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What is direct practice, and what separates it from indirect practice? Which is better?

Direct practice is unique in that it involves engineering a situation in which you can practice skills, as opposed to practicing indirectly during normal activities. Both are effective, but there are certain situations in which direct is better.

Take a look at this explanation of when to use direct practice and what it looks like.

Direct vs. Indirect Practice

There are two main approaches to practice: direct practice and indirect practice (or practicing in the work). Both approaches follow the same general process: Identify a weak point, create a plan to improve that weak point, analyze your performance to see whether your improvement plan worked, and adjust your improvement plan before repeating. However, the situations in which you use the approaches differ, as do the specific methods used in each step of the process. (We’ll discuss this process in more detail in the section on indirect practice.)

(Shortform note: In Black Box Thinking, Syed outlines this same general process as a way for organizations to improve from failure. He says this process works well because it’s not just a human invention: It’s also the natural mechanism that drives evolution. Organisms and ecosystems evolve by undergoing continuous stress tests (such as drought and predation) that select for the fittest creatures. In the same way, your organization (or your individual skills) undergoes testing when you analyze its performance and adjust your plans, and you select the best methods that create the most improvement. Thus, by choosing a direct or indirect approach based on your situation, you may be tailoring a natural process to best serve you.)

Direct Practice

Direct practice involves practicing a skill in an engineered situation. This approach is especially helpful when the situation you want to use the skill in doesn’t occur often enough for you to adequately practice. Thus, it’s useful for improving skills you don’t use in your daily life. Our swimming example is a form of direct practice: If you want to swim faster to win competitions (the desired situation), you must practice outside of competitions, too, as they don’t happen often enough for you to improve your skills solely while competing.

(Shortform note: Direct practice could also be useful for learning skills that you will use in daily life once you’ve mastered them. In this case, you’re regularly in the desired situation, but you’re so busy that you can’t practice enough to improve or learn skills. In The Clean Coder, Robert Martin discusses this scenario, saying that coders usually spend their whole work day using skills they already have. Thus, to learn new skills and improve their existing skills further, they need to use their personal time. Martin says to spend 20 hours per week of personal time on developing professional skills. Coders can do so by contributing to an open-source coding project or doing online exercises—both of which fit Colvin’s definition of engineered practice.)

To engineer a situation that lets you practice a skill, says Colvin, decide what weak point you want to improve and then design a practice exercise around it. The design of this exercise will vary depending on the weak point you choose and personal preference.

For example, say you’re the CEO of a small company, and part of your job is negotiating deals with suppliers. This isn’t part of your daily tasks—once you’ve established a deal, it remains in effect for a year—but it’s an important one that you need to successfully complete when it does occur. To practice your negotiation skills, you hold mock negotiations with a colleague. You practice a specific scenario (such as encouraging an uncertain supplier to agree to a deal) until both you and your colleague are satisfied with your performance, and then move on to another scenario (for instance, dealing with an aggressive negotiator). These exercises teach you what to expect from different kinds of negotiators and how to respond to successfully make a deal.

(Shortform note: The design you choose for your practice exercise may also depend on how much your surroundings affect you—how much environmental influence there is, as sports psychologists call it. Skills that aren’t affected by your environment—for instance, hand position in swimming—can be practiced repeatedly in the same way. This is called fixed practice. Skills that are influenced by your surroundings—such as passing in soccer—require a more dynamic design called variable practice. In our example, negotiating skills are environmentally influenced because your strategy must evolve to match another person’s actions. In turn, mock negotiation is arguably a variable practice, as the exercise evolves to prepare you for varied situations.)

Indirect Practice

Indirect practice involves practicing a skill within the situation where you want to use it. This approach is mostly used for tasks you perform frequently. Thus, this approach is useful for improving skills you use in daily life, like those related to your career.

Since you’re already in a situation that lets you practice the skill, you don’t need to design an exercise. Instead, you choose a weak point related to the task you’re completing and practice it while completing the task. For instance, say you’re a manager and one of your tasks is giving feedback to your team members. You’re in the desired situation (feedback meetings) once a week, so you can practice while completing that task instead of practicing outside work.

Another Context for Indirect Practice

In some cases, indirect practice could be a next step after direct practice, rather than an alternative to it. Only one-in-five employees’ performances improves after dedicated training sessions alone, some business experts say. True change occurs when employees attend the training sessions and then continually practice their new skills while working.

While some focus on how individuals can practice while working, the business experts offer some advice for company leadership: Identify the most important skills for employees to know, and then create an environment that encourages them to practice those skills at work. Returning to our example, if your employer identifies giving feedback as an important skill for managers to have, they may hold a seminar on the topic and then implement a coaching program to help you practice your skills afterward.
Direct Practice: How Is It Different From Indirect Practice?

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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