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What – and How – Are You Practicing?

What – and How – Are You Practicing?

As a coach, my work is all about helping leaders and teams change behavior in order to get different, more desirable results. And changing behavior is all about practice. If you have ever put in the time to really learn a new skill – whether it was listening without reacting, or playing the piano, or hitting a baseball – you know what I’m talking about.

So, what’s so hard about this? On the face of it, it seems that practicing a new skill should be pretty easy: decide what you want to learn, and then just do it over and over until you get good at it. It’s not this easy, though. If it were, none of us would ever face challenges in learning something new, and that’s clearly not the case. So, what gets in our way?

In my experience, there are at least three things that make us less than successful in developing new skills: practicing unconsciously, practicing without clear standards, and not respecting that mastery takes time.

Practicing unconsciously. Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, talks about “deep, deliberate practice” as the engine that drives improvement. In Coyle’s view, this kind of practice requires paying attention to what we’re doing, and practicing at the edge of our capacity – in other words, making mistakes, noticing the mistakes, and then focusing like a laser on improvement. Practicing unconsciously is the opposite of this, just engaging in an activity without rigorous attention to the process, or without challenging yourself to get better. I took piano lessons for ten years starting around 8 years old, and there were many times I just played a piece through a few times while half my mind was thinking about homework or friends – not really paying attention to what I was actually practicing. I was practicing something (you could call it daydreaming, or multi-tasking), but it wasn’t piano.

Practicing without clear standards. To get better at any skill, you have to know what you’re aiming for. How, exactly, will you know that you’ve mastered it? This is where having clear standards comes in. Going back to the piano example, my teacher was a stickler for details like finger position, tempo, and phrasing. Even so, I’m sure I spent a lot of time practicing a particular piece, and even paying attention to it, without really focusing on the details of mastery and the standards of performance I was aiming for. Same goes for every other skill: how do you really know when you’ve mastered knitting? What are the standards you use to judge whether or not you’re skilled in building high performing teams?  How do team members know when they’ve successfully mastered the art of having difficult conversations? If you can’t answer the question about standards, you don’t know how to best focus the time you spend practicing, no matter what skill you’re working on.

Not respecting that mastery takes time. No matter what the weekend workshops promise about transforming your leadership (or your golf swing) in ten easy steps, getting really skilled at anything takes time. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Rule of 10,000 Hours” (which is the minimum number of hours that most world-class performers have spent practicing their skill). We can quibble about the exact number of repetitions it takes to achieve mastery of a particular skill, but whatever the number is, it’s a lot. When you fail to appreciate the time it takes to build mastery, you either give up as soon as practice becomes difficult or inconvenient, or you’re impatient to move on to the next exciting thing as soon as you’ve got the basics. Either way, you fall short of building a new skill that you can really depend on being able to execute, even when the pressure’s on.

What’s most interesting to me about practice is that we’re always practicing something. Whether I’m aware of it or not, every moment of my day I’m practicing – I could be practicing focus or distraction, tension or relaxation, listening or impatience, curiosity or frustration…but I’m practicing SOMETHING. So here’s two questions for reflection – you can use them as a tool for building your awareness and focusing your actions related to practice and skill development:

1) What am I practicing in this moment?

2) And, how am I practicing it?

If you’re practicing what you want to get better at, and doing it consciously, with clear standards for performance, and a commitment to stay the course, then congratulations. You’re on the road to mastery.

Photos courtesy of woodleywonderworks and lululemon athletica, Flickr Creative Commons

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