Deliberate Practice

by Site Author

I can type at 80 words per minute. I’ve been able to type that fast for years, ever since I learned to touch type in high school. But, no matter how much time I spend typing, I don’t get faster. These days, I type all day. And yet I’m still stuck at 80 words a minute.

If I wanted to, though, I could become a faster typist. I would have to work at it. I’d sit down each day and do typing drills. For ten or twenty minutes a day, I would open a special computer program and push myself to type faster than is comfortable.

Just spending time typing doesn’t make me a faster typist; I have to push myself to become faster. The psychologist, K. Anders Ericsson, calls those typing drills “deliberate practice.” When you spend time pushing your boundaries, you are practicing deliberately. It’s hard, uncomfortable work. But it’s the time spent working that way—deliberately—that improves performance.

Ericsson argues that the difference between elite performers and amateur performers is the time spent in deliberate practice. Those who break records for typing speeds have spent hours practicing deliberately. People like me, amateur typists, stop practicing deliberately once they learn how to type. And so my typing speed stopped improving years ago.

Ericsson summarizes this idea with the picture below, a picture he’s included in several of his papers.

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 2.54.12 PM

The idea behind the picture is that all performers plateau. At some point, you just stop improving. But elite performers spend more time analyzing their performance and challenging themselves. They stay in the “cognitive phase” longer. By contrast, most of us leave the cognitive phase as soon as we’re happy with our performance. In my case, I stopped deliberately working on my typing speed as soon my typing speed was good enough.

To become good at anything takes hours of deliberate practice. There’s no shortcut. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that it’s deliberate practice that matters, not just any practice.