Habit, Deliberate Practice & Excellence

How do we form a habit? By doing something repeatedly until it becomes a habit.

So, yes, the path to excellence starts with an act, but the action needs to be repeated over time until it becomes an integral part of who we are. Until it becomes a habit.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Unfortunately, not all habits are good habits.

  • For instance, by repeatedly underperforming, we can easily make a habit of underperformance. By always settling for mediocrity, we can easily make mediocre performance a habit.

By ‘practicing the wrong golf swing’ over and over, we can make a habit of hitting poor golf shots!

There is seldom much difference between doing something the right way and doing something the wrong way. It normally involves the same amount of energy. So, why not do it right the first time? Why not do it right every time?

If you succeed in doing it right every time, you will receive a bonus: it will become a habit. And once it becomes a habit, it actually becomes easier because the very essence of a habit is that it requires less energy to perform the task.

So how do we make sure that our habit of daily practice results in visible improvement?

The answer lies in deliberate practice with a clear goal towards consistent but definite improvement.

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

The greatest challenge of deliberate practice is to remain focused. In the beginning, showing up is the most important thing. But after a while, we begin to carelessly overlook small errors and miss daily opportunities for improvement.

One of my favorite examples of deliberate practice is how Benjamin Franklin used deliberate practice to improve his writing skills.

  • When he was a teenager, Benjamin Franklin was criticized by his father for his poor writing abilities. Unlike most teenagers, young Ben took his father’s advice seriously and vowed to improve his writing skills.
  • He began by finding a publication written by some of the best authors of his day. Then, Franklin went through each article line by line and wrote down the meaning of every sentence. Next, he rewrote each article in his own words and then compared his version to the original. Each time, “I discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.” Eventually, Franklin realized his vocabulary held him back from better writing, and so he focused intensely on that area.

Deliberate practice always follows the same pattern: break the overall process down into parts, identify your weaknesses, test new strategies for each section, and then integrate your learning into the overall process.

Humans have a remarkable capacity to improve their performance in nearly any area of life if they train in the correct way. This is easier said than done.

  • Deliberate practice is not a comfortable activity. It requires sustained effort and concentration. The people who master the art of deliberate practice are committed to being lifelong learners—always exploring and experimenting and refining.
  • Deliberate practice is not a magic pill, but if you can manage to maintain your focus and commitment, then the promise of deliberate practice is quite alluring: to get the most out of what you’ve got.

“When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal. The words deliberate and intention are key here because they define the difference between actively practicing something and passively learning it.” — Thomas Sterner

A quick way to assess if you’re doing deliberate practice or just regular rote practice is to ask yourself if you ever feel bored or zone out during practice sessions. If the answer is yes, you’re probably not practicing deliberately.

Deliberate practice isn’t boring.

Frustrating, yes. Maddening, yes. Annoying, even. But never boring.

As soon as practicing a skill gets comfortable, it’s time to up the stakes. Challenging yourself is about more than trying to work harder—it means doing new things.

Pushing ourselves just beyond the limits of our abilities is uncomfortable, yet it’s how we do our best—and indeed, it can be the source of some of our greatest moments of satisfaction. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we often experience happiness as a result of entering a “flow” state, which occurs when we intensely focus on an activity that is challenging yet achievable. During moments of flow, we become so immersed in the activity that we lose any sense of time or of ourselves.

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zonethe learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time when we’re practicing, we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed, as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of our reach.

Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal deliberate practice. Deliberate practice requires that you operate in the learning zone and you repeat the activity a lot with feedback.

How to implement this: Each time you practice a component of a skill, aim to make it 10% harder than the level you find comfortable.

Once per month, have a practice session where you set yourself an incredibly ambitious stretch goal—not impossible, just well above your current level. Challenge yourself to see how close you can get to it. You might surprise yourself and find you perform far better than expected.

A common deliberate practice mistake is to plan a long practice session, then adjust the intensity of your practice to allow you to engage in a skill for the whole time. It’s far more effective to engage in “sprints.” Practice with the most intense focus you can manage for short periods of time, then take breaks. Seeing as you learn most when you stretch yourself beyond your current capabilities, shorter, more challenging practice periods are the way to go.

Learning something new and practicing something new may seem very similar, but these two methods can have profoundly different results. Here are some additional ways to think about the difference.

  • Let’s say your goal is to get stronger and more fit. You can research the best instructions on bench press technique, but the only way to build strength is to practice lifting weights.
  • Let’s say your goal is to grow your startup. You can learn about the best way to make a sales pitch, but the only way to actually land customers is to practice making sales calls.
  • Let’s say your goal is to write a book. You can talk to a best-selling author about writing, but the only way to become a better writer is to practice publishing consistently.

Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill.

Hence, Practice Is Learning, But Learning Is Not Practice

Passive learning is not a form of practice because although you gain new knowledge, you are not discovering how to apply that knowledge. Active practice, meanwhile, is one of the greatest forms of learning because the mistakes you make while practicing reveal important insights.

Even more important, practice is the only way to make a meaningful contribution with your knowledge. You can watch an online course about how to build a business or read an article about a terrible disaster in a developing nation, but that knowledge is unproductive unless you actually launch your business or donate to those in need.

Learning by itself can be valuable for you, but you have to learn to express your knowledge if you want to be valuable to others.

Therefore, perseverance acquired through the habit of deliberate practice is the key to excellence.

“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, and live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”— Swami Vivekananda

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