How to Improve Achievement and Performance on the Job through Purposeful and Deliberate Practice

Feb 21, 2018

By K. Anders Ericsson, PhD and Robert Pool, PhD

We’ve all heard it. “Practice makes perfect.” But in the real world things work somewhat differently. Indeed, it is often the case that a person will work at the same job or carry out the same leisure activity—playing the piano, for instance, or golfing—for ten or twenty years and not be much better than after one or two.

The reason is simple: When people are first introduced to a job or a leisure activity, it takes them a certain amount of practice to reach an “acceptable” level of performance—one where there are no obvious failures and no glaring areas that need improvement—and then it takes a bit more practice to reach the point where they can execute that performance relatively effortlessly. But once they have reached this level of rather effortless achievement, improvement stops or slows to a crawl. We see this, for example, in school teachers who teaching effectiveness (measured in terms of their students’ improvements in performance) generally increases each year during the first couple of years of teaching but then shows little or no gain for the rest of their careers of 30 to 40 years.

This pattern is not inevitable. Classically trained musicians, for instance, can continue improving their performance for decades. Indeed, it often takes ten years or more to reach the level where they can play professionally. The key to this steady improvement is deliberate practice—intense, goals-oriented practice under the supervision of a teacher who provides training exercises and offers feedback to identify what the student needs to improve.

How can this same sort of steady improvement be accomplished in the professions? Ideally, you would get one-on-one instruction from a qualified teacher who would provide training techniques and individualized feedback about which aspects of performance you should change first, but there are few such specialized coaches in the professions. Thus you will probably need to develop and implement your own training.

In doing so you’ll want to follow some basic rules: Identify specific things you wish to improve; it’s not “I want to be a better public speaker” but rather “I want to capture the audience from the first sentence and have them look at me throughout my presentation” or “ “I want to be more expressive with my face and hands.” Come up with practice techniques aimed at making that specific improvement. Practice with focus during periods that are specifically dedicated to practice—for instance, by using a mirror or a video recorder if you are practicing your public speaking. Get regular, objective feedback on your performance—e.g., by examining videos of yourself and the audience—so that you can tell if you are actually improving and figure out which areas still need work. Then repeat. Deliberate practice works by helping you string together a large number of small improvements that add up to a major change.

A key challenge facing anyone attempting to improve performance at work is that people cannot easily generate and act on feedback concerning their performance while they are working even when it is obvious that something went wrong. A manager dealing with an annoyed customer or a surgeon dealing with an accidentally cut artery must address the problem rather than reflecting on what might have caused the problem and how it could be avoided in the future.

A general feedback method used in professional sports, music, and medicine involves producing a video recording of the activity and then sitting down afterwards and watching the video in slow motion. If a problem occurs, it is possible to rewind and search for cues that could have made it possible to avoid the event or at least reduce its negative consequences.

One Canadian surgeon videotaped all his surgeries and had the videos inspected for adverse events, which were described and categorized. The surgeon would then meet with his team and discuss how each event could be avoided in the future, either by changing the team’s procedures or by having one or more team members engage in solitary training to improve particular abilities. When the surgeon and his collaborators analyzed the frequency of adverse events over a 12-year period, they found a dramatic reduction of errors over time for those error types that were possible to control. There are also cases where experts analyze videos of surgeons in training and identify aspects that the trainees can improve by training with a simulator. 

It is also possible to learn by observing videos of other people encountering adverse events. In education, for example, superior teachers are better able to identify students who are not engaged and looking to disturb their neighbors. By noticing the problem early, the teacher can intercede and avoid having to deal the bigger problem of several students being distracted. To train other teachers to do this, one could create a library of videotapes whose playback could be stopped at particular points and trainees asked to predict what will happen; playing the rest of the tape would provide feedback on the prediction’s accuracy. If the prediction is wrong, the video can be replayed (perhaps in slow motion) to allow the trainee to identify what was missed and be better prepared the next time. This type of video training is especially valuable for training for rare emergency situations, such as resuscitation by nurses, emergency landings of airliners, and the use of force by police officers, where prior exposure and  training will help professionals react more effectively when the real event occurs.

Videotaping can even be useful in cases where it is not immediately obvious what the correct action is, such as a doctor providing a diagnosis whose validity will not become clear for weeks, months, or even years of a manager making a decision whose full consequences will take a long time to become apparent. In these cases it would be possible to videotape and document the original situations, wait until final evaluations of the outcomes are available, and then store these cases in a collection to be used by individuals interested in improving their performance in those areas. Radiologists in training could get a set of X-rays of the feet of young children, some with fractures and some without, make their diagnoses of each, and get immediate feedback. Doctors could use such a library to practice diagnosing and treating unusual cases so when they encountered such cases in the clinic they would be prepared. Or in emergency situations, such as the early days of an epidemic of Ebola or plague, doctors and nurses could familiarize themselves with issues surrounding diagnosis and treatment by practicing on case files collected many years earlier.

As our technological environment changes ever more rapidly, continued learning and re-learning will be an increasingly important part of our entire lives. We believe it will be essential to build learning environments where the new technologies of video libraries and virtual reality simulators allow individuals to use self-directed methods to improve their job performance as well as their abilities in such areas as sports, music, and the arts.  The future will be a time of constant change, multiple careers, and increasing self-employment—all of which will require improved ways to learn.

About the Authors

K. Anders Ericsson, PhD, is presently Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. With Robert Pool he published Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise in 2016. Currently he studies the measurement of expert performance in domains, such as music, chess, nursing, law enforcement, and sports, and how expert performers attain their superior performance by acquiring complex cognitive mechanisms and physiological adaptations through extended deliberate practice. 

Robert Pool, PhD, is co-author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. 

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