What Is Deep Practice?
I remember watching a video a friend put up online. It was only a 10-second watch, but it made me realise how I wanted to spend my next few days. Sitting at my desk, fiddling with a Rubix cube. The video was of my friend solving this colourful puzzle and she captured the last 10 seconds of her solving it. After watching this I was inspired to learn the skill too. I remember telling myself, “If she can solve it, why can’t I?”
I found a second-hand Rubix cube at a local market and got it for a bargain, only 50p! I remember sitting at my desk with the cube placed next to me, I was searching the internet looking for tips on how to solve the puzzle. After an hour of researching, I thought I’d get stuck in and give it a go. Naturally, my first few attempts were atrocious. Constantly getting confused with the colours, I had to keep referring to the many guides on the internet. I was going nowhere. Over the week I kept at it. Constantly making mistakes, I would take a few moments to understand where I went wrong. I’d reset and give it another go. Fast forward a week later and I was able to solve the Rubix cube under 2 mins. Now I can solve it in under 90 seconds.
When I look back at those frustrating moments during my learning, I realised I was incorporating a specific type of training that I was unaware of. This type of training not only helped me tackle the challenge of solving a Rubix cube in under 90 seconds, but it has become the blueprint of how I tackle a new skill. This type of training is known as ‘deep practice.’
What is deep practice?
When I came across the idea of deep practice it changed how I approached everything in life. It’s funny because I came across the term in my late twenties. If only I had learned this way of thinking a lot earlier, who knows how many skills I would have under my belt right now? Oh, how hindsight can be a cruel mistress.
I came across the phrase from Daniel Coyle in his book, ‘The Talent Code.’ I highly recommend this book to anyone that wants to take any skill to new heights. He coined the term ‘deep practice’ that has similar attributes to the phrase ‘deliberate practice.’ Whichever term you’d prefer to use the idea is simple; being 100% present in the moment and limiting any distractions that could you take you away from a heightened state of focus. With this heightened state, you are to tackle the weak points of your skill, slowly struggling and correcting any mistakes throughout the process. If you are constantly training in this manner, you’ll eventually turn a mediocre skill into a world-class talent.
It sounds easy enough, but believe me, it isn’t. There’s nothing sexy about this approach, it’s boring and at times frustrating. Repeating the same process with the same amount of focus can be taxing both mentally and physically. However, I can certainly say that it pays off. I wouldn’t have been able to surprise my girlfriend by learning a new language in such a short amount of time if I had not implemented this way of thinking.
Why breaking it down helps.
“Break it into chunks"
- Daniel Coyle
They say ‘practice makes perfect’, but what if the method of your practice is incorrect? You could be practicing with a bad technique for 3 hours a day and pick up bad habits from it. It’s no wonder you’re not seeing any progress in your chosen skill. Understanding what to focus on during your practice is really important, otherwise, you’re wasting your time.
One of the main concepts of deep practice is to break the skill down into smaller manageable pieces, memorising them individually and then bring them back together in larger groups. Coyle likes to call this process, ‘Chunking’.
When learning another language I took this advice to heart and broke everything down. Instead of jumping into Rosetta Stone and going through the motions, I researched what were the common 1000 words used in the language and memorised each word until I was confident with each one. With the use of Anki flashcards, I was able to memorise the 1000 words in quick fashion. Learning the rules of grammar allowed me to put the words together, and I realised that I could construct sentences with more ease. I was able to recognise words whilst reading and pick up words whilst listening, this would allow me to understand conversations a lot easier and help me progress a lot faster.
Breaking down the skill into smaller pieces allows you to not get overwhelmed with your practice. Biting off more than you can chew can deflate you and put you off practicing entirely. With any skill that you’re taking on, try to break it down into smaller pieces. Really take the time to understand the fundamentals, then when you’re confident with it put it all back together again.
Embrace the struggle.
“Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement."
- Daniel Coyle
What puts many people off from practising is the frustration of constant failure. The idea of constantly working on your craft and making mistake after mistake can be disheartening, but it’s in the failing where you will find success. It’s something we all have to go through and accept. Whatever you decide to take up, at the beginning you’re going to suck at it a lot. And I mean a lot. Plain and simple. Your comprehension of the skill is still raw and you won’t be able to grasp the intricacies of it all. However, it pays to be patient. Target the weakest points and constantly develop it until you’ve got it to an acceptable level. It’s the only way you’re going to be able to progress your skill.
When learning Swedish I tried to implement this advice. I made countless of mistakes when conversing with the locals, whenever I would make one I would laugh it off and not be afraid to make another. A lot of the times our insecurities of failure causes us not say anything at all, embracing the struggle and accepting that it’s going to happen often is an important mind-shift for the development of your skill.
Don’t just work on what you’re good at. Really take time to reflect on your progress. Is your dominant hand stronger when dribbling the basketball? Then why aren’t you working on your non-dominant hand also? Are you able to deadlift 200kg? Great, but what’s your flexibility like? Do you call yourself a great a musician? Amazing, but what are you like live on-stage playing with other bandmates? Make sure that you hone in on the weakest parts of your skill and target the struggle.
The importance of going slow.
“It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly."
- Daniel Coyle
Not only is it important to embrace the struggle of any given skill, but it’s important to do it slowly. Everyone wants to pick up a new skill fast, I only had 3 months to surprise my girlfriend with another language. That didn’t mean I crammed everything in and rushed on every aspect of the language. I broke down my days and scheduled intensive hours where I would tackle my weak points slowly. As Coyle would say, ‘Baby steps are the royal road to skill.’
Going slow in your practice allows you to pay attention to your mistakes, allowing you to get honest feedback on where you are right now. This gives you a chance to work on your faults and rectify the issue properly. Being able to study the methods of each breakdown at a slow pace allows the skill to really stick in your brain, so make sure you slow down. You’d be surprised how well you develop with 1 hour of intense deep practice every day. Make sure you do this slowly and often, which leads me to my next point.
Repetition is valuable.
“If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices."
- Vladimir Horrowitz
Another element that needs to be included with deep practice is repetition. This is the hurdle where a lot of people fail, I know at times I did. Being consistent in your practice time is difficult, we all have our lives to live and it can be easy to postpone practice time. I found it a lot easier to commit to a daily practice when I scheduled everything in advance. The question you need to ask yourself is where does learning a new skill sit with your priorities? Another technique I used to keep me accountable with daily practice was by not breaking the chain. When there were times where I couldn’t be bothered to practice, the idea of breaking the streak would motivate me to get off my lazy arse.
The cycle of breakdown and repair is constantly going on in our bodies, this is applicable to our skills as well. If you do not practice your skill for an entire month you will see degradation, that’s why it’s important that you constantly train on your skill. How long should you be practicing for? Well, the greats practice for about 3-5 hours a day. You might think that’s way too much, but how about committing to an hour for now? It’s not really about how long you train, but the intensity of the session. In that hour can you be focused 100%? You want to be training right. Make sure that you repeatedly break your skill down and target the struggle. Do this consistently and you’ll definitely see a change.
My own experience.
“We are all born with the opportunity to become."
- Daniel Coyle
I’ll be honest with you, consistently targeting the struggle was a struggle in itself. Keeping up that intense focus was draining at times, and I can understand why so many people depart from it. However, when I was able to perform a decent level of deep practice I saw great progress in my skill. I’m still a long way from hitting my target, but I’m sure the more I incorporate the format of deep practice, the closer I’ll get to achieving my goals. The quote I previously used about 'having the opportunity to become' means a lot to me. World-class athletes aren't born with God-given skills, just like us, they are born with no idea how to walk let alone run. Eventually over time, coupled with numerous hours of deep practice and intense focus they were able to turn their average skill into something great. I'm not hoping to be a world-class athlete, but maybe I can achieve the same mentality to allow me to learn a few practical skills along the way.