The Art of Deliberate Practice

This article originally appeared on in August 2011. As I continue transitioning to my new home here at, I'm resurfacing some older articles that you may have missed from before. Enjoy!


 After reading this article all of your problems will be solved.

I'm guessing you're reading this blog because there's something you'd like to be better at. You're looking for that inspiration that'll help you conquer whatever issues you might be having. I'm sure some of you are looking for information about how to break bad habits and form better ones. Others of you are looking for help with building and maintaining your motivation. And, even though I'm sure you don't want to admit it, there's a good chance that many of you are looking for that one "hack" that will unlock the holy grail of productivity and happiness. All you have to do is keep searching and keep digging, right?

Unfortunately, you're on a quixotic quest.

You're searching for the Northwest Passage, a Fountain of Youth or a land of milk and honey. None of these things exist (although I suppose you can make an argument for hacking and picking your way through the most northern of Canada's wasteland for a Northwest Passage).

The only path to gaining the skills you want is through deliberate practice.

What's Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is not flashy or exciting to watch. Yet, anybody who has a world-class talent knows that it's the only way to get better. Deliberate practice can be broken down into several different steps:

  1. Pick a target.

  2. Reach for it.

  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.

  4. Return to step one over and over and over and over and over.

Seems simple enough, right? The difference between deliberate practice and what most people do is step number three. Deliberately practicing requires that you constantly monitor the gap between what you're producing and your target. Most people just practice their techniques or skills without constantly evaluating and adjusting their performance accordingly. That's why watching someone who is practicing deliberately doesn't look particulalry awe inspiring.

Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code talks about watching a student practice her clarinet. She stumbles through a couple notes, stops, and plays them again. She slightly changes the way she plays one note and moves forward a couple more notes. It doesn't sound like music yet but this girl is deliberately learning the skills to play this song. She knows what it should sound like and each time she makes a mistake she stops, backs up, makes adjustments, and tries again. It may sound less impressive than someone who just sits down and plays the piece with mistakes but still manages to make it sound like a song, but it's far more effective.

Adopting Deliberate Practice in Your Own Life

What skills are you trying to develop in your life and are you practicing them deliberately? Obviously, each career or set of skills that you need to learn will be approached differently, but there are some general ideas you can keep in mind as you deliberately practice.

  1. Slow down: Deliberate practice is not something that can be rushed through. It’s something you have to approach slowly and mindfully. It’s not about the number of hours you put in to the practice but what you put into those hours. Deliberate practice requires that you not go through the motions of practice.

  2. Focus: Daniel Coyle compiled a list of words people used to describe the sensations of their most productive practice. Here is a partial list: attention, connect, alert, focus, mistake, tiring, and awake. All of these words point to the importance of being able to focus solely on your practicing for a period of time. Deep practice is distraction free, so turn off the cell phone, get away from the internet, and focus on practicing.

  3. Make mistakes: If somebody were to watch you while you were practicing, they would probably wonder why you are making so many mistakes. That's perfectly fine. Practice is supposed to be like that. You should be right on the edge of your abilities, which means you'll be making plenty of mistakes, because that's how you push the edge a little bit further. When I coached hockey, I always told my players that if they aren’t occasionally falling down during basic skating drills, they aren’t skating hard enough or pushing themselves hard enough during turns and transitions. Any hockey player at that level can mindlessly go through a skating drill and not fall down. But the whole point of practice is to be delicately balanced on the edge between comfort and the unknown. Practice beyond your ability and your ability will catch up.

  4. Break it down: Deliberate practice must be conducted on very small subsets of skills at a time. Instead of practicing an entire piece of music on the piano, you must practice on a very small piece of it. A master chefs doesn’t crank out a 5 course gourmet meal the first day of cooking school. Sidney Crosby did not rip a shot into the top corner the first time he ever took a slap shot. Anything you’re trying to improve can be broken down into the most basic of skills.

I've always been fascinated by the top performers in every field. What do they have in common and how did they get to that point? I suspect that the top surgeons, teachers, engineers, race car drivers, and CEOs all have a similar history and relationship to deliberate practice. If you're interested in this idea of deliberate practice, you'll probably enjoy The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

Lastly, what does deliberate practice look like in your field? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Photo by Sean Dreilinger