Two psychological studies reveal how to practice like an expert
Posted by Dean Holden at May 29th, 2013
by Gregory Ciotti, 30 November 2011
When it comes to starting out as a beginner and pursuing the path to “expert” status, many people become disheartened because of their incorrect belief of what an expert is and is not.
Luckily, scientific research has given us a true look into what it takes to become an expert, and the findings are promising.
As it turns out, becoming an expert (while still taking plenty of hard work), is generally not limited to innate talent, and the line between expert and amateur is drawn by how productive they are during practice.
Before we begin, let’s define the qualities of an expert.
Qualities Of An Expert
When we watch the experts showcase their amazing talents, their performance often looks so effortless and natural that we become disheartened by thinking that we should attribute this skill to some innate special talent.
Scientifically speaking, however, no general superiority has been found in experts ever since scientists began intricate studies into their performance.
For instance, in a study on chess masters (Djakow, Petrowski & Rudnki, 1927) the experts skill was demonstrated to be domain specific.
Not only that, their expertise was limited to the normal positions of Chess, and did not transfer over to non-normal positions.
While that may sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, it’s actually hugely important.
What the researchers discovered was that Chess experts can only perform at an expert level when the Chess pieces are set up in a normal fashion: their skill was not nearly as evident when the chess pieces were placed in an unorganized way.
This means that their skill was tied to the way that the chess pieces were set up, making it very domain specific.
The experts seemed to be masters of Chess and not some underlying skill that made them good at Chess.
Chase & Simon concluded that:
…experts with extended experience acquire a larger number of more complex patterns and use these new patterns to store knowledge about which actions should be taken in similar situations.
The conclusion: Experts are made out of experience, and even world-class experts in a game as difficult in Chess do not demonstrate any innate abstract ability to perform better, they simply know the game of Chess much better than you do.
How To Practice Like An Expert
But it doesn’t end there…
In order to become an expert, research has shown that you must practice like one, otherwise you won’t be going anywhere.
So, I guess that means slaving over your chosen trade for 23 hours a day, never having any leisure time or a moment to relax…
In fact, research has shown that it is not the practice hours that separates the “good” from the “great”.
While practice is necessary, it’s how you practice that can make the biggest difference.
And practicing like an expert will be the greatest boost to your productivity that you’ve ever had.
Study Number Two
In a study published in Psychological Review, researchers followed the practice patterns of two groups of young violinists: those who went on to be world class musicians, and those who went on to be less talented music teachers.
Both of these groups played the violin quite well, but something separated the “elite” group from the rest.
It must have been because they practice way more often, right?
The elite group actually got (on average) an hour more of sleep each night, and even had more leisure time.
So what made them different?
The researchers found that they engaged in more deliberate practice, focusing on improving in areas where they lacked, and practicing in a fashion that sought improvement over enjoyment.
As a comparison, think “doing drills” vs. “shooting the ball around” when practicing for basketball.
Additionally, the elite violinists had larger blocks of more focused practice time: they often only had two practice sessions per day, but for longer periods of time, and more intense sessions than the “average” violinists.
The Moral of the Story
The elite are productive in deliberate forms of “hard work”, the type of work that is difficult when you’re doing it, but takes less time when you apply focus and strategy.
The average are “productive” with “hard to do” work, such as how the researchers found that the average violinists spread their practice sessions more broadly throughout the day.
“Hard to do” work has you moving around all day in a state of false business that makes you feel productive and stressed, but as we just learned, it had little to do with real accomplishment.
Focus, and deliberate practice, are the only true ways to be “productive” and improve yourself to the level of an expert.
So stop wasting your time with the illusion of being busy, and be productive by working on the things that matter.
What are you focusing on getting better at? How are you going to go from just being average to being an expert?