A smart excuse to not put in the effort

At some point in our lives we seem to find ourselves in a kind of ‘flow’ where we find our work effortlessly enjoyable. All the knobs in our heads have been tuned just to the right extent allowing us to feel this rare but satisfying feeling of being in the flow. Unfortunately, despite the amazing feeling that one experiences in this state, it doesn’t really help us get better at what we do, warns Cal Newport of Study Hacks.

Once we experience ‘flow’ we are tempted to seek it out. I have experienced this state of flow a number of times, and I admit to have fallen trap to the temptation. When in flow, it feels that I am on a cognitive high, able to make the connections needed to construct an argument, able to draw on the data that I need to plan my next step, or even to grasp exactly what I want to learn. When in flow, I feel extremely productive, and it is tempting to want to feel like that whenever I work.

When Newport first brought up this issue on his blog, he found there to be a lot of discussion among his readers mostly because of the lack of clarity in the understanding of what, exactly, flow means. To the rescue came Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, who introduced the idea of ‘deliberate practice’ which is what really makes us better at what we do. He says:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (flow) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

In short, as Cal Newport puts it, the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. There is no avoiding working on our weaknesses if we want to get better at doing something. When in flow, we tend to capitalise on what we are good at and make it work to our advantage. On the other hand, when we need to get better at something by overcoming our weaknesses, we need to put in deliberate effort to improve. This needs to be done in the face of feeling ‘you are not good enough’, which clearly cannot be enjoyable.

No more making smart excuses such as, “I need to hit that plane, and once I’m there I know I can get a lot of work done and get better at doing what I do.” Ericsson’s warning should be given due to attention:

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers claimed that what made exceptionally successful people exceptional was that they had put in 10,000 hours of work into bettering themselves at what they do. But Ericsson warns that there is only a weak correlation between the mere number of years (or hours) of experience and the performance.

In other words, putting  in the raw number of hours isn’t enough. Those hours needed to be dedicated to doing the right type of work. Newport claims that understanding this “right type of work” is perhaps the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life.

Newport quotes Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune Magazine who wrote an entire book about this idea and surveyed the research literature to expand the definition of deliberate practice:

  1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
  2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
  5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
  6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

A lot of the studies done on exploring this subject of deliberate practice have, not surprisingly, involved sportsmen and musicians. These professionals have objective measures of success which makes studying them easier. But what about the rest of us who don’t have such clear structures in place? How do we invoke deliberate practice to get better at writing, or marketing, or research?

Calvin argues that in most scenarios the fundamentals of fostering great performance are unrecognized or ignored. If indeed that is the case, the payback of putting in any amount of deliberate effort would be huge. Why? Because, as Newport suggests, unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on deliberate practice.

Most professionals will get better at what they do with experience and will reach an acceptable level of performance. But to become remarkable, there is no other way but to put in the deliberate practice needed to get there. There are no obvious answers to what constitutes deliberate practice in a particular field, and that is probably what differentiates those who lead remarkable lives from those who don’t.


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