Crappy practice is a waste of time

by Philip Brewer on 9 June 2009 10 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

If you want to get good at something, you need to practice. If you're not trying to get better, and just want to enjoy doing whatever it is, there's no need to practice--do what you love and ignore anyone who wants you to do it better. But if you're going to practice, then practice. Don't do something else and call it practice. That's no good.

A while back I was talking to some friends about the idea (known for some time now, but recently popularized in the book Talent Is Overrated) that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to develop expertise at some skill.  I had just written a post about the work by K. Anders Ericsson, the researcher whose work demonstrated that the number of hours semed to be the same over a wide range of activities from chess to tennis to playing the violin.

Ericsson defined a term "deliberate practice," by which he meant doing some piece of the task, monitoring the quality of the performance, evaluating success, figuring out how to do it better, and then repeating that process and trying to do it better. But when I tried to describe it, my friend interrupted me and said, "practice." I backed up and tried again, but once again, my friend insisted that what I was talking about was "practice"--not anything special or out of the ordinary. Just practice.

Ericsson justified creating a special term this way:

We call these practice activities deliberate practice and distinguish them from other activities, such as playful interaction, paid work, and observation of others, that individuals can pursue in the domain.

But my friend was right: It degrades the language to invent a new, special term to mean what "practice" already means. Better to keep "practice" to mean practice. If anything needs to be given a new term, it should be the non-practice activities that sometimes masquerade as practice.

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When a musician gives a performance, he's trying to entertain the audience, not get better at playing his instrument. When a worker on assembly line builds a widget, he's trying to build a good widget, not get better at making widgets. When someone plays a video game, he's trying to have fun, not get better at playing video games. As long as these non-practice activities are not intended as practice, all is well.

(It's worth mentioning that any of these activities may, in fact, result in increased expertise--because some amount of monitoring quality, evaluating success, and figuring out how to do it better is going on. But that just means that these other things--performing, working, playing--include some aspects of practice. It's fine to acknowledge this, but don't imagine that these activities are thereby transformed into practice.)

Degrading the term "practice" has a real downside. If you let yourself call it practice, when what you're actually doing is just playing around, you're going to do more playing around and less practice--because playing around is easy and practice is hard. That's bad if you're trying to get better, because if what you're doing is not practice, you're not going to develop expertise.

Practice doesn't need a new name--it has long been understood. Neither do we need a new name for those other things you might be doing ("performing" or "working" or "teaching" or "playing" or "observing" or "reading" or "studying"). Perhaps, though, it's appropriate to come up with a new name for whatever it is that people do when they call it practice, but what they're really doing is just playing around. I've started to call that "crappy practice."  And the important thing to remember is that crappy practice is no good way to get better at something.
 

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Guest's picture

I agree 100%!

As my lacrosse coach used to say, "Perfect practice makes perfect!" Everytime we would be going through the motions and not focusing on practicing properly, he would whip out this saying.

Torley Wong's picture

Becasue it's easier to measure, so many people emphasize *time* instead of *what happened in that time* — the hours we work, and as you point out, Philip, the WASTE of time (I call it "slop") that comes with crappy practice.

I like to figure out how to do the same or better in less time. Now that's being effective.

A lot of "practice" is really discovering yourself and experimenting, and ruling out what DOESN'T work. Yes, that's a lot of trial-and-error, and then as you go up the skill ladder, you have a more capable (and culpable) intuition to preempt faults.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have a saying a use when I'm running rehearsals. "Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent."

Guest's picture
chriss

Thank you Philip for a much-needed mental kick in the rear!

While I've known what you're saying since I was 8 (and had a very strict but very effective piano teacher), I've been letting myself slack off in a number of activities by conveniently forgetting the true meaning of "practice".

I'm now out of excuses: bring on the hard work!

Guest's picture
noetic

This was a very big reality check for me when I began studying performance.

I realized that my performances were radically different from my practice sessions, in quality and content. It shocked and confused me for quite a long time until I realized that I wasn't practicing properly.

In order to enhance your performance quality, you MUST practice with the performance in mind.

Not right before the performance. Not in the dress rehearsal. From the very beginning, at every single practice session.

You must try very hard to attain the same state of mind in your practice sessions as in your performance. This is the key to success.

Guest's picture
Guest

If practice is practice, why can't "monitoring quality, evaluating success, and figuring out how to do it better" be learning?

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Guest:

Lots of things are learning:  Reading a book, watching experts perform, listening to what experienced people have to say, taking a class, etc.  But only one thing is practice:  Practice.

Guest's picture

Very good points and it is something many of us forget over time. Thanks for the reminder! We definitely need to practice doing what we believe we want to achieve in our lives!

Guest's picture
Connie

Why in the world do we need to be perfect. Especially why do we need to be perfect in our practice. I am all for getting better at skills we enjoy (or make a living at) but why does the practice have to be so intentional. I didn't become a great engineer because I practiced at it, I became a great engineer because I love it and work hard at doing it. I spent 4 years in University practicing it and learned more in 6 months on the job doing it.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Connie:

You don't need to be perfect.  In fact, you don't even need to get better.  I tried to make it clear that, if you're happy with your current level of performance, there's no need to practice at all--just do.

And, even if you don't practice, you're going to gradually get better at whatever you do--because doing includes elements of practice within it.

Taking a class, though, is not practicing.  A class may include some practice.  (A typing class, for example, is mostly practice.)  But practice is practice:  do something, monitor your performance, evaluate your success, figure out how to do it better, and repeat.  There's generally some aspect of that whenever you do anything--do your job, play a game, etc.  But if your goal is to get better, you'll do better through practice than through any of the other things (such as taking a class or doing your job) that simply include some aspects of practice within them.

To go back to typing, I took a class in typing--which included a lot of practice at typing--until I got to the point where I could type 30 words a minute (the minimum to pass the typing class I was taking).  After that I quit practicing--but I continued to type, virtually every day.  About 10 years later, unpacking some old boxes, I happened to run across an old typing textbook.  On a whim, I took one of the timed typing tests, and discovered that I could type 60 words a minute:  ten years of just using typing (not practicing) had doubled my typing speed.  If, on the other hand, I had practiced typing (did exercises, identified weaknesses, corrected them, and then done more exercises--trying to go a bit faster each day), I don't doubt that I could have doubled my typing speed in just a few weeks.

I didn't do it, because I didn't need to type faster.  (Since I'm a writer, the limiting factor on my typing speed is usually knowing what I want to type.  Typing faster doesn't help me think faster.)

A lot of people, though, do want to get better, so they "practice" at whatever it is they want to do.  I put "practice" in quotes, though, because what a lot of people do isn't really practice--it's something else.  Maybe it's giving a performance, maybe it's playing around, maybe it's taking a class or reading a book or watching an expert performing.  All those things are worth doing, but none of them is practice.