Getting Better at Getting Better

A new book shows how practicing something can really pay off, as long as you practice the right way.
October 11, 2012

The late, great basketball coach John Wooden maintained that, "When you improve a little bit each day, eventually big things occur. Don’t look for big, quick improvement. Instead, seek small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts."

Wooden was talking about constant improvement, and was a master at the practice of practice as a means of always getting just a little bit better.

We've all heard the expression "practice makes perfect." The trouble is, it doesn't always work, for a variety of reasons. Often we limit practice to things like the piano or tennis instead of what we really want to get better at, like breaking bad habits, nailing a presentation, advancing our careers, or running a company. Often we simply don't have the mindset and toolkit to practice in way that leads to improved performance.

Enter Practice Perfect, a terrific new book by teaching experts Doug Lemov, Katie Yezzi and Erica Woolway, who team up to debunk the myths about practice and show us how we can get better at anything by engineering how we practice.

For example, conventional wisdom holds that we should practice to improve our weaknesses. "Not true," claim the authors. "Focus on practicing strengths. You’ll get stronger results this way."

For another, most people stop practicing when they achieve competence, working under the mindset of "if it ain't broke, don't break it." Wrong approach, according to the authors. "What marks champions is their excellence at something," they write. "They may have weaknesses, but their strengths are honed and polished to the level of brilliance." In other words, the real value of practice begins rather than ends at the level of competency.

By researching the latest in brain and behavioral science, the authors found that what you do in practice matters as much, if not more, than how much you practice. There is a right way and a wrong way to practice. The right way involves breaking through assumptions, modeling excellent practice, using feedback, creating a culture of practice, making new skills stick and hiring for practice.

Those assumptions, along with how to break through them, get delivered through 42 rules the authors offer for getting better at getting better. Here's a quick sampling:

Encode success. Engineer your practice activities so the right actions are encoded in your mental circuitry to become habit. This rule re-examines the prevailing assumption that "practice makes perfect," and that if you work hard you'll improve.

"Practice makes permanent," write the authors. "Practice can be unproductive or even counterproductive unless you practice doing it right." Tips and techniques abound in the book for doing just that.

Practice the 20. Some 80 percent of your success will come from 20 percent of your behaviors, so practice the most impactful 20 percent to accomplish your goal. The old-school assumption is that you should practice as many useful skills as you can.

"Practice fewer, more important things, better and more deeply," claim the authors.

Let the mind follow the body. Automate skills so you'll use them before you consciously decide to. It's counterproductive to prepare yourself to make decisions in the midst of executing or performing. The better way is to prepare yourself NOT to have to make decisions while performing.

Unlock creativity with repetition. The old assumption that rote learning gets in the way of higher-order thinking is wrong-headed, according to the authors.

"Higher-order thinking relies on rote learning," they write. It "automaticity frees your mind to create."

Replace your purpose with an objective. Measure and define specifically what you'll be able to do once mastering your goal. Most people have a vague purpose in mind when they practice, rather that what Practice Perfect suggests: having an objective that is manageable, measurable, made first and includes coaching or guidance.

Correct instead of critique. There's a lot of emphasis on feedback, the assumption being that simply getting feedback automatically helps people get better. Not so fast, say the authors. It's actually using feedback and doing it over again makes people better.

Whether you are an owner, manager, educator, leader, parent or coach, Practice Perfect will give you a fresh outlook on practice, and give you practical ways to effectively help others get results. If you're looking to achieve your own personal goals and break through to another level, you'll learn how practice can get you there. Practice will no longer seem a mundane and maligned task, but a powerful key to unlocking your true potential.

 Read more