By now you’ve probably heard about deliberate practice and the famed “10,000 Hour Rule.”
If not, it’s an idea developed by K. Anders Ericsson and popularized by mega-bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell; the idea is that a significant amount of world-class performers’ success was their commitment to attaining more than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Since the idea was popularized, it’s been (very rightly) attacked for a variety of flaws. Some critics say 10,000 hours is too simple. Others say that deliberate practice overlooks the role of inherent traits.
Much of this debate focuses on trivial elements like how much practice is needed and whether practice actually does make perfect. And that’s a shame. Because sadly, almost all of the debate around how correct the theory is overlooks a core element of Ericsson’s original thesis—an element that holds the key for all of us on how to make performance gains.
At its core, deliberate practice isn’t about racking up hours or “putting in the reps.” It’s about focusing on the small things.
Ericsson was quick to point out that the world-class performers he studied consistently broke down their performance into small chunks—the smallest elements possible. If it was violinists, they’d focus on specific transitions between notes. If it was golfers, they’d focus on specific sections of the swing—movement of the hips or amount of flexion in the wrist.
I’ve put this into practice myself. One of my primary activities these days is giving keynote speeches. But “become a better speaker” is far too big of a goal to focus on. So I’ve focused instead on small chunks—little improvements that I can make each time. At first it was getting comfortable with taking longer pauses, then it was removing vocal fillers (ums and ahs), and then it was moving around the stage more deliberately. Each time I practice I’m running through the big thing—the speech—but my mind is focused on the small things and making small improvements.
This commitment to small things matters because of a tendency of our brains when we practice. To conserve energy and processing power, the brain tends to transform repetitive motions into automatic habits. And if you’re practicing poorly, the flaws in your motion get automated as well. It’s only by slowing down and focusing on small things that your brain re-writes its encoding—deleting the wrong motions and automating the right ones.
At first, these small changes are just small changes. But they add up. Small changes become big improvements when focused on intently and practiced deliberately.