Are Habits the Enemy of Mastery?

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize the notion of 10,000 hours of practice. The idea being that it takes around a decade of consistent practice to become world-class at anything.

The idea of 10,000 hours evokes the sense that mastery is mostly a process of endlessly slogging away at a craft. What’s interesting about this is that the research from which the idea is based doesn’t actually support this. Practice is essential, but not all practice matters.

Anders Ericsson’s research (which inspired the Gladwell meme) shows that hitting plateaus is common in skill development. Far from being a steady linear progression, mastery comes in bursts.

There are many causes of plateaus but a major one seems to be routine. Sticking in the same habits, whether it’s writing, programming, design or business often results in failing to progress, despite investing a lot of time.

The Catch-22 of Habits and Mastery

This leads to an interesting paradox. On the one hand, good habits are essential for building skill. If you’re not regularly showing up, every day, how can you possibly hope to invest the thousands of hours of practice needed to get good? Yet those same habits also have the cost of potentially stalling your improvement.

The concern isn’t hypothetical. As Benny Lewis explains in his quest to speak Mandarin after only three months’ practice in Taipei, it’s easy to settle on a local maxima of improvement in languages:

“One of the key factors of ensuring fast progress [in my mission to learn Mandarin] has been that I have changed my approach entirely every week.”

The obvious challenge is how do you simultaneously balance the need for having baseline habits to ensure you practice regularly—while avoiding the possibility of wasting months of work without improvement because your process is stale?

How Do You Become a Better Writer After 900+ Articles?

I find myself asking these questions about my writing. I’ve definitely improved as a writer these past six years. But after having written nearly a thousand articles, how much more can I expect to improve by writing more blog posts to this website?

It’s easy to want to be a better writer. But taking the steps to push through your comfort zone is a different challenge entirely.

What would those steps even look like? Would it mean trying to write in a new medium, such as a published book or journalistic column? Would it mean deliberately forcing a change in my writing process? Applying the theories of skill development can often be tricky in practice.

The promise of habits is that you can automate chunks of your behavior so that willpower isn’t necessary in the long-run. What happens when the behavior you want is to continually break your routine? How can you sustain deliberate instability?

The Perpetual Tension of Getting Good

You might ask whether these are things worth being concerned over at all. Why worry about pausing along the road to mastery? Why not just enjoy process and avoid the strain?

It’s popular to laud intrinsic motivation and passion, and then conclude that if you’re not in a persistent state of Zen-like calm in your work then you’re doing something wrong. When I suggested that occasional burnout wasn’t such a bad thing, I got dozens of rebuttals that stress was a demon to be avoided at all costs.

The truth is, the psychology of stress shows that it’s neither all good or bad. Prolonged distress can be harmful. But there’s also positive stress, or eustress, which is healthy.

I think the paradox of mastery shows the inevitability of some form of tension if you want to excel at something. Persistent, intolerable stress is probably bad. But alternatively, staying comfortable in your routine is not best either.

It may even turn out that this tension is a prerequisite to having work you’re passionate about. Being passionate about your work also means you care whether you do it well. How can you be passionate about your craft if you’re indifferent to striving in it?

Is Living Well a Process of Mastery?

Mastery applies to the specific disciplines of your work, but it also applies to your life. In some ways, living well is a skill. Like any skill, it relies on not just broad principles, but nuanced wisdom that comes from unique experiences.

If the life-as-a-skill metaphor holds any weight, then the idea of persistent tension and the paradox of habits apply as well. In that case, there’s probably a degree of tension—of disrupting your habits as much as building good ones—that underlies a successful life.

  • Mark Cancellieri

    This is a great topic.

    I think there are actually two skills necessary to improve your mastery of something (you never *completely* master it): 1) To decide on a process that provides greater results, 2) cement it as a habit. Then you repeat these steps.

    Tiger Woods reinvented his swing in 2000 even though he was ranked #1. Deciding on a better swing would have done him little good if he didn’t make it a habit.

    The concepts of “deliberate practice” and “flow” are very different but complementary concepts. Michael Jordan didn’t become the greatest basketball player by putting himself in “flow” during practice. He did “deliberate practice” during practice until it became habitual, allowing him to enter a state of “flow” during a game.

  • Vinay Bhat

    Excellent topic, Scott.

    I agree with Mark, whenever trying to learn a skill, it is important to use deliberate practice to hit those bursts AND wait until flow is achieved in that burst and THEN again use deliberate practice to advance.

    Always trying to deliberately practice can lead to prolonged stress and always trying to be in flow might not lead to advancement at all.

    But, at a practical scale, what do you think is a good ratio? A week of trying to learn something new and then 4 other weeks to become really good at that?

  • Anthony Lee

    This is precisely what we learn in the gym. Its called “shocking” your muscles. If you do the same exercise everyday eventually your muscles get used to it and progress slows. Your diet too. If you are striving for rapid weight gain or loss, you must shock your metabolism. As far as the 10k hour thing….I think the reason the elite reach those heights after 10,000 hours is because they are also striving, in that time, to become better….or even the best. That requires being fresh and innovative. This is often spurred by competition. Essentially you are training yourself to involuntarily produce alpha brainwaves in multiple situations under various conditions involving your desired activity. Then in a constant state of hemispheric synchronicity you are able to perform beautifully. This will only happen by creating an ever evolving training regiment.

  • Arjan

    Last week, a friend of mine sent me a link to an interesting article about learning skills:

    In this article the ‘Attractor Theory’ is discussed, among other things (see last paragraph). I can’t put it into words yet, but somehow I think this attractor theory is crucial for understanding learning processes, and more important, it might hold the key to designing more effective training programs for skill development.

  • Chris

    This article poses an interesting question. On the other hand, there is no answer given… This article no conclusion….

    I guess the answer/conclusion is that it all depends on what a person decides their goal in life is. A person has to decide for themselves how growth-oriented they actually are.

  • Clinton Skakun

    Interesting article! I’ve always seen mastery as a conscious step by step improvement. Without analyzing your performance and actively trying to become better I think it’s easy to get stuck.

    There are a lot of factors involved in mastering a skills. I think they mostly consist of genuine curiosity, learning how to improve, working hard at improving and then working in that cycle.

  • Srushti

    So are you saying that when we learn a new skill, we should set levels for ourselves like in a game which increase in difficulty? Would that work?

  • BV

    Not really sure I understand this article, as I thought the idea was simple – you need to do deliberative practice. I think the word “habit” has really thrown me off, because general connotation of the word seems unlinked to deliberative practice. I’m not saying that DB isn’t a habit, I just felt that habits were for those on one end, and the next level up is deliberative practice, so the blurring of those two ideas really put me off.

    When it comes to better writing after so many articles (and the 900+ is extremely impressive) first thoughts include: learn how to master different mediums, e.g. poetry. That’s a good one for creativity. I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger, and now find it much harder to do. Poetry stretches your mind in ways that post-18, people really need. Also, get a coach! Devise your own program or find one online – I mean, how can you be devoid of ideas on this one, Scott, you did the MIT challenge! Perhaps its because you view progress in science different to humanities? [Genuine question, not a dig]

    Scott – I’m a massive fan of you and this blog, but I honestly think the first half of this article dragged out the issue. The real issue is, “deliberative practice: how exactly does this apply to humanities work/or work that isn’t sport,music or chess?”

  • Andrew

    I like this in that you are now saying that there is a level to mastering the mastery, a meta-mastery to the process of 10k Hrs. I also was dumbstruck by the thought of deliberate practice/feedback, or the pursuit of high performance, often saying one thing and recommending another. They talk about living “at the edge of understanding” so that you can be more aware, but they also say to do the routine, habitual for ‘ten years’. Well, I think they are just missing the meta-principle of their forementioned process. Scott, you are touching and practicing this very thing through your MIT pursuit.
    I appreciate your comments & journey to live in both…whether it’s a contradiction or paradox!

  • Elaine Enlightening

    I found your article interesting. Thank you for sharing. See if the following resonates at all with what you are talking about. It might not, but it is what came up for me, so I will share.

    Life is a dance. The natural ebb and flow of growing, through repetitive practice, and then hitting a space of seemingly wading through concrete, is a natural part of the growth process. This slowing down time, is usually attributed to, a soon to be, quantum leap of growth. The trick is to be patient and to have some tools to utilize to help integrate the learning so that a move forward is inevitable. We do get to choose which dance we want to dance.

    This speeding up and slowing down process of growth, I believe, is attributed to the subconscious beliefs that are driving our results. We may have had a paradigm shift in our thinking that allowed us to move forward, and then we may hit a new place of fear, depending on the perceptions and limiting beliefs we have bought into. Shifting out of that can happen only by awareness first. There are methods, like EFT, meditation, and finding an intuitive mentor can help break through these sluggish times in a much more efficient way than by just changing our habits.

    We are human beings not human doings.

    Anyway, enough of that…I loved your stimulating article and blog. Keep it up!

  • Josh

    I think there are even habits for mastery. Some people have mastered several instruments or martial arts or languages.

    Having a natural ability seeks to go a long way.

    Also some people always push the envelope. Daring to try new thing and progressing regularly.

    I am reminded of a book on Enlightenment by Jed Mckenna in which he said that the only thing you need to discover hour true nature is a desire for more….. a never ending hunger for more.

    I think mastery has a lot to do with always wanting more from yourself.

  • Ahmed

    Thanks Scot for your inspiring blog.
    I think acquiring a good habit is the first step towards mastery, but changing good habits to keep you progress and motivated is a skill that you will only find in world-class achievers.


  • Bornagainscholar

    First off I don’t believe Gladwell stated that you can slogg through practice and achieve mastery. I agree he was not clear but I would bet he wouldn’t argue that there needs to be a steady stream of challenge working against your ability for most of those hours. I think this is one of your best articles over the past year that I have been reading anyway. You make some very valid and important points without going to far out of your knowledge base it seems. Some times I feel you are making erroneous remarks just to rile up your readers like so many bloggers have been doing.

    I would like to see you challenge yourself to embark on other writing mediums. I feel the world of blogs has tainted the word “publish”, it is a different story to have your work “published” by professionals in the field one is writing for, and someone “publishing” one million articles on their own blog. I bet you would be very successful writing for any publication you set your sights on and it would give you some real credibility to your already great writing career.

    You are a sense of inspiration to many and I admire that. Good work and thanks for sharing your point of view with us.

  • Erika Awakening

    Hmmm, I like your style, Scott. A bit of renegade, and speaking the truth about traditional education (it isn’t worth much, and I can say that with a couple of fancy degrees under my belt that I don’t use anymore).

    I’m in the miracle business, so I’m intrigued by your thoughts about plateaus versus rapid growth. From the perspective of my practice, what holds people back from their quantum leaps is less their actions and more their beliefs. Specifically, their limiting beliefs, which are literally like chains around their world. Remove some of the chains, and it appears that “nothing is happening.” But remove a “critical mass” of chains, and suddenly the formerly chained person is free to move, and that’s when the miracle happens. Sometimes it (falsely) feels like things are getting worse before they get better, because the person is confronted head on with their own dark side.

    Well, it’s probably more than a blog comment can express, but I like your blog and will be back. Thanks 🙂

    – Erika Awakening

  • Vinay Bhat

    Directly quoted from Gladwell’s “Outliers” (Pg 42) :

    “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

    I think this distinction is very important to note. Practice is NOT doing something you’re good at. It is doing something to get good at it.

  • Max

    I really liked the book “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. Perhaps you would too Scott.

  • Clinton Skakun

    I’ve got this theory, 1) Learn about your craft, 2) Practice, work at it 3) Repeat steps 1 and 2. I think solely practicing on your own is a long tedious process. Learning from other people’s experiences could save you decades of work. And I think if you study your craft as often as you practice it, you’ll learn enough new things that naturally help you switch your routine day by day, week by week.

    You can waste a lot of time working on and practicing things that aren’t effective, something you may not realize until you’ve wasted a lot of time on it. Let’s admit, life is short. Why not take advantage of the vast amount of learning material we have at our disposal, then internalize it. As long as we can differentiate the wrong information from the correct information there’s a greater chance we won’t waste time working hard on an element that holds no importance. It’s the 80/20 life hacking rule, spend 80% of your time on the 20% of actions/information/thoughts that produce most of your results. For example, mindset is a huge factor in all areas of life. You need the confidence as a prerequisite to succeed in almost anything. Second, you need to be able to divide fact from fiction and use methods that are proven to create results instead of ones that you “think” or assume produce results, only because you’ve heard them so many times. Third, is the sincere interest you have the craft you’re working on. If you’re obsessed about something, you’re pulling yourself by this interest instead of pushing yourself constantly to do something you never feel like doing. Another factor, I think, would be natural talent, although it’s debatable whether or not it’s actually important. I think I have the tenancy to excel at things I like doing whether I’m particularly talented at it or not.

    Something that intrigues me is the idea of mastering the art of life hacking. Being able to get good at understanding what’s most important to you and most effective way to gain some level of mastery in those areas. For example, working on our self-concept, money/business, relationships, etc.

    Just a few added thoughts