How to Practice Effectively to Improve Your Skills


In my last post, I talked about how deliberate practice is the key to improving your skills. Today we’ll look at the characteristics of this type of practice and how to apply it to web work.

Like my last post, this is based on the book Talent is Overrated. If you want to learn more, I recommend picking up your own copy.

After compiling and analyzing the research on exceptional performance, the book found these five qualities of deliberate practice.

1. It’s designed to specifically improve performance. When most people think of practice,they think of someone doing an activity over and over again.  However, deliberate practice means creating an activity that actually improves your skills.  For example, you shouldn’t choose an activity you’re already good at.

I think about some of the aspiring web designers that I met back in college.  They definitely had skill and I knew they spent a lot of time creating designs on Photoshop, but they didn’t seem to improve much over the years.  When they were seniors, their designs looked similar to their freshmen designs.  As I look back on how they spent their “practice time”, I remember that time was spent on techniques they were already good at.

Your practice rituals should be designed to shore up your weaknesses.  The book gave the great example of Benjamin Franklin, one of the most skilled prose writers in American history.  He learned his craft with an interesting practice ritual.  First, he would find quality essays that were written with more skill than he had.  Next, after some time, he would try to rewrite the essay.  Then, he would check his work to the original work to see how similar they were.

Following Franklin’s example, what if those designers from my college found some designs they wanted to emulate from designers with higher skill?  Next, they could wait a few days and then try to recreate the design from memory.  This activity is much more effective than creating the designs they were already comfortable with.

2. It can be repeated a lot. If you create an activity that’s designed to improve performance, you’ll be failing a lot.  This is because the activity will target an area of improvement, or a weakness.  And no matter how talented you are, research shows that it takes a lot of repetition to shore up a weakness.

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Outliers, popularized the term “10,000-Hour Rule”.  This rule states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve world class success.  10,000 hours is a lot of repetition.  If you practiced 20 hours a week, it would take you 10 years to fulfill all those hours.

3. Feedback on results is continuously available. Many budding writers are advised to write every day to improve their skill.  So, they set a goal to write a certain amount of words every day, but how many of them seek feedback on their work?

Feedback is necessary because you need to know if you’re improving or not.

Franklin had an ingenious method of getting immediate feedback since he would just refer to the existing essay.  Franklin’s practice ritual is a timeless example for any writer.

We can apply this quality of getting feedback to web work.  For example, let’s pretend you’re a web designer and you want to improve your header creation skills.  First, find several quality tutorials for creating headers.  Next, go through the tutorials.  Then, wait a day or two and try to create the headers based on the tutorials.   Finally, seek feedback by checking the steps you took to create the header with the steps in the tutorial.

Programmers can do something similar by finding programming tutorials.  Or you can find quality open source software that uses unfamiliar coding technques and then try to recreate it from memory.  Also, you don’t have to recreate the whole piece of software.  A small but tricky section of code in the software can be useful as a feedback tool.

I can’t leave this point about feedback without talking about mentors.  Mentors are invaluable in feedback process.  If you dig deep enough at the life of any exceptional performer, more than likely you’ll find a mentor that provided helpful feedback to the performer for many years.

The book notes Tiger Woods’ father, Earl Woods.  A lover of golf, Earl mentored and taught Tiger how to play golf starting when Tiger was only two years old.  In the foreword to his father’s book, Woods said: “In retrospect, golf for me was an apparent attempt to emulate the person I looked up to more than anyone: my father. He was instrumental in helping me develop the drive to achieve, but his role — as well as my mother’s — was one of support and guidance, not interference.”

While you may not be as lucky to have a mentor in your field in your family, there are people online that would like to help.  It will take some effort but you should find someone who’s more skilled than you and see if they’ll mentor you.  You’ll probably have to offer something in return since they’ll be spending their valuable time to mentor you.  Yes, this might include cash but if you find a quality mentor, it’s worth spending money for their time, advice, and feedback.

Jonathan Morrow writes how he failed as a blogger until he paid Chris Garrett, a blogging expert, to mentor him.  If you’re a search marketer,  I recommend Aaron Wall’s SEO Training Program.  I’m not a web designer or a coder, so I don’t know of any designers or coders that offer mentoring services.  However, if you have any recommendations, feel free to leave a comment.

Finally, when seeking feedback, it’s important to set aside your ego.  As web workers, we’re often hesitant to ask for feedback on our work, but feedback is critical to improving our skills.  And the best feedback can come from a fellow web worker who’s more ahead of the game than you are.

4. It’s highly demanding mentally. By now you may realize that deliberate practice puts quite a strain on the mental faculties.   It takes a great deal of concentration and mental focus to continually repeat activities that are out of your comfort zone. In fact, the book notes that the mental demands are actually what keep top performers from practicing more.  Top performers understand the benefits of practice but even they can’t practice more than a couple hours a day.  The brain can only sustain so much mental strain before it needs a break.

5. It isn’t much fun. For the vast majority of us, deliberate practice is not going to be enjoyable.  When you’re doing something out of your comfort zone, you will fail a lot and failure is not fun.

I’ve already talked about the mental cost, but there’s also the psychological cost of being honest with yourself and identifying your weaknesses.  The psychological cost continues as you craft practice rituals to shore up those weaknesses.  After you practice, you’ll get feedback, which can be a blow to a weak ego.  Let face it, most people would not consider these things fun activities.

I’ll close with a video from the author of the book and my favorite example from the book.  It’s one of a world class ice skater.  A world class skater looks flawless in the Winter Olympics.  She makes difficult jumps look easy.  However, if you were at her countless practices, you would see the hundreds of falls she experienced before she was able to nail those jumps perfectly.

The same principle applies in any field including web work. You may be envious of other web workers who are more skilled than you. Instead of bemoaning your lack of talent and wishing you had their talent, realize that they achieved their success from hundreds of hours of practice, learning their craft and improving their skills. If you’re willing to practice hard, you too can achieve success.

Here’s the video.


What practice activities can you think of that could help you improve your skills?

  1. By Scott Radcliff posted on May 30, 2009 at 1:01 pm
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    Your post came at a great time. Lately, I have been thinking about this very thing in the web development industry. I am sure I am not alone when I say that often I don’t touch a programming language for while, and so much is forgotten that I waste valuable time knocking the rust off. Practice, even if it is just a simple function or program, can help tremendously.

  2. By Deborah Anderson posted on May 31, 2009 at 7:18 pm
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    I love this article. It makes me feel better while also telling me what I have to do.

    In my 3D animation, I’m trying to get better and I do have a mentor who I show my work to. It seems like he is always telling me what I need to do and what is wrong, but I realize that is helping me get better.

    I want to be where he is, but he has had a lot more practice than I have and I have to realize that I have to work hard to get there.

    Thanks again for this article. I know how to get better now.

  3. By Wilsonville Web Design posted on May 31, 2009 at 7:20 pm
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    This is a great post and I totally agree. I don’t think one has to buy into the idea that practice is never fun, however.

  4. By Shapia web services posted on June 1, 2009 at 9:01 am
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    Five points are like five fingers that each point is unique with the way to improve the skills. These five points would bring one to the success. This will help one to put up their effort in the competitive world and make it possible.

  5. By web design leeds posted on June 1, 2009 at 10:26 am
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    great post, i agree with whats been said. Practice is the key ten success

  6. By Victoria Blount posted on June 2, 2009 at 8:01 am
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    I agree, definitely in web design practice is the key to keeping your skills brushed up, but also moving forward, learning new skills and progressing with your designs.

  7. By BunnygotBlog posted on October 5, 2009 at 1:23 pm
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    This is a very valuable post. I think it needs a stumble and tweet!

  8. TrackbackRobert Roose - Life of a Designer » Blog Archive » Outliers: How talent is overratedHow to Practice Effectively to Improve Your Skills | domainmacher.comTwitted by BlackUnlimited