How to Practice a Skill Deliberately

If you’re anything like me, there’s a lot you want to get better at. It can be perfecting your dribbling or shooting. Writing stories with intrigue and emotional hooks. Learning a language to connect with an entirely new culture. I used to sit at my desk every day and practice writing and drawing for hours. My belief was putting in more time would directly correlate to a better output. But I’ve found that’s not necessary true. Mindless practice, doing the same thing, over and over again, doesn’t support learning. Instead, it only reinforces our current habits — whether they be positive or negative.

“You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way.” — Michael Jordan.

Listening to the audiobook of Atomic Habits by James Clear answered the question I had been searching for. Rather than putting in more energy or hours of practice, the concept of deliberate practice began to unfold for me. This form of practice asks us to practice wisely. Systematically focusing on specific goals and implementing parameters to ensure our training is optimising the right skills, the right way. Utilising this concept and implementing a five step process into my own practice sessions, skills I believed had plateaued began to improve once more. And today, I want to share that five-step approach with you in the hope they’ll help you master your desired skills and support your creative development.

Intention

The first step is intention. Deliberate practice only becomes possible once you know where to place your focus. I encourage setting one intention per a training session, or project, to keep learning manageable and focused. An example of this is how I recently challenged myself to produce a comic page in two days. The comic is called ‘The Grind’. In a single page it tells the story of Topé who is struggling with the obstacles life throws her way as she punches a boxing bag. However, thinking of her child and the love she has for him enables her to push through, take down the boxing bag and, metaphorically, the obstacles facing her. The intention I set at the beginning of the project was to actively pay attention to the workflows required when making a comic book. My hypothesis was having this intention would enable me to assess which areas within those workflows I struggle with. And with that information, I could begin tackling them in future deliberate practice sessions.

Scope

When you’re working to actively improve a skill, I feel the best projects are the ones where it’s challenging but you could also envision yourself achieving success. Placing your growth in a positive mindset. And reducing the size of a project is a simple way of making your deliberate practice feel achievable. Going through the comic process for The Grind was a challenge, but keeping the scope small, to a single page, gave me two major advantages. One, I was confident I could achieve the outcome. And two, having a smaller project meant I could assess where improvement would need to be made in a shorter time frame. That supports the positive mindset we just spoke about as you can compound multiple practice sessions in quick succession to see improvements being made in a matter of days or weeks. Personally, when I see rapid progress and have quick wins, I’m only encouraged to keep pushing further. Perhaps it’s the same for you.

Deadline

Parkinson’s Law is a concept that posits the amount of work required will expand to fill the allotted time for its completion. That simple idea has held very true for me. Having no deadline or a soft deadline, your projects are allowed to continue for infinite, and there’s room to procrastinate, because, being human, it requires less energy to kick the can down the road than doing it in the present moment. That’s the antithesis of deliberate practice. Instead, tight deadlines are the name of the game. There’s no room to kick the can down the road and you’re forced to confront the task at hand. With The Grind, I had 48 hours or less to produce the comic and assess the comic-making process. When the timer ran out, I was forced to move on from the project. Being aware of, and applying Parkinson’s Law to your advantage can have major implications for your development as a creator. Apply a deadline to what you’re trying to learn or achieve, it’ll helps avoid procrastination or that space where you get stuck theorising about what you want to achieve by putting you into a position of action.

Restrictions

In the world of creativity and skill-building isn’t restriction a dirty word? Limitation prevents creativity, right? Actually, having parameters to work within can encourage creativity and new solutions. Let me give you a strange example of how this can be true. My brother loves Halo, the video game series, and clocked in an astounding 30 days of play time for Halo 3. In Halo, there’s the concept of skulls, these are activated before campaign missions. They set restrictions and new challenges on the player. For example, your shields might only regenerate when you melee enemies, motion sensors may be disabled or all enemies could have twice the amount of health.  Those new restrictions force the player to think creatively about how they’re going to navigate the mission. And it’s the same for your creativity. Apply your own skulls during practice to remove the comfort zone which is often provided by familiarity and make it harder on yourself. You’ll have to find new solutions rather than reverting to old habits.

You’ve gone through those four steps and conducted a deliberate practice session. First of all, well done. However, you’re not done just yet. There’s a fifth step.

Feedback

What worked well during your training session? What did you find challenging? Where can improvements be made? Answering those questions with authenticity creates greater clarity on where you should place your focus next. In my notes, I reflected back on the entirety of what happened during the Grind, noting areas of success and improvement. What worked well was the storytelling, it felt strong given the page restriction. Where the limitation showed was the colour choices. I felt the comic would have benefited from me taking more time to apply colour theory and consider what colours I was putting down. Going forward, that’s an area of the comic-making process I’m going to begin tackling in my next deliberate practice session by revising colour theory and analysing the colour choices made in some of my favourite comics and films.

That completes our five step circle. Having reflected on the session, the process starts all over again in your next training session. Use the feedback loop to set the new intention and compound your learning, one area at a time for holistic improvement.

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