The secret to reaching your true potential and, in many instances mastering the unimaginable can be found in how experts learn, a process known as deliberate and purposeful practice. Deliberate and purposeful practice is a way of learning a set of skills or mastering a body of knowledge. The terms deliberate and purposeful practice was coined, by Anders Ericsson, which was used to describe a method of skill development used by top performers in a variety of fields – including medicine, music, athletics, writing, business and school.
The process of skill acquisition
In an ideal world, the process of acquiring a new skill or body of knowledge would be a smooth process. For every hour of work or practice you put in, you would acquire an hour’s worth of knowledge or skill. This idea of one hour of work resulting in an hour’s worth of skill acquisition is depicted with a green line in the figure below1.
However, this is not how knowledge and skills are acquired. Everyone has experienced the situation while trying to learn a new skill, in which you hit a plateau. Despite hours and hours of practice, you don’t improve. Everyone who has played a sport or an instrument knows this first hand. Acquiring a skill is not a smooth process.
Practicing and practicing and practicing does not guarantee that you will get any better. Simply shooting basketballs at a hoop will not make you any better — unless you improve your technique, which may only be acquired with the help of an expert who can show you what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. This is called mindless practice, which is depicted with a blue line in the figure above. Acquiring any skill (or body of knowledge) depends on getting some feedback on what you are doing.
Deliberate practice is depicted with the pink line. Anders Ericisson’s research showed that deliberate practice is characterized by a number of elements, including (a) getting help from a mentor, (b) facing some challenges, (c) a period of time in which skill acquisition plateaus and doesn’t improve, (d) identifying very specific goals that (e) require intense focus and commitment, during which time you push yourself, followed by (f) some specific feedback that allows you to fix specific problems and (g) eventually improve. It is a long and arduous process, but it is one that works.
Acquiring a skill is a long and complicated process that at times can be very exciting at times, extremely frustrating and exhausting at other times but extremely rewarding in the end.
Deliberate practice involves rehearsal within a person’s zone of proximal development, ongoing performance assessment, tailored goal-setting, and close mentoring with expert feedback (Ericsson & Pool, 2016).
Key components of deliberate practice
According to Anders Ericsson, deliberate and purposeful practice is comprised of four key elements.
#1. Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. This means
working on small elements of an overall task, not the entire piece of music, not the entire race, nor the entire chapter of material.
#2. Purposeful practice is focused. This means really focusing on just
the specific part of an activity that is particularly difficult and which is keeping you from reaching your goal.
#3. Purposeful practice involves feedback. This means getting
feedback on what you are doing well or not doing well every step of the
way. In some instances, this will likely require working with a highly knowledgeable teacher or coach who has a high level of expertise themselves and can show you what you are doing wrong. However, sometimes direct feedback (e.g., on flashcards) without the benefit of a teacher or coach can be sufficient. It depends on what you are trying to learn.
Tip: If you are not sure where you are going wrong or don’t know how to improve then you will require the help and feedback of a coach or teacher.
#4. Purposeful practice means getting out of your comfort zone. This last part is the hardest and absolutely necessary. Without trying to push your limits you will never know how far you can succeed. Getting out of your comfort zone means trying something that you quite likely fail at initially and something that will take a lot of effort and practice to learn and eventually master.
How well does it work?
In one large analysis of dozens of individual research studies, researchers found evidence of the unparalleled effectiveness of deliberate practice.2 Across all of the individual studies examined, approximately one-third of the amount of skill improvement was directly attributed to the use of deliberate practice in learning and mastering skills. Of course, other factors (e.g., amount of practice) were still important, but the unique role of deliberate practice in acquiring a new skill was striking.
The study also showed that deliberate practice was positively associated with performance whether it was conducted under the guidance of a coach or teacher.
Examples of the importance of deliberate practice:
The benefit of deliberate practice has been demonstrated in countless areas of skill development and knowledge acquisition 1,2,3,4,5,6 , including writing, mathematics, accounting, biology, clinical skills, psychotherapy, and teaching teachers how to teach, as well as for memory and even the acquisition of perfect pitch.
In the early 2000s, it was still widely believed that some talents, such as perfect pitch, were qualities that you were born with and could not acquire. As you may know, perfect pitch is the ability to hear a musical note (e.g., middle C) and know, just by hearing it, what note you are hearing. Perfect pitch is rare. Mozart had a perfect pitch at age six. Frank Sinatra had it too. Surprisingly, Miles Davis didn’t. In fact, perfect pitch is really rare.
Only one in 10,000 people have it.
But, in 2014, Ayako Sakakibara, a Japanese psychologist, conducted a ground-breaking experiment. She recruited 24 children between the ages of two and six and provided them with months-long music training to see if they could acquire perfect pitch. Each student had four to five training lessons every day that lasted just a few minutes. Some had training for less than a year, some more for a year. Results of this training were stunning. Prior to this study, this was not thought to be possible at all. Perfect pitch was believed to be a talent that you were either born with or were not, and that could not change.
And yet, by the end of training, every single student acquired perfect pitch.
In 1956, research suggested that our capacity to learn a series of numbers (e.g., 4-5-3-8-1-9) may be limited, at least for most of us. Indeed, most of us can remember about seven digits without any effort at all. However, the capacity to remember anything beyond the capacity of short-term memory wasn’t known at all.
By the 1980s, it became clear that some people could memorize very long sequences of numbers, such as the value of Pi (i.e., ℼ). As you may know, Pi has a numerical value that never stops. The first few values are 3.14. We all learn that at some point. The next few values are harder, namely 159 (i.e., 3.14159). However, in 1981, Rajan Mahadevan, from India, set a world record by reciting 31,811 digits of Pi.
This was a mind-blowing achievement that was believed, at that time, to be very rare. However, since then, these records have been consistently broken. The current world champion for reciting pi is Akira Haraguchi, who, in 2006, recited 100,000 digits correctly. It took him over 16 hours to complete.
Our current understanding is that any person of any age can radically increase the capacity of their memory. The world record for an 11-year-old is 2,000. In 2018, a seven-year-old girl recited Pi to 1,420 digits.
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1. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychol. Rev. 100, 363–406. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.87.3.215
2. Ericsson, K. A., & Harwell, K. W. (2019). Deliberate Practice and Proposed Limits on the Effects of Practice on the Acquisition of Expert Performance: Why the Original Definition Matters and Recommendations for Future Research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.
3 El Mallah, S. (2020). Toward Equity-Oriented Assessment of Social and Emotional Learning: Examining Equivalence of Concepts and Measures. Urban Education, 0042085920933335.
4 Ericsson KA. The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance. in: Ericsson KA, Charness N, Feltovich P, Hoffman RR (eds). Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp 685–706.
5 Fuchs, L. S., Powell, S. R., Seethaler, P. M., Cirino, P. T., Fletcher, J. M., Fuchs, D., & Hamlett, C. L. (2010). The effects of strategic counting instruction, with and without deliberate practice, on number combination skill among students with mathematics difficulties. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(2), 89–100.
6 Wong, H., Sum, C., Chan, S., & Wong, R. (2019). Effect of Deliberate Practice and Previous Knowledge on Academic Performance.Using Scaffolding and Deliberate Practice to Improve Abstract Writing in an Introductory Biology Laboratory Course.