Deliberate Practice: Definition & How It Works

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Grit" by Angela Duckworth. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the deliberate practice definition? How does practice lead to more grit?

The deliberate practice definition is simple. It means that you work regularly on the task you want to succeed at, and do it with intention and your goals in mind.

Read more about the deliberate practice definition and how it works.

Deliberate Practice Definition

The next obstacle to developing grit is the feeling that you’re not making any progress. Even if you’re interested in a task, if you put in a lot of time and don’t feel you’re getting reward, it’s hard to keep persevering.

The way to guarantee progress with your time is to conduct deliberate practice. This is a structured, disciplined way to put in time and get results.

The deliberate practice definition consists of 4 steps:

  • Set a stretch goal. Focus on a narrow aspect that you want to improve. Set a reach goal that you can’t meet yet.
  • Apply full concentration and effort. Many greats do this in isolation, by themselves.
  • Receive immediate and informative feedback. Focus on what you can improve.
  • Repeat with reflection and refinement. Keep working until you meet that stretch goal. And when you meet it, choose a new stretch goal.

Note how deliberate this is, compared to merely putting in time absent-mindedly and going through the motions. Good practice requires deliberate effort to do every time.

The Evidence

Much of the deliberate practice concept comes from Anders Ericsson, who popularized the well-known idea that to become an expert, you need to invest roughly 10 years of hard work or 10,000 hours. Other evidence cited to support the deliberate practice definition:

  • Amount of time musicians spent practicing alone is a better predictor of how quickly they develop than time practicing with other musicians.
  • In spelling bees, deliberate practice was a better predictor of final round performance. Deliberate practice was also highly correlated with grit.

What Deliberate Practice Feels Like

Deliberate practice is more effortful and less enjoyable than other forms of practice. Even world-class performers handle a maximum of one hour of deliberate practice before needing a break, and can only do 3-5 hours of deliberate practice per day. Dancer Martha Graham described the path to achievement as “daily small deaths.” 

Even very motivated people don’t necessarily practice deliberately. (Shortform note: This could be part of the reason people complain that a person can work very hard but not succeed. It’s not just about putting in time, but also using that time efficiently to get the best results.)

Grittier people tend to find deliberate practice more enjoyable than less gritty people, and they also do more of it. It’s unclear what direction the causality is – grittier people could spend more time in practice because of their perseverance and develop a taste for it, or grittier people innately enjoy hard work and that pushes them to do more of it.

How it Works

To increase deliberate practice, make it a habit. Figure out when and where you’re best at doing deliberate practice. Then commit to doing it then and there every day. This makes you get into deliberate practice automatically without thinking about it. 

  • “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual, for whom the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation.” – psychologist William James

Furthermore, change how you feel about deliberate practice. Embrace the challenge and feel great at your improvement. Toddlers repeatedly try to learn to walk without getting anxious or embarrassed. Then they start getting cues that failure is bad from adults. Embrace it as “that was hard! It was great!”

Why It’s Different From Flow

How does this painful deliberate practice idea fit in with the idea of flow, described as “performing at high levels of challenge and yet feeling effortless,” a pleasurable state often reached by top performers? Athletes and performers describe it as an automatic performance at a very high quality, done without thinking. Part of the deliberate practice definition is that it is effortful and painful; flow is effortless and enjoyable. 

There may be no conflict. Deliberate practice is a behavior or a habit, and flow is an experience. Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow than non-gritty people. Deliberate practice and flow aren’t experienced at the same time. 

In other words, deliberate practice improves your skill, and the challenge level exceeds your current skill. This practice allows you to achieve flow at a different time, when the level of challenge meets your level of skill – here you’re not analyzing your mistakes, you’re just doing. 

Analogously, a figure skater toils through deliberate practice to perfect her jumps and spins. Then, on performance day, she allows her skill to engage automatically – she’s already trained for that moment.

Now that you know the deliberate practice definition, you can examine how you can incorporate deliberate practice into your own work.

Deliberate Practice: Definition & How It Works

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  • How your grit can predict your success
  • The 4 components that make up grit
  • Why focusing on talent means you overlook true potential

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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