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.


  • Here’s a problem: I think that random volume of practice is most feasible for people with a lot of time (such as very young children or retired), but my impression is that people are finding less and less time, in which case being efficient up front may be important. The trouble is that it may not be so fun, admittedly. Also, in the case of very young children, there is something to be said for developing efficiency right off the bat (think of those who end up very accomplished in music, sports…) if the child is up for that (not every child is for every subject). I do agree with you that often, one does not understand or appreciate deliberate practice until after having bootstrapped to basic facility and confidence through sheer volume.

  • Franklin Chen

    Here’s a problem: I think that random volume of practice is most feasible for people with a lot of time (such as very young children or retired), but my impression is that people are finding less and less time, in which case being efficient up front may be important. The trouble is that it may not be so fun, admittedly. Also, in the case of very young children, there is something to be said for developing efficiency right off the bat (think of those who end up very accomplished in music, sports…) if the child is up for that (not every child is for every subject). I do agree with you that often, one does not understand or appreciate deliberate practice until after having bootstrapped to basic facility and confidence through sheer volume.

  • Josh Kaufman

    I get what you’re saying, but I disagree.

    I think “deliberate practice” as a term is primarily a shorthand way of saying “(1) pay attention to *what* you’re practicing to make sure you’re working on the most effective/useful thing given your current level of skill, and (2) focus your attention on the practice vs. distractions.”

    It’s HOW to practice when you sit down to practice, not WHAT, WHEN, or WHY.

    Totally agreed that, for beginners, sitting down to practice is the biggest challenge. The primary challenge after that is psychology: people are easily distracted, subjective time/effort is unreliable, and it’s easy to feel discouraged if you don’t make noticeable progress in a reasonably short period of time. If the subjective effort vs. reward is too unbalanced, practice will stop.

    That’s where deliberate practice, even at the earliest stages, is a useful idea – it encourages attention and focus on the things that will lead to rapid improvement.

    So yeah: there’s no need to hire a coach or post your paintings to Instagram. But being aware of what you want to be able to do, focusing your practice on things that will help you get there, and maintaining good practice discipline are all useful, particularly as a beginner.

    Does that make sense?

  • Josh Kaufman

    I get what you’re saying, but I disagree.

    I think “deliberate practice” as a term is primarily a shorthand way of saying “(1) pay attention to *what* you’re practicing to make sure you’re working on the most effective/useful thing given your current level of skill, and (2) focus your attention on the practice vs. distractions.”

    It’s HOW to practice when you sit down to practice, not WHAT, WHEN, or WHY.

    Totally agreed that, for beginners, sitting down to practice is the biggest challenge. The primary challenge after that is psychology: people are easily distracted, subjective time/effort is unreliable, and it’s easy to feel discouraged if you don’t make noticeable progress in a reasonably short period of time. If the subjective effort vs. reward is too unbalanced, practice will stop.

    That’s where deliberate practice, even at the earliest stages, is a useful idea – it encourages attention and focus on the things that will lead to rapid improvement.

    So yeah: there’s no need to hire a coach or post your paintings to Instagram. But being aware of what you want to be able to do, focusing your practice on things that will help you get there, and maintaining good practice discipline are all useful, particularly as a beginner.

    Does that make sense?

  • Nick

    Not really. Some questions for you:

    – How can I be aware of what I want to be able to do, when I don’t yet know what it’s comprised of?
    – How can I focus my practice on things that will help get me there, when I don’t know where ‘there’ is?
    – How do I know HOW to practice towards something I don’t yet know?

    These questions don’t really go away once you’re no longer a beginner. There’s always some new level of unknowing.

    This is where I think “deliberate practice” is a misnomer. Can I be deliberate about that which I don’t yet understand?

    I don’t think so. Maybe some people are able to, but not me.

    I can only Do. And the more I Do, the more I realize what I can’t Do, and that realization informs the direction of my future work. It shows me the general hazy direction I need to muddle towards…

    I don’t know enough to know what I don’t know, until after I’ve done enough (and failed enough) to realize I don’t know enough…

    The 50 pounds of pots story as told by Derek Sivers is enlightening: https://sivers.org/qlq

    Quantity over Quality. The more I fail, the faster I learn. Do More, Learn More.

  • Nick

    Not really. Some questions for you:

    – How can I be aware of what I want to be able to do, when I don’t yet know what it’s comprised of?
    – How can I focus my practice on things that will help get me there, when I don’t know where ‘there’ is?
    – How do I know HOW to practice towards something I don’t yet know?

    These questions don’t really go away once you’re no longer a beginner. There’s always some new level of unknowing.

    This is where I think “deliberate practice” is a misnomer. Can I be deliberate about that which I don’t yet understand?

    I don’t think so. Maybe some people are able to, but not me.

    I can only Do. And the more I Do, the more I realize what I can’t Do, and that realization informs the direction of my future work. It shows me the general hazy direction I need to muddle towards…

    I don’t know enough to know what I don’t know, until after I’ve done enough (and failed enough) to realize I don’t know enough…

    The 50 pounds of pots story as told by Derek Sivers is enlightening: https://sivers.org/qlq

    Quantity over Quality. The more I fail, the faster I learn. Do More, Learn More.

  • Michael Thiessen

    It sounds like you’re suggesting that deliberate practice is not a binary thing, that either you’re doing it or you aren’t. Rather, there are different degrees of deliberate practice.

    So at the beginning you are being deliberate about showing up, then you are deliberate about getting your psychology right, and then eventually you work your way to being deliberate about getting coached.

    Let’s say you’re learning to play the piano. At first your deliberate practice is just understanding the names of the different notes and being able to read sheet music. Then it is playing with one hand, and then eventually adding in the second hand. Then the deliberate practice involves playing the song at the desired tempo.

  • Michael Thiessen

    It sounds like you’re suggesting that deliberate practice is not a binary thing, that either you’re doing it or you aren’t. Rather, there are different degrees of deliberate practice.

    So at the beginning you are being deliberate about showing up, then you are deliberate about getting your psychology right, and then eventually you work your way to being deliberate about getting coached.

    Let’s say you’re learning to play the piano. At first your deliberate practice is just understanding the names of the different notes and being able to read sheet music. Then it is playing with one hand, and then eventually adding in the second hand. Then the deliberate practice involves playing the song at the desired tempo.

  • Michael Thiessen

    Yes, being efficient is important if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands (which is why Josh Kaufman wrote a book on rapid skill acquisition).

    However, I think Scott’s point about focusing on volume first is that you need something to optimize. You must start with the most basic system that works, and then evolve it to become more complex and more efficient over time (https://personalmba.com/galls-law/).

    Starting with the goal of high efficiency leads to premature optimization, and worse, often prevents people from even starting (“I just have to find the perfect business idea!”).

  • Michael Thiessen

    Yes, being efficient is important if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands (which is why Josh Kaufman wrote a book on rapid skill acquisition).

    However, I think Scott’s point about focusing on volume first is that you need something to optimize. You must start with the most basic system that works, and then evolve it to become more complex and more efficient over time (https://personalmba.com/galls-….

    Starting with the goal of high efficiency leads to premature optimization, and worse, often prevents people from even starting (“I just have to find the perfect business idea!”).

  • Michael Thiessen

    To try and answer your 3 questions: research.

    Find some high-quality resources (often books) and skim through them to get an idea of what the skill looks like. Then you can deconstruct the skill into it’s most important elements, and have a rough idea of what you should focus on.

    But you’re right. You can’t know exactly what to do, which is why you have to jump in and figure it out as you go. But that doesn’t mean you can’t point yourself in the approximate direction by doing some upfront research.

    Josh Kaufman and Tim Ferriss both have good processes for breaking down skills and figuring out the best way to tackle them.

    Hopefully that helps. I’m sure someone else can provide a more detailed answer than I could.

  • Michael Thiessen

    To try and answer your 3 questions: research.

    Find some high-quality resources (often books) and skim through them to get an idea of what the skill looks like. Then you can deconstruct the skill into it’s most important elements, and have a rough idea of what you should focus on.

    But you’re right. You can’t know exactly what to do, which is why you have to jump in and figure it out as you go. But that doesn’t mean you can’t point yourself in the approximate direction by doing some upfront research.

    Josh Kaufman and Tim Ferriss both have good processes for breaking down skills and figuring out the best way to tackle them.

    Hopefully that helps. I’m sure someone else can provide a more detailed answer than I could.

  • girafe elephant

    I prefer learning bit by bit. The alphabet, then words, then reading in the language, looking for the words in the dictionary I don’t know.

  • Mar

    DO I ask questions because I want to reach the lightness of being less sure
    about everything ? Yes!!!!!

    Is asking something that I do ? Yes
    Is answering my questions something that I do ? yes!!!
    Is it going to be long to reach the lightness of being less sure about everything?? yes!!!

  • Mar

    DO I ask questions because I want to reach the lightness of being less sure
    about everything ? Yes!!!!!

    Is asking something that I do ? Yes
    Is answering my questions something that I do ? yes!!!
    Is it going to be long to reach the lightness of being less sure about everything?? yes!!!

  • Anon ymous

    Scott, I’ve been reading your blog for years, and I find that many of the things you’re talking about relate to ideas I’ve been thinking about for myself. It’s nice to see what you and others are thinking about this.

    In my case, the simple model I’ve been using to describe types of practice is to consider a graph with motivation on one axis and efficiency on the other. This graph should be monotonically decreasing, but depending on various other factors (skill level, energy level, confidence level, etc.), it can take different shapes. The product of motivation and efficiency will be your practice output, and a person’s goal will generally be to recognize the shape of that graph and choose the point where the product is highest.

    I found this model necessary, because I used to be stubbornly attached to the idea of deliberate practice, to the point where I would be dreading the beginning of my practice sessions because I knew that I would not enjoy them at all. I would also often be paralyzed by the process of coming up with the perfect practice plan. I quickly saw my practice output drop to zero as motivation dropped to zero, despite my plans being reasonably well-researched and meticulous.

    With my model, I now do the opposite when starting new projects, doing some light research and then starting with practice sessions that are fun and motivational. Then as I breakthrough the initial barrier of habit formation, I slowly bring in the efficient elements. At this point it becomes a balancing act of never being too ambitious in terms of efficiency – I frequently will regress and have periods of fun practice to ensure the habit is not broken. But I am fine with this as I recognize that for me, staying the course is the goal that needs the most attention.

  • Anon ymous

    Scott, I’ve been reading your blog for years, and I find that many of the things you’re talking about relate to ideas I’ve been thinking about for myself. It’s nice to see what you and others are thinking about this.

    In my case, the simple model I’ve been using to describe types of practice is to consider a graph with motivation on one axis and efficiency on the other. This graph should be monotonically decreasing, but depending on various other factors (skill level, energy level, confidence level, etc.), it can take different shapes. The product of motivation and efficiency will be your practice output, and a person’s goal will generally be to recognize the shape of that graph and choose the point where the product is highest.

    I found this model necessary, because I used to be stubbornly attached to the idea of deliberate practice, to the point where I would be dreading the beginning of my practice sessions because I knew that I would not enjoy them at all. I would also often be paralyzed by the process of coming up with the perfect practice plan. I quickly saw my practice output drop to zero as motivation dropped to zero, despite my plans being reasonably well-researched and meticulous.

    With my model, I now do the opposite when starting new projects, doing some light research and then starting with practice sessions that are fun and motivational. Then as I breakthrough the initial barrier of habit formation, I slowly bring in the efficient elements. At this point it becomes a balancing act of never being too ambitious in terms of efficiency – I frequently will regress and have periods of fun practice to ensure the habit is not broken. But I am fine with this as I recognize that for me, staying the course is the goal that needs the most attention.

  • Tony Perea

    Great point Scott! It reflects my opinion on the topic as well.

    On another note, in my experience, aiming for high efficiency can be quite energy consuming. Hence, I have found it very hard sometimes to apply efficient learning to different areas of my life at the same time.

    But it can also be mentally challenging to accept that “a more relaxed mode” is the right way to go sometimes, especially for those things we decide to do for leisure. Learning dancing falls into this category for me.

  • Tony Perea

    Great point Scott! It reflects my opinion on the topic as well.

    On another note, in my experience, aiming for high efficiency can be quite energy consuming. Hence, I have found it very hard sometimes to apply efficient learning to different areas of my life at the same time.

    But it can also be mentally challenging to accept that “a more relaxed mode” is the right way to go sometimes, especially for those things we decide to do for leisure. Learning dancing falls into this category for me.

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  • Good point. Set up habits of actually doing as much as you sustainably can first, then prioritize doing it better.

  • Duff McDuffee

    Good point. Set up habits of actually doing as much as you sustainably can first, then prioritize doing it better.

  • Giovanni Sampaio

    Good article. But what about the types of growth? Is deliberate practice more apropriated to
    logarithmic growth?

  • Giovanni Sampaio

    Good article. But what about the types of growth? Is deliberate practice more apropriated to
    logarithmic growth?

  • Karyna Mangusheva

    Totally agree with this post. It really aligns with my goals for my art this year. I’ve been told that I have a lot of natural talent, but my problem is that I don’t produce a lot of work. Last year, I produced maybe 20 pieces of art. So, this year my goal is to draw every day – to dramatically increase my volume and get into the habit of practicing a lot and then hone down my skill later once volume is not an issue.

  • Karyna Mangusheva

    Totally agree with this post. It really aligns with my goals for my art this year. I’ve been told that I have a lot of natural talent, but my problem is that I don’t produce a lot of work. Last year, I produced maybe 20 pieces of art. So, this year my goal is to draw every day – to dramatically increase my volume and get into the habit of practicing a lot and then hone down my skill later once volume is not an issue.

  • Good point about efficiency vs volume… in that “action optimising” world I never thought of it this way. Ultimately doing is always better than not doing, and we can worry about optimisation of effort later. I found htis quote really motitvating: “Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.” — Angela Duckworth, Grit. It’s from another post on deliberate practice: https://lingualift.com/blog/peak-deliberate-practice/

  • Laodamia

    Good point about efficiency vs volume… in that “action optimising” world I never thought of it this way. Ultimately doing is always better than not doing, and we can worry about optimisation of effort later. I found htis quote really motitvating: “Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.” — Angela Duckworth, Grit. It’s from another post on deliberate practice: https://lingualift.com/blog/pe

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