My goal when I’m practicing anything is mastery. That’s an elusive goal, and I’ve never achieved it. It’s one of those goals best kept ahead of you, so you never stop practicing. You get closer with every step, but it’s always in the distance.
So I do a lot of research and experimentation, looking for the best path toward mastery. And I’ve found some principles that have served me well.
I’m a musician and a writer, but you can apply these principles to any skill you’re trying to improve.
The essential practice strategy
We define deliberate practice as purposeful and systematic practice. Break your practice down into components, and then you can practice them in relative isolation, focusing primarily on your weaknesses.
Break down the skills and knowledge you’ll need to gain mastery
I’ve done this with guitar practice. To improvise effectively, I need to know my intervals without thinking. I need to be able to play quickly and cleanly. I need near-perfect bends and slides. I need to be able to follow the chord changes. And so on. Whatever your craft, break it down into individual skills to practice.
For each skill, plan to ramp up as you improve, adding difficulty with each variation.
If you’re new to your craft, you may not know how best to break it down. Your first step will be to find a teacher or mentor or to do some research.
Improving neural pathways by slowing down
Myelin is a fatty protein that insulates your nerve cells. It allows impulses to transmit faster and more efficiently. After enough repetition, the neural pathways are like train tracks, so you no longer have to think. Your body knows what to do.
But this same process of myelination can ingrain both good and bad habits.
Slow down and be methodical in your practice to cement good habits before speeding up.
We learn through repetition, but some forms of repetition are better than others.
Research indicates that spaced repetition is most effective for committing knowledge and skills to long-term memory and motor memory. The idea is to study or practice regularly while reviewing the most difficult things the most. If you’re memorizing something with flashcards, for example, you’d repeat anything you find difficult or anything that was recently added more often, then reduce the frequency as it becomes familiar.
This applies to creative skills, too. Practice everything, but practice what needs the most work more often. It’s tempting to practice what you’re better at, but that’s not how you improve.
Practice at the edge of your ability
This means maintaining the right balance as your skills develop. You should practice things that are challenging but not quite impossible. When the practice becomes easy, raise the difficulty.
One exception: I often challenge myself with something that seems impossible. I’ve made some giant leaps in skill from doing that. When I was a kid taking guitar lessons, I wanted a challenge, so at the end of one lesson, I asked my teacher if he could give me something to practice—something he didn’t think I’d be able to do. He smiled and then showed me something that seemed impossible. I went home and broke it down into little pieces and repeated them until my fingers made the motions without effort. Two weeks later, I had mastered the exercise. And my general skill with the guitar improved more than it ever had in such a short period.
Permit yourself repeated failure
I’ve seen people give up practicing because of frustration, and I get it. Sometimes you just keep messing up. Sometimes you plateau and can’t seem to get any better. Sometimes you go backward, and it feels hopeless. The people who reach mastery keep going. They let themselves fail and then fail again. Repeated failure is the point.
Think of failures like reps at the gym. Each failure is another rep; the more you do, the stronger you get. That’s what practice is. Every rep is a success.
It’s a lot more fun when you think of it like this.
Do exercises that force you to think
I’ve spent too much time doing rote, repetitive exercises. It doesn’t work particularly well, especially for building a deeper understanding.
In my early years playing guitar, I tried and failed to internalize the triads (3-note chords) up and down the neck. I repeated the same rote exercises daily and made no progress.
Then I learned an exercise that sounded musical while forcing me to find root notes of changing chords and play the appropriate triad shapes around them. Every chord required some thought, and as I practiced this, it finally started to click. Wherever I was on the fretboard, I could see the root notes and the triad shapes around them, which was like a scaffolding for easily knowing all the flavorful notes around them.
Look at these two numbers:
Which is easier to remember?
If you have a human brain, it’s the 2nd one. The hyphens make phone numbers easier to remember because it breaks them down into chunks.
You don’t want to learn one number at a time, but you also don’t want to learn the entire string as a single group. Small groupings are much more manageable for our brains.
The same principles apply to learning and building skills.
When practicing a musical instrument, you might decide to learn a difficult song. If you’re struggling, you can break it down into smaller parts. Learn a tiny bit, then learn the next small bit, and so on. Merge those bits into larger groups until you’ve learned the entire song.
How can we further enhance our practice?
Without self-discipline, I tend to pick up my guitar, practice for a few minutes, set it back down, work on something else, and pick it up again later. When I practice like this, it never gets intense, and I don’t make much progress.
I’ve found that timers help. You can read my article on creative productivity, where I make a case for timers in all creative work. That applies here, too. When the timer runs, you can practice or do nothing, but you can’t do anything else. The idea is to get immersed in the practice long enough that your mind elevates to a new level of focus. I find this takes around 20 minutes, so I like to set a timer for no less than 30 minutes and preferably an hour.
Practice different skills in succession
Choose several skills or variations and practice them in succession. This is called interleaving.
If you want to practice throwing a baseball, don’t repeat the same throw. It’s more effective to alternate throws at different distances and angles.
If you alternate practicing triads and scales on guitar, you discover how they connect.
It’s all interconnected and related. We narrow the scope of our practice to focus on weak points, then zoom out to see how it all fits together.
Make exercises practical, when possible
Some exercises we learn on guitar are for building coordination, but you would never use them in music.
These exercises are essential in the beginning to build strength, flexibility, and coordination. But then you can discard the training wheels.
I treat improvisation as an exercise in my routine. When working on some specific technique or pattern, I fit it into my improvisation practice. I’m not only practicing the technique but also learning to use it. And it’s more fun.
A bonus of this type of practice: sometimes I stumble onto usable material, and a new song is born.
If possible, do compound exercises
Take two or more things you’re trying to learn and combine them into a single exercise. Be creative.
One fiction exercise I enjoy is writing about a typical day in a character’s life. I bring the scene to life through human interactions and sensory details. Meanwhile, I’ll work to maintain pacing. I’m targeting two areas that often can conflict with one another. Sensory details slow down the action but are necessary for immersion. Striking a balance is one of the more challenging elements of writing. So instead of practicing pacing one day and descriptive text the next, I put them together.
When practicing guitar, I like to improvise while limiting myself to chord notes. Now I’m practicing chord note visualization and improvisation.
Do the exercise you least want to do
If I’m faced with two exercises, I look inward at my emotions. Do I dread one of those a little bit more than the other? Then that’s what I practice. The practice we’d rather avoid is usually the neglected area that needs the most work. If our goal is mastery, we have to confront these aversions.
If you want to understand something, try teaching it—the act of teaching helps solidify and deepen your understanding.
First, it forces you to do some preparation. As you put together a curriculum, you’ll encounter weak spots in your understanding and work through them. And then explaining it helps strengthen the neural pathways.
If no one is available to teach, do the preparation and imagine teaching someone. I’ve done this since I was a kid (I don’t know how it started). When I was learning something, I would imagine explaining what I knew to someone who knew less than me. And when I got stuck, I’d look up the answer. I still do that.
It’s best if you can teach a person. Their unexpected questions will force you to think more.
When you’re not physically practicing, that doesn’t mean you can’t practice in your imagination. Imagine practicing as vividly as possible, trying to feel the movements.
Mental practice can complement—but not replace—physical practice.
A better life through mastery
To me, practice is spiritual. I feel connected to something. It’s meditative. The more firmly I grasp a craft, the more satisfying it becomes. It improves my entire approach to life. I’m much happier when I devote a portion of time to intense, deliberate practice.