We all know the saying “practice makes perfect,” but what we all don’t know is the specific type of practice needed to reach perfection—and that’s called “deliberate practice.”
In 1993, Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson concluded that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice activates dormant genes leading to physical and cognitive adaptation—and thus is the key to exceptional achievement. In 2008, author and podcaster Malcolm Gladwell further popularized the idea in his widely read book Outliers, writing that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. However, in 2013, despite all the research on deliberate practice, psychologist David Hambrick stated that other factors such as genes and IQ were more important to exceptional achievement than deliberate practice.
While there’s some truth in not being able to overcome genetic limitations, it’s still true that deliberate practice can lead to excellence in a subject or skill. What’s most important to understand is that deliberate practice doesn’t mean casually investing an astronomical number of hours into an endeavor and expecting a miracle. Instead, there’s a specific method to establishing deliberate practice—and that includes incorporating the following three steps.
Step 1: Set milestones that are incrementally more challenging
We tend to operate across three zones: (a) comfort zone, (b) growth zone, and (c) fear zone. For the most part, we operate in the comfort zone, where we feel safe and in control. If our goals are too unrealistic, we panic and find ourselves in the fear zone. In the fear zone, we’re too scared to take any action. The growth zone is the sweet spot—where we constantly set stretch goals for ourselves and make every effort to materialize them. So, the key is to stay in the growth zone, setting interim milestones that are incrementally more challenging in the pursuit of your ultimate goal.
Step 2: Embrace the idea of constant progress—and measure it
Deliberate practice implies constant progress. And how do you know you’re making constant progress if you’re not measuring it? So, the next step is measuring your progress towards whatever goal you’ve set for yourself. If you’re focused on academia, are you more versed in your chosen subject matter this week than last? If not, you’re plateauing, and you need to change something about your regimen. Deliberate practice requires being mindful of the constant progress you’re making or not making, and having a systematic method to measure it.
Step 3: Finish the sentence: I need to get better at ______ because ______.
Deliberate practice is hard, and it can be annoying and frustrating. Some people might find the idea of constantly setting stretch goals and making constant progress unrealistic, so might give up on the practice altogether. It’s for this precise reason you must finish the above sentence, timestamp it, and sign your name under it. Whatever it is you need to get better at, and whatever your reasons are in support of your need, completing the above sentence and reading it on a regular basis will serve as a constant reminder of the moment when you made that determination—and will offer you intrinsic motivation to keep on going against all odds.
Recipient of the Presidential Award from The White House, Vibhu Sinha is an intrapreneurial and bottom-line driven senior management professional. He has experience in leadership roles in banking and capital markets, advising institutional clients on corporate strategy, idea generation and pitching, financial planning and analysis, M&A, investor relations, and ESG. Vibhu developed his acumen in a master’s degree program in Behavioral Psychology at Harvard University. He also earned an M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson.