improve performance, and is characterized by staying focused and positive, setting clear and specific goals, allocating time during your week, taking on tasks that go beyond your existing level of ability, and seeking feedback.

By combining your existing abilities with purposeful practice over an extended period of time, you'll likely reach your objective of an improvement in your skills.


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