Deliberate practice: a practical guide to practicing knowledge work

We learn enough to get by in our day-to-day lives, but once we reach that point, we seldom push to go beyond good enough. We do very little that challenges our brains… for the most part, that’s okay. “Good enough” is generally good enough. [But with deliberate practice] If you wish to become significantly better at something, you can.

– Anders Ericsson, Peak

Recently I discussed how we can think about applying deliberate practice to knowledge work, looking at Professor Anders Ericsson’s book Peak and thesis of deliberate practice, a theory of skill development which focuses on performance and how to improve it, rather than just knowledge for its own sake.

The first post discusses some of the challenges in applying deliberate practice to “knowledge work”. Ericsson’s focus is on areas with objectively defined expert performers and well-established training methods; think chess or tennis, not “knowledge work” like development or marketing.

As the post explores, there are ways of taking the key tenets of deliberate practice and applying these. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Identify the expert performers in the field
  2. Figure out what makes them so good
  3. Come up with training techniques to replicate the experts

This is what the first post discussed. Doing this would be a good start, but you’d miss out on the related skills you need to use deliberate practice in practice with your day-to-day.

How do you develop your “training techniques”? How do you make sure you stick with it and don’t quit? How do you self-monitor your progress?

Answering these questions is essential to actually doing deliberate practice. That’s what this post is about: how to actually do deliberate practice, in practice.

First: be clear what you’re practicing

This seems like an obvious place to start, but the nuances are why we need the extra context around deliberate practice. You need to be clear what you’re practicing, and set a clear, measurable goal for improvement.

You’d rule out “improve my writing”, for example, as this is not measurable. Indeed, “writing” is not a good skill to target; you need to be more specific. “Increase the quantity of sales situations I close using copy” would be better, as long as you have a current rate and a target rate to work with.

A more abstract example: if you wish to improve, say, the quality of arguments you make within your writing, you might struggle to find an objective measure for this, but you could create a “best practices” scorecard based on the work of experts in your field, and give yourself an objective score against that.

You then need two items:

  1. Your current skill level
  2. Your target skill level

Once you’re clear what you’re practicing, commit to practicing until you reach the goal, not just for a set period of time. Being clear that you can and are going to achieve what you’re trying to achieve will help you stick with your practice, which is the next point.

Be clear you’re not going to quit, and use strategies to do so

A key theme of Peak is people quit skill practice way too soon: they quit when it gets hard or when they reach a plateau, but these are not stages at which you can’t do it. Ericsson is very clear on this, and argues you need to be clear with yourself you’re not going to quit because you’ve plateaued or regressed.

He suggests you make a deal with yourself that you’ll do what you need to do to get back to or beyond where you were before the plateau, and then you can quit. “You probably won’t”, he says, because once you’ve made that little bit of new progress you’ll remind yourself that what you originally aimed for is possible.

Further, make sure you have the time to practice by time blocking the space to do your practice. Ericsson says this should be “a fixed time… that has been cleared of all other obligations and distractions”, and suggests an hour each day where you have the energy to devote full concentration is suitable. You can further weaken the possibility you’re going to quit by celebrating the little bits of progress you make on the way.

And finally, classic productivity advice: get enough sleep, and keep healthy. This is one of my favourite quotes from the book:

The best and the better students averaged around five hours more of sleep per week than the good students, mostly by taking more time for afternoon naps.

Clearly, the secret to peak performance that we’ve all been missing is a good afternoon nap.

Create your own opportunities to practice, inside or outside work

This point is one of the most interesting, obvious, and yet easy-to-miss in Peak: create your own opportunities to do your deliberate practice. Ericsson argues:

Real life — our jobs, our schooling, our hobbies — seldom gives us the opportunity for this sort of focused repetition, so in order to improve, we must manufacture our own opportunities.

This can happen inside or outside of work, but one must manufacture these opportunities. A point made earlier in the book is often we get “good enough”, and then plateau. This seems especially true in most workplaces: there’s often no perceived business need to get better than “good enough”, so once we get to that stage it’s probable there’s general improvement over time, but rare there’s dramatic improvement.

In order to get that dramatic improvement, consider: what opportunities can you create within your day-to-day work – ideally something which helps real work get done – that would let you practice focused repetition on a skill you’re trying to improve?

Often the answer is a new project: at my company Ellipsis, for example, we have a monthly “Book Club” in which we’ll listen to and discuss a particular book, article, or podcast. This is half-way to doing this: it provides opportunity to discuss skills within work time, and the monthly cadence ensures we’re sticking with it consistently.

Another example: I wanted to improve my ideas around professionally important topics, so I’ve added half an hour of writing to my morning routine. I’m writing this article in this time! This is also time blocking, which we mentioned earlier.

A further suggestion is to get yourself and your colleagues into the habit of thinking about practicing as this will help identify opportunities throughout the day “in which normal business activities can be transformed into practice activities”. There are probably much more of these than you realise at first glance.

The major benefit of creating opportunities as part of your normal work day, or adapting regular work activities, is it makes your practice much more convenient. It also creates secondary benefits from doing the practice: you get the skill improvement, but also progress on whatever project you work on. From that point, it’s much easier to do the work. Think seriously about this one: how do you create your own opportunities?

Work deeply

Strands of Deep Work, one of my favourite ways of working, show up everywhere! It’s a key part of deliberate practice: in order to do your practice, you need to be focusing wholly on what you’re practicing. Ericsson goes as far to say “there is little point at all to practicing if you don’t focus”.

So – focus.

He also argues for general “digital minimalism”:

More generally, look for anything that might interfere with your training and find ways to minimize its influence. If you’re likely to be distracted by your smartphone, turn it off. Or better yet, turn it off and leave it in another room. If you’re not a morning person and you find it particularly difficult to exercise in the morning, move your run or your exercise class to later in the day when your body won’t fight you so much.

Set yourself up to succeed with your work habits, and then do the work.

Develop your ability to self-monitor your practice

One of the key parts of deliberate practice in more traditional skill areas – like chess – is the insistence on comparing yourself against centuries-old best practices and best players. As we’ve discussed, in knowledge work this is more difficult as it’s harder to get an objective measure of who is the “best”, and in many fields there’s no guarantee they will still be the best in twelve months!

Thus, one solution to this lack of benchmarks and even the lack of tutelage is to build visualisations of what success looks like, and then “self-monitor” your practice again these. Ericsson suggests a number of solutions:

  • Pay attention when you practice! Are you improving? This links closely to the Deep Work point above.
  • Build a monitoring point into a weekly review, using “the three Fs”: focus, feedback, and fix it. The relevant quote from the book is below:

Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.

I do a fairly comprehensive weekly review regardless, and that was a good opportunity to consciously think about the three Fs. I’m sure over time the aim will be to identify and work on these in the moment, but for now getting into the habit of thinking like this with a weekly prompt seems like a good start.

Ideally get a trainer or mentor of some sort

And finally, let’s just throw this in: as we’ve covered, it’s hard to get a trainer for knowledge work, but Ericsson is extremely clear that everyone could benefit from a trainer of some sort:

Even the most motivated and intelligent student will advance more quickly under the tutelage of someone who knows the best order in which to learn things, who understands and can demonstrate the proper way to perform various skills, who can provide useful feedback, and who can devise practice activities designed to overcome particular weaknesses.

The solution may be to look more creatively at this: who does excellent work in your field that might be willing to talk to you every couple of months? Something like this would be closer to “mentorship” than “training”, but it might be the best way of doing this.

Deliberate practice is motivational

Ericsson’s conclusion is pretty motivational: deliberate practice is a way for everyone to get better, and there’s no reason why more people can’t utilise it:

There is no reason not to follow your dream. Deliberate practice can open the door to a world of possibilities that you may have been convinced were out of reach. Open that door.

There are obviously going to be cases where there are socioeconomic factors which genuinely do prevent people from following their dream. For those of us privileged enough to have the opportunity, though: whatever it is you’re after Ericsson is clear you can put in the work, put this into practice, and see the benefits.

Let’s recap the main points this post has made:

  1. Be clear what you’re practicing
  2. Be clear you’re not going to quit, and use strategies to do so
  3. Create your own opportunities to practice, inside or outside work
  4. Work deeply
  5. Develop your ability to self-monitor your practice
  6. Ideally get a trainer or mentor of some sort

That’s your framework for putting deliberate practice into practice for knowledge work!

The vast majority of this post has come from Peak by Anders Ericsson, but there’s also inspiration from Cal Newport’s books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.

All three have been very positive reads, and come highly recommended.