How To Practice
I've been mentoring at work for a while now and I've come to notice a bit of a pattern I thought I should dig into here. It's around people's habit of professional practice, and more specifically the lack of it.
Habits are probably the closest thing to a super power you have. You have the ability to create compounding gains over time just by doing a bit of initial investment work. You just have to learn how to harness this incredible power. You can use it for good or evil and if you don't control it, it will control you.
Believe it or not, you already have habits. Brush your teeth before bed? Habit. Check your phone when you're bored? Habit. Wake up and make breakfast? Habit. What's for breakfast? Eggs? Cereal? Toast? Habit! Your habits decide for you when you don't consciously decide to do something new. Need to buy some groceries? Where you shop, how you get there, and even how you go through the store are all habits. Your life is mostly a series of habits that all self reinforce.
Companies love to influence your habits. Think about how lucrative your shopping, attention, recreation, and other habits are. If you're not going to build your habits, others are more than happy to help.
So how can you take advantage of this? Before we start, know that habits are hard to build. They take months to develop and the whole time you have to be vigilant. It's not complicated, just hard work. Additionally, that whole feedback thing is real! Your existing habits will not easily give way to adding new habits. You're always going to be changing existing ones. You can do it though! Any habit you have can be replaced with a different one. Anything you want to achieve can be greatly simplified by creating a process you can make a habit of.
Pick a Trigger
The best thing you can do to get a habit in place is find an existing habit to trigger your new habit. Think about the brushing of teeth. You can brush your teeth anytime you want. You could go do it now, but you've (ideally) got a habit with a trigger like doing your morning bathroom routine.
It's best to find something that makes sense in context. In the context of professional practice, maybe it's before you leave work. Maybe it's Sunday after dinner. Maybe it's that time you find between finishing something and the impending meeting that means you can't really start anything meaningful. It doesn't matter what your trigger is, just that it gives you enough time to add the new habit. In the case of practice, that's probably on the order of 30 minutes a day or a couple hours a week. Ideally it's not all at once. Remember that just 30 minutes a day beats a couple of 8 hour days a month in so many ways.
Pick a Situation
It's simple enough that the habit start from a given trigger, but it also has to happen in a given situation. Create what that situation is with intentionality. Often this involves a physical space. It also can't really overlap another habit of the same trigger's situation. It need not be an exclusive location, but it should be an exclusive space and setup. For example, maybe it's unplugging your laptop from your monitor and going portable at your desk. Maybe it's using another account on your computer and putting on a specific music playlist. Maybe it's as simple as going to work at a table nearby. Whatever your situation, having a dedicated one helps break you away from any existing habits that base themselves on the same trigger.
Remember that even though you're adding a new habit, it's going to mean displacing another habit. Easy ones are all the slack time you have in your day doing less productive things. You have to replace habits already based on the same trigger that use the current situation. The easy way to do that is impose a new situation following the trigger and associate that situation with the new habit.
Don't Break The Chain
You know when. You know where. Now you need to hold yourself accountable. How? Don't break the chain. Get a calendar, preferably physical (so you constantly see it), not too big. Put it in or bring it to your situation. Every time you do the habit, tick it off. Don't break the chain! The longer the chain, the greater your habituation. Be honest though. It's fine if you fall off. Just start again and this time go for the high score. At some point you'll just realize you've got a habit.
Additionally, don't try to modify multiple habits at once. You have to consciously notice the trigger and then choose to go do the habit for a long time before it becomes automatic. The more of this mental work you try and take on, the more likely you'll resort to other habits you're trying to change as a way of reducing the workload. That will lead to reinforcing the old habit and undoing the new one. For best results, change only a couple habits throughout a year. Definitely avoid the grand gesture. New years resolutions fail for systematic reasons. You need to start right now with what you have and keep trying every time you fail until you realize you've not missed it in a long time.
Your habit can usually take on the two modes of routine and testing. Pick a duration you're going to do the routine habit for and then break it up by adding a test period to give you something to look forward to. As an example, lets say you're looking to get into weight lifting and you've got a trigger after work. Your situation is the gym at your local community centre. Your chain sets a routine 3 days a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). Now the chunk, every two weeks on Friday you go for your max lift. 5 days of practice and 1 test every 2 weeks.
Not only are you going to better track and reward your ego by adding a testing cycle, but it gives you something to look forward to. You're not going to break the chain, but also really soon you're going to see how far you've come. That's a system looking both backward and forwards.
You now know how to habit, let us now talk about professional practice as a habit. You want to get better at your career? It's going to take practice. Well, maybe. Your career is an escalator. You'll move up even if you're stationary. Walk up the escalator! Think of how much further you'll get if you put in a little effort.
What Practice is Not
Practice comes in a few pieces, but first we should cover what practice is not. It's not about consuming content, working on side projects, or team based.
Consuming content is too passive. Watching lectures, reading books, listening to podcasts, following news aggregators, or other consumptive modes are fine. They're just not that effective. First, they rely entirely on serendipity. The hope is that by consuming things you'll be exposed to new concepts. That's true, but the discoverability problem means they're likely to only be popular concepts unless you consume an extraordinary amount of content.
You'll also gravitate to concepts you already feel familiar with. It's easy to avoid challenging yourself. They can also only go so deep on a concept. You'll in effect be making random progress, because each concept's likelihood to build on things is inversely relative to the size of all possible concepts.
The key problem though is that you can't really fail when consuming. It's easy to think you understand something if you aren't testing to see how much you don't really understand it. Remember grade school? Remember how you'd sit in class and think, yeah, I get it. Then you'd take the test and not get that coveted 100%. It's easy to think you get something you haven't tried.
Side projects are much better, but suffer from lock in. The upside of creation over consumption is you will actively fail. That's what you want by the way. You only really learn from failure. The problem with a project is that there's a lot of things you already know that need to be done. All the time you spend on easy things you already understand is time squandered.
Projects are great if you use the results of the project because you can constantly find new ways it could be improved. The problem is those improvements are often the product of things you already know and not products of your weaknesses. You're playing right into your strengths. You can push your boundaries, but not really your fundamental flaws.
You've also got a reason to fear failure in a project. If you really push head first into your weaknesses inside a project and you end up failing, you've failed the project. That's a lot of time and effort you'll be tempted to try and salvage by spending more time. You shouldn't hold onto your failures, and if you're learning well, you're going to make a mountain of failures. You need to be able to get rid of them. If you're going to pour all this time and effort in, you're going to feel obliged to keep your failures around. That's not good because it'll bring you down.
Team activities are also a great thing to participate in, but they suffer from specialization pressures. Team activities are a great way to practice teamwork. They're bad at practising the actual tasks at hand though. Effective teams specialize. They play to each other's strengths. You want to run directly towards your weaknesses. That's going to hurt the team. Again, teams are great. They're just a bad alternative to deliberate practice.
On the other hand, teams significantly improve your commitment. They hold you accountable through the shame of withdrawing. If you happen to have a study buddy, they can really help hold yourself accountable to keeping with the habit. The hard part is finding someone with similar enough weaknesses to make this work. You can hold each other accountable for different life changes, that's a possibility. I've never found luck with this, but your mileage may vary.
How To Practice
Sounds good. How does someone deliberately practice something?
Practice is made of 4 distinct parts:
- testing to identify weakness,
- disposable problem solving,
- the knowledge pipeline, and
- spaced repetition.
If you're drawing parallels, this looks suspiciously like most teachers' pedagogical method.
Testing to Identify Weakness
You need to test your abilities. Finding good tests is honestly the hardest part. You need to find ways to tests yourself to find out what you don't know. Things I've found effective include competition problems, lists of interview questions, leveraging my knowledge pipeline to find things I can't explain from first principals, some books that have practice problems, and online courseware that include problem sets. I keep a section of practice resources on my links page. It's not exhaustive and the resources aren't perfect but I kind of like them. It's tough because you need to find good problems at your level from domains you don't really understand.
If you know people knowledgeable in the area you're practising, reach out for this type of material. Things to consume are sometimes helpful (maybe they know of a book really worth reading), but honestly good tests are the hardest thing to find. Decent enough study materials are generally overwhelmingly abundant. It's self testing resources that are difficult to find.
Disposable Problem Solving
As discussed above, this is not a long term project. Now that you've done a test and know you can't really do a thing, you have to create artificial situations to do that thing. The key though, at the end of your practice session, you must throw it away. At least for the first while. Maybe after a while you find a particular piece that's really outstanding. Feel free to frame your best work. You're best work is not going to be your early stuff though.
Yeah, if that helps, think of this like an artist. How a musician will pick a piece of sheet music to play, focusing on correctness and often working to play it faster and faster. Getting better and better at correctly hitting the notes at speed. The painter will pick subjects at near random (often just a spoon or flower or something), focusing on a aspects like form, lighting, or composition and practising their ability to capture it quickly and evocatively. The musician isn't recording this. Ever meet that person who likes people looking through their sketch book? No! It's all crap. That's the point. They're working hard to fail fast. Those are not projects, they're practice. They're for the author alone.
In the same way, if you feel pride in your practice results, you're not practising hard enough. An easy way to improve is to set time limits (often imposed by how your habit is setup). If you've only got a 30 minute slot, that's perfect! You can constrain anything, time is just the most obvious. Maybe you constrain how many internet searches you're allowed (maybe none). Maybe you constrain the number of times you can iterate on something. Constraints are your friend in practice. They can hyper focus on your weaknesses. You can almost always get faster at a minimum. In your job time is money after all.
The Knowledge Pipeline
Once you've got your weaknesses pinned down and you've designed a set of practice problems or challenges, it's time to setup a knowledge pipeline. Yeah, that's my fancy way of saying you can go back to consuming content. The key here though is the knowledge should target your weaknesses more deliberately than following general industry trends, news, or gossip.
There are plenty of educational resources about specific things you now know you're weak at. Consume some of those. Maybe they can give you pointers on improving. Often they'll open your mind to completely new ways of thinking about that weakness, ways you might even wield it as a strength. Usually they'll provide a more structured look to expand your knowledge on the topic. The key here is going to be stopping to dig in further when they hand wave or simplify details (as most educators have to).
The difference between this and the more passive consumption is the focus. You're not making that random walk over all knowledge that's popular at the moment. You're instead making a guided search through a much narrower area of expertise. It's research, not discovery. One way to really focus is to pick a single large book on the topic. Books are great because the authors (the best books are usually by multiple) have the space and time to wrestle a topic to the ground. Every piece of content has to assume what their audience knows. A book or course has the luxury of knowing a lot of what you know because they just taught it to you. They can keep expanding on that prior knowledge.
The downside is that curating that depth of knowledge is labour intensive, so the good ones tend to cost money. Take advantage of your local libraries. On the other hand, there are some people who've managed to fund their work by relying on newer business models. Many Youtubers and some bloggers have made a living off a combination of advertising, merchandising, and voluntary financial sponsors. The downside though is they tend to see their content as discrete and not as building on one another. They have to try and maximize engagement and audience size for financial stability and going deep on a single topic is not the most lucrative approach. Being skin deep on many different popular things builds a big audience (the serendipity trap).
The last piece of the puzzle is to never stop learning the basics. You need to come back to the weaknesses you've stopped working on after a while to check in and make sure your brain doesn't purge those abilities. The more times you've done this, the longer you can go before the next repetition, but you need to keep coming back. You will forget many things over your lifetime. Repeated exposure is how you prevent this. The saying, "It's just like riding a bike," is fairly optimistic. If you haven't ridden a bike in a while you'll be surprised how clumsy you are at first.
You'll often be surprised how often focusing on the basics again will supercharge your ability to make progress on the more advanced things you're working on. Most people only have a few good tricks to solve problems. They usually come from the well honed ability to engage the basics of your field under a wide variety of constraints.
Many people aren't practising for their careers. That's kind of weird considering how much time you're likely going to spend in your career. Those that aren't will be passed by those who are. It doesn't take grand gestures and hours of work to practice. You will make more progress by making small consistent practice a routine habit. You can fit practice into just 15 minutes a day. Your first practice problems are likely to be getting faster at getting started. That skill will unlock all sorts of spare time you have.