Should Learning Be Hard?

How hard should learning be? This may feel like a silly question, but it’s one of the biggest unanswered questions I have about learning strategy.

One view of the question argues learning should be as intense as is sustainable. The research on deliberate practice suggests that intense practice focused on improving a skill is the road to expertise. Without intense practice, your skills might get “good enough” and you’ll plateau in ability.

Another view of the question argues that learning should be made easier to encourage more of it. A popular view on second language acquisition is that students should focus on extensive, rather than intensive practice. Extensive practice is reading or listening situations where the person understands almost everything being written or said. Make the material too difficult, and it will be hard to reach the sheer volume of material necessary to reach fluency.

So which is it? Should you be making your learning activities as intense as you can maintain? Or should you be making them easy enough to increase exposure?

How Should I Improve My Writing?

The answer to this question has practical consequences. Consider my career as a writer. I would like to improve my writing. While sufficient in many cases, my writing isn’t the beautiful, well-researched prose of New Yorker articles. I’d like to get better.

But how should I get better? The intensive view of learning, as suggested by deliberate practice research, would encourage me to focus on making my writing harder. Attend creative writing workshops. Struggle to get my work placed in publications at the edge of my current writing ability. Do practice which improves selected aspects of my writing (storytelling, research, editing, etc.).

The extensive view, in contrast, would say that the main barrier for writing better is writing lots. That I should focus on writing more, and with greater volume I’ll get better at writing even if I’m not actively struggling to improve my writing.

In this particular situation, I lean towards an intensive view of learning. After having written over a thousand articles, I don’t feel like my writing quality is getting much better just by writing more. I need to be pushed to get to a new level, and that requires intensity.

How Should I Improve My Chinese?

But consider an alternative example: learning Chinese. For the last three years I’ve been practicing Chinese, including a particularly intensive burst for three months in China. I’d like to get to an advanced level of Chinese.

How should I do it? Again, there’s two viewpoints. The intensive viewpoint suggests I should strain myself on hard material, correct my weaknesses and aggressively work to reach a new level of ability.

The extensive viewpoint suggests the opposite: use it in situations I find easy enough to be comfortable. That means reading books I understand almost completely. Watching programs I don’t need to put effort in to listen to. Having conversations with people where I can easily follow along.

In this situation, I side with the extensive view. I feel my Chinese has improved mostly through easy activities, applied in high volume, than taking the intense approach. Even the quick progress I made during my three months in China owed mostly to having large volumes of low-pressure speaking, rather than intense situations.

What are the Principles that Make These Two Situations Different?

My intuitions about the best way to improve my writing and Chinese are very different. My open question is: what is the systematic difference between these two that makes an extensive or intensive strategy more appropriate? Can we use those principles to clarify situations where we don’t have a good intuition about which strategy works best?

Here are some possible explanations for why my intuition is different:

  1. Is practice going to happen anyways? I have to write for my job, so extensive practice is mostly guaranteed. Thus if I’m not satisfied with this growth rate, intensive practice might be the right answer. For Chinese, I could easily make my learning plan so intense that I rarely follow it.
  2. Building habits or breaking bad ones? Presumably, a lot of my writing improvement won’t come from new skills, but from breaking old habits of writing and replacing them with better ones. With Chinese, I’m still early enough that I mostly need to learn more words and phrases. (Side note: this suggests intensity might be the remedy for notorious problems of calcified errors in pronunciation when learning a language)
  3. How much motivation do you have? Intensive learning is a motivationally costly learning approach. It requires more energy, effort and focus. Since writing is my livelihood and Chinese is a side pursuit, I may not be able to focus enough for an intense strategy with Chinese the way I could easily justify with writing.
  4. Frustration barriers and skill plateaus? Perhaps intensive and extensive practice are just different tools for tackling different types of learning obstacles. For frustration barriers—where you are frustrated and don’t want to learn at all—extensive practice can glide you through that initial period. For skill plateaus—where you get locked into “good enough”—intensive practice can break you out of the rhythm.
  5. How much do you enjoy the skill? Another way of looking at it is that intensive practice is like rocket engines and extensive practice is gliding. You want to put a lot of thrust out when the activity has a lot of friction—i.e. you don’t enjoy doing it enough. When things get smoother, you switch to gliding since it can take you further on a fraction of the effort.

Of course, none of these excludes the possibility that my intuition is simply wrong. Maybe extensive works better for both writing and Chinese, or intensive is better for both, or even that extensive is better for writing and intensive is better for my Chinese.

What are you trying to learn? Is your learning mostly intensive or extensive? Why have you adopted that strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments.


A Simple Strategy for Getting Better at Things

How often do you catch yourself saying, “I wish I were better at _____.” Maybe you want to be better at exercising regularly, your relationships or your work. Maybe you’d like to be more artistic, athletic or multilingual.

Getting better at things requires work. It doesn’t happen too often that you can immediately get better at something with a trick or gimmick. However, I think a lot of people don’t improve simply because they don’t know how.

In this article I want to outline a simple strategy to get better at anything. It does require work. But it can help simplify the process of thinking about improvement.

Is it a Habit or a Skill?

Most of the things you want to get better at are largely habits, skills or some mixture of the two.

Exercising is a habit. Although there is some skill in exercising well, that’s not the weak link for most people. Most people know *how* to run, move or work out, they just don’t do it as much as they’d like. When you find yourself wanting to do something more regularly or consistently, you’re trying to improve a habit.

Speaking another language is a skill. You may need a habit of practicing, but it’s not enough to just will yourself to speak French or Japanese—you need to learn how to do it first. When you don’t know *how* to do something, or don’t know how to do it well enough, what you’re trying to improve is a skill.

Most things you’ll want to improve will have a mix of habits and skills. Maybe you want to read more books. On the one hand, reading is a habit—you need to read more. But it’s also a skill—vocabulary, fluency and subject familiarity all influence how quickly and deeply you can read.

The first step is deciding whether what your trying to improve is mostly a habit or mostly a skill. A good rule of thumb is that if your main problem is with doing something you already know how to do, but doing it consistently, that’s probably a habit. If your main problem is not knowing how to do something well enough, that’s probably a skill.

How to Get Better at Habits

Improving a habit has three main parts: formulating the desired behavior, conditioning the habit and maintaining it once it has formed.

Step One: Picking the Habit

The first step is to clearly articulate what you’re trying to improve. You want to replace the vague sense of unease that maybe you should be better at something with a decision to improve something specific.

A good habit should be something you do regularly. It should happen either every day or after a particular context or trigger (right after work, every time you speak to someone, when you wake up). If it’s a habit of absence (quitting smoking, giving up junk food) it should include some concrete alternative to fill the vacuum.

Some examples of vague improvements turned into concrete habits:

  • “I need to get in shape.” —> “I’m going to exercise for 30 minutes after work each day.”
  • “I should read more.” —> “I’m going to read for 10 minutes before bed every day.”
  • “I should drink less.” —> “I’m going to limit myself to 3 alcoholic drinks once per week.”
  • “I want to lose weight.” —> “I’m going to limit junk food and high carb meals to one day per week.”
  • “I want to be more organized.” —> “Everything has a home. I will put things back in their place once every day.”

Step Two: Conditioning the Habit

The next step is to stick with the behavior long enough that it becomes automatic. This requires effort in the beginning, but, if you do it right, should become easier and easier until you no longer think about doing it.

Most suggestions for making habits will pick a time period that’s easy to commit to, but long enough that the conditioning work will be largely finished. Some people recommend 21, 30 or 60 days. One study suggested that the average habit takes 66 days to condition to automaticity, but that there was a great range in habits and participants (from 30 to over 200 days).

My suggestion is to pick an amount of time that seems reasonable. Ironically, harder habits are probably better with smaller commitments. This is because they often become easier faster, so you might not start a difficult habit to exercise once every day if you know you have to maintain it perfectly for 90 days, but you might keep it up for 30 days.

Step Three: Maintain the Habit

Most habits are metastable. That means that they can endure for a long time, but if something pushes them out of balance they will fall back to an easier behavior. Exercise is an example of a metastable habit because even if it is automatic for you, it does require time and energy. A prolonged illness, vacation or overtime at work can break the habit without you realizing it.

For metastable habits like these, it’s important to monitor it, and if you see yourself slipping, reinforce it with another small commitment. A good rule of thumb is that the commitment should be at least equal in time to the loss of habit. So if you’ve stopped exercising for a week, you should commit to follow your habit for at least a week to get back to an equilibrium. If you’ve stopped for more than two months on a daily habit, you should probably treat it like conditioning a new habit.

How to Get Better at Skills

The best strategy for getting better at skills is deliberate practice. A good way to work on this is to divide it into three parts: practice, feedback and focus.

Step One: Practice

The first step to get better at something is to use the skill. If you want to get better at writing, you need to write. If you want to get better at speaking a language, you need to speak. If you want to get better at talking to women, you need to talk to women.

There’s two styles you can approach this with. The first is to improve the skill via a selected project. This works well for skills that need a lot of time to focus on, or that you can’t easily inject into your daily life. You might work on the skill on your own, or follow a particular course or self-improvement program to guide you.

The second style is to treat your practice just like any other habit. Define it clearly, condition it and maintain it. This is most useful when you’re trying to master something over a longer period of time.

Step Two: Feedback

Improving skills is a loop: first you attempt something, then you notice how your attempt differed from the ideal, then you adjust what you did and attempt again. Tighter feedback makes the loop work faster, causing you to learn more rapidly. An absence of feedback can break the loop, causing you to learn slowly or not at all.

You can get feedback directly from the environment, or by soliciting feedback from other people. Asking for feedback often has problems. If the feedback giver isn’t good at the skill themselves, asking how you can improve is often a bad idea. Instead, you might use subtler metrics (Writing:Do people finish reading your entire essay? Languages: Do people understand what you’re saying?).

Step Three: Focus

Complex skills are made up of simpler components. Writing is about research, storytelling, description and organization of ideas. Languages are vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and prosody. Drawing is about seeing relationships, pencil techniques, shading and shapes.

You can accelerate your improvement by focusing on the component skills separately. This has two effects. First, it allows you to devote more of your cognitive resources to getting good at them, allowing you to master the component skills more quickly. Second, it lets you spend more time on your weak points, so you can selectively improve whatever is holding you back.

To do this, break down the skill your working on into parts. Then make drills which will focus you on improving the aspect that you’re missing. Remember to always do some general practice alongside your drills or it is easy to get really good at a component but not be able to use it in real situations.

Getting Better at Things

First decide whether what you want to improve is mostly habit or skill.

If it’s a habit:

  1. Define the habit you want to form clearly and consistently.
  2. Condition it until it is relatively easy to maintain. Thirty or sixty days are good conditioning periods.
  3. Maintain the habit by monitoring it. If you slip, push to reassert the habit quickly.

If it’s a skill:

  1. Practice the skill. This can either be in a project or as a habit.
  2. Get timely feedback on how well you’re performing. If you can’t get this naturally, ask for other people to help evaluate. Focus on their reactions, not their advice if they themselves aren’t skilled.
  3. Focus on your weak points with selective drills and constrained practice.

Although the things you might want to get better at are incredibly varied in life, I’ve been surprised how many break down into these two categories and can be resolved by some version of these three steps.

What would you like to get better at? Write down your habit or skill, along with what you plan to do in the comments!


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