Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways— operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes— makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them— as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go— end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.
“We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that’s wrong,” he said. “It’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build. The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn.”
The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn’t help. Reaching does.
Three rules of Deep Practice
Chunk it up
First, the participants look at the task as a whole— as one big chunk, the megacircuit. Second, they divide it into its smallest possible chunks. Third, they play with time, slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn its inner architecture. People in the hotbeds deep-practice the same way a good movie director approaches a scene— one instant panning back to show the landscape, the next zooming in to examine a bug crawling on a leaf in slo-mo. We’ll look at each technique to see how it is deployed.
“It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.” Second, going slow helps the practicer to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints— the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.
There is, biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do— talking, thinking, reading, imagining— is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit.
The answer: don’t let them practice for a month. Causing skill to evaporate doesn’t require chromosomal rejiggering or black-ops psychological maneuvers. It only requires that you stop a skilled person from systematically firing his or her circuit for a mere thirty days.
Deep practice, however, doesn’t obey the same math. Spending more time is effective— but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. What’s more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day. Ericsson’s research shows that most world-class experts— including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes— practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.
Learn to Feel It
Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking out a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.
- Pick a target.
- Reach for it.
- Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.
- Return to step one.