Mastering deliberate practice

Issue 62: We're talking about practice

When was the last time you made time to practice skills important to your work or purpose? The answer is probably very little. The demand for work often results in not making time to develop skills in the midst of multi-tasking and doing.

The word “practice" reminds me of my childhood. My parents enrolled my brother and me in so many activities: music lessons, Tae Kwon Do, oil painting, and sports in school. Though I think they wanted to ensure we didn’t get into trouble outside of school, these lessons developed a rigor of practicing. As a child, I did not enjoy it at all. My mental model of practice was "doing the same thing over and over again." That’s not exactly untrue, but there was more to practice than repetition. Practice became a ritual and a place to grow. It forms habits and habits forges mastery.

My practice philosophy

If you're not familiar with the term deliberate practice, there is a great summary article on James Clear's website. Simply put, it's about putting intention to what you practice:

While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

In essence, deliberate practice is setting an intention and building a routine around the techniques you want to improve. Instead of spending 60 minutes shooting the basketball randomly on the court, you’re focused on key techniques that require development.

Evaluate yourself and develop high-value skills.

A former manager once said to me, "Everyone is bad at something." Even top performers have areas they struggle with. I used to think this meant that I needed to get better at everything I was bad at. It can be a low lever to invest in an area you’re not great at if it’s not high-value. To identify what to focus on, ask yourself:

  1. What are skills I’m exceptional at and continued practice will make me differentiated from everyone else?

  2. In the areas I need to improve, which are important for my role and career that need to be improved?

  3. Can some of my skill gaps be filled by other levers such as tools/processes or people who are exceptional at it?

Don't practice your cords during the concert

"Separation is in preparation." —Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks Quarterback

The last few weeks at work have been in key executive meetings. Though this isn’t new to me, it can be scary to present. I spent time with my VP of Product to go over our narrative to ensure I was feeling good about the actual presentation. Practicing helps you anticipate and simulate what you’ll go through. As an individual contributor, I'd practice designing user interfaces or writing lines of code. I didn't want to have to think about how to do something when it was time to work on a project. I wanted it to come naturally and familiar. Walkthroughs are a great practice technique of going over the run of show or plan you're executing on. When it comes to the real thing, you'll be more prepared.

A culture of practice

Practicing is an act, but also a culture that focuses on growth and continuous improvement. Your culture is what you prioritize, and it’s very hard to get it right. Over the years, practicing is now a sacred routine. It’s the empty gym where I am away from the world and can focus on my personal growth.

Even today, my mornings start with deliberate practice; drawing pages full of lines to get warmed. Even though I’m not designing in my day-to-day anymore, it’s still important to practice the cords.


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