Practice Makes Perfect

People joke that I have too many hobbies. It’s true that I have a lot of extra curricular activities, I’m learning German; I have sax lessons; I write this blog and a I’m a big aerobics fan. I’ve been doing aerobics for years and I had some German speaking and sax playing skills, but at the start of the year I was out of practice. Before I started the blog and really started to think about what I valued and my Life Plan, I’d identified these as things I’d like to work on. So far I’ve made time for them because I enjoy them and I want to become good at them, but what makes us good? And if you want to get good at something, how is the best way to go about it?

For his book, Peak, Anders Ericsson did a lot of research into whether talent is driven by genes or general perseverance. He concluded that we don’t need special genes to excel in a specific area. If we want to get really good at something, anything, we can through practice. You may have heard the theory that you can come expert at something after 10,000 hours of practice, a message (amongst many others) popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers but Ericsson argues that sheer volume of practice alone is not enough.

I’ve certainly been guilty in the past of thinking that by just playing my sax I’ll see vague overall improvement. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. When we practice a skill we get better results when we try to refine specific skills. When we take an approach which allows us to identify what is going wrong, we can improve. It’s helpful to find ways to measure performance so we can receive feedback on how we’re progressing and which areas need work. It can also be a benefit to work with a teacher who already has a high level of skills as they can share their tried and tested training techniques.

It’s also helpful to practice outside of your comfort zone, if you go over and over things you can already do there are no opportunities for advancement or improvement. With saxophone this means playing music which is a bit too difficult and which pushes me. It’s not easy to do this but it does make you work harder.

Since deciding I want to take German and Sax seriously, I’ve been going to lessons for both since January. I’ve been practising each weekly, but I won’t deny there are times when my enthusiasm has waned. It’s human nature to give up on things that we don’t care about, we live in a world where there are so many distractions and opportunities that if we try to convince ourselves we’re interested in something in an attempt to achieve a goal which just isn’t us, we’ll quickly end up staring at Facebook and wondering why three months later we’ve made no progress with our goals. If we want to achieve something, we really need to have passion driving us forward, and the only way to have that passion is to choose goals that we really care about. There’s absolutely no point me saying I want to train to achieve a record breaking triathlon time because I have next to no interest in swimming but I do have a strange obsession with the German language which has meant I haven’t dropped this as an interest since I first proudly announced Ich heiße Zoe.

Going back to the idea of quality of practice, a way to increase your passion for something is to approach it from a different angle, or to combine it with something else you’re passionate about. My goal in German is to be able to watch German TV, specifically I would have liked to have watched Deutschland ’83 without subtitles. German lessons are helping and I’ve also employed a number of apps in my studies, which are helpful for vocabulary but really not that interesting. It dawned on me that to be able to watch German TV without subtitles, I’m going to need to start watching German TV – even if I need subtitles for now and I’ve found a website which streams a detective series which I can watch to my heart’s content, pausing as I go to look words up. It’s painstaking at the moment, but is allowing me to feel closer to my goals while giving learning German a different dimension.

I got this idea when I heard a colleague say that she’d watched the whole of a particular box set in French, and I could choose a show I love and only watch it in German. This idea is known as Temptation Bundling. It’s about giving yourself motivation to do something you might otherwise find boring or lose interest in by combining it with something you love, and it’s true that practice isn’t always fun.

Looking at it another way, it can be helpful to find a purpose for your interest. I’ve been getting pretty fed up with the sax pieces I’ve been learning and realised that to keep motivated, I need a goal. An exam. Having this in the diary will keep me focussed. For somebody else the goal might be to achieve a certain standard so they can join a band, or to practice a certain piece so they can perform in a charity concert.

Some people find that pressure from others, whether that’s their partners or their parents or a group they belong to can help them stay focussed. It might be that you want to achieve a goal for somebody, or that involving others in your goal keeps you accountable, you’re much more likely to get up at 6am for a run if your friend is expecting to meet you. It can also help to find a focus which is bigger than your own success, maybe you want to run a race in the best time because it helps your running club achieve some kind of status. There are a lot of ways you keep motivated and here ere are my tips for setting goals to get great at, and staying motivated to achieve them.

Set a goal you’re passionate about

Give your goal a purpose in a wider context

General practice isn’t enough, be focussed

Break the goal into smaller SMART objectives

Find a way to measure yourself and use feedback to improve in specific areas

Schedule time to practice regularly

Find a teacher or someone you can learn from

Make yourself accountable to somebody

Find new dimensions to add to your practice

Combine practice with something you love

Practice beyond your comfort zone

Be optimistic, everyone starts somewhere

So, this is definitely a blog post of hope. If your life plan includes your dream to learn Italian, to play the ukulele, to do hand stands, to make macaroons or to run a sub-4 hour marathon, we’ve established that this can be done no matter what your genes. Getting the right quantity and most importantly quality of practice is actually the deciding factor in whether you’ll meet your goals. Let me know which goals you’re working on, I’d love to hear about them.


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