Want to Stand Out and Advance Your Career? Master Deliberate Practice.

Deliberate practice is the most important (and most under-appreciated) step towards building a remarkable life. — Cal Newport

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One thing that world-class performers have in common is that they know how to practice.

Rather than simply practicing the things they’re good at — they focus on the things that are hard. They especially focus on the things that are hard.

This is called deliberate practice and it’s a series of techniques used to improve performance and learn efficiently and purposefully.

Coined by K. Anders Ericsson, It’s the concept that in order to be an expert, you need to practice like an expert.

What’s wrong with the way we practice?

Most of us practice by repeating or focusing on things we already know how to do. However, this will only get us so far.

If we want to master a skill, then we need to practice differently.

And deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well — or even at all.

Research across domains shows that it is only by working on the difficult things — the things you can’t do well — that you turn into the expert you want to become.

Ok so what exactly is deliberate practice? Five characteristics of deliberate practice

In a great post, Copyblogger lists 5 characteristics of deliberate practice:

  1. Designed to improve performance: Deliberate practice needs to be hard enough to get you beyond your current level of competence and comfort, but not so hard that it’s totally out of your grasp. If you can do the task in your sleep, then it’s not deliberate practice.
  2. Needs to be repeated- You need to repeat movements and skills over and over again to make them better and better. If you’re a writer, write. A lot. If you’re a graphic designer, work on great design. A lot. Make a decision about the realm you want to master, and then focus your time there.
  3. Feedback-driven: Deliberate Practice can only work if you’re constantly receiving results-based feedback. It doesn’t matter where you start. What matters is that you test, tweak, and keep reworking to become better.
  4. Takes significant mental effort. If your work isn’t fully engaging your brain, it’s not Deliberate Practice.
  5. Is structured around smart goals. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome. Set goals based on your current numbers. You might have a goal this month for a certain number of retweets, or a certain percentage conversion from a landing page you’ve created. As you meet each goal, celebrate, then set a new one a little further out.

What does deliberate practice have to do with advancing my career?

In today’s highly competitive world, one way to stand out from the crowd is to become an expert at specific skills.

I’m not talking about only focusing on one skill-set for one career.

I’m talking about becoming an expert at transferable skills that you can mix and match to develop a hybrid career — that is challenging, fulfilling, and in high-demand.

According to Cal Newport, “If you put forth the effort to [apply deliberate practice], you’ll have a big advantage.” You’ll be able to learn things quickly, and more effectively than your peers.

For example, data analysis is one of today’s most sought after skills. Whether for marketing, product management or business development, virtually every industry and every role could, to some extent, benefit significantly from better data know how and analysis.

However, how many of your colleagues are deliberately improving their data analysis skills?

This is where deliberate practice comes in.

Deliberate practice is a framework for improvement, that, when applied, will speed up the learning curve — meaning it will take you less time to reach your ‘peak’ and become an expert.

Moreover, it’s hard and therefore few people are doing it.

Indeed, as Newport, writes, “Unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on deliberate practice.

Instead, they’re putting in their time, trying to accomplish the tasks handed to them in a competent and efficient fashion. Perhaps if they’re ambitious, they’ll try to come in earlier and leave later in a bid to outwork their peers.”

But this type of ‘practice’ can only get you so far. As Ericsson describes it, most active professionals will get better with experience until they reach an “acceptable level,” but beyond this point continued “experience in [their field] is a poor predictor of attained performance.”

Therefore, if you really want to improve, you need to apply deliberate practice.

How to apply deliberate practice?

Applying deliberate practice means looking at your career and identifying areas of improvement, and then breaking these up into sub-skills.

For example, as a marketer I’m always analyzing data using excel. What if I put aside one hour of day to stretch my abilities in excel? I might identify basic formulas I need to master and practice them over and over. I may then attempt the more complicated formulas and pivot tables.

And this approach can be used to master any skill.

Here are some steps to applying deliberate practice:

  1. Start with a clear goal: It’s important to know exactly what you want to accomplish. For example, ‘learning to program’ is too broad, but ‘being able to create my own WordPress Theme by March of next year” works. Make it as specific as possible. For example, my goal would be “Create a pivot table analyzing marketing spend and customers acquired, by month and by marketing campaign, by March 2017.”
  2. Chunk: The best way to apply deliberate practice is to break down your skill into a set of sub-skills. You then work on mastering each sub-skill at a time. For example, a sub skill for mastering pivot tables could be more basic formulas in excel.
  3. Track and measure progress: Like I wrote, deliberate practice is only as good as the feedback you receive. No matter the skill, make sure you have a system in place to receive constant feedback. You can ask a colleague, measure results (i.e. conversions, clicks, etc.), review past work (like old blogs and include what you would improve) and more. For example, since my example uses quantitative data, a good way to measure results is to test my new results with manual results (from collecting and analyzing data without excel).
  4. Practice, practice, practice: Deliberate practice is not supposed to be fun, it’s hard work. And it requires taking baby steps and continuously repeating them until they become second nature. And it relies on lots and lots of practice. For example, in my case it would mean deliberately practicing my excel skills at least 1 hour a day.

So there you have it — all the ways to apply deliberate practice to seriously advance your career.

What are you waiting for?