One of the important phrases in the learning glossary is “deliberate practice.” It’s actually a pretty cool idea, and despite being exhausting to use it can be a lot of fun.
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To understand deliberate practice, let’s turn to an unlikely place: video game design. It’s where I first encountered the ideas which would eventually lead me to deliberate practice, and I still think they do the best job of explaining the idea.
Flow in Games
If you’ve read popular science at all, you’ve probably heard about flow, the name ascribed to a “state of optimal experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi <<(O_o). One aspect to flow common to many people who have experienced it is that time drops away.
When I studied video game design at USC, another student in the class years ahead of me applied this concept to his master’s thesis: Flow in Games. Jenova Chen asserted that a game had to be in a goldilocks-zone of difficulty. It needs to be not too hard, and not too easy:
In other words: a game is only fun when it sits right in the middle, in the “flow” zone. The purpose of a game is to keep you in that zone. To “pace” the game (as us game designers would say) so that the “difficulty curve” matches your abilities. In other words, we make games fun by making it easy at the beginning at get harder at a reasonable pace.
What’s All This Got to Do with Learning?
Video games designers understand this truth about anxiety and boredom. It is their stock and trade. They create experiences that are intended to induce a state of flow.
Flow also characterizes deliberate practice. If you practice something too far beyond your ability, it will be frustrating and you will retain nothing. If you practice something too far below your ability, it will be boring and you will not learn anything.
The Benefits of Teaching Yourself
An “autodidact” is someone who teaches him or herself.
When you are your own teacher, you can adjust the “difficulty knob” on your practice easily. There is never any shame in going slower or faster. The most efficient path will always be the one just challenging enough that you are completely engaged. When you’re completely engaged in a pursuit of learning, you enter into a fun state of flow.
One way to make this happen more naturally is to track your progress. Tracking is a subject I cover in detail in the “optimal learning” ebook, which is included for free when you sign up to get all the study tips. The basic idea, though, is that tracking is a form of metacognition. When you track your progress, it provides a self-motivating structure.
This is exactly why there are so many graphs of my progress on this blog. These graphs are a result of me finding ways to track my progress, from how fast I can read in French to how well I type or play the guitar.
In order for all of this to work, you need to design your practice sessions so that you can practice deliberately. This means choosing a task that lends itself to metacognition. You need to do things that you can self-evaluate in an objective manner. Here are some examples:
Example 1: Flashcards
Instead of doing regular flashcards, use Anki or other “spaced repetition” flashcard software. The algorithms will cause information you have learned to begin disappearing, and for new information to appear. This creates for a sense of progress and awareness (metacognition) about the state of your learning. It’s easy to see that you’ve “mastered” 20% of your target material, for example.
Example 2: Guitar Scales
Instead of just playing the notes of the scale, use specific exercises and play with a metronome. If your ear is not good enough that you can hear when you are off-beat, practice that first. Without this ability to reflect upon the correctness of your timing, at best you’re missing an opportunity to improve your sense of rhythm and at worst you’re solidifying bad rhythm.
Example 3: Life Drawing
Once I got the basics of drawing down, I enrolled in “life drawing” classes. In these classes, at the beginning, you have a mere one-minute window to draw a person in each pose. It’s incredibly difficult. The constraints, though, create difficulty and force the brain to stretch and make compromises. You have to focus on getting the essence of the pose rather than the detail. The addition of constraints and difficulty is what separates this practice from idly sketching.
Don’t forget, though: good deliberate practice is exhausting. That’s why it’s important to understand how long to practice per session.