Should You Use Deliberate Practice… Or Just Practice?

There is little universal advice. A good tip for a beginner may be horrible advice for an expert.

Unfortunately, when writing for a mass audience, it can be difficult to filter the preconditions for when that advice is useful, and when it might actually be a setback.

Consider two people who want to be in better shape:

The first is a programmer in his late thirties who hasn’t exercised regularly for years. His goal is to lose some weight and maybe put on a bit of muscle. The second is an elite swimmer who is looking to shave milliseconds off his best times.

For the programmer, just going to the gym regularly and eating better will accomplish the majority of his goals. The challenge is that exercising is peripheral to his life right now, and there are no habits pushing him to work out. The solution? Focus obsessively on just showing up. Gains and technique can be worried about later.

For the athlete, however, this is bad advice. He already trains a few hours per day. Telling him to focus on the habit is like telling a dog to bark. Worse, he’s in competition with other elite swimmers, all of whom are deliberately perfecting their performance with specialized training regimens and coaching.

Two people, same topic, completely different advice.

What About Practice?

I recently started painting again. I was interested in a lot of artistic hobbies when I was younger. But, like so many of us, it started to slide as I got older and busier.

I’m okay as a beginner, but I’m certainly not good. Not good enough to execute a lot of the painting ideas in my head. I’d like to improve as a painter.

What should I do to get better?

The obvious answer is deliberate practice. I should identify weak points in my technique and practice paintings that will challenge those techniques in an obvious way. I should find some way to publish my paintings (uploading images to social media, selling on Etsy) as a way to drive feedback about my work. I should take classes with experts and ask them for guidance in structuring my practice time.

Except that’s not my problem. That’s assuming I’m the elite swimmer, when I’m actually the doughy programmer.

My problem isn’t going to be deliberate practice, it’s going to be practice at all. Painting is an unnecessary, superfluous activity in my life that I don’t want to become a job. While I do find it enjoyable, it competes with other leisure activities like watching television or surfing the internet, both much easier to get started on.

No, if I’m going to get better at painting, it’s going to be because I painted often. Deliberate practice will only come into it far later, if at all.

How Should I Learn a Language?

I often get asked for advice on learning languages. As before, I have a technically correct answer: go to a country that speaks it, opt for 100% no-English immersion, use spaced repetitions systems to reinforce key phrases, use structured tutoring and grammar exercises to complement native-level practice, etc.

But this is an elite-swimmer answer. It’s assuming a level of commitment and intensity to the goal that may not be realistic for most people.

The doughy-programmer answer is much simpler, albeit it doesn’t really require much of my advice. What should you do to learn a language? Whatever you can stick to.

Do you like Duolingo? Do Duolingo. Do you like reading mangas? Read mangas. Do you like watching movies with subtitles? Do that too.

No, not all of these methods are equally effective. Some are probably highly ineffective, if you count the amount of time spent doing them. But efficiency assumes that the amount of time you want to put in is a fixed variable (or, that all time investments are equally easy and you just want to minimize total hours).

Does this invalidate my advice on learning a language? I don’t think so. For myself, I’ve found the No-English rule far easier to stick to than gadgets or media I can’t understand. The efficiency is only a bonus. However, at the end of the day, you’ll have to experiment and find out what you can stick with and it might be different (especially if you can’t travel or regularly interact with native speakers).

Who Should Use Deliberate Practice?

You might be wondering, if most people just need to show up every day, then why suggest deliberate practice at all? Isn’t it a needlessly complicated distraction for most people?

The answer here seems to be that deliberate practice matters for people who are already doing a lot of practice, but aren’t improving as fast as they like. This could be the full-time software developer who always feels behind the curve. This could be the novelist whose written a few books, but none of them have sold well. This could be the doctor who wants to become the top specialist in the country.

I believe for this reason, deliberate practice is especially important for your career. Most people already spend their day doing their job, so sufficient exposure to the work isn’t an issue. Second, the importance of the pursuit is enough to compensate for any uncomfortable strain generated by the deliberate practice process.

Volume First, Efficiency Later

Any goal has a number of levers that can be pulled for success: volume, efficiency, intensity, etc. Efficiency is a good lever to try to pull once the others becomes difficult to adjust. Efficient practice matters once adding more practice becomes a lot harder than doing it more effectively.

However, for many people, volume and not efficiency, should be the target. Not only because doing more is easier (the major alternative being doing nothing), but because efficiency can sometimes make volume harder, by making the goal more complicated and less fun.