This post was originally published on the Beeminder Blog, and it's here with slight edits. Beeminder is a goal-tracking service that lets you put your money where your mouth is, and I can't praise it enough. Go check it out!
Repetitio est mater stagni
Learning a skill should be easy:
- identify what you want to learn
- choose an exercise to practice it
- repeat ad infinitum
This is the exact approach a lot of us take when deciding to learn to play a musical instrument, get better at a sport, become efficient in our chosen profession, or even just type faster — if we keep doing it, we'll get better at it.
What I can tell you is that you're less right than you would want to be, and that what you're doing to improve yourself right now might be perfectly useless.
The common scientific approach to practice assumes four components to make it work, and all of these components are crucial.
1. The motivation to get off your ass and work on it.
Don't have enough motivation to work on something? Well, you probably won't, then. (Statistically, the people who improve at a skill are those who explicitly plan to practice!)
The beautiful thing about the motivation to practice is that it forms a positive feedback loop — the more you practice, the better you get, and the happier it makes you to keep at it. Many studies have shown that even after a person has performed some task many times, and considers themselves to do it as well as they ever could, monetary incentives can push them to find new methods of performing the task, which leads to great improvements in speed and accuracy! This has been shown to apply in areas from typing speed to marathon running.
(And, as we know, negative reinforcement works even better than positive, as long as you're the type of person to talk yourself into a commitment contract...)
2. The way the task builds onto your preexisting knowledge.
Can you figure out, within a short learning period, how exactly you need to perform the task to succeed in it, based on your previous competencies? If you can't, chances are the practice will be a waste — or even detrimental to your progress.
But you don't want to spend most of your time thinking about doing something instead of doing it, do you? This point relies heavily on how well you plan for your task and the resources you have available. In short, adequate research and preparation are crucial for your success.
3. The immediate informative feedback on the success of your practice.
Now comes the good part.
Without knowing how you're doing, where you're failing, what you need to improve and how, chances are your practice regimen will (all else equal) help you improve at a certain aspect of your chosen skill, and that will be it. Your progress will stagnate and you will — dejectedly — conclude that this is the best that you can ever get at it. It's likely that your motivation will start to drop, too. Thus, instances of scheduled reevaluation of your methods and approaches are absolutely necessary to even keep you on track.
Various studies have shown that there is an overwhelming difference in the success of skill acquisition in students who have received some private tutoring, compared to those in a standard classroom environment, in self-teaching groups, or those learning from distributed material. You yourself are unlikely to be able to gauge how well you're doing at a skill you're just developing, or even how you can monitor for it — and coming to the wrong conclusion can completely derail your progress (think of wrongly learned behavioral patterns or sports injuries, for example).
If you really want to get good at something without wasting your time and effort, you'd do well to find an experienced mentor or tutor to judge your success and guide your hand.
...or, via the Law of Superiority from the always-relevant Murphy's Law:
The first example of superior principle is always inferior to the developed example of inferior principle.
Repetition without adjusting for your progress won't get you anywhere, but giving up before trying won't get you far either.
Coming off of a seminal (and often challenged) paper on The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance from the early 90s (which is a beautiful, palatable read that I thoroughly recommend), deliberate practice has been understood to stand for engaging in activities that have been specifically designed to improve your current level of performance. It's supposed to require your full focus and it's not supposed to be inherently enjoyable.
You can ask yourself two simple questions about what you practice:
- If you don't have to focus on it, are you really improving at it?
- If you enjoy it, are you really facing your shortcomings?
The role of innate talent
In the nature vs nurture showdown, some things (such as our height) are mostly out of our hands. The recent research into the genetic predispositions for excellence at certain tasks shows that, for some of us — even though they can be learned, to some extent — abilities such as having perfect pitch just come naturally.
It's easy to see (in most cases, barring some athletic disciplines with obvious, objective prerequisites) that some of us might get an easier start when it comes to a certain skill, but if you're looking to become an expert at it and spend a decade or more perfecting your performance, the strongest factor determining your success will be practice. Not just how much you practice, but how you practice. Motivating yourself, knowing what you're doing, pushing yourself out of your comfort zones, and working at it diligently for long enough, often enough, without stopping the search for a better approach — that's how you become an expert.
At some skills, you won't be able to catch up with others. You wouldn't say that multilingual children have a genetic advantage to reach fluency in more than one language, but as an adult, you'd struggle quite a bit to reach their level of fluency. This is simply due to the brain changes that occur in children who grow up in multilingual environments. Expert pianists will maintain their music-related skills well into old age, while old amateurs won't be able to catch up. Chess mastery is considered to require a certain level of maturity to achieve, and young children starting chess training tend to need additional years to catch up with those starting off at a later age.
On the topic of chess, expertise has been shown to not only change the way a player's mind works quantitatively, but also qualitatively. The way you approach a task gets vastly different as you get better at it, and you get to see it in a new light as your procedural memory takes care of the basics and you get to focus on the good stuff.
But to get good at it, you'll need to practice.
I can blather about this endlessly, but it won't mean much unless I use it in (my own) practice. (This part should be interesting for the Beeminder users looking for some practical examples!)
Finding sufficient motivation to create a practice regimen is as simple as jotting down a Beeminder goal. I studied music in high school, but never the instrument I really wanted to play, the viola. I got my hands on one after graduation, but found very quickly that I could never manage a steady period of regular practice. It was a source of personal embarrassment and 'maybe-one-day's. In September last year (on the day I stumbled straight through the looking glass) I told myself that I will be learning to play the viola for an average of 2 pomodoros per week. Zero derailments since then, and I'm enjoying it more than I would have expected.
2. Preexisting knowledge
You need to understand what you can accomplish and how if you want to quantify your expectations. Having completed a degree in music theory, I concluded that I'm perfectly capable of focusing mainly on the playing aspect when it came to getting better at this awesome instrument. In the first few weeks of going back to the basics, I did my research, got my hands on good books with both exercises and theory, bought a sheet music stand, and planned out my route through the materials. I decided to master technical exercises one at a time (keeping track of the effort, not the results!), and supplement my practice with reading.
Sticking to a game plan without reevaluating your goals doesn't get you far. Any language learner can already nod at this. As a simple example, if you start learning a new language through Duolingo, you'll make great progess for a while. But constantly practicing a language on a tree you've already mastered gives you diminishing returns. Challenge yourself on Clozemaster and it's a whole new story. And when you start participating in regular language tandems, that's when you realize how much of a difference it makes to have a mentor who can tell you exactly what you're doing wrong and how to fix it.
For me, I check my basic playing technique once a week. And last week, in a fated moment of clarity, I realized I'm just as unable to guide myself through the process of successfully acquiring a new skill as anyone else. My bow hold, the thing I thought I knew by heart how to do right — isn't. With the correct bow hold, only a few hours of practice made a big difference. I would have done so much better for myself had I had an expert tell me what I'm doing wrong and how to fix it.
(Needless to say, that's my next step!)
Don't stop! Even if you think there's no chance to drop this beautiful practice habit that you've developed, don't cut yourself so much slack as to stop monitoring your progress. There's nothing wrong with having maintenance goals, and that's the best way to make sure you stay on track. But don't listen to me, see what a true veteran has to say.
In closing, if you're taking these principles and applying them to a skill you're trying to develop, definitely report in with your experiences — I'd love to know how they work in the real world!