Deliberate Practice for Knowledge Workers

You have probably heard that 10,000 hours of practice leads to expertise, a notion popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. The details are more complex than this and are spelled out by the researcher behind this statement, Anders Ericsson, in Peak. If you want a good breakdown of it, Badass by Kathy Sierra is much a better distillation and practical guide to practice than Gladwell. (I gave a talk about Badass for iOS developers a few years ago—there’s a synopsis of the book there)

The main thing to know is that the nature of the practice matters. Ericsson calls it deliberate practice. I think if you’ve taken music lessons, you have probably been exposed to deliberate practice.

Skills are broken down and practiced individually until they become automatic and expert-level in isolation. Bigger skills are built up from automatic ones and you constantly repractice those skills to keep them automatic.

In athletics, deliberate practice is also the norm.

But, what about knowledge work? It’s certainly not the norm to talk about deliberate practice in knowledge work. You don’t see systematic practice very often.

One reason why is that a key element of deliberate practice is instantaneous feedback. If I throw a pitch, I can get the speed right away. I know how it felt. I know where it ended up in the strike zone. Modern technology can give me all kinds of data on it. When I play a guitar chord, I instantly know if I did it right (or at least, my teacher does).

That’s not easy to do for knowledge work.

I do think that, in programming, there’s a big opportunity to introduce a regimen of deliberate practice. There are tons of tutorials on individual tech blogs and Dev that show a market for them. We just need to remember what we need to train.

If you type in code that you read from a blog, you are practicing transcribing, not programming. Since programming is about disambiguation, that’s the skill to practice. Take a vague description of some goal and figure out how to program it. in my Swift Book Companion, that’s all I offer. There is no code to copy—only vague descriptions of code to write.

In Cal Newport’s Deep Thoughts podcast (see Ep. 32), practice is a common topic. He offers these two practice exercises for knowledge workers in general.

  1. Practice working uninterrupted on hard problems for at least 30 minutes and build that up to 1-2 hours. The practice is on not getting distracted and not stopping, not the actual work. You can easily get feedback on that part.
  2. Practice reading hard material uninterrupted. Again, the practice is on the focus.

A similar thing I do everyday for practice is morning pages. I talked about this in the first episode of my podcast. I am practicing “writing on demand”.

The two things to remember if you are designing practice for yourself.

  1. Break it down so that you are practicing one thing and trying to make it automatic
  2. Set it up so that you have instant feedback on whether you are doing it right

Once it’s automatic, it can be part of the next thing you practice.