Deliberate Practice . . . or How to Be an Expert

by Francisco Saez

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Pursuit of Mastery.

March 18, 2013

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

—Vince Lombardi


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March 18, 2013

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

—Vince Lombardi

The Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has devoted much time to researching how experts in different fields (such as medicine, music, or chess) acquire a higher level of performance than others, and how significant deliberate practice is in that process.

The conclusion of his research is that, with few exceptions, the qualitative differences in performance between an expert in something and a non-expert are not genetically determined. Of course, raw talent always helps. But being an expert in something is usually the result of a deliberate effort over a more or less long period of time, made with the aim of improving certain skills in a particular field.

There are some things that experts do differently. They identify the skills and techniques they need, and they focus on improving them every day, doing practical activities and evaluating their progress along the way. They also increase the level of difficulty of these activities as they move forward, always challenging and pushing their limits.

The key here is the word “deliberate.” It is not just practice—it is not just a matter of spending hours doing one thing over and over again. It is about practicing conscientiously, breaking our goal down into parts, analyzing what we do well and what we do wrong, figuring out how to change what we are doing wrong, and paying attention to small details that allow us to improve even what we are already doing fine.

Although the study talks about a limit of about 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice, beyond which it is difficult to improve, any time you spend practicing something deliberately and effectively will make you better. Deliberate practice can be used for countless small things, not only to be the best in the world in your field. Practicing productive habits consistently will make you more productive and hence, you will be better at whatever activity you set your mind to.

In short, if you want to significantly improve a skill, you should do the following:

  • Divide that skill into smaller, more manageable parts, sections, or areas.
  • Find a way to measure your progress in each of these parts. You must be able to get immediate feedback while you’re practicing.
  • Constantly analyze your performance and seek new ways to improve.

If you practice GTD or some other similar organizational system, this could be a way to meet the challenge:

  • Set a Goal that clearly represents the skill you want to improve.
  • Break that goal down into different projects for each individual aspect of the skill that you should practice.
  • Define actions and routines to ensure that you will devote an acceptable amount of time to each of these projects.
  • During your weekly review, analyze the progress you made during the previous week, try to detect improvement areas, and plan the next week accordingly.

Does it sound like a lot of work? You bet it is. You won’t be an expert overnight so keep working!

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