How to Build Your Skills Through Deliberate Practice

Just putting in effort and hours doesn’t make you an instant expert in wielding a particular skill – but the willingness to do so does put you on the right path.
Sarah Si
Sarah Si
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Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2011 book Outliers, slogans like “You just need 10,000 hours to master something” are commonly bandied about whenever you start learning a new skill. In fact, this rule has been applied to everything, from learning how to network to computer programming!

Except, according to the late Professor Anders Ericsson, the original researcher into the 1993 study on the principle of “deliberate practice” – and whom the much-touted 10,000 hours can be traced to – the reality is much more complex and nuanced.

For instance, an important variable of his study that many overlook is that a good teacher is also needed. To elaborate, Professor Ericsson posited that someone can practise for the aforementioned 10,000 hours, and still not master a skill, whereas another person who had a teacher to point out the areas to concentrate their hours on may outperform others with lesser, but more deliberate, practice.

All that said, here are some ways you can go about practising deliberately in order to build a new skill!

Deliberate practice in a nutshell

No matter what skill you want to pick up – be it playing the piano, writing code or even public speaking – it’ll take time to learn. After all, you’ll need to organise training, practise sessions and find a mentor who’s able to guide you through the process and provide you with feedbacks. Otherwise, you stand the chance of working very hard…and getting nowhere.

In this article, we’ll focus on the practice part of the process – to be exact, the art of practising deliberately to pick up and hone your new skill with the guidance of a teacher.

Tip: Deliberate practice, if applied correctly, can turn potential into reality!

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#1: Identify areas that affect your overall performance

Because deliberate practice consists of improving specific skills and skill elements through specially designed training, you should seek out skills you’re not good at, but can positively impact your overall performance in the long run.

To find these weak spots, you can consider either conducting a self-analysis exercise on yourself, or approach your mentor or a co-worker you trust.

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#2: Break down your goals into more manageable chunks

As mentioned before, deliberate practice needs you to target skills you’re not good at, and build them up. And to build up something, you need a plan that’ll help you work towards your goals.

This process can be tedious, and there will be times where you feel like there’s little improvement. In cases like these, breaking down your goals into more manageable and realistic pieces can make things easier, keeping your motivation up.

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#3: Be kind to yourself (because you'll be uncomfortable)

Because you’ll be working on skills you’re not good at, and having to pick up new capabilities in a relatively short amount of time, you’ll likely be far from your comfort zone. So, take care of yourself as you progress!

In fact, deliberate practice isn’t a fun exercise – most of the time, you’ll find that it’s a repeated process of failure and frustration, as you try to figure out how to make that new knowledge stick. So, practise self-compassion if you fail (again) today, acknowledge your frustration and remember that you’re slowly getting there!

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#4: Keep challenging yourself

Deliberate practice might be many things, from being annoying and maddening to frustrating and aggravating. But one thing it shouldn’t be is boring. As soon as practising gets boring, it’s time to do something new in your plan to reach your goal.

You can set a slightly more ambitious goal well above your current level, and challenging yourself to see how you measure up to it – you might even surprise yourself and perform better than expected!

Tip: Challenging yourself isn’t about working harder, it’s about practising something new.

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#5: Take breaks

Deliberate practising is challenging, emotionally, mentally and physically. Moreover, doing so on top of what you normally do in a day can lead to negative returns, or even burnout. When you feel yourself start to get tired, or feel like you’ve hit a block, take a break.

But when you do take a break, relax and really take that break. On top of allowing you to destress, this will also allow your body and mind to settle and consolidate your efforts, moving them to your long-term memory bank.

Tip: You want to stretch yourself and build a new skill, not exhaust yourself.

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At the bottom of it all, deliberate practice is the act of practising a skill in a systematic and purposeful manner. And although it can leave you feeling pretty miserable at times, there’s light at the end of the tunnel! You may not feel it, but you’re really improving as time goes on.