How to Stop Being Allergic to Practice

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The main problem with practice is that we all have a powerful instinct to avoid it.

There’s a perfectly good reason for this: your unconscious brain. Practice involves spending lots of energy struggling for an uncertain payoff, and your unconscious brain really, really dislikes spending energy for uncertain payoffs.

After all, evolution built your brain to behave like an ultra-conservative banker — investing energy only when there’s a clear, tangible benefit. As a result, we’re all natural-born geniuses at coming up with excuses not to practice, or to cut corners, or to skip it and hope things work out.

All of which is why you might want to check out these three videos by Torin Bakke, a teenage clarinetist from Illinois. Back in 2009, when he was 11, Torin had an idea: he started tracking his hours of practice, and videotaping himself at each new benchmark. (For more, here’s Torin’s blog.)

So here’s Torin at 200 hours (okay, he sounds decent for a beginner)

 

And at 1,000 hours (wow, he’s made a massive leap)

 

And at 3,000 hours (holy sh*t!)

I like Torin’s method because it’s 1) simple to do, and 2) it provides a nice way to highlight the payoff of progress. Seen day to day, progress feels like frustratingly slow baby steps. Seen with this method, the cumulative power of those baby steps is crystal clear.

Here are a few other ideas I’ve seen people use to defeat their practice aversion:

  • Be like Torin: Make a habit of tracking progress, using journals or video.
  • Be early: Build a habit of practicing early in the morning, so nothing can get in the way.
  • Build “on-ramps”: Surround yourself with behavioral cues that nudge you toward practice. If you’re a runner, keep your running shoes next to your bed, so you put them on each morning. Same with violin, or soccer ball, or math book — the point is to design your space so that practice can happen with a minimum of willpower.

Finally, does anybody else know of other people who are tracking their practice and recording their progress in this way? If so, I’d love to hear about it.


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22 Responses to “How to Stop Being Allergic to Practice”

  1. Rakesh Shukla says:

    Imagine how good he will be after 10,000 hrs!

  2. Adrian says:

    I am a Tennis coach and I stole the idea of my players keeping a “fact” book from a great coach Dave ALred (coach to jonny wilkinson rugby international and Luke donald no2 in world golf ) the concept is that you get” busy” at getting better DAILY at things you can control and record all results in your fact book. Its amazing how much a players skills improve and results ! whilst his or her parent asks them “what did you improve in your fact book today V did you win !

  3. Jason says:

    One of my kids has done a soccer skills challenge for the last two summers. The challenge was organized by a local soccer training facility, Superkick.. The 2011 challenge was to complete 100,000 touches in 60 days. Summer 2012 was 125,000 touches in the same time. One of the requirements of the program, in order to earn the coveted “trophy” tshirt and the free 1 on 1 training session, was the submission of a video at the end of challenge doing the skills that were required. You can check out those two videos at my YouTube channel, jseabury1. They are the videos for the Superkick Summer Challenge. My daughter doesn’t see a noticeable change. To be sure, some of the skills are such that there is no real way to see much improvement. Others show pretty clear improvement. I love this challenge because it has been the same skills each year and the videos over time will tell the story of the hours spent practicing. Note: these videos do not play or even show up. PC will be required for viewing.

  4. Eduardo says:

    I’ve always been a not so good practitioner of anything. However I’ve always wanted to learn Japanese and without learning the Chinese Characters called Kanji, I would never become proficient enough in the language. So I’ve made a study bag that I keep close at hand. It’s either on my desk or on my kitchen table. Everyday I get home from work I pull out the textbook and practice those characters.
    As far as deep practice that’s another story, however without pushing through that unconscious barrier, I would never get a chance to practice at all.
    As far as tracking my progress I have a check list that I mark off after each set of characters I study, which also shows how close I’m getting to the end of the textbook.
    I really appreciate the research you do. Cheers!

  5. Robnonstop says:

    Eduardo, I can recommend The Key To Kanji by Naruto Williams.

    About tracking: I often find tracking a bit distracting from the actual action. For example I neither track speed nor distance for running and don’t track how much time I spend on drawing but I think I will use live streaming as a mean to automatically track my drawing time.

    For things I don’t enjoy, tracking tends to increase the likeliness of practice whereas it makes things I already enjoy and do regularly unnecessarily more cumbersome.

  6. Heike Larson says:

    I wonder if there is a difference here between adults and children? In our Montessori classrooms, preschool children every day choose activities to repeat, over and over again. When you watch them today, just as when Dr. Montessori first witnessed them in her schools over 100 years ago, they seem to relish practicing; for them, it seems to be all about the process, not about the result. But because of this self-initiated practice (no extrinsic rewards in Montessori!) they become really good at things at young ages – like writing in fluent cursive, or identifying minute differences in color shades, or learning advanced geography or science vocabulary. Older students in traditional schools often struggle with those same skills – in part, because they apparently lose that inner drive to repeat activities over and over again. I wonder to what extent the common shying away from practice is due to developmental changes, and to what extent we become allergic to practice because the way practicing is presented to us growing up is not fun, or because teachers in so many cases resort to rewards to encourage practice (where apparently rewards tend to devalue the activities they are tied to.)

  7. Alex says:

    For soccer I’m counting how many goals I do, going to use graphs that show the sum of the last 10 and 20 matches (or any other number).

  8. Alex says:

    Airton Senna would go to a track and do each section individually holding a stopwatch multiple times as a kid before a race.

  9. Torin Bakee says:

    Dear Mr. Coyle,

    I read your book last year, and it was really inspiring. I especially liked the part about the hotbeds of talent, the clarinetist and the part about Hans Jenson. I know some of his students and they are pretty amazing.

    Thanks for reposting my blog. I didn’t know that anyone else besides my family and friends read it!

    -Torin Bakke

  10. Superior strategy+proper practice/feedback meeting criteria when test=skill enhancement.

    I have taken dyslexic kids trough one session improved their below average grade to top grades in one week. Obviously once having access to their knowledge trough a better strategy they also skyrocketed.
    The response to that improvement from his school, How did you cheat?

    I met a girl acing 27 things she was to remember where her classmates did 8 or so at average, her teacher asked her how she did cheat. I asked her how she did do it.
    Her strategy to recall objects with proper practice produced pretty much a perfect recall skill.

    However unless you have it down and do the practice you wont get close to that recall even with deep practice.
    Its also what is lacking from all those areas you have studied that what those few who really succed is able to do is to apply a better strategy within their practice.

    You then can cut down the time spent practiced further and enhance the skills faster due to applying a superior approach within the deep practice. Your 3 months of bouncing a golf ball on the club then could have been done faster. tests I make indicate that once the 3 month incubation time is met then a skill is set for automation aka habit. If enough variation is done in that time you will have a deep pretty much perfect applied skill that is habitual and then you can take it into mastery.

  11. Traveler says:

    RBIm Developer, your last comment is interesting but it brings up a few questions for me:

    1. Why do you think there is a 3 month “incubation time”?
    2. You mention “enough variation.” Can you expand on that? Daniel Coyle writes about the difference between hard and soft skills. It seems to me that for some skills or sub-skills that you wouldn’t want much variation. The point would be to build a very precise circuit. I would think that for a golf swing you would want something pretty precise (but then again, I don’t play golf). Could you expand on that?

    I certainly agree that having a good model and a good strategy are important.

    I love the Talent Code Blog! Thanks Daniel!

  12. djcoyle says:

    Hey Torin, What a treat to hear from you! Thanks for your kind words (you’re so right about Hans — he’s is wonderful). I think what you’re doing is tremendously important, not to mention inspiring. I’m looking forward to seeing the 4,000-hour post (and beyond). I’d be curious, too, if you had any ideas or practice methods you felt like you wanted to share with our readers — I know they’d love it. Best, Dan

  13. Torin Bakke says:

    Hi Mr. Coyle,

    I think the most important thing is just making yourself practice every single day. If you take one day off, it’s easy to take the next day off, and then you’ll stop progressing and get really frustrated.

    The hardest thing is structuring your practice sessions to be productive and focused. It’s good to write down a list of objectives for your practice session or you will practice a little of everything, but not accomplish very much.

    While deliberate practice is important and should be the core of your practice time, you should also spend some time on “fun practice” which is just playing for the joy of playing. You don’t want to forget why you are working so hard, so you need to build these fun moments into your day. I use the end of the day to just play music and enjoy it for the sake of playing.

    But I always start my day with the tough practice: scales, technical exercises, cleaning up problems in pieces I am working on, because I am much more focused in the morning.

    -Torin

  14. maria says:

    Everytime this is posted on fb it is always about talent or magic. Is it or has he also practiset?

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=384671334965013

  15. Lukas says:

    Hey Dan,

    thanks for inspiring article.

    There is a guy who wants to become a pro golfer by putting in 10 000 hours of deliberate practice. Check him out at The Dan Plan.

  16. Pat says:

    Ahh, the beautiful result of a little time and effort. Music to my ears.

    Again, a great article.

    Pat

  17. Elliott says:

    I’ve made it obligatory for my college students make a practice diary stating date, time practiced, what was practiced and any comment or insights gained. Practice is the most important thing a professional or aspiring professional can do.

  18. Sean D'Souza says:

    He’s still probably practicing wrong. If you practice, you need to practice alone, but then also be in a group to see others render the same piece.

    The 10,000 hour study is incorrect. And it’s incorrect, because it fundamentally has the person practicing alone. With a group, learning and talent acquisition is exponential. I teach various disciplines like article writing, cartooning, headlines, cooking etc.

    And the fundamental problem is always the same: One on one is the slowest, most idiotic way to learn something. So while you may write down your practice, the learning is still slower, a lot slower.

  19. Sean D'Souza says:

    Yes, we track the practice. We have several courses and students have been tracking their practice since 2010. And you can see how the changes occur.

    Some of them are pretty cool, because as I stated above, I teach cartooning—which very few people ever seem to be able to do. And the criterion for joining the course is that you “can’t draw a straight line”.

    If you’d like more details, I’d be happy to help. I’m at http://www.psychotactics.com, but you can also email me at sean@psychotactics.com. I also have my own stuff on Facebook (my own cartoons).

    But here’s the interesting part: I’m not a novice. I’ve been drawing for over 30 years and at least 20 years, professionally. Yet, in the past three years, there has been dramatic change, and even more so in the past three months. Usually once you get to a very advanced level, it’s hard to spot improvements, but I can point them out to you very clearly.

  20. Sean D'Souza says:

    I also agree with the 3-month incubation time. I’ve seen that’s about the amount of time it needs to go from about being ham-fisted to reasonably proficient.

    But it’s NOT about practice alone.

    It depends on several things:
    1) The tools.
    2) The group
    3) The teacher
    4) The system

    And the practice.
    You take away one of these elements and you get slower growth. This is different from learning something slowly. This is just a factor of making mistakes unnecessarily. You can learn incredibly quickly from mistakes if the mistakes are engineered. But if they’re not, then they’re random. And that’s when you need 10,000 hours or more.

    Kids have 10,000 hours on their side. Adults don’t.
    It’s not enough to say, “put 10,000 hours of practice”. Or even 3000 hours. The question is totally and fundamentally wrong. The question to ask is, “how can we turn someone from basic to reasonably skilled in less than 1000 hours? Probably, even 800 hours.

    When you have the list above and know how to run that list optimally, change occurs.
    But even after all of that, there’s a gap. And that gap is confidence.

    I’ve seen students who are pros at their work, without confidence. That too needs to be worked on, and again, you need a system for confidence building as well.

  21. JoannaJ says:

    I’ve been recording my progress on the violin ever since I reached the one year mark. It’s been five years and the progress is astonishing (and also fun to relive). I also find that listening to recent recordings helps me detect things that I want to fix/improve-especially large-scale things like phrasing and dynamics. For example, while working on the famous Bach Prelude, it was easy to work on small scale things like intonation and bowing but listening to a recording of myself play really helped me think about dynamics and phrasing much more effectively…

    Lately, I’ve taken to making a detailed log of hours of hours of daily practice. The log helps me keep track and keeps the values accurate (eg. I can calculate an average daily practice time using real data and not my fallible memory)

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