Improve Creative Skills by Reducing Degrees of Freedom

In the original research on deliberate practice, an important distinction is made between work and practice. The goal of work is to accomplish something. The goal of practice is to learn. Work is a basketball game or recital. Practice is layup drills or training your fingers to master a tricky combination of notes.

Unfortunately creating drills to practice from is hard for a lot of skills. If you’re a writer, how do you do writing drills? If you’re a designer, how do you do design drills? In many creative skills, work almost seems inseparable from practice.

I’ve recently stumbled on a solution: reduce the degrees of freedom for your work, except for the element you want to improve.

Free One Aspect, Fix the Rest

The difficulty of deliberately practicing creative skills, is that it’s not possible to separate out the components. You can specifically practice a few notes of a piano piece. You can’t write just a few sentences for an article without the context of everything else.

Reducing degrees of freedom works by first choosing one element of your work you want to improve. For a photographer that could be lighting or composition. For an architect it could be materials or use of space. For a programmer it could be code organization or modularization. This aspect will be variable and you will focus on improving it.

Then, constrain the other elements of your work by making them mindless. There are two ways you can do this:

  1. Redo old work.
  2. Do the work first, then go back and redo the unfixed aspect.

I recently did this with my writing. I wanted to improve my research ability, but I didn’t want to deal with the competing mental obligations of thinking about the topic. So I picked an old article I had previously written, and decided to redo the research for the article and then rewrite it.

I’ve also made use of this trick when writing the bootcamp for Learning on Steroids each year. Since each year I take down public copies of the articles I write for it, that means I can rewrite them from scratch without feeling pressure to create something new. Instead I can focus solely on improving the quality of the work.

Why Limiting Degrees of Freedom Works

Complicated skills are really just a collection of many simple skills moving together. Learning any complex skill, then, is a process of simultaneously learning many simple skills. Most of those simple skills could be learned fairly easily if taught in isolation. The problem is that they are frequently entangled together and can’t be separated.

Your cognitive resources are limited. It’s not possible to simultaneously attend to every aspect of your performance—you need to pick just one at a time. Unfortunately, these entangled skills mean you’re always multitasking the learning process. You will probably improve eventually, but it might take a long time to improve some aspects of the skill because they get neglected.

Limiting the degrees of freedom is a way of holding the performance of all the competing skills fixed, so all your attention can be devoted to the unfixed element. Since that element gets all your attention, it can be improved in a rather straightforward way.

Once you make some progress you can switch which elements you free and fix, repeating it until the skill as a whole improves.

The downside of this method, and indeed of any form of deliberate practice, is that it takes longer to output the same amount of work. If you have to redo old work or first do the work to “fix” the other mental tasks you’d normally do simultaneously, that takes extra time. In my recent effort to write an article, I’m spending 2-3x longer than I would normally.

The upside is that this method provides a systematic way to improve rapidly that’s largely immune to plateaus. Individual work may take longer, but you also learn a lot more through each iteration.

I wouldn’t use this method for all your work. However, a couple hours a week devoted to this kind of deliberate practice pays huge long-term dividends.

  • Duncan Smith

    I like this idea and I think it can enable deliberate practice for some skills that seem difficult to practice in isolation. However, I think it’s also important to brainstorm ways that skills can be practiced directly, since that can enable more repetition and therefore faster progress in the skill. For the writing example: there are quite a few suggestions online for writing drills. Even Twitter can be a writing drill, since the writer has to figure out how to express an idea in limited space. Now that deliberate practice is a mainstream concept outside of sports and music, I hope it will encourage experts to come up with good DP drills for their areas of expertise.

  • corinna

    No, I did not understand what is reducing degree of freedom. I would not know how to apply it. It is not clear because I don’t know how to apply it. What is missing in this blog is concrete examples with university or studying content. What I would add is a quotation with external content and the use of the method, plus the result. I would add more examples, or I would write a direct application of the thing without any popular science about it.

  • Dianna

    I think this was good advice! I’m practicing songwriting and learning to produce and there are so many elements to consider- and restarting from scratch while I’m in a creative burst, its hard to improve on everything- I mostly end up getting better at what I am already most comfortable with and leave behind what needs more work. Maybe I try taking some old songs that are are finished but partly ‘suck’ and redoing the sucky parts properly->ie. groovier baseline. I just have to resist the temptation to engage in the creative burst of something completely new- which can be hard-but probably worth it in the end.

  • LaurenLL

    I am currently wanting to improve my writing skills as per getting a schedule set up, finishing what I’m writing, writing poetry, and becoming a selling fantasy/science fiction writer. Your idea would work for me as I can go back on stories I’ve written and edit them-my sticking point. Also, I can go through my cache of story ideas and eliminate them before actually picking something. A nice way to organize my thinking; never a easy thing for someone who skips from idea to idea and finds it difficult to settle.

  • Marcus Greogory

    After reading your post, it’s still a little vague to me. I don’t understand much. May be it is too abstract. Hope you can have more examples later.
    I assume this:
    That means your work contains
    A B C D E elements (you have to do from A to E to complete your work)
    Limiting degree of freedom work = you make B C D E fixed then You focus on practicing A. After A gets better, the process repeats (You continue with B/C/D/E)
    Is that right?

  • Scott

    I came to this article thinking it would be about something a little different. I have realized that, in general, complete freedom is difficult to work with and that as you provide yourself with constraints, you can create awesome things because those constraints need to be overcome in new ways.

    I thought your year without English was a great example. Traveling for an entire year and living abroad is really cool, but by adding an additional constraint, it became a very compelling experiment that led to creativity and learning.

    Either way, I enjoyed your perspective here and will definitely try and apply this principal when developing a new skill…probably with videography, which I think this technique would work well with.