Deliberate practice

Practice may be hard, exhausting and boring, but it’s a necessity for professionals who want to perfect their business protocols and computing skills.

Recently a partner of a successful public accounting firm noted that he had little comfort working with — and more importantly, reviewing — digital content. His office had just implemented an integrated set of protocols so that within a year or so, most existing filing cabinets would be removed and all content would be digital. He confided that aside from responding to emails, he seldom worked with any applications. He had his team publish the content to paper for his review. He was concerned about whether he could succeed in his desire to be effective in a completely digital world.

Sure he can. He just needs to practice.

Anders Ericsson, one of the world’s leading researchers on expertise, talks of “the remarkable potential of ‘ordinary’ adults and their amazing capacity for change with practice.” He and his colleagues argue that success is not a matter of talent but rather what they term “deliberate practice,” an idea that author Malcolm Gladwell popularized as the “10,000-hour rule” in his bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Practice is a term we typically use for sports and the arts. That narrow scope stops many of us from thinking of applying the phrase to our business protocols and specifically to our computing skills. In other words, we would never think of assigning practice routines as a mandatory professional development technique, to be done during business hours. Sure, you might enrol in an online hands-on course on how to use Microsoft Word, pass the course exam and receive seven hours of certified professional development credits toward your mandatory professional reporting. You’ll likely walk away with a few new ideas from the course. But will you deliberately practice the lesson over and over again for the next 10 weeks to ensure you are comfortable with applying all the skills taught? Probably not.

Everyone hates to practice, even though we know practice improves performance. Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. It’s exhausting and boring. We can even try to rationalize that we’ve already done the exercise so practice is a waste of time. But each and every one of us knows that deliberate practice works. More of it equals better performance and better understanding. Tons of it equals expert status.

So what is deliberate practice? Geoff Colvin, Fortune magazine’s senior editor-at-large and author of Talent is Overrated, defines deliberate practice as an “activity designed specifically to improve performance; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.”

Small wonder, then, that most of us prefer to practice what we already know and so are guaranteed to feel rewarded. Deliberate practice is designed to stretch us beyond our current abilities. Did I mention it’s hard? Thankfully there are tactics you can use to make deliberate practice more palatable.

Choose just one or two application skills you’d like to improve. Then find a digital course that will allow you to do the lessons over and over again for 10 weeks or so. At the end of the 10 weeks re-evaluate what skills you’d like to continue to enhance and choose one or two for the next quarter. If you start with trying to practice eight skills this year, you will fail. Select two skills per quarter and you will succeed.

Set aside practice time each and every day. Maybe 30 minutes before work or as a lunch ’n’ learn. Be prepared to hate the time you practice, but also be prepared to begin feeling comfortable with new ways of working. And also be prepared to absorb the recognition that will naturally come because you are learning.