Perfect Practice

By Scott Westerman
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“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” ~Vince Lombardi

How long does it take to get really good at something? And what is the key factor in getting you there?

Marla Popova, writing in her excellent Brainpickings blog, tells us that the old adage that, “it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something,” is a myth.

Sort of.

Daniel Goleman’s Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence has a wealth of research on the subject of achievement. Goleman talked with Florida State University psychologist, Anders Ericsson, who has studied high performance up close. “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition,” says Ericsson. You earn your way to elite status, “by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”

If there’s a recipe for becoming good at something, it may well contain these five ingredients:

VisualizationDenis Waitley’s work with returning Apollo astronauts revealed that you can “pre-play” successful skills by visualizing excellent execution. There was no way to exactly recreate the moon here on earth, so NASA had to create that environment in the mind of the astronauts. Neil Armstrong told mission control that walking on the surface of the moon, “was just the way we imagined it”.

Repetition – It is important to practice. Repetition builds muscle memory and reflexive action. But it’s a double edged sword. Repeat a bad behavior and it becomes a bad habit. That’s where Coach Lombardi’s maxim that “perfect practice makes perfect” comes in to play.

A Coach – No matter how good we may be at self discipline, we benefit from the wisdom of an expert eye. Whether it’s your golf swing, your management skills or your parenting, professional guidance helps you see beyond your blind spots to make the mid course corrections that blast you through plateaus and past obstacles.

Recovery – Ericsson’s research tells us that what you do when you’re not practicing is just as important at predicting your progress. There is a point of diminishing returns, where concentration slips, impacting the quality of your work. Rest and recovery are essential to the balance our metabolism needs to function.

Determination – Popova writes about University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Angela Duckworth’s research on focus. Duckworth points out that “character is at least as important as intellect.” This is manifested as will power, self control, the “grit” that is the foundation of faith. You can make new year’s resolutions all day. But you have to have the determination to stick with them until they become habits.

Dedication to achieving a goal doesn’t mean you need to be a workaholic. In fact, all work and no play probably slows your progress. A balanced day that includes enough sleep, exercise, fuel and feedback, combined with a well defined goal and the determination to reach it; this is the not so secret formula for moving in the direction of any goal you set.

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Want to see how you rank on Angela Duckworth’s “Grit Scale”? Take the test here.