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.